5 best mountain bike innovations and why you need them

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It’s a good time to be a mountain biker with these 5 new innovations.

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.

New tire standards allow bigger tires that are more stable and flat resistant.

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.

The new mountain bike brakes are so good thate even road bikes inherited them.

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.

New geometries make climbing and descending difficult terrain a lot more manageable.

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 nowadays have a lot to look forward to when entering the sport of mountain biking. The bikes have improved as well as coaching and instruction.

Bottom Line

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.


About the author: Francis Cebedo

The founder of mtbr and roadbikereview, Francis Cebedo believes that every cyclist has a lot to teach and a lot to learn. "Our websites are communal hubs for sharing cycling experiences, trading adventure stories, and passing along product information and opinions." Francis' favorite bike is the last bike he rode, whether it's a dirt jumper, singlespeed, trail bike, lugged commuter or ultralight carbon road steed. Indeed, Francis loves cycling in all its forms and is happiest when infecting others with that same passion. Francis also believes that IPA will save America.


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Comments:

  • Shawn says:

    This is a strange list. You’re going to have something as old as disk brakes on the list, but not suspension? Suspension is still a bigger innovation that dropper posts, 1x gearing, and wide tires. By a long shot.

    • Daniel Gurtler says:

      I agree that suspension has improved significantly in the last 20 years. Modern suspension makes the modern bike geometry possible (that they forgot to put a number 5 against). But I would put tubeless tires right up there too when talking about the last 20 years. Even with the UST tires, you could run lower pressure and not worry about pinch flats. And those UST tires didn’t even require sealant. I think the first time I used sealant was in 2005 because I had to use “tubeless ready” tires that won’t work without sealant.

  • Albert C Weihl says:

    “5 best mountain bike innovations and why you need them”.
    When titling an article “5 best” you really should have 5 numbered items, not stopping at 1-4 and then another “something”. Or did you leave #5 out?

  • Grizzled Old Man says:

    On the olden days before dropper posts:

    SO CUMBERSOME!!!!!!!!!! Too bad they never invented quick releases or tools you could carry in your pocket, or views to stop at or any other reason. I guess in the old days when you were not worried about a few seconds on your strava time anything could happen. Imagine wasting the time to lower the saddle when life expectancy was only like 24 yrs….

  • Andrew Cathcart says:

    Your paragraph about 1x made me stop reading the article.

    • Josh Patterson says:

      Yet you still took the time to comment. 🤣

      1x drivetrains have opened the doors to suspension refinement, increased tire clearance, and improved shift performance and absolutely belong on this list.

      The Luddites claiming their 3×9 speed groups shift better need to spend some time on a modern drivetrain.

  • Douglas Vlad says:

    Every thing comes at a price though. Hundreds of dollars for a device who’s only function is going up and down. We are in the middle of a pandemic, but yet beginner’s and kids parents. Have enough to shovel out cash for the latest and greatest. Keep buying and they will keep supplying, until your wallet is flat

  • TS says:

    Still riding a FS mtn bike from 2002…why do wider rims & tires roll better than my old 26″ x 2.1″ tires/riims?

    • Josh Patterson says:

      Wider tires, which are best paired with wider rims, allow you to run lower pressures, which have less rolling resistance and improved traction. That said, if you’re happy you’re current set-up ride on.

      • Sean Birnbaum says:

        Wider tires at lower pressures actually have higher rolling resistance tire tread compound and design all being equal. The wide tires and lower pressures offer more small bump compliance and greater traction. Just needed to set the record right on that one.

  • Caig says:

    what about clipless pedals?
    Believe it or not, some of us got along just fine before the advent of the dropper post.
    With that being said, I do like having one.
    Tubeless tires along with wheels bigger than 26″ were the game changer for me.
    The reason I do not include full suspension is, because the first FS bikes were crap !
    Hardly made a difference. Mostly due to how insufficiently they rode and how heavy they were.
    When they first started showing up, I knew that I would not be buying one for myself until they manufacturers had some time to work out the bugs.
    The problem the bike industry faces each and every year is, to try to keep things fresh.
    Fresh in the sense that they are always trying to reinvent the wheel , so to speak.
    Tweaking the geometry here, rethreading something there, boost, mega boost.
    You get the picture.
    These days, nearly all new bikes are pretty good at, at least one thing .
    Unless you can afford to continually turn over your quiver of specialty bikes , stick with what works. Otherwise you will be constantly chasing unicorns.

    • Josh Patterson says:

      Clipless pedals are definitely significant innovation. But to your point about dropper seatposts, many riders get along fine without clipless pedals. In fact, flat pedal use is at an all-time high.

  • A. Rider says:

    Motors – you forgot electric motors.

  • DKP says:

    I feel like all of these are standard on anything over $1000. Do they still count as innovations if they are old news?

    That being said, all these things are great.

    • Francis Cebedo says:

      >> I feel like all of these are standard on anything over $1000. Do they still count as innovations if they are old news?

      Not new news but so many, many of our friends ride bikes today without these innovations. Also a lot of new riders are getting into the sport so this is a good checklist of what to look for when buying a new or used bike. Full suspension bikes seem to have a much higher price point to include these 5 items.

  • Imababy says:

    Cry a little more for someone bullying you into wasting your time reading this article. Life is so tough.

  • Jarko says:

    Sorry, but bikes are HEAVIER now than they were 20 years ago. There was a nice rant about that in BIKE magazine just recently.
    Also, I’d list improvements in suspension (esp. the rear) as way more important than dropper posts. They did have dropper posts as early as 1984, and in fact they were much more useful/necessary on twitchy old school bikes. It’s so hard to on the long/slack/big wheel bikes of today, that they are hardly necessary anymore.
    And be careful with those ridiculous wide bars. They look cool and are fine for burly 6+ foot downhillers, but skinny/short people riding regular trails need to cut those down, or they’ll mess up your shoulders !

    • Josh Patterson says:

      Jarko,

      You make a good point about the increase in weight, which is driven in part by the current focus on long-travel 29ers. Regarding bar width, at least you have to option to cut them down to your preferred width these days.

  • jarko1 says:

    The claims in the story are a little too good to be true. Some fact checking is in order.
    Big tubeless tires are definitely HEAVIER than tires from ~2000. We used to ride 500-600 g tires ~~2.1 wide, with light tubes ~100-150g. Now the tires alone are are ballpark 1000g (plus 50-100 g sealant)

  • Garrett says:

    “rife” with opportunity

    early mountain bikes had 3 chainrings in the front and “5” in the back

    • huckleberry hound says:

      I was thinking the same thing. Shimano set the mountain bike communtity ablaze with the introduction of the XT 3×6 speed groupset in 1983. It took 12 years to reach 3×9.

  • Philpug says:

    780mm (+/-) handlebars.

  • Leonard Fancher says:

    …or you’re too simple to operate a shifter with your left hand

  • Andy Crow says:

    Oh you younguns…..
    When I got my 1st mt bike (a Jamis Dakota) in the late 80s, it was a 3 x 6 speed.
    Every few years the industry would add an extra cog and come out with a new bigger cassette standard.
    It was probably close to 10 years before the 3 x 9 bragged about in this article, and we were thrilled at the 50% improvement.

    • sirios says:

      ” Younguns ” ?? i rode the marin county fire roads in the FIFTIES even before
      cunningham and fisher were doing it .😂

  • Justin Garrett says:

    Presta valves are the pinnacle of MTB innovation, letting everyone else know you have a high quality bike.

    • Francis Cebedo says:

      >>Presta valves are the pinnacle of MTB innovation, letting everyone else know you have a high quality bike.

      So awesome! All hail the presta valve. The true demarcation line between a bike shop bike and Walmart bike.

