Love the roots of mountain biking? Then take this tour of the Australian Museum of MTB.
Words: Will Shaw | Photos: Andy Rogers
Compared to mainstream sports, and even cycling more broadly, mountain biking is still in its infancy. Despite this, the sport has developed dramatically from its origins of wild men and women flying down Californian fire roads on beach cruisers.
As a relatively young mountain biker (mid-twenties), I know a bit about the history of the sport, and iconic bikes like the GT LTS, or Nico Vouilloz’s ground-breaking Sunn Radical. Despite this, it’d be great to know more, and even better to be able to see the history in the flesh.
Enter the Australian Museum of MTB. Founded by two incredibly passionate riders, Krischan Spranz and Joe Mullan, the museum’s aim is to showcase a wide variety of bikes that were significant in the growth of the sport, with a real focus on the 1990s. Their interest in the 90s is due to the huge changes in everything from frame materials to suspension designs in that era.
Krischan is the owner of EightyOneSpices, the Australian distributors of high-end brands such as Liteville, Open Cycle, and Formula. Krischan first met Joe when Joe owned a bike shop, and their mutual love of mountain biking’s history and the bikes of yesteryear forged a friendship between the two.
Asked about why they’ve decided to open the museum, Joe explains that he and Krischan come at their love of mountain biking’s history from different angles, ‘We had combined reasons but individual drives. We both loved the 90s, where mountain biking exploded but also became a field of experimentation from the manufacturer's point of view.’
For Joe, the major driver in getting the museum up and running was to see Australia’s role in the development of mountain biking recognised. ‘There was next to no representation of Australia’s contribution to the growth of mountain biking, and the pioneering nature of Australian mountain bikers.’
Krischan’s fascination with mountain biking’s history was the shifting manufacturing techniques used to create new bikes, ‘What really fascinated me in the 90s was how diverse the bikes were. Every company put their vision into their bikes, regardless of whether they were good or bad. There’s some really good examples of designs being way ahead of their time such as the 1994 Foes LTS with a plush 6 inches of rear travel at a time when suspension forks only had up to 60mm of travel! Then there were others like the URT (unified rear triangle), where the rear end main pivot was built into the swing arm. The result of this was a bike that pedalled like a hardtail when out of the saddle... It was deemed a good thing for a while, until they realised that when you’re descending and out of the saddle, you actually want the suspension to work. We have a couple of lovely examples of these terrible riding bikes including the iconic Trek Y22 that was produced in large quantities, but also less well-known examples like the Rocky Mountain Pipeline and the Barracuda XXXC.’
Krischan notes that although some of the bikes in this era were truly terrible, without the experimentation of this era we mightn’t have ended up where we were today. ‘All the different suspension designs really fascinated me. For me, I want the museum to bring together a large representation of the suspension designs that were on the market.’
This is something Krischan and Joe have achieved, and they’re not finished yet. Bikes like the Manitou FS and Foes LTS showcase the development of rear suspension and frame design, and Joe and Krischan still have a seemingly endless list of bikes they’d like to acquire. Aside from the iconic designs that inspired progression within the industry, Krischan and Joe also want to showcase some of the more basic bikes, bikes Joe says many experienced mountain bikers would be familiar with.
‘Back in the day your first bike wasn’t that great, because back in the day even the best bike wasn’t that great. You got something that was the wrong size, no suspension, limited gears, and handled like a pig. It was still bloody enjoyable to get out on the trails though.’
Joe and Krischan both see a rising interest in the history of the sport. Joe says ‘People are chasing a sense of nostalgia. They’re a bit older, they’ve got a bit of play money and they want the bike they couldn’t have when they were younger.’
Krischan says the museum has been able to help out some collectors through the swapping of parts. ‘Someone donated a fork that we already have, that we’re going to swap for another fork we don’t have, so that’s helping them out as well.’
