The Beginning of Mountain Bike Action Magazine

July 1986: The premiere issue of Mountain Bike Action.

The first issue of Mountain Bike Action hit the newsstands in the summer of 1986. Dean Bradley was the editor of that first magazine, and he did the job almost single-handedly, writing almost every article and shooting nearly every photo that appeared in that issue. The magazine was a major success, but Dean’s work was done. He had only agreed to produce one issue, and after he finished, he left to pursue other challenges. We asked Dean if he could share some of his memories of what it was like creating the first issue of this magazine.

Self-portrait: MBA’s first editor, Dean Bradley, today. Photo: Dean Bradley

MBA: Who put forth the idea of creating Mountain Bike Action?

Dean: By 1986, most people with any awareness of the bike world had at least heard of mountain bikes and what was going on up in Marin, in Crested Butte, etc. I had done a test on a Ritchey mountain bike for BMX Plus! in 1980. The definitive source on all things mountain bike, Charlie Kelly, was already producing the zine Fat Tire Flyer. Hank Barlow had just begun publishing the first all-color mountain bike magazine, Mountain Bike for the Adventure, in June/July 1985. As an editor at BMX Plus!, in addition to our normal monthly magazine, we did a variety of one-off BMX and freestyle BMX magazines. These specials were just part of Hi-Torque’s overall business plan. We would recycle/repurpose existing editorial content and photos to create additional magazines/ad revenue/newsstand sales. So, Mountain Bike Action started as one of those one-off special issues. In hindsight, it was a pretty brilliant way for Hi-Torque to announce its presence as a potential player, drum up advertising support from the bike industry and test-market a concept. If the first issue got traction (which it did), fantastic. If it failed to rally support from the industry and sat on the newsstands, so be it; it was a one-shot. So, to answer your question, whose idea was it to create Mountain Bike Action? Ultimately Roland Hinz. He had the editorial and production capabilities. He had the distribution. He was the one willing to take the financial risk. Mountain biking represented (still does) a pretty magical melting pot of action-sports adrenaline junkies. The potential crossover for BMXers and motorcycle enthusiasts into mountain biking was a natural and has since been well-documented. It was a perfect addition to Hi-Torque’s stable of two-wheeled, dirt-oriented magazines.

Road to mountain, part one: MBA’s first issue told how to convert a road bike into a mountain bike. Steve Laner had the perfect bike for the story. Photo: Dean Bradley

MBA What was your background in working for magazines?

Dean: I first contributed to BMX Plus! magazine and Minicycle/BMX Action magazines. Then it was on to a full-time job as associate editor at BMX Action magazine. Then it was on to Surfer Publications as contributing editor of Skateboarder. I moved back to BMX Plus! Finally, I became the one-time-and-first editor of the premiere issue of Mountain Bike Action magazine.

Upon my retirement from Hi-Torque I continued to work within the bike industry doing advertising, copywriting and eventually bicycle product development for the likes of Haro Designs, Schwinn, Giant, Electra and Public Bikes. 

Road to mountain, part two: Laner threw his wrecked road bike into a dumpster and bought a mountain bike. The conversion was complete. Photo: Dean Bradley

MBA How did you get the job of editing the first issue of Mountain Bike Action?

Dean: Roland reached out to me and pitched me on the idea. Was I interested? Yes, of course. I may be dumb, but I’m not stupid. Roland was offering me a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. I couldn’t say no. We agreed to terms. Roland offered me incredible freedom to shape the content, supply all the photographs, write everything, bring in contributors if I wished—whatever. Looking back, the trust Roland extended to me, an admittedly flighty 28-year-old, I’ll never fully understand, but I am truly humbled and eternally grateful for that trust. Well, plans for an early retirement from the publishing world would have to wait, because it was back on the Hi-Torque payroll for one last mag—the first issue of Mountain Bike Action. 

A late-night pizza became “edible aerodynamic Olympic wheel covers” in Dean’s studio. Photo: Dean Bradley

MBA Who came up with the ideas for the articles in the first issue of Mountain Bike Action?