  • Matt Egan says:

    I don’t care that my Trance weighs more than the 1997 Trek 7000 hardtail I learned to ride on, I’m faster and far more comfortable on my 27.5″ Trance with 140mm of travel than on any bike I’ve had before now. Every one of the innovations listed has made mountain biking a far more pleasurable experience!

  • FlaMtnBkr says:

    I would be curious what the critics’ lists would look like?

    • Josh Patterson says:

      That’s a great idea, FlaMtnBkr. I would love to be able to cross-examine everyone else’s lists. Bring it!

  • tallbikeman says:

    Having raced Klunkers without dropper seatposts, no suspension, coaster brakes, Magura brake levers and those gawd awful small 26″ tires I had a wonderful time. We didn’t know any better. The last time I did the Tahoe rim trail(2015) I ran into as many people riding old non suspended steel frame mountain bikes as I did more modern styles. Even a Klunker will do well on any mountain bike trail as long as you stay within the limitations of its equipment. The biggest difference is the amazing prices you pay now to have the latest and greatest mountain bike. Never had any use for dropper seat posts which even Klunkers had and love my 780mm+ wide handlebars.

  • Lamar says:

    My first MTB had 3X5 gearing. 9 or 10 speed cassettes are relatively new.

  • Dirttorpedo says:

    I’m sure all of these things are wonderful, but it’s funny reading about how horrible it was manually adjusting a seatpost on a ride or how terrible a 3x drivetrain was on the trails. Old rigid 26ers were wonderful simple flexible machines that could take a massive amount of abuse and still be rideable 40 years later. Some of the innovations that I thought really helped the sport included hyperglide and sealed bottom brackets. Functional suspension and disc brakes certainly transformed the sport into something between freestyle skiing and trials motor cycle riding – which probably fueled the development of gravel bikes. 1x drivetrains feel less like innovation and more like a surrender to the reality the modern mountain bike isn’t really to be pedaled any distance seriously. Today an epic ride is more about how much air one got and the style points you got for laying it down with authority. To me gravel riding captures the spirit and exciting design innovation I saw in the 80’s and early 90’s in mountain biking. All the new bikes look the same to me and generate zero interest in upgrading my antiques. Today I want to toss some supple rubber on my gravel bike and go underbiking.

    • Bodhi says:

      Feel the same, maybe I am getting old. There was always the complaint that many developments were fulled by the need to sell equipment rather than helping the users. My rant list:
      1. Dropper posts: useless unless you have a bike park nearby and a lift.
      2. Fat tires: I mean >2.8″. where do you ride? My freerider has 2.5″ and you will struggle uphill.
      3. Standards: we love them so much that everybody has their own. Tried to move a carbon crank to a new bike and had to change the bb because shimano and sram are not compatible.
      4. Angles: I love riding downhill but some of the new bikes look like choppers
      5. Wheel sizes, don’t mind different sizes but please don’t stop the production of other stuff. And 29ers are sluggish IMO.

      Just at the top of my head

  • James Zasuly says:

    Nice article, although basic. One important area that is worth mentioning is safety gear. lightweight full face helmets, knee and elbow pads for rocky terrain, and even neck braces for us aging MX folks.

  • The shredder says:

    Most of these innovations are more than 10 years old! Kids? Kids don’t use these innovations very often, this is confusing. And no mention of suspension?? By far the most innovation has come from suspension!! Weird article….

  • sirios says:

    The article lost all credibility in the first few sentences .
    ” Mountain biking is a young sport ”
    No ,the author of the article is a young sport . i have been riding my bicycle in the mountains for over fifty years . 😂
    ” born out of road bikes fitted with big tires ”
    No, the first mt. bikes were not road bikes . they were old schwinn cruiser bikes that had medium size slicks for tires , weighed over fifty pounds and had coaster or reverse pedal brakes . Richard cunningham , gary fisher and some other guys i can’t remember we’re responsible for trying rim brakes and other innovations to improve stopping at the bottom of the fire trails in Marin County California. Bikes were pushed to the top and then one prayed that you would be able to stop . In those days that was the ONLY consideration.

