2021 Pinkbike Awards: Innovation of the Year Nominees

Dec 20, 2021
by Seb Stott  

Innovation of the Year

This year might not be remembered as a transformative year for mountain biking innovation - as technology gets more refined, most of the game-changing innovations are probably already here, and plenty of would-be revolutionary ideas have been - mercifully - consigned to the dustbin of history. But there were plenty of interesting concepts and exciting new products in 2021. There was a new take on electronic suspension, a bike with the shock in the top tube, a product made of sawdust that claims to solve the drawbacks of air suspension, e-bikes you can actually ride all day, and a more reliable take on the derailleur drivetrain.

Which of our five picks would you like to see take the crown? What did we miss?

Why it's nominated

Electronically-controlled suspension isn't a new idea, but RockShox' Flight Attendant is "the best execution of the concept yet", according to Mike Kazimer's review. It improves on Fox's Live Valve system by going wireless, toggling between three compression settings (not just two) and incorporating a pedal sensor so it knows to open up the suspension if you're not pedalling.

As a result, Mike says, "Flight Attendant has the potential to turn more gravity-oriented bikes into potent all-rounders, or to make mid-travel options more XC-oriented nature on the climbs, all without sacrificing anything on the descents."

It's expensive, the noise of the servos changing modes is noticeable, and it's yet another thing to remember to charge, but while bikes are always a compromise between climbing and descending performance, this is about as close as it gets to having your cake and eating it too.

Why it's nominated

This one's a lot harder to explain. I thought it was a joke when I first heard about it. But Carbon Air has been used in the air suspension of Audi's luxury sedans for years.

In short, its aim is to make air suspension work more like a coil. It does this by using activated carbon, which can be made from sawdust and has the counter-intuitive property of mopping up more molecules of air per cubic centimetre than the same volume of empty space. It acts as the opposite of a volume spacer - effectively increasing the volume of an air chamber.

Put in the negative chamber, it could achieve a similar effect as high negative volume air spring upgrades like RockShox' MegNeg and Vorsprung's Secus - that is to provide a more linear spring curve, with a suppler beginning-stroke and more supportive mid-stroke. If added to the positive chamber as well, it could provide these advantages without making the spring too firm towards the end of the travel.

Carbon Air promises to do all this without the need for physically larger air springs that simply wouldn't fit in many forks and shocks.
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Also, air springs are speed-sensitive - faster compressions cause the air inside to heat up, which increases the spring force, and this can make it hard to use all the travel when needed. Carbon Air claim their product soaks up this heat, making the spring perform more consistently at different speeds. Again, making it perform more like a coil while retaining the lightness and tunability of an air spring.

Carbon Air is yet to hit the market, but they're aiming to work with suspension manufacturers on forks and shocks designed around it. I've ridden a sample in a 190 mm travel RockShox Zeb and it certainly makes it easier to use all the travel.

Why it's nominated

The suspension design of Digit Bikes' Datum isn't an entirely new concept, but rather a more promising execution than we've seen before. Engineered by Tim Lane, the Datum uses a structural shock strut mounted in the top tube. This both acts to control the suspension forces like a regular shock, while at the same time acting as a key structural member of the linkage. This reduces part count and weight when compared to a conventional multi-link suspension design, which requires some sort of rotating upper rocker or clevis link as well as a shock. Digit claim they can save almost a pound when compared to a four-bar or faux bar design, plus superior stiffness, reliability and lower environmental impact due to the lower part count.

Resistance Bikes, Maverick's Monolink and Boulder Bicycles all used integral shock struts, but the Datum is a little different to all these designs in that it uses a short lower link and a complete rear triangle.

More significantly, Lane designed a fully bespoke shock. Mounting it in the top tube allows it to be physically bigger (it's twelve inches long), which allows for larger positive and negative air volumes; this offers similar advantages to those promised by Carbon Air - a more linear spring curve. The frame design also allows for an uninterrupted seat tube, making it possible to save more weight, allow for longer dropper posts and offer practically the same effective seat angle at different saddle heights. I happen to think it looks pretty good too.

We've not ridden the bike yet, although our counterparts over at Beta have, but we still think it's innovative. In a world where suspension designs look increasingly alike, Tim's breathed new life into an under-developed concept and maybe, just maybe, made progress by asking which parts can be eliminated rather than added.

Why they're nominated

I'm sure this will raise a groan from many readers, but those of us who ride e-MTBs regularly know that running out of battery mid-ride isn't much fun, and constantly stressing about how much assistance you can use and still make it home isn't ideal either. On full power, with a steep climb and one of the early e-MTBs, you could run out of juice in under an hour if you weren't careful.

