The sport of mountain biking evolves at a
speed that most sports can only dream
about. “Wait,” you protest, “why is this speed-of-light innovation such a great thing? It feels like my last few bikes became obsolete
before I could wear them out. You call that progress?”
First, nobody has a gun to your head. You don’t
need to buy a new bike every time something new
comes along. There has never been an innovation
that totally obsoletes any mountain bike. If you
own a 1980 Breezer Series II (and don’t you wish
you did?), you could still ride it on any of our local trails and have a blast. Second, these innovations
have changed—or are changing—mountain biking,
whether you buy into them or not. Think of innovations as competition that the old ideas have to face.
When a new product comes along that promises a
substantial bump in performance, control or comfort, all the “old” products either have to quit the
game or make changes to stay in the game. That’s
good for all of us.
The MBA wrecking crew corralled 20 innovations
that we feel have changed or are changing our
sport. Take them or leave them, mountain biking will
never be the same.
SPECIALIZED STUMPJUMPER TIRE
There were plenty of cruiser frames around that could be converted to mountain bikes at the birth of our sport. If those sources ran dry, like in Marin County, enterprising frame builders like Joe Breeze, Tom Ritchey and Steve
Potts simply fabricated updated versions of the classic 1936
Schwinn La Salle from scratch. So what was keeping mountain biking from sweeping the nation and globe? Tires.
While other components could be modified for mountain
bikes, existing bicycle tires didn’t come close.
A guy named Mike Sinyard had started Specialized in
1974, a company run out of a VW van that sold imported
components from Italy. By 1976, Specialized had grown
enough to produce its own tire for touring bikes. Mike was in the perfect position to use his tire know-how to
develop a high-volume knobby tire for mountain biking. The
Specialized Stumpjumper tire didn’t just jump-start moun-
tain bike tire technology, it jump-started mountain biking.
FOX 15QR FRONT AXLE
Mountain bikes used to use quick-release
skewers and axles borrowed from road bikes.
Downhillers adopted 20-millimeter axles after realizing the obvious benefits of added rigidity and
control, but the axles were heavy and tools were
required to install or remove them.
Fox teamed with Shimano to develop a tool-free,
lightweight, 15-millimeter-diameter thru-axle to
work with its cross-country fork. One ride is all it
took to feel the substantial benefits. Today, even
short-travel forks benefit from the larger axle size,
and the technology has migrated to the rear wheel,
where 12x142 rear axles are allowing the rear of
the bike to keep pace with the front.
“I rode an early-production RockShox fork that Steve
Simons, who worked with company founder Paul Turner,
had mounted to a bike at the 1990 Big Bear NORBA
National,” remembers MBA’s Jimmy Mac. “I got off the bike
and ordered one right then and there. Coming to
mountain biking from motocross, it was so
obvious that this was the future.”
“The Mac” got that one right—and so did a million other
riders. The RockShox fork brought true suspension to
mountain biking, and this innovation would, of
course, lead to rear suspension.
The HammerSchmidt, introduced in 2008, is a two-speed
planetary gearbox housed in the right-side crank assembly. It
did away with the front derailleur and proved to be unaffected by smashing into stuff. Gravity riders were the intended
target, but it was even used by adventurous single-speed riders looking to double their gearing options.
While the HammerSchmidt can’t be called a runaway success (it is hard to imagine the units sold so far are enough to recoup the initial R&D costs), Mr. HammerSchmidt
inspired a generation of drivetrain engineers—and these are the engineers who brought us the trail-changing 2x10,
3x10 and 1x11 drivetrain revolutions. We are not saying
that the SRAM XX1 group (1x11) took any part of the
HammerSchmidt technology, but it owes its existence to the
planetary gearbox crank. Because SRAM gave the green
light to HammerSchmidt, the engineers and designers had to
feel a freedom seldom enjoyed in companies that make every
decision based on the input of their accounting department.
