Mid-Life Cycling

Mid-Life Cycling

27 April 2016

Starstruck? No, A Moonshock!

Bicycle suspension--at least in forms we would recognize today--first started to appear, mainly on mountain bikes, a bit more than a quarter-century ago.

Those early attempts to make bikes more stable as their riders bounced them over rocks and rumbled along singletrack consisted of hinged handlebar stems with springs in them, seatposts that were like pogo sticks and "telescoping" forks.  That latter system--first popularized by Rock Shox--would become one of the standard ways of suspending bikes.  The other--suspension built into the rear of the frame--would come a few years later.

Most riders at the time thought all of those attempts to absorb shock were new innovations.  Of course, they weren't old enough to have been reading American Bicycling (the forerunner of Bicycling) when it featured Dan Henry's homemade suspension system on his French constructeur bike.  And, at the time, even I (a professor who's supposed to know everything, ha-ha) didn't realize that bicycles have been built with suspension for almost as long as bicycles have been built.  What is the pneumatic tire--one of the most important technological innovations of all time--but one of the first, and one of the most enduring, forms of suspension?

Even with such knowledge, I was a little surprised to come across this 1975 Redline Moonshock BMX bike:





Only five or six bikes like this one were ever made, according to the Classic Cycles website. In the then-nascent sport of BMX racing, bikes were designed to consciously emulate their motorized counterparts.  That makes sense when you realize that, at the time, most BMXers were pubescent boys who, like lots of other kids, pretended they were on motorcycles or in racing cars as they plowed along paths and jumped ramps and mounds.  

Note the year:  1975.  Schwinn had ended production of their "Krate" series, which probably best exemplified "muscle" bikes that echoed the "muscle" cars of that era.  If those bikes weren't at least partially responsible for the birth of BMX, it's still not merely a coincidence that kids started "revving" bikes with slick fat tires and "banana" seats during that time.  

It was also during that time--at least, according to the accounts I've read and heard--that Tom Ritchey, Gary Fisher, Joe Breeze and their friends were bombing down Northern California fire trails in Schwinn baloon-tired bikes made before they were born. 

Why do I mention that?  Well, the first problem that most of those proto-mountain bikers discovered had to do with one of Newton's laws--best expressed (at least for mathematically-challenged people like me) by a Blood Sweat and Tears lyric.  What goes up must come down--but what comes down can't always be brought back up, especially if it weighs 60 pounds and has only one gear.  So, according to lore, in 1975 (or thereabouts), Gary Fisher outfitted one of those balloon-tired bombers with derailleurs and multiple gears.

Apparently, some BMX bike designers thought absorbing shock to make the bike steadier was a greater priority.  Mountain bike designers wouldn't come to the same conclusion for another decade and a half.

Not surprisingly, the Moonshock BMX bike shared a couple of unfortunate traits with early suspended mountain bikes.  They were slow, basically for the same reasons.  For one thing, they were heavy--although, in fairness, the Moonshock had the greater weight penalty because of its tanklike gussetted steel frame, wide rims and tires.  (By the time mountain bike suspension was developed, relatively light frames, tires and rims were available.)  But, more important, the springiness of both kinds of bikes absorbed much of their riders' energies.  Thus, the few kids who rode the Mongoose, much like mountain bikers nearly a generation later, found ways to lock out their suspension systems.  That left them riding almost-rigid bikes that were several pounds heavier than their non-suspended counterparts.

It seems that the idea of suspension on mountain bikes died with the production of the Moonshock, or not long after.  Apparently, BMX riders felt that it was more important for their bikes to withstand the pounding they would take.  And, because BMX frames and wheels are smaller than their mountain or road counterparts, it's possible to use relatively thick gauges of steel, with reinforcements, and end up with a bike that isn't terribly heavy.

On the other hand, it's all but impossible to buy a new mountain bike (or any made in the past fifteen years or so) that doesn't have suspension in the front fork, rear triangle or both.  Best of all, many new systems seem to have some way of locking them out--or regulating the firmess or softness of the ride--built into them.  And a typical suspension fork of today is a good deal lighter than the Rock Shox Judy fork--top-of-the-line in its time--I rode on my old Bontrager Race Lite.

9 comments:

  1. "...pubescent boys... pretended they were on motorcycles..." This reminded me of a cartoon in Mad Magazine from that era:

    A kid is racing up and down the street on his bike with a banana seat and ape hanger bars, etc. There are playing cards pined to the fork so they make the canonical buzzing sound in the spokes. Three middle aged men are watching him and they start to debate as to what the kid is imagining. One says he obviously thinks he's on a motorcycle, another votes for a race car, a third says it's a fighter plane. Finally they stop the kid and ask him. "Hey kid, are you imagining you're on a motor bike, a race car or a fighter plane?" The kid just stares at them. "Neh, I just wanna make a racket".

    Leo

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    1. Leo--Ah, the memories. "Mad" magazine. And kids pinning playing cards on bicycle forks to make the "canonical buzzing sound" you describe. I might be the only woman of, ahem, a certain age, who ever did that!

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  2. Replies
    1. Roger--Moulton indeed incorporated suspension in his bikes. They are, however, in a different category from the Moonshock or early suspended mountain bikes. In fact, I'd even say that Moulton bikes are sui generis. Perhaps one day I will write a post or two (or more) devoted entirely to them.

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  3. I remember a friend had one of these around 1980. I don't remember the "Moonshock" name. We referred to it as a mono-shock bike. It was quite a curiosity, but we also decided that it was too springy and heavy.

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  4. David--It indeed must have been a curiosity. And, it seems, 1980 is about when BMX really took off--and when suspension disappeared from BMX bikes--and, for nearly the next decade, bikes altogether.

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  5. Moulton ATB,All Terrain Bike, was a fully suspended bike for on or off road, intended to be the Land Rover of bicycles 1988 to 1992.But yea, a one off kind of guy.

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  6. Roger--I'm not sure I've ever seen a Moulton ATB. It must have been interesting, if nothing else!

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