Dean: Like I said, Roland trusted me as the “expert” on mountain biking. I really wasn’t…but I wanted to be. Combine youth, exuberance, curiosity and desire, and you might not come up with expert, but you’ll get there sooner rather than later. So, I winged it. I came up with what I thought was a pretty well-rounded concept for content. Uphill, downhill, cross-country, backcountry touring, maintenance tips, pro tips, bike tests, racing overviews, interviews, a buyer’s guide, editorial on land access, etc. But, there were a couple of Roland-required caveats. One was “How to Turn Your 10-Speed Into a Mountain Bike” and a comparison of “BMX versus Mountain Bikes.” At the time, I thought both articles were ridiculous. You can’t turn a 10-speed into a mountain bike. Not possible. And “BMX versus MTB”? Like I said, at the time, I thought they were ridiculous. But, Roland is a smart guy. Maybe he knew something I didn’t. The fact is, he knew a lot of things that I didn’t, so I respected his insistence that these stories be included and be put into that first issue.

Mountain bikers in the 1980s often rode without helmets. Jeff Day took the idea even further. Photo: Dean Bradley

MBA What was the sport of mountain biking like in 1986?

Dean: In one word: limitless. It was a fledgling sport, if you could even call it a sport back then, unencumbered by any adherence to tradition. There were really no rules. Two wheels, multiple gears and knobby tires—that was it. Pretty much everything else was fair game. It was fast becoming a glorious public breeding ground of ideas from a variety of cosmically convergent camps. It was like a gold-rush town seemingly being built overnight by wide-eyed prospectors who had struck gold. Like today, it was also an amazing athletic melting pot that included road cyclists, BMXers, motorcycle riders, rock climbers, surfers, skaters, hikers, runners, you name it. As they say, “Build it (an all-terrain bike) and they will come.” And they did…by the thousands. MTBs opened up a lot of minds. It challenged the established beliefs about what you could do on a bike and where you could ride your bike. Places you were previously unable to go were now accessible on a bike. It rapidly became a two-wheeled promised land populated by rebels, risk-takers, non-conformists, nature lovers, explorers and thrill seekers. The diversity of the people drawn to mountain biking was (and is) the key—kind of like moths drawn to the brilliance of a light bulb. I don’t think I’m going out on a limb here by saying that the mountain bike, more than any other type of bicycle, has introduced more people to the joys of bike riding and what is possible on a bike. It really cannot be overstated—not just the significant impact mountain bikes had on cycling culture but society in general.

A review of the $430 Specialized Rock Hopper said, “It’s enthusiastic enough to try just about anything, naive enough to get away with it, a bit overzealous at speed, but has just enough talent or guts to get out of trouble.” Photo: Dean Bradley

MBA How fast was mountain biking growing at the time?

Dean: Pre-Mountain Bike Action, mountain biking was a bit of a slow burn. Two-wheeled arsonists across the country were individually lighting small fires. There were regional hot spots. Remember, there was no internet yet. Communication among the arsonists was via crude smoke signals—zines like Charlie Kelly’s Fat Tire Flyer, or in SoCal, Victor Vincente’s Topanga Riders’ Bulletin newsletter. It was somewhat underground-speakeasy-word-of-mouth-secret-handshake stuff. All growth relies on enthusiasm, community and, most important, communication. With limited communication, you’ll get limited participation and growth. With all due respect to CK (Charlie Kelly) and, later, Hank Barlow (Mountain Bike for the Adventure mag), their reach was admittedly limited. With Hi-Torque’s distribution horsepower and execution, it was an instant game-changer. It was a pivotal missing link for rapid growth—a validation of the fat-tired fringe. MBA became a united voice for those who let their freak flag fly but desperately needed a big flagpole to proudly display it on. Simply put, MBA gave legitimacy to the movement. It grew a community and helped create countless cottage-industry companies. The pioneers, early adopters and disciples of early mountain biking knew a wave was coming. We just didn’t really know how big it might be. Pre-MBA, early mountain bikers relied purely on our enthusiasm, our stoke, and we gathered around and just stoked our little campfire. We had no idea that our little campfire would grow into a huge bonfire, then erupt into a firestorm that would ignite the bike industry for a couple of decades to come. MBA played a huge role in fanning those early embers and continues to remain relevant in effectively and tirelessly stoking that fire today.

