Drop bar mountain bikes

If you go looking for pictures of vintage bikes, you’ll invariably find the drop bar MTB. The old WTB Dirt Drops were the bars of choice, as were crazy tall stems and special shifter mounts. A set of which I just saw on eBay for $300 by the way.


Cunningham MTB.

Usually you’d see this setup on the classic, Northern California pioneers’ bikes. Like Salsa, or Cunningham.

But, this was just never something I liked. It doesn’t appeal to me based on looks, or function. It just feels like trying to fit a square peg in a round hole.

I’ve written about this previously, but it’s time to get everything in the same place.


Raleigh? Schwinn? Doesn’t matter…

If you walked into a bike shop in 1981, with no prior thought of what you really wanted, and said; “I’d like to buy a bike” you would have walked out with the bike on the right.


The ubiquitous “ten speed.”

Why?  Because that was the style at the time.

Cannondale SM1000

Cannondale SM1000

And if you walked into a shop in 1991, with no prior thought of what you really wanted, and said; “I’d like to buy a bike” you would have walked out with the bike on the right.

The Mountain Bike.

Why?  Because it was the hot new thing at the time, and also because people realized that it was a lot more comfortable for just average riding.

Both of these bike are clearly meant for different purposes.  The road bike is for getting from one place to another, on smooth roads, as fast as possible.  The mountain bike is for getting from one place to another, over all manner of obstacles, as fast as possible.  That means that you need to move around on the bike, so it has be more compact, and have the rider more upright.

But, what if you could get the speed on paved trails with the comfort of the mountain bike?

Rocky Mountain RC70

Rocky Mountain RC70

So, if you walked into a bike shop any time after 2005, with no prior thought of what you really wanted, and said; “I’d like to buy a bike” you would have walked out with the bike on the right.

The Hybrid.

It really is the perfect evolution of the “daily driver.”  It’s the frame of a mountain bike with the wheels from a road bike.  You sit upright like on an MTB, but it goes seriously fast like a road bike. You can put fenders and racks on it, or even CX tires and get a little off-road.  Tow your kids in a trailer, ride the MS 150, ride the Trans Canada Trail – whatever you like.

If you’re going to mash the two disciplines together, this is the way to do it.

This is not the way to do it;

Specialized RockCombo

Specialized RockCombo

You’ll find this kind of thing in vintage circles because back in the day, riders were still experimenting.  They had been on drop bars for so long that it was hard to switch.  It wasn’t hugely popular though – the Specialized RockCombo was the only mass-produced bike that I know of.

And back in the day, the guy across the street from me had one of these.  I remember thinking it was really cool, but today, I’m wondering what the hell I was thinking.  The drop bars hinder it’s use as a proper MTB, and it’s puny 26″ wheels make it fairly hopeless as a ‘cross bike.  So, why exactly would you do this?

Because John Tomac.

JT, shredding.

JT, shredding.

Tomac – already legendary as an MTB racer – was trying to break into road racing, and had signed with 7-11.  The magazines at the time reported that his 7-11 coach allowed him to race mountain bikes as long as he ran a drop bar to maintain his riding position.  It made sense at the time, but honestly – is that not a completely ludicrous idea?

MTB and road racing have virtually nothing in common as far as the bicycle/rider relationship is concerned, so how does making Tomac less competitive on a drop bar – and really, we know it wasn’t making him better, because nobody else did it – help him to be a better road racer?

I’m willing to bet that secretly, the 7-11 coach knew that drop bar would hinder Tomac, and hoped that it would do so so much that he’d quit MTB racing.  Or, he’d do what actually happened; he quit road racing in 1991.

I’ve built a few hybrids in my day, but never a drop bar MTB.  I thought about doing it on my Blizzard, and also on the Kona I had.  Before I did that, I ran it past TeamCow charter member, Dr.Stu;

“don’t see the benefit of looking that ridiculous.”

So much for that idea.

2 thoughts on “Drop bar mountain bikes”

  1. You’ve got most of this wrong.

    John Tomac ran drop bars because he was riding road for Och’s Doperola squad for most of the year, and then did a couple of mountain bike races. If you have put most of your time into riding a road drop bar, it makes sense to replicate it for a couple of dirt races.

    Specialized and Bridgestone both stole the Charlie Cunningham design and had bikes made like it. Cunningham’s many design ideas became the norm in the industry.

    The Cunningham drop bar design works very well for a bike without suspension. It’s important to remember, the Cunningham design is very short across the top. The Cunningham drop bar also very shallow. So, it’s nothing like a “normal” mountain bike’s long top tube with some road bars added.

    It’s also from a different time in mountain biking when trails weren’t as groomed as they are now.

    1. ummmm, ok… I’m just reporting what I remember reading back then. It would have had to have been in Mountain Bike Action, and Zap definitely knew people.

      But the reasons why Tomac rode with a drop bar don’t really matter to the point I’m making, which is that it wasn’t a good idea. Tomac himself admits as much in this interview. He doesn’t say it was Ochowicz’s call though, so I certainly could have that wrong at least.

      This is a theme though that I touch on often here; if it was so great, how come nobody does it now?

      It’s possible that nobody rides with drop bars now because nobody – or very few people anyway – has actually tried them. But just thinking about it scares me. I really don’t understand your comment about trails being less groomed back in the day, because I can assure you that the trails I ride now, are not groomed at all, and I need the control that a 760mm riser bar provides.

      I would definitely be interested to hear more about why Cunningham went with drops. It definitely was not a thing for Kelly, Breeze, Ritchey, Fisher, and the other Mt. Tam guys.

      I really appreciate your comment – it’s nice to know that someone cares about these old posts.

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