The location of the museum is another nod to both mountain biking and cycling history. Located at the base of Willunga Hill, many of the bikes in the museum would’ve been raced over the years at the iconic Willunga Downhill race. ‘The idea was to find a place connected to some level of mountain biking or cycling, with connection to the 90’s explosion,’ says Joe.
The museum itself is situated within a barn built in 1852, which was previously used to house vintage cars. Even over a grainy Zoom connection I can see the retro feel of the building perfectly matches the character of what Krischan and Joe are trying to achieve. That’s their primary aim at present, to get the space ready to present the bikes and parts to the public. From what’s there thus far, the end result is going to be a fantastic experience for visitors.
During our chat, Krischan and Joe take me for a tour. Upon entering the museum, a wall of forks tells the story of the introduction of suspension to mountain biking. Above that, early iterations of long travel suspension demonstrate the pace with which development moved back in the day.
The bikes also remind you of how far the sport has come in the last 20-30 years. The Manitou FS is one such example, where a fork was used for both the front and rear suspension. Krischan then shows me a Trek Y, one of the most iconic full suspension carbon frames in existence. The enthusiasm in his voice is obvious.
‘There was a lot of passion in that era, and it’s not there so much anymore. I think a lot of people really connect with that. If you look at the bikes today, they’re all very, very similar.’
Krischan says the flair of bikes with individually selected components is another element that makes these bikes so intriguing.
‘The whole market was filled with small manufacturers passionately making small batches of high-end CNC parts available in the full rainbow spectrum of anodised colours, that’s not the case anymore.’
The frames Joe and Krischan have acquired will be built up with a mixture of original and custom specifications. They show me a row of frames waiting to be built up, as well as a collection of parts. There will be no admission cost to visit the museum, however a donation is encouraged, and there’s a specific type of donation Joe would prefer. ‘Ideally donations will be in old bike parts. Sweet, anodised bike parts.’
Having no admission cost for the museum is a result of Joe and Krischan going through the process of having the museum certified as an official Australian museum. Joe explains that the process isn’t as simple as just having bikes, ‘There’s a bunch of steps you have to follow to become certified. It’s the usual stuff around health and safety, but we also can’t just be a display of old bikes. What you actually have to do is create, provide, and nourish the history of the era you’re trying to promote.’
Krischan and Joe are using multiple avenues to make sure this is the case. There’s the museum itself, the website, social media, and a podcast in the works. The website will have photos of all the bikes, filters so you can find what you’re after, and descriptions for everything that’s up there.
It’s also not just bikes and suspension the museum will feature. There are components, banners, posters, books, videos, and plenty more.
The podcast is called ‘Shredtime Stories.’ In their own words, the podcast will feature ‘a collection of interviews and thoughts from back in the day MTB royalty and influencers.’ Having heard about some of the guests they’re lining up, it’ll be well worth the listen!
It’s clear the passion, time, and energy that has gone into the museum. Despite this, for Krischan and Joe it’s still a passion project, and they say that will always be the case. Both still working full time, Krischan and Joe meet up every Thursday night to work on the museum space, build bikes, and share their passion.
The museum isn’t officially open, however if you’re going to be in Adelaide and you’re desperate to have a look Krischan and Joe are showing people through by appointment. With the border restrictions lifting across the country, we bet there are some keen enthusiasts that can’t wait to get to Willunga!
In terms of a more concrete opening, keep an eye on their website and socials. The pair want to create the best experience for their visitors before officially opening. Like most things in life and judging by what they already have, it’ll be worth the wait.
Joe and Krischan both maintain that the museum is more aimed towards fellow enthusiasts who already have some knowledge of mountain biking’s unique history. Despite this, what they’ve created is a space for all mountain bikers through the museum’s beautiful and informative presentation of history. Joe perhaps sums it up best when he says, ‘Mountain biking is more than riding bikes on dirt. It’s pioneering, it’s exploration, and it’s making bikes and parts that are constantly better for that purpose.’