15 Things That Have Changed Mountain Biking
Here's our list of the 15 most influential products/advances that have changed mountain biking, but do you think we've missed any?
We probably talk about bikes way too much in the Dirt office. Sometimes it's about a new product that's just turned up, other times it's about a rider or a photo, and then occasionally we get all nostalgic and start rabbiting on about various random things from the past. I think it was one of those occasions that led us to discuss what products or innovations we thought had changed mountain biking and helped turn it into the sport that it is today. We could think of loads of great products over the years, but had they changed our sport? The answer was no for most of them, but in the end we came up with this list of 15 which we think really have had a strong influence on our sport. Can you think of any we've missed? Anyway, click on the bits below to see our selection in no particular order...
[part title="Disc Brakes, The Aheadset, Suspension"]
Disc brakes are without doubt one of the most important innovations in mountain biking, they really do allow us to ride differently. When I first started riding a mountain bike cantilever brakes were pretty much as good as they got. Getting the best performance out of them was a bit of a dark art, but in hindsight we're talking about them either being next to useless, or a tiny bit better. Oh, and that was in the dry! Try using them in the wet and all they really did was wear your expensive rims out. Magura made hydraulic rim brakes at this time, and these were seen by many to be the ultimate stoppers, but they still weren't great. Then everyone thought they'd won the lottery when 'V-Brakes' arrived, and yes they were considerably better than canti's and much cheaper than the Magura option, but they still relied on a rim that was rarely clean, or straight.
Hope were actually making a mechanical disc brake before the introduction of the V-Brake, but it was mainly popular with touring cyclists. There were a few early adopters mountain biking, but the brakes didn't come cheap and you basically had to work out your own way to mount them because disc brake mounts hadn't even been invented yet. Luckily though the word started to spread, mounts started to appear on forks and frames, the technology got better, and then all of a sudden disc brakes started becoming common place at DH races. Once you'd tried a set of disc brakes you were never going to go back, and so it's no surprise that the rest is now history.
Many of you probably aren't even old enough to remember the original headsets that we had to deal with, and if that's the case you should count your blessings. All headsets used to be based around a threaded steerer tube on your forks, and a 'quill' stem. The headset itself was basically two big threaded nuts, one of which was meant to act as the lock-ring in order to stop the whole thing coming loose. I say meant because they constantly came loose, even the ones that supposedly had some ingenious feature that was meant to cure the problem.
Basically everything about the design was rubbish, but somewhat incredibly when Dia Compe first introduced their revolutionary threadless 'Aheadset' it wasn't universally accepted overnight. I suppose it boiled down to the fact that you needed a different fork steerer and stem, plus it almost seemed to0 simple and good to be true. Thankfully though it didn't take too long for everyone to see just how great the system was, and now, many years on we don't even bother with the 'A' part of the name, we just call this design a headset.
It's hard to imagine it now, but I still remember reading articles in magazines about whether or not suspension was a waste of time, and I'm not just talking about rear suspension either, the validity of suspension forks was even being questioned. To be fair those early forks were heavy, unreliable, expensive, and offered about 50mm of terrible quality travel, so I suppose it's not really so surprising that people were questioning the need for them. I spent a grand on my first 'proper' bike, and that was a fully rigid steel hardtail with an XT groupset. And people say kit is expensive these days?
Anyway, despite years of what can only be described as fairly awful suspension, we still managed to come to the sensible conclusion that suspension can be a massive benefit when it comes to riding off-road, especially if you want to go fast. As much as I still love a hardtail (I'm afraid fully rigid is a step too far for me), I really wouldn't want to be without suspension, it has just opened up so many new doors. Also, imagine how boring it would be if we couldn't geek out and lust over the latest and greatest bits of suspension.
[part title="Sticky Rubber, Riser Bars, Clutch Rear Mechs"]
This one is actually a 'two birds with one stone' kind of deal. On the one hand we have the sticky rubber that we now love on our tyres, and on the other we have Five Ten's 'Stealth' rubber that created an entirely new dimension in the world of flat pedal grip.
Starting with tyres, it used to be a case of simply deciding which tread pattern you were going to go for. Then we started to get the odd choice in casing, but that was mainly for price Vs weight reasons rather than anything else. The first real change in compound that I remember was when I saw someone with some 'Magic' Panaracer Smoke/Dart tyres at a DH race. These things were super hard to get hold of, expensive, and wore out in seconds. They were white because they had no carbon black in them, which in turn meant they were far softer and grippier than usual. Ok, so they definitely weren't great by modern standards, but they clearly got people thinking that they was something to be gained in this whole compound game because it wasn't long before we then got treated to tyres like Michelin's legendary Comp 16. Along with suspension and disc brakes I think it is the improvement in tyre compounds that have enabled us to go so much faster on our bikes, especially around corners.
