Back in 2010 the first of 18 issues of Privateer magazine appeared. Introduced at a time when Rouleur magazine was still associated with Rapha, it gave off-roading the same sort of mature treatment as Rouleur gave to road cycling. Reading 'Off-Road Heroes' reminded me of Privateer, and if Privateer had produced a book, it would probably have been something like this: both please the senses in a way that only high-quality print can do.
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One advantage of the mountain biking branch of cycling is that many of us were around at the start – even if we didn't always appreciate the significance of what we were witnessing. Or was that just me? Fortunately, most of those involved in getting the activity to where it is today are still alive – such as riders, manufacturers, and journalists – so those original sources of information and images are still available to us.
Taking advantage of that, Off-Road Heroes provides what must be the most wide-ranging and complete sporting and social history of mountain biking so far. A stellar cast of journalists is involved, some of whom seem to have been writing (or photographing) from day zero: this gives them unrivalled experience, extensive knowledge, and invaluable contacts.
After all, if you want the authentic story, get it from those who were actually there.
It all goes to give confidence in what they have written about the builders, athletes, and other characters who have shaped mountain biking since its inception. It's interesting to see the varied paths that people take into mountain biking: most of the pioneers had to start their involvement in another form of cycling - or even another sport.
That movement between disciplines is something that has carried on ever since, as has the cross-pollination of ideas and technology – such as dropper posts.
Not surprisingly, The Rough Stuff Fellowship makes an early appearance to set the scene for off-road cycling. Thereafter, the book is divided into decades, each preceded by an impressive summary of mountain biking during that period. It's almost worth getting the book for these alone, and they deserve a wider audience.
Following that, there are a few pages on each of the names that inevitably crop up in any consideration of mountain biking's history; these essays are good in themselves but are greatly enhanced by the accompanying images. Photos are easy to come by these days, but it will have taken considerably more work to find suitable pictures from the last century. If the writing isn't enough to convince you that the book is worthwhile, the illustrations should do it.
The book gets into some product detail in the final section, which is a historical timeline for each decade; it's not detailed technical coverage, but it's useful to put things into perspective. We are reminded of Euclid, Campagnolo's first off-road groupset in 1989, which is often referenced in any discussion about its current Ekar offering; or XX1, SRAM's first single-chainring groupset in 2012, which increased the focus on an unstoppable revolution in chainring count.
The book covers the decade up to 2020, which means there is a risk that a fledgling future star, a revolutionary technology, or an influential business didn't make the cut: surely the solution is to have a new edition every 10 years?
It might sound like there is nothing ground-breaking about Off-Road Heroes: after all, there have already been numerous interviews with (or articles about) many of the protagonists; a lot of the pictures have been seen before, and there are histories of the bicycle aplenty. However, never has so much information (and illustration) about those involved in the first 40-plus years of mountain biking been corralled into one place.
Compendium-style books such as this can often suffer from a lack of 'substance' because they simply can't go into much depth: naturally, while 'Off-Road Heroes' can't add much to our knowledge of those who have a dedicated biography to their name (such as Gary Fisher and Danny MacAskill), it does give exposure to many others who are unlikely to ever justify a book – but who have still played their part in the story.
There will always be debate about who should or shouldn't be included in such collections: as editor Guy Andrews notes, 'our first list...had over 200 names on it.' The final selection has 63 entries – but slightly more names. There are several people mentioned within 'The Shimano family', for example, and some entrants come as a pair (such as Tim Gould and David Baker) – or even a set of three (like the Athertons).
You can see the full list of names on the inside front cover - all deemed to have had 'a lasting legacy and influence' over off-road bicycling. Some might have a minor disagreement with the final selection, but in my view, it's a well-considered list that really shouldn't be too contentious. You will notice a strong showing of Brits and Americans, which is simply a reflection of where most of the action took place.
As they did with 'The Dot', Bluetrain Publishing has used the more expensive 'Swiss-bound construction'. The benefit of this is that you can open the book out flat without creasing the spine or loosening the pages; the risk is that some people might open the book and think that it is faulty because the outer cover is not attached to the binding like a 'normal' book.
Described as 'an unofficial ode to the history of mountain biking', it does an excellent job of delivering on that promise.