Klunkerz, a film from director Billy Savage entertainingly answers that contentious question by telling the story of the evolution of what we now call the mountain bike. Savage has plenty of help: he seems to have found just about every one of the surprisingly large number of people who were involved.
Savage uses interviews with the Marin County, California riders whose scene begat the mountain bike to tell the story, combined with archive footage and photos by Wende Cragg, the only woman in what Charlie Kelly admits was a testosterone-laden group.
Persevere past the slightly cheesy graphics in the opening few minutes and you get to the meat of the tale. A bunch of road racing cyclists, counter-culture types and their friends discovered the fun of riding old fat-tyred bikes down and then up Marin's Mount Tamalpais. The bikes broke, so they fixed and improved them, and eventually started building custom frames for them. That was the point at which the 'klunkers' that give the film its name became mountain bikes.
Savage tells a great story, and there's a lot more to it than the bits you may already have heard. Sure, Gary Fisher was a major player, as his marketing department is fond of telling us, but plenty of others were as important.
You probably haven't heard of Alan Bonds, but he assembled many of the very early Marin County klunker bikes. Based on stripped-down Schwinn frames, with painstakingly grafted-on gears and drum brakes, these were to the mountain bike what Australopithecus is to modern humans.
The man responsible for one of the breakthrough ideas that led to the klunker and then to the mountain bike was Russ Mahon of the Morrow Dirt Club. Mahon and two friends turned up at the 1974 West Coast Cyclocross Championships on clunkers with gears and, most importantly, thumbshifter gear levers. After finishing mid-pack and showing their bikes to the Marin klunker crowd, Mahon and his friends vanished.
They were found 20 years later and inducted into the Mountain Bike Hall of Fame for their contribution.
Meanwhile, Bonds, Fisher, Charlie Kelly and others perfected the geared klunker, and tested them (often to destruction) on the legendary Repack downhill, the first timed mountain bike race.
With the pre-war Schwinn frames becoming hard to find, Kelly turned to framebuilder Joe Breeze to build some custom klunker frames. Shortly afterwards, Fisher also commissioned some custom frames, from a local builder called Tom Ritchey. With their relatively light weight chromoly tubes, Breeze's frames were the basis for the first modern mountain bikes.
But Ritchey was a far more prolific builder, and when the time came to set up a company to build and sell these new bikes, Ritchey was the builder of choice. The combination of Ritchey's frames and Fisher and Kelly's construction and marketing was known as Ritchey/Mountainbikes: the first mountain bike company.
Along the way the mountain bike pioneers had adventures. Breeze, Fisher, Kelly and Cragg turned up in Colorado for the second Crested Butte to Aspen Pearl Pass Klunker Tour. But for the presence of Wende Cragg, that event that might not have happened. However, if a woman was going to have a go, then the firefighters in this tiny mountain town certainly weren't going to be shown up.
Then there was the business adventure of Fisher, Kelly and Ritchey's companies, and relative newcomer Mike Sinyard of Specialized. This was the point at which it all got a bit serious and for a few years there was considerable uneasiness between the various mountain bike pioneers. Twenty years later, though, they're all mates again.
The answer to the original question is that no one person really invented the mountain bike. Joe Breeze built the first modern mountain bike frames, but without the ideas and innovations of a whole bunch of other people, he'd have had nothing to hang on them, and no inspiration to build them in the first place.
The right people in the right place at the right time spawned the mountain bike, and Klunkerz does an excellent job of letting them tell their story.
The DVD of Klunkerz is distributed by VAS Entertainment (www.vasentertainment.com)
UK distribution by X-treme (www.x-tremevideo.com) and Shock Therapy.