Who was first? This questions often pops up in regard to mountain bike history in Europe. Just as in the US, the MTB’s motherland, there’s not just one name that fits the description. In the US it’s not all about Gary Fisher, Joe Breeze and the like, who can be acknowledged as the founding fathers of the sport and culture of mountain biking.
Part 1: Wolfgang Renner – Centurion
What was your impression of the first mountain bike you got your hands on, that made you believe in its bright future?
In 1976, I rode in the German Karwendel mountains on a Cyclocross bike, I had three flats on a single tour – very annoying! At that time, the experienced, old climbers from Mittenwald used old, slightly modified city bikes to get to the start of their climbing tours in the Karwendel valley and back to town afterwards. Those bikes featured slightly wider tyres and it dawned on me; to have fun in such terrain, you simply had to mount high volume tyres! But I forgot about this idea until I saw one of the first weird ‘Clunker’ bikes at the Anaheim bike show in the US (laughs). From that point, I knew that if these bikes had wider tyres and modifications, they will work for everyone. So, I thought to myself: Hey, if you could ride these things out in nature without any bike issues, they will be a success! Usually, riding offroad on a bicycle was only what experienced Cyclocrossers would do, everyone else was scared of the narrow tyres. The mountain bike changed that forever!
What was the biggest challenge in building one of the first mountain bikes in europe, the Centurion Country?
Having a personal background as a former professional Cyclocross rider, the first bikes with their super long chain stays and wheelbase were not quite what I was looking for. So I made a frame sketch with all important measurements, and handed it over to a Japanese frame builder. Partwise, we simply had to use what was available – the limiting factor of our creativity. For instance, there were only modified Dia-Compe cantilever brakes. What a huge difference compared to today’s disc brakes! For better braking in Cyclocross races, riders back then used to drive three shortened nails into their brake pads…
Since the country, the mountain bike has gone a long way. How would you describe the riding qualities of the first generation of mountain bikes?
I rode the very first Country prototype just last year and its geometry makes for a pretty good bike! Of course, you would use shorter chainstays now, but other than that one could reuse some measurements even today. A significant difference to today’s models is the 2x drivetrain with only five sprockets on the rear (laughs) … and those rim brakes. Good Lord!
Traveling with your bike, you saw a lot of different places, what’s your most memorable experience?
My adventures in Tibet and Nepal, travelling from Kathmandu to Lhasa by bike. Also, my second bike trip in Tibet, including the ascent of Mount Cho Oyu (8,201 m) and getting to know people and their culture was very impressive. Furthermore, my first mountain bike transalps was a unique experience, same as was my road transalp trip I undertook in 1976 using front and rear racks to carry equipment. Sometimes though, it’s the small things off the beaten track, that are the most stunning!