Mountain biking is a young sport and it quickly evolved with the ingenuity of many and the influence of different disciplines. Born out of road bikes outfitted with big, knobby tires, mountain bikes have evolved over the past few decades. Motorcycles have influenced the bikes significantly as they’ve been performing many of the descending and cornering tasks that mountain bikes have been gravitating towards.
Kids and beginners these days are very lucky. If they only knew what we went through to get to this stage! The bikes available these days are so much more capable than the ones we used 20 years ago. And let’s not even talk about all the dozens of failed designs and inventions that we used to get to this state. Yes, the sport has indeed changed and folks are now riding much more aggressive terrain at a much higher level compared to the past. Here are the five innovations that have improved mountain bikes the most.
1. Dropper posts
A dropper post is a seatpost that allows you to raise or lower your seat while riding with the push of a remote button from your handlebars. The mountain bike saddle height has forever been a compromise between a high and efficient saddle height and a low and stable height for descending and cornering.
In the old days, when we got up to the top of the mountain, we got off the bike, got the tool out, and lowered the saddle to a position more suited for descending. When we got to the bottom, we raised the saddle again. The benefits were obvious but the process of lowering and raising the saddle was so cumbersome that it was only done for the longest, most dangerous descents.
With the dropper post, lowering and raising the saddle has become so seamless and easy that the sport has become safer. Going over the handlebars and breaking one’s collarbone has become less common. And the riding has actually changed with riders improving their cornering styles and gaining more confidence on drops and jumps.
2. 1x gearing
Born out of road bikes, our early mountain bikes had 3 chainrings in the front and 9 or 10 in the back. This gave us the range we thought we needed for the big mountains and the fast descents. These drivetrains though were very finicky and ill-suited for the rattling, the dirt, and mud associated with mountain biking.
Through much evolution and simplification, we’ve arrived at 1 gear in front and 12 in the back. This gives the same range as the old drivetrains but it was much easier to use and more reliable. The list of performance benefits is very long and it also freed up the handlebar real estate so the dropper post lever could take the place of the front shifter. The bike got lighter too with fewer parts and the bike design improved with more room for tires and shorter rear ends.
3. Big tubeless tires on wide rims
The old standard involved 1.9-inch tires in a 26-inch diameter. This was mounted on a narrow rim with an inner tube. It got us going for sure but it was rife with opportunity for improvement.
Through much evolution, we’ve arrived at a bigger diameter tire usually in 2.2 to 2.6 in width. And it’s now mounted on a wide rim with no tubes! What takes the place of tubes is a cleaner tubeless interface that holds air (like a car tire). And a fluid sealant sloshes around in the tire ready to seal any leak or puncture introduced by thorns, nails, or a heavy rock strike.
As a result, we enjoy more grip, better rolling, lighter weight, and flat protection that benefits riders on both climbs and descents.
4. Hydraulic disc brakes
This should be an obvious one but it was hard to get to this point. All autos and motorcycles use hydraulic disc brakes and they work very well. But road bikes use rim brakes so that’s what we had to run with for a while. Rim brakes though are not ideal for mountain biking because of the elements exposing and damaging the rim and weakening the braking power.
But the modern mountain bike disc brake has arrived and it is a thing of beauty. It is light, reliable, and effective with a plethora of options. The rider can go with 2 pistons or 4. Brake pad options are plentiful and rotor sizes allow much flexibility in performance and weight. In fact, they work so well that mountain bikes have gifted the development back to its senior, the road bike. Even the weight-conscious road bikes see the benefit and it’s increased the usability quite a bit, allowing bigger tires and more aggressive terrain. The student gives back to the master in this case.
5. New bike geometries
We all used to road bike geometry and it worked for a while but it was not ideal and not safe in aggressive terrain. Bikes have grown, now boasting longer top tubes, slacker head angles, and shorter chainstays. Bottom bracket heights are now lower, and bikes now put the rider in a higher, more centered position ready to attack terrain and center the balance of the bike.
Long and narrow or short and wide: modern cockpits have an ergonomic bar and stem pairing that works to massively stabilize your ride and keep you in control. While twenty years ago it was normal to have a 120 mm stem and 600 mm bars, today the average set-up is a 50 mm stem and 780 mm bars. This has helped comfort and control immensely as riders are more centered for descending and cornering and have less tendency to go over the bars.
The bikes too have been designed for dropper posts, with a steeper seat angle for pedaling and climbing. The seat is out of the way anyway when the saddle is dropped for descending.
Yes, kids and beginners, these days have it easy indeed. Bikes are better suited for the job at hand. And instruction and coaching are available too as the skill and knowledge of mountain biking are becoming formalized and handed off to the next generation of mountain bikers.