  • Brian Louis says:

    There was never a better mountain bike than the Diamondback Ascent. The chrome version was definitely the fastest.

  • Drew P says:

    Hey, Josh….explain to me why i’m wrong. you’re sooooo good at defending a random list of new technology. Shouldn’t you be out putting together another list of crap to buy.

    The list should be titled, “Buy a new bike and don’t read some crap article about new bikes”.

    • Josh Patterson says:

      Drew, save your vitriol for something that truly matters in the world.

      These lists help new riders make informed buying decisions and support the free content you’re whining about. If you don’t need a new bike, don’t buy one. If you don’t have something constructive to share that will help fellow mountain bikers, move along.

  • steve says:

    Less bike mass is always better, Newtons Law. I live on a small mountain with lots of gravel roads, its great biking with views and good downhill. But the people who ride mountain bikes just stay on the flats, they don’t like to climb, because their bikes are too heavy

  • Brad says:

    Dropper posts are the most overrated useless piece of equipment to date. Makes your bike heavier and adds nothing to the performance. I don’t understand why so many companies spec this on their bikes.

    • Josh Patterson says:

      Brad,

      You’re right about the weight gain; there’s no getting around the extra 400-500g that comes with a dropper. But for many riders, dropper seatposts add confidence when descending and can improve cornering ability, even in expert riders. In both cases, this is a performance increase—you wouldn’t see Would Cup XC riders running dropper seatposts on highly technical courses if they didn’t seriously believe that the weight increase would be offset by a performance advantage.

    • Freddy says:

      Uh, have you used one? I to used to be a critic if nothing else just from a maintenance/cost standpoint. But going down technical downhills, the dropper is a game changer. More competent descending and much safer.

      • Francis Cebedo says:

        >> Uh, have you used one? I to used to be a critic if nothing else just from a maintenance/cost standpoint. But going down technical downhills, the dropper is a game changer. More competent descending and much safer.

        Agreed. Sure some people don’t need one. Some don’t need gears or suspension either and they ride very well.

        But for a cross-section of great riders and ones that are just starting, there is nothing with as much impact as the dropper post in our view.

  • Dan says:

    Man you guys need up/down vote buttons in the comments.
    The amount of whining, hate and gatekeeping here is ridiculous. What a toxic comment section.
    Good article man, I agree with all these! I got them all on my latest bike and man what a difference between a 10 yo bike and a modern one.

  • Dan Bassian says:

    I agree that Full Suspension should be number 1. I love my dropper post but back in the day, my fixed post always had a quick release on it so it only took a couple of seconds to lower is once we reached the top, (not a big deal).Let’s not forget the Larger Wheel/tire movement at number 1. It was a game changer for sure getting on a 29er and my 650B for the first rides I would put the modern geo’s at number 2 since I used to go over the bars at least 2-3 times per year when riding hard in the nintys and early 00’s… Disk brakes are up there as well (No. 3), , I would give the 1×12 drive trane number 4. Also, Carbon Fiber components and frames i think should round out the top five…

  • Trees says:

    I still ride my 1994 GT hardtail sometimes.
    There are two things that are useful for enjoyment in the last 25+ years of technological advancement:
    1) modern tires (easy upgrade on any bike, tho size is limited, most will at least fit up to a 2.3)
    2) disc brakes. (mechanical disc brakes are fine. bb7 are easier to maintain than hydraulic and were an amazing invention)

    Suspension would be an easy third, as would geometry updates. The geometry and suspension really can’t be separated on modern bikes. Suspension was a significant trade off for pedaling efficiency until the last decade.

    Droppers? Really? 1x? Uhhhh… no.
    How about lights for riding more in shoulder season and after work? Or how about the thousands of miles of purpose built singletrack that didn’t exist 20 years ago? Car racks? Hubs? GPS navigation with trails on an accessible pocket computer?

    20 years ago people were just starting to buy there first cell phones, which allowed more people the confidence to ride solo and explore. Before that we’d ride a new area in circles for hours then try to find our way out with a paper map with none of the trails on it.

