Whilst very early mountain bike design was developing over in Marin County USA, and those pioneers were figuring out how to move from fat-tired Schwinn cruisers onto something a bit more ‘mountain’, something else was going on in a shed, in the UK. East Yorkshire to be precise, and in Hull, to be even more precise.
My very first big-bike was a Raleigh, and although it only had 26 inch wheels, it was still big for me. It came from a back street bike shop that re-painted, polished and greased old bikes to then sell (move on fast) to its clientele. Bikes were turned around really fast and went out cheap, with no guarantee, and for those that did take something back to the shop because something wasn’t right, they invariably came out having spent more money. There was always a good stock of bikes and each of them had their own price card so there was never any doubt or confusion as to the price.
The shop owner was a real deal-doer. He could send a customer out of his shop, happy, and after spending even more on the item than it actually had on the price tag! He would consider most forms of payment from a full cash payment to weekly installments, or even do swaps for other things. He was a story teller. Some of the stories were true and some he made up, but you never knew which bit was which. If you took something there to part-exchange or to sell to him, you never came away with the best deal, although sometimes you felt you had. He was that good. He always had a trusty slave in the form of a spotty youth, who seemed to relish the attention that he got in the form of ‘shop idiot’, and who never got anything right or done fast enough. The youth seemed happy enough with the situation, so who knows what his life at home was like if this was the treatment that he was happy with at work. BBC Radio 1 was always playing in the shop through an old transistor radio, even when the shop was closed. It was either a theft deterrent or it couldn’t be turned off. The shop smelt of a bizarre mix of unwashed boys, stale fish and chips, old oil and new rubber tyres. This was where my bike had been created from its previous existence.
Anyway, my steel (not even Reynolds 531 tubing) framed Raleigh had been re-painted in Maroon, was single speed, with chromed racing handlebars, no mudguards, two brakes and new tyres, which were the hardest rubber I’d ever come across, even at low pressure. It was presented to me by my parents to use for my early years cycling duties, which included school transport, early morning newspaper round, and anything else that a teenager would/could do on a new-old bike.
This new-old bike of mine started to evolve just as the US mountain bikes were evolving on the other side of the Atlantic. Firstly, it was converted to a fixed wheel training bike. Incidentally, a fixed wheel was great for delivering newspapers. You could blast up to a front door and try to do a ‘track stand’ whilst digging the correct newspaper out of the big bag and then forcing it through the letterbox. You could then blast back down the path or drive to get to the next house. It was also cyclo-cross bike, and with the same hard tyres, now even harder with time. The bike went by many different names. As it had lost its Raleigh branding when I got it, I would buy stickers and letters to create my own names which ranged from ‘Firefly’ to ‘Seagull’. I once put chopper handlebars on it and its name then became ‘Hardly a Davison’ as a nod of respect to the big American motorcycle company.
It was on one evening, post homework duties, that I was staring at my maroon bike in the shed, which was aptly named ‘Garage’, and wondered how I could make the bike more manageable ‘off road’. Off-road in a place like Hull, which is about 10 feet above sea level, meant racing around flat fields or up the biggest hill, which was an old railway embankment. However, racing handlebars or just normal handlebars didn’t provide the leverage to blast in and out of single track corners or to climb up the embankment. The ‘cow-horn’ handlebars bars that appeared all the rage and just a little bit ‘motorbike speedway’, were common, and in recognition that every kid would one day be riding for Hull Vikings, the local motorbike speedway club.
I needed to re-think the concept of the off-road handlebar, and so whilst singing along to Queen’s ‘Bohemian Rapsody’ in the shed-garage that evening, which everybody was doing because it was Number 1 ‘forever’, I noticed a piece of straight, white steel tube standing up in the darkest corner of the shed-garage. I entered the dark corner and retrieved the white metal pipe. The fact that it was part of the ‘family garden watering system’ didn’t really resonate with me as being an issue if it was to become a pair of pioneering handlebars instead.
The first job was to see if the diameter was the correct size, which it wasn’t. The pipe was bigger, and with a bit of persuasion, would probably fit, and probably be safe. The old racing bars were removed and the clamp which held them in place was levered open a bit wider with a very big screwdriver. The white metal tube was painted black, which was also another first for cycling as everything was chromed steel, or aluminium if your were a ‘good-racer-type’. The bar was coaxed into the clamp with much twisting and pushing, which also scraped the black paint off. With the steel bar in place and clamped in the middle, I sat on the bike to work out the correct handlebar length, prior to cutting it down to size.
Working out the correct length of a pair of handlebars can only be done when actually riding the bike, so after tightening the clamp with a longer bolt, as the original wouldn’t reach through the holes now because of the increased bar diameter, I kicked open the shed-Garage door and pushed the bike forward. Unfortunately, the steel bar, which was now a pair of innovative, pioneering handlebars, was wider than the shed door, so some wiggling of the bike got it through and out into a dusky evening. Riding around on the bike with this new flat handlebar was really great, and I kept moving my hands around to find the correct width. Once I’d identified the sizing, I put some tape on one end of the bar to denote where I should cut off the excess.
Back in the shed-garage, I sawed off each end of the tube at the correct point, and filed the rough edges, smooth. As the bar diameter was bit bigger, it meant that the brake levers wouldn’t clamp on, so I took all of the brakes off. This wasn’t an issue, because speedway motorbikes didn’t have brakes either, and everywhere is flat in Hull, so there were no big downhill runs that needed brakes, unlike Marin County, USA. My old rubber handlebar grips wouldn’t go on the larger diameter bars either, even after much greasing of the insides of them to squeeze them on. I decided to put the rubber grips in some boiling water to make the stiff rubber more pliable. It did, but they were then too hot to hold without gloves, which made them hard to get on. I got one of the grips half on until it stopped and would’t go any further. After some pursuasion (hitting) with a hammer, the grip split and I needed a plan B. As the bars were now a scratched, blackish colour, some silver duct tape would be just fine for some new grips.
Not being a trained metallurgist, I had assumed that everything would be just fine on the strength front, so I went back out for more testing. Testing session 1 included showing off at school. The metalwork teacher said that my new bars looked ok, but he reckoned the clamp would crack under the stress of a larger diameter tube and that the bar would probably bend in the event of landing a big jump. Apart from that, all was good and credibility with friends had been elevated.
And so the original mountain bike flat handlebars were born, and by me, and in my shed-garage, in Hull. They worked really well until the day that the clamp cracked under the stress of the larger diameter tube. This also bent the bar a bit in the middle. Fortunately, this happened on a grassy bank, so no bodily damage to me needed to be declared. I put my old racing bars back on, and the now shorter, bent bar got put back in the dark corner of the shed-garage from whence it came, and in the hope that a key part of the ‘garden watering system’ wouldn’t be a problem if it was a bit shorter, or scratched, or bent. I had to obtain a new clamp for the bike and in the end, put some speedway-style cow horn bars on just like everyone else had.
A few years later, I noticed the first pictures of the US mountain bikes and guess what? They had my handlebars on! How had word got out there of my innovation? I should’ve patented the idea. However and regardless, there was one special thing that I discovered during my testing programme, and that was, that my flat bars were particularly good for launching firework rockets out of when it was laid down on its side (don’t do this at home please as its not a recommendation). I bet nobody thought of that in the USA huh?
All photos by the author