Innovation of the Year Nominees
Mountain biking has advanced dramatically since the sport's pioneers started riding re-purposed Schwinn cruisers, but even after nearly half a century of change it turns out there's still room for improvements. This year's batch of innovations includes a clever way to dial in the perfect spring rate on a coil-sprung shock, two sets of wheels that seek to achieve the ideal balance of comfort, stiffness, and durability, a wireless, electronic component group, and a cross-country race bike with a shock integrated into the top tube.
Why it's nominated
The 2020 Olympic Games are fast approaching, and a long list of new XC-race oriented products are being launched ahead of the event. Trek's Supercaliber is one of them, and while it first hit the World Cup circuit partway through the 2019 World Cup season, there's no doubt the potential for Olympic glory was a motivating factor for the unique design.
It's the IsoStrut that sets the Supercaliber apart from other softtails or short-travel cross-country bikes, a structural, frame integrated shock that was developed in conjunction with Fox. A carbon fiber carrier slides along the stanchion that's located under the the top tube to deliver 55-millimeters of travel, with an additional 5 millimeters of travel coming from the vertical flex of the seatstays.
Incorporating the shock into the frame allowed Trek's designers to hit stiffness numbers that wouldn't be possible on a traditional full suspension bike. In the cross-country world, unwanted flex, even if it's a millimeter here or there, is energy that would be better of being used for forward propulsion, which is why hardtails are still a common site on certain tracks. The Supercaliber's unique frame combines the benefits of a hardtail and a full-suspension bike into one potent package, a feat that puts it into the running for an Innovation of the Year award. From the First Ride:
Why it's nominated
After six years in development, SRAM's AXS components debuted in 2019, bringing wireless, electronic shifting and a wireless dropper post to the mountain bike world. Along with eliminating the for cables and housing, the system opens up a new realm of possibilities when it comes to the shape and location of shifter and dropper post levers.
Incorporating a battery and a motor into a derailleur while keeping the weight down and maintaining a relatively low profile is no easy feat, but SRAM's engineers managed to pull it off. There's even a tiny gearbox inside the derailleur that converts the torque from the motor into the right and left motions required to shift up or down the cassette. The derailleur also has a secondary clutch, called the Overload Clutch, that's designed to disengage the gearbox and allow the derailleur to move out of the way during an impact. That movement helps keep the motor from being damaged, along with protecting the derailleur and hanger at the same time.
Out in the real world, our time with the AXS group has shown that the system lives up to the hype. It delivers quick, precise shifting every single time, along with an instant response from the dropper post, with no need to worry about bleeding a hydraulic line or fussing around with cable and housing. The battery life has been impressive as well, with testers getting 15-20 rides in between charges. Yes, the fact that you need to remember to charge a battery is the downside to an electronic system, but if you can remember to charge your phone every day or two, charging a derailleur battery once a month isn't the end of the world.
There wasn't one single aspect of the AXS component group that earned it the Innovation of the Year nomination. Instead, it's the system's level of refinement that cemented its spot on this list. For their initial foray into the world of off-road electronics, SRAM got it right, and it's going to be very interesting to see how they go about bringing this technology to lower price points. From the review:
Why They're Nominated
When carbon wheels first began to gain popularity in the mountain bike world, it was the increased level of stiffness that they brought to the table compared to aluminum rims that was one of the main selling points. And it's true, a set of light and stiff wheels can noticeably alter the feel of a bike, especially if that bike's frame isn't all that stout to begin with. However, it's entirely possible to have too much of a good thing, and overly stiff wheels can make for a harsh, jarring, and at times, downright unpleasant ride. Super-stiff wheels with tall sidewalls can also make pinch flats more likely, and can be more prone to failure due to their inability to absorb large impacts.
This year, we saw two companies take steps to create compliant carbon rims - Zipp with their 3Zero Moto wheels, and CrankBrothers with their Synthesis wheels.
Zipp's solution was to create a single-walled rim, one that looks similar to what's used on motocross bikes. That profile is intended to allow the rim to flex and absorb hard impacts, rather than transmitting them to the rider. Zipp isn't the first company to try this design – Mello Boumeester, who's now working with Crankbrothers, had single wall carbon rims on the market in 2014 – although Zipp claim they first tossed around the idea in 2012. In any case, it's still not a very common design, and based on the number of resin and laminate configurations that Zipp tried, it's a tricky one to get right.
Crankbrothers took a slightly different tactic, creating a wheelset with a stiffer rear wheel paired with a more compliant front. That front wheel uses a wider rim and a lower spoke count, while the rear wheel has a slightly narrower rim with more reinforcement to handle harder impacts. The rims use the more traditional double wall shape, but have additional reinforcement in key areas to provide extra impact resistance.
Zipp and Crankbrothers are both recipients of an Innovation of the Year award nomination for their efforts to improve upon the modern mountain bike wheel in a way that increases both performance and durability. From the Synthesis review: From the 3Zero Moto review:
Why It's Nominated
If you've owned a bike with a coil-sprung shock at any point in your riding career there's a good chance you amassed a small pile of springs to go with it. Getting the correct spring rate can take a bit of trial and error, and it's not as easy as pulling out the shock pump and adding or subtracting a couple pounds of air.
Sprindex's clever new system helps make it easier to dial in the perfect setup – literally. A plastic (glass-reinforced polymer if you want to get technical) collar is mounted on the bottom of the spring, where it can be turned to one of 14 indexed positions. Turning the collar locks out a portion of one of the coils, effectively increasing the spring rate. The total amount of adjustment varies depending on the spring's length and rate, but it's between 30 – 60 lb/in, which effectively gives one Sprindex spring the range of two 'normal' springs.
This design falls squarely into the “Why didn't I think of that?” category, and for their efforts Sprindex receives a nomination for Innovation of the Year. From the First Look: