Irritations of Modern Life 19: The Mountain Bike

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BIKES USED to be sold by oily little men with rolled-up cigarettes behind their ears, and their shops had names like "W Earnshaw: Bikes". They sold thin, elegant machines with wide seats supported by admittedly not very springy springs, three gears or five at the most, saddle bags on the back or baskets on the front. One of the most vibrant colours that they came in was brown.

Today, bike shops are called witty but somehow annoying things like "Spokes Persons", and if you go into one and ask for a traditional bike of the sort described above, the young, disturbingly fit-looking assistant will seem perplexed: "But how would you go downhilling in the Cairngorms on a machine like that?" he'll say. "Try taking it through Epping Forest, and it'll explode."

You explain that you don't want to go "off-road". You want to go "on- road" - on an actual road, that is, the one that leads to your place of work, or the shops. The assistant will look at you blankly, for his shop will be full of squat, garishly hued machines designed to be ridden over rough terrain: mountain bikes.

Like may terrible things, mountain bikes were invented in California by a bunch of hippies who, in the late Seventies, had nothing better to do than go very fast down steep and bumpy hills. For the past 20 years they've been the staple of the British bike industry, and their defenders say they've made cycling credible and exciting.

What I say is that they are a snare - certainly as far as the average road-user is concerned. The knobbly tyres of mountain bikes might be handy in Epping Forest, but they're no less likely to puncture than ordinary ones and, when you go around a street corner, they squirm in a worrying way. The numerous gears - anything from 18 to 27 - are unnecessary, and such are complications of the front and back cogging that many are duplicates of others. Mountain bikes have quick-release wheels - ideal for changing punctures rapidly. Ideal, also, for thieves. What they don't have is mudguards, so you get a brown streak up your back on rainy days.

These bikes are bought and sold as fashion items, and the accessories have been jazzed up and euphemised accordingly. "Cycle clips" was a very good description of what cycle clips are. Now they're called "reflecting trouser bands". Saddle bags, which tended to cost about pounds 5, are deemed to be too dour for the modern cyclist.

Now you must have a pannier on a rack, which can only be fitted by someone who's spent the past 10 years fitting panniers on racks on to bikes. The total cost for this fixture plus fitting might easily be pounds 60.

There is light at the end of the tunnel, however. It may be that people are realising that they haven't taken their mountain bikes into Epping Forest much at all over the past few months. Or indeed, ever. And there seems to be a resurgent demand for ordinary bikes, especially of the sort ridden in Amsterdam. They are thin, elegant things with wide seats supported by admittedly not very springy springs, and three gears or five at the most...

Mountain bike madness may soon be over.