If you walked through the NORBA National Championship or World Cup pits during the late 1990s looking for downhill bikes, this is the bike you saw. And you saw lots of them. They were lined up under easy-up and giant fifth-wheel-trailer awnings alike. They were branded Iron Horse, Mongoose, Barracuda, Haro and Giant–just to name a few–and lovingly painted to match team uniforms or U.S. National Champion jerseys.
Under the paint and stickers, though, they were all Jeff Steber’s Intense Cycles M1–and, with few exceptions, if you weren’t racing one, you probably weren’t winning.
Born and bred in ‘the 909,’ Southern California’s motocross mecca, the Intense M1 capitalized on the notion that with more usable suspension travel and a proper combination of handling and reliability, a rider could take on faster and gnarlier lines. To downhillers who were used to riding ‘DH’ bikes that at the time weren’t much more than glorified XC machines, the ‘little motorcycle’ feel of the Intense seemed truly magical.
Though this particular M1 sports Iron Horse livery as campaigned by Toby Henderson, it was action-sports all-rounder Shaun Palmer who propelled the M1 solidly into the spotlight. The legendary snowboarder had no lack of talent for top-level mountain-bike racing, but he’d also found the right tool for the job. While the media and fans were paying attention to Palmer’s larger-than-life persona, fellow competitors were lusting for the bike.
Leigh Donovan and Brian Lopes, both multiple-time national champions, were early adopters. A downhill test for Lopes and a parking-lot spin for Donovan on Palmer’s Intense at the 1996 World Championships was all it took for the two Mongoose team riders to be convinced. And that was just the beginning.
Within a couple short years of Palmer’s debut season aboard the M1, it seemed that at least half of the start list for any premier downhill event was on one of Steber’s bikes–and that estimate is probably a bit conservative. Riders and teams that had always been accustomed to receiving large allotments of equipment were suddenly being forced to buy bikes if they wanted to be competitive. Never before and certainly not since the M1 has a single bike brand so completely dominated the world mountain bike stage. Perhaps most important, though, is that the M1 ushered in a new era of downhill racing, in which riding style and course design changed. This one bike was the catalyst to mountain biking’s modern era.