Oakley was founded by Jim Jannard who, like Mike
Sinyard, started his business out of a vehicle selling grips
and goggles for motorsport competitors. Jim realized that
bicyclists needed and deserved the same level of high-tech
eye protection as motorcyclists. Goggles didn’t work (too
hot), and sunglasses had as their own drawbacks (such as
not staying in place), so the Factory Pilot Eyeshades were
born. This blend of goggles and sunglasses changed the way
we saw the trail. No matter which brand of sunglasses you
wear for mountain biking, chances are they were designed
to try to best an Oakley product. The most amazing thing is that Oakley glasses are still the most popular choice for
SRAM 2x10 DRIVETRAIN
While it's not as revolutionary as HammerSchmidt, SRAM’s 2x10 has reshaped the way we view drivetrains. It tightened things up, noticeably improved shifting performance, increased reliability and simplified adjustability.
Even if you swear you will never ride a 2x10-equipped
mountain bike, the bike you do end up riding will have
a better drivetrain because of XX. That’s because to stay
in this game, you can’t let the SRAM XX drivetrain ride
away from you.
SHIMANO SHADOW PLUS
We hate calling the Shadow Plus feature a friction
clutch because, while an accurate description, adding the
word “friction” to any drivetrain just doesn’t sound like
the hot ticket. In this case, however, it is. The Shadow
Plus feature adds an internal spring to the rear derailleur
that keeps the derailleur cage from bouncing around and
possibly dropping the chain in rough terrain. An added
benefit of the Shadow Plus is improved shifting
The Shimano Shadow Plus feature was originally only
available on the company’s top-of-the-line XTR derailleur,
but has trickled down to XT and SLX, and we don’t expect
it to stop there. SRAM has already released clutch-style
rear derailleurs too.
GARY FISHER 29ER
Gary Fisher pushed Trek to adopt the 29-inch wheel for
mountain bikes in 2000. It was a tough sell, and the idea
was almost shelved in 2003 due to lack of sales. Luckily,
advancements in suspension, 15QR axles, lighter wheels and
tires, 29er-optimized geometry, and improved ergonomics
saved the large-wheel format.
The newest edition to the wheel wars is the 27.5-inch
wheel, and it is doubtful that would have taken hold if not
for the pioneers of the 29er.
STAN’S NOTUBES SEALANT
There is not a more unlikely mountain biking innovator/hero than Stan
Koziatek. The man from Big Flats, New York, hardly a mountain biking capital,
ran a go-kart track before coming up with his secret formula for a latex tire sealant (because he was sick of flat tires on his karts). He has pretty much single-handedly killed the tubeless tire (now riders use the light, tubeless-ready tires
with Stan’s Sealant in them) and we, from trail riders to world champions, all ride
more miles with fewer flats because of Stan.
Anyone who claims Stan’s Sealant is just “latex paint” is clueless as to what
makes the often-imitated-but-never-equaled secret sauce work so well.
CARBON FIBER FRAMES
We are not saying that carbon fiber is the be-all, end-all
material for crafting mountain bike frames, but we will say
that carbon fiber has forced frames made from aluminum, steel and titanium to undergo some serious upgrades to stay
competitive. So again, even if you don’t buy into carbon fiber
for your next mountain bike frame, whatever material you do
decide on will be better because of this mix of fibers and resins.
You young whippersnappers take index
shifting for granted, but we’ll tell you what
we had to deal with in the early years. Thumb
shifters! We had to push on the thumb-spraining lever, listen for the chain to clatter over
the cog teeth, wait for the crunching noise that
signaled a successful shift and finally apply the
ever-so-slight reversal of the lever to center
the derailleur over the cog. Today, click, click,
click. You have it so easy because
of indexed shifting.
Relaxing your legs and feet without disengaging from the pedals is a fundamental
energy saver. Our feet stay in place as we
bounce our way over rough terrain, step
up over ledges, drop down stair steps and
launch over jumps. Being able to unweight
the front or rear of the bike at will or hop
it over rocks and gaps is an essential skill
set, which is made extraordinarily simple by
mating the rider to the crankset.