As for Five Ten's insanely sticky shoes, well what is there to say? They've been around for years now and despite all that time to work out how it's done the competition still haven't managed to match the grip. When we first got to try some we really couldn't believe how good they were, and no matter how hard you tried to explain their performance to someone who hadn't tried them, you couldn't. It was only when they themselves tried a pair on that they too realised what all the fuss was about. It seems crazy to say it, but the sole of one pair of shoes really did change the face of flat pedal riding.
There was a time when the only mountain bike bars that you could buy were flat, and very narrow. A handful of motocross riders who also rode DH quickly realised that they could ride a whole lot faster if they chucked a pair of MX bars on their bike. For a while that was the only route to what we'd now deem to be sensible bars, but then dedicated mountain bike riser bars gradually started to appear. Like many other riders the first pair I managed to get my hands on were some Club Roost ones that came complete with a cross-brace. These sold like hot cakes cos they were pretty cheap and they instantly transformed your bike. Before long though it was Azonic bars that everyone seemed to be lusting after.
Anyway, apart from helping us to ride much faster, riser bars also kind of marked a new era in mountain biking, and let everyone else know that you were part of it. DH racing was still very much the baby of the sport, XC was king, and those guys definitely didn't get the whole riser bar thing. A riser bar was a sign to others that you didn't give a toss about who could climb a fire road the fastest, you were in it for the adrenaline. It was the equivalent of a leather jacket in the rockers Vs mods war.
Clutch Rear Mechs
Who would have thought that just a tiny switch on a rear mech could make so much difference? The fact is though that we think Shimano's introduction of their Shadow+ 'clutch' rear mechs is one of the biggest advancements in bike gears since the introduction of indexed gears (that in itself should possibly be in this list, but I am sure there would be a load of the retro bike crowd saying that you still can't beat a friction thumb shifter). Apart from making any bike a whole lot quieter on rough ground, these rear mechs also massively reduce the chance of you dropping your chain, and that has been a bugbear of mountain biking ever since we started.
Before these mechs came along I used to hate having to ride a bike with anything but a single ring and chain device simply because I'd always be having to put the chain back on, but now I'm happy to ride a double or triple setup as long as it is combined with one of these. Thank you Mr Shimano, you've made all our lives a whole lot better.
[part title="Dropper Seatposts, Tubeless Tyres, The Angleset"]
I actually feel a bit smug about this one cos I was a huge fan of dropper posts way before the whole idea took off properly. I even remember getting a fair bit of abuse in the office about using one. Pointless, waste of time, why can't you just stop and put your seat down? I still occasionally hear the odd person saying those kinds of things to this day, but as soon as you've tried one there really is no going back, and they're definitely one of the most significant products in recent times.
A dropper post really does change the way you ride a trail, especially if it's a trail that mixes little descents in with short climbs, the kind that so many of us ride. Previous to a dropper post you either ran your seat down all the time and just suffered on any climbs or flatter and less technical sections, or you just stopped and dropped your seat for any longer descents. Being able to instantly adjust the height though means you end up attacking everything. I don't think think it is any coincidence that the surge in the popularity of enduro racing coincided with the increased use of dropper posts, the two things just go hand in hand. Actually, I think the Megavalanche had a huge amount to do with the increased sales of dropper posts. That event was the first place where many riders came across the whole idea, and they saw how useful they were. At first some riders thought that was the only place where their use was warranted, but those that had bought them soon found they were using them everywhere.
I know there are some riders who are still using tubes, but I just don't get it. Personally I would never want to go back to tubes because all I can ever remember is sorting out punctures, whereas in all the years that I have been running tubeless I can only remember two occasions where I've suffered a flat, and both of those times I would have been screwed with a tube too. To me punctures and dropped chains were two of the most annoying aspects of our sport, but thanks to the clutch rear mech and tubeless tyres/wheels both of those problems have been massively reduced.
The advantage of tubeless tyres isn't just down to less punctures though. I can run lower pressures to gain more grip because I'm no longer scared of pinch flats, and even when at the same pressure I swear a tubeless tyre grips better than one with a tube in, plus the tubeless rolls faster too. Like I said, I really don't get why people still use tubes. Some say it's because they think tubeless is more of a faff, but I think that's only because it's different to what you've done for years. As soon as you've got tubeless dialled it's just as easy as a tube, if not easier. And that's before you even factor in that you won't be having to deal with all the punctures.
As good as the Angleset is as a product, this selection isn't so much about the product itself, it's more about what it resulted in. You see we think that the Angleset really marked the start of what we'd now class as 'modern' geometry. Up until this point most consumers hadn't worried too much about the geometry of a bike that they were thinking about buying. Size yes, but geometry no. The geometry of bikes hadn't really changed that much either, and most companies were using the same kinds of numbers, but then all of a sudden the Angleset opened peoples eyes to how much better things could be.