Casey Kunselman showed his descending skills at the 1985 NORBA National Championships. Photo: Dean Bradley

MBA When the first issue was published in 1986, the bikes were called ATBs in many parts of the magazine. Wasn’t there some question in the industry about what the best name for the sport would be? What do you recall about that?

 Dean: I was fortunate enough to be around for the humble beginning of mountain biking. Let’s call it “Mountain Bike BC (Before Coverage).” The year was 1981. Charlie Kelly and Gary Fisher came down from Marin and were there with a 10×10-foot booth displaying their newfangled MountainBikes. Jeff Lindsay from nearby Chico was also there with his brand Mountain Goat. And last but not least, Victor Vincente was there representing SoCal with his 20-inch-wheeled Topanga Bikes. Those three entities were the first companies to ever publicly display so-called “mountain bikes.” CK and Gary had, of course [reportedly], trademarked the name Mountain Bikes. Before that, most had always referred to them as “klunkers” (typically modified, pre- or post-war Schwinn balloon, 2.125-inch-tire bikes with gears [or not] and coaster, drum or canti brakes) or “fire-roaders.” Both monikers failed to appropriately describe the versatility and capabilities of these cool new bikes. So when Steve Ready asked me to pen a story for BDS magazine in the early ’80s—or when I featured the first test ever of a Ritchey Mountain Bike in BMX Plus! in February 1980, or when I covered anything mountain bike in Skateboarder’s Action Now magazine in the early ’80s—I struggled with calling them mountain bikes. After all, it was exclusive. And, I felt somewhat restricted. Yeah, sure, I did ride my bike in the mountains, but I also rode in the desert a lot. And I rode on the beach and on the road. I rode on all types of terrain. That was, after all, the point. These were truly all-terrain bikes. At that same time, motorized three-wheelers, or ATCs, were gaining strong popularity, so I borrowed from that and started referring to them as ATBs (All-Terrain Bikes) in a variety of articles I authored at the time. Right up until, and including, the premiere issue of MBA, there was widespread debate. The industry couldn’t agree. In the end, ATB didn’t stick. I tried. I still feel ATB is more appropriate and less restrictive than MTB. 

“Overend […] the perfect name for an off-road rider. Second in ‘84, fifth in ‘85, Ned is Schwinn’s main man. Strong runner . . . an even stronger off-road cyclist,” said the caption. Photo: Dean Bradley
MBA There were a lot of clever and funny articles in that first issue. There was one called “Edible Aero,” which showed half a pizza laid over a front wheel as if it were a wheel cover. There was another called the “ATB 10 Commandments,” which sounded like it was pulled from the Bible, except for the subject matter. Do you remember how you got the ideas for those stories?

Dean: Besides the main meat of the mag, articles like bike tests, interviews, equipment overviews, how-tos, etc., I had to generate a lot of additional content. I had to create monthly columns, etc. I wanted to keep it light. After all, we were not making nuclear weapons here. These are bicycles. Bicycles are supposed to be fun. There’s a lot to laugh about. I was not going to take myself too seriously with the first issue. Back then, that’s what Bicycling magazine was for—overly serious stuff. Clinical dissection and over-analysis of, of all things, riding bicycles. Yes, I read it. But, in my opinion, early Bicycling magazine really took the fun out of riding bikes. Not gonna happen with MBA. So, I was having fun doing the issue. I was shooting in the studio photographing various bikes. It was getting late. I was hungry. I ordered a pizza and brought it back to the studio. When I set it down and noticed the pizza was very similar in size to the 20-inch-wheeled Haro Explorer bike I was shooting, I set the pizza on the wheel and took the photograph. That’s the story. All the random content in the “Beating Around the Bush” section, including that “ATB 10 Commandments” you mentioned, was me just winging it, ad-libbing, improvising, making stuff up as I went along.

One of the earliest mountain bike races before a large audience was the Shimano Invitational, which took place during intermission at the USGP motocross race at Carlsbad Raceway in 1983. Joe Sloup was a SoCal local who was riding a Mantis that was built by future MBA editor Richard Cunningham.

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Mountain Bike Action is a monthly magazine devoted to all things mountain biking (yes, that’s 12 times a year because we never take a month off of mountain biking). It has been around since 1986 and we’re still having fun. Start a subscription by clicking here or calling (800) 767-0345.

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