Last year we nominated lightweight e-bikes like Orbea's Rise in the Innovation Of The Year category. They make sense for people who want to feel almost like they're riding a regular bike, just with (relatively) subtle assistance. These "half-fat" e-bikes have freed-up other models to find another niche by going in the opposite direction. With bigger batteries, they offer more range than ever.

This year I tested the Norco Sight VLT with a whopping 900 Wh battery. Using only the most powerful mode and in awful conditions (a worst-case scenario), I managed 1,706 m (5,600 ft) of climbing over 39.3 Km (24.4 miles) on one charge. By being more frugal with electrons, you could get double that range.

This year also saw Bosch release their biggest battery yet, with 750 Wh, and Rocky Mountain updated their e-MTBs with a 720 Wh battery, which can be used with an external range extender for a total of 1,034 Wh.

These extra-bulky beasts certainly aren't for everyone, but they make it possible to enjoy a serious amount of riding in one go and could genuinely replicate a day of uplifting without the diesel fumes and sweaty seats. Alongside the new breed of lightweight e-bikes, we think we'll be seeing more bikes with bigger batteries in future.

Why it's nominated

I'm sure most of us have snapped or bent a derailleur and thought, "Surely there's a better way?". Canadian engineer Cedric Eveleigh had that thought back in 2019 and appears to have come up with a solution that combines the reliability of a gearbox with the efficiency, low weight and easy-shifting of a derailleur drivetrain.

In essence, he's kept the shifting part of the derailleur on the rear wheel, but tucked it up a bit higher out of harm's way. Meanwhile, he's positioned the other function of conventional derailleurs - to tension the chain while allowing different chain lengths for different gears and suspension movement - to the bottom bracket. This dramatically reduces the risk of derailleur damage and reduces the suspension-sapping sprung mass on the rear wheel, too. It's only compatible with high-pivot bikes with a forward idler location, but the growth of these high-pivot bikes could play well with this system in future.

It's still at the development stage, but Pinkbike's Matt Beer gave it the parking lot test and came away impressed. "In a blindfolded test," said Matt, "I would not be able to tell the difference in the shifting system versus a traditional layout."

Author Info:
seb-stott avatar

Member since Dec 29, 2014
268 articles

  • 215 8
 I'd vote for Cedric's drivetrain. Unlike electronic suspension, this type of tech with some refinement would be very accessible and would solve many problems inherent to the current crop of derailleur-based drivetrains.
  • 7 0
 I like this too. Only thing that might hold me back from picking this would be that its a bit of an unknown how adoptable this layout will be for a wide range of suspension layouts/linkages. But its pretty cool.
  • 6 0
 If Cedric’s drivetrain wins then maybe it’ll bring more interest from Mfgrs.
  • 2 0
 @sino428: That would be always the biggest limiting factor. If there is anything unique for each company on the market, it's their suspension system and so the frame design. And I can't imagine companies are going to give up on that.
  • 5 0
 @kusa: There are lots of possibilities for unique suspension systems with a forward idler pulley position.
  • 4 1
 @cedric-eveleigh: It's really a nice idea I just think there is much more in play to see it succeed as a major competitor next to Shimano and Sram. Beside the function and complexity, also they way they operate on the market, money involved and so on. I have fingers crossed for you, no matter at which scale this will get adopted I'm sure this is already changing a lot of minds how the things in our industry can be designed and that's a great accomplishment.
  • 3 0
 I think it deserves the award since it has the highest potential to make the biggest change. I am okay with the electronic suspensions but dont see myself purchasing one. I have heard the podcast show disappoint with live valve and talk slightly better about flight attendant but I don't see it as a game changer as I do Cedric's drivetrain.
  • 3 2
 Looks so ugly though. But just my opinion thought.
  • 72 1
 Lal for offering a real world improvement for the masses and genuinely attempting to make the cycling world a better place.
  • 3 0
  • 49 0
 Sorry guys probably a simple slip up but where’s the superwheel?
  • 23 0
 Would be unfair to the rest of the competition if we included it. It's obvious that everyone else is playing for 2nd place this year.
  • 1 0
 @brianpark: You can tell us the truth

The Illuminati have jailed the superwheel and the inventors for their violation of the first law of thermodynamics. They need to keep the illusion that energy is conserved in order to wield their influence over the world and keep us under their control.
  • 39 1
 Lal Bikes for the win. The