    So many great advances in MTB. It used to be fringe sport for a reason

  • Kirk says:

    I bought an S-Works Epic in January. I love the bike but I hate the 1x drive train. If I could add a front derailleur and a second chainring I would. Why the bike industry is forcing this down our throats I will never understand. Worst possible chain line in biggest and smallest gear. No gear for making speed down hill. With a 36/12 I’m spun out by 30 mph. Can easily crank at 35+ on my hardtail with a triple, 42/12 top gear. Yes I do that on the road at times. I have a triple set on my cross bike, 50/39/30 x 13/23 and on my primary road bike with 53/42/32 x 12/21, both 9 speeds. The gearing on my Epic is 36 x 12/34. I give up one bigger and one smaller gear than I have with my hardtail but it works for my terrain which is hilly but not in the mountains. I see people here with these big pie plate cassettes and all they ever use is 3 or 4 speeds. What a stupid idea.

    • Francis Cebedo says:

      >>I bought an S-Works Epic in January. I love the bike but I hate the 1x drive train.

      Understood. But it’s not the bike industry, it’s the users. Almost all prefer 1x for so many reasons. A bike company can offer a 2x or 3x high end bike right now and it will simply not sell.

  • Andy says:

    Anybody could quite happily ride a bike without any of those items on the list. I don’t even know why I opened the link and went through it. You just make people reluctant to turn up at trail centres because they can’t tick most of the boxes. There is nothing lovelier than a cared for retro bike.

    • Francis Cebedo says:

      >> Anybody could quite happily ride a bike without any of those items on the list. I don’t even know why I opened the link and went through it. You just make people reluctant to turn up at trail centres because they can’t tick most of the boxes. There is nothing lovelier than a cared for retro bike.

      For sure, one can ride trails on gravel bikes even. Folks have a tendency to ride what they started with 10 or 20 years ago. But if could recommend a bike to the next generation to progress, learn, be safe and fall in love with the sport, it will have all those 5 above.

  • Warren says:

    I agree with Brad about dropper posts. They’re useless for me. I don’t ride down anything I can’t ride up anyway. Also I think the “modern geometry” raked out front has gone too far. The bikes feel sluggish and less fun. I own both types and I’ll tell you for me my 2018 Cannondale Scalpel, with its steeper head angle, is a lot more fun to ride.

    • Francis Cebedo says:

      >> I agree with Brad about dropper posts. They’re useless for me. I don’t ride down anything I can’t ride up anyway. Also I think the “modern geometry” raked out front has gone too far. The bikes feel sluggish and less fun. I own both types and I’ll tell you for me my 2018 Cannondale Scalpel, with its steeper head angle, is a lot more fun to ride.

      Yup droppers, like all tech don’t apply to all but we’ll contend that they’ve made the most difference for the lowest price.

      It depends on one’s terrain and style though. That’s the beauty of mountain biking as it means different things to different folks.

  • Mark says:

    Starting from a steel, no suspension, 26” mid-80s bike, after all of the early Repack bikes were retired. My opinion of the best innovations have been: 1) disk brakes 2) carbon fiber 3) front suspension (love F/S but hardtail 29ers are awesome) 4) increased wheel diameter (26” I think was chosen because cruisers used them) 5) low maintenance headsets and bottom brackets

    • Francis Cebedo says:

      >>Starting from a steel, no suspension, 26” mid-80s bike, after all of the early Repack bikes were retired. My opinion of the best innovations have been: 1) disk brakes 2) carbon fiber 3) front suspension (love F/S but hardtail 29ers are awesome) 4) increased wheel diameter (26” I think was chosen because cruisers used them) 5) low maintenance headsets and bottom brackets

      Really appreciate your feedback. It’s a subjective list depending on terrain and style but there is usually a common ground.

      • Garrett says:

        “early mountain bikes had 3 chainrings in the front and 9 or 10 in the back”

        Should be:
        “and 5 or 6 in the back”

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