For a good few years we fitted an Angleset to almost every bike that we tested, and it immediately transformed them for the better. Bike companies noticed that it wasn't just us doing this either, lots of riders were, including those riders who were also the ones making the bikes. Of course not everything is about the head angle, but the point is that the Angleset made both riders and bike companies really think about bike geometry and how it could be made better. Today we rarely feel the need to fit an Angleset.
[part title="Chain Devices, Lock-On Grips, 1X Trail Bikes"]
As I've said before dropping a chain is one of this most annoying things when it comes to mountain biking, especially if you happen to be in the middle of a race. It may seem crazy to many of you, but in the early days of DH racing if you wanted something to help alleviate the problem then you'd probably have had to make it yourself. Even when production chain devices finally became available they left a lot to be desired, normally required lots of modification, and were incredibly expensive. Eventually though we got there, we had a product that put an end to the problem once and for all.
Even though I do love the added comfort that you get from a skinny regular grip, Lock-On grips definitely have to be in this list. The reason is simple, and it's because they stay where they are meant to. Even on a normal ride a grip that moves about is bloody annoying, but if you're in the middle of a DH run it's downright dangerous. Yes you can try and glue and wire a regular grip on, but it's never going to be the same as a Lock-On.
I remember at one race in the pissing rain years ago, before Lock-On's were available, trying to get my grips to stay put. It didn't matter what I tried it was never going to happen, so in the end I just took them off and in desperation for something that might feel at least a tiny bit normal I wrapped a roll of insulation tape around my bars. To say my hands were screwed at the end of the run is putting it mildly, and thanks to Lock-On's I will never have to suffer that again.
1X Trail Bikes
It used to be that a single ring up front was only the preserve of a DH bike, but in the interest of not wanting to lose a chain many riders started to run one on their trail bikes. This in itself might not sound like it changed the sport much, but it marked the point at which people started to use what were deemed as trail bikes for doing much more than just pootling around on XC rides. DH bikes had got so extreme that they were basically only fit for one purpose, but at the same time trail bikes had become increasingly capable and many DH riders saw the potential of these bikes, especially if they had a single ring fitted.
Normally running a single ring up front meant a compromise in terms of gear ratios on offer, but the relatively recent introduction of SRAM's 1x11 groupsets has meant that now there is no real compromise. This has opened up the very real possibility that we can ditch the front mech altogether, which in turn opens up a whole new world when it comes to suspension design, because you wouldn't believe how restrictive a front mech can be.
[part title="Carbon, QR Bolt-Thru Axle, Big Wheels"]
Stronger...lighter...faster. An impressive strength to weight ratio is a key ingredient of any great product, because after all we want our bikes to be strong, yet at the same time we want them to be light. When it comes to achieving that there aren't many materials that can rival carbon, especially when used correctly, and there is no doubting that it has helped pushed our bikes on to the next level.
At first carbon was only really used on XC bikes and equipment, and many would never have imagined it, but now it's used everywhere right through to DH frames and rims. It might not come cheap, and may never do, but they are some truly incredible products that are made from carbon, and without the material we'd never have had the pleasure of those products.
QR Bolt-Thru Axle
Originally bolt-thru axles were only found on DH forks, and none of them were quick to use. You always needed at least one allen key, if not several, and although the oversized axle massively increased stiffness compared to a simple QR axle they never looked set to break out of DH use, simple because of the faff factor. That all changed though as soon as companies started to produce tool-free bolt-thru axles, and boy are we glad they did.
Bolt-thru axles transformed trail forks, making them so much stiffer, and the same can be said, albeit to a lesser degree, for the rear end of bikes. It's not just about stiffness either as the piece of mind that a bolt-thru axle brings is definitely welcome too. It might sound a bit over the top, but we really struggle to get our heads around riding a bike with a QR front wheel these days, it just doesn't seem up to the job. Personally I could have probably lived with an old fashioned bolt-thru axle, even on my trail bike, but the QR tool-free ones are obviously far easier and quicker to use, and more importantly they got the masses onboard, which in turn meant that the manufacturers started making almost everything bolt-thru.
Finally, we definitely can't leave out the whole subject of big wheels. Whether you are into them or not is kind of irrelevant in this context, as is the question as to what (if any) wheel size will come out as the leader in years to come. You see we think the introduction of big wheels is almost an extension of what I was saying about the Angleset. The Angleset helped make bike companies really take a look at how bikes could be made better in terms of geometry, they helped throw the old fashioned rule books out of the window, and the extreme end of that was to throw the wheel size rule book out too.
At the end of the day we want to have fun on our bikes and ride fast off-road, so why should we spend years and countless amounts of money trying to makes bikes as good as possible for that use, but then limit ourselves for no apparent reason by saying that we have to stick to one size wheel, which must be 26". You have to admit, it does seem kind of crazy. We have experimented with so many other things, so why not wheel size? You might not agree, but it's now happened and one way or another our bikes will be better for it in the end, even if they do have 26" wheels.
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