HYDRAULIC DISC BRAKES
Disc brakes gave the mountain bike all-weather stopping power and reliability for
the first time. Throughout the rim-brake
era, otherwise serviceable rims had to be
replaced when they were dinged by rocks,
and wheels had to be trued constantly to
maintain braking integrity. Disc-brake
mountain bikes stop consistently with
each squeeze of the levers, and we beat up
our wheels without concern. As long as
the tire clears the frame or fork, we can
ride happily into the sunset.
PLATFORM DAMPING SYSTEMS
Whether you call it anti-bob, CTD, ProPedal, anti-squat, Motion Control, or stable platform, it does the
same thing: it keeps the rear suspension from bobbing when you push on the pedals. Rear suspension
completes the mountain bike. With this innovation or,
more accurately, adaptation, anyone can enjoy mountain biking with a substantial degree of confidence and
control. Rear suspension removed the final barriers to
enjoyable off-road riding and ushered in a new era for
Joe Breeze’s Hite-Rite, a return spring for
a seatpost, started this revolution, but then
got lost along the trail. The GravityDropper,
an American-made dropper seatpost, rewrote
the rules. Straight out of Poison, Montana, the
GravityDropper post allowed riders to drop their
saddles for descents with a push of a lever and
then go for full extension on the climbs. Once
thought of as trail riders’ tools, dropper seatposts
are popping up on the cross-country bikes of racers looking for the advantage that a lower center
of gravity brings to the descending party.
How many of you got your first
mountain biking blister, not on the
bike, but while changing a set of grips?
The ODI Lock-On grip set the standard
(and still does today) for ease of installation and removal while being never-slip tough. Don’t you wish every other
component was as easy to install as a
lock-on grip? Us too.
Again, dual-compound tires are not
the end game in the tire race, but they
were the starting point. Once tire makers began blending compounds so tires
would roll faster and grab harder in
corners, it ignited a fire under the desk
chair of every tire guru on the planet.
To get ahead of a great dual-compound
tire, it was necessary to, well, do some-
thing even greater—and that is what is
happening right now for mountain bike
Let’s be accurate; Bernie Tusko’s
Coolhead visor was the first production visor for mountain bikers. Where
Troy Lee Designs got the jump on the
Coolhead was Troy’s custom-painting of helmets for the sport’s early heroes,
including John Tomac, Greg Herbold
and Dave Wiens. The TLD visor, sized
perfectly and painted, totally integrated
into the helmet design and was the
product that gave mountain bikers their
signature look. We were no longer wearing helmet hand-me-downs from roadies
The Troy Lee Designs visor sent a
message to all helmet makers, and that
message was not to ignore the needs of
mountain bikers. We all have better helmets today because of Bernie and Troy.
The MBA switchboard is already
lighting up with angry riders protesting our choice of the Horst Link rear suspension design above all others for
our “20 Innovations That Are Still
Shaping Mountain Biking.” Tough.
It was the Horst Link that signaled
to mountain bike designers that if
they were going to slap an elastomer
bumper on a pivoting swingarm, they
were not going to be in business long.
The Horst Link made all rear suspension designers up their game. There is
no such thing as perfect rear suspension, but because of the Horst Link,
there are plenty of people still trying.
No, we didn’t run out of ideas at number 19. The
smartphone has changed mountain biking, and, friends,
it is just the beginning. Suspension companies offer apps
to set sag. Apps track our rides, heart rates and calories
burned and compare us to our buddies. Smartphones
keep us from getting lost and, if we do get lost, can help
us find our way out. You can photograph or video the
places you ride, and you can record the sounds, or lack
thereof, of your favorite “secret” spot. You can even
order pizza while you’re still on the trail so it’s waiting
for you when you finish your ride. Heck, if we had to
choose between giving up lock-on grips and giving up our
smartphones, we’d probably go back to getting blisters.
This feature originally appeared in the September '13 issue of Mountain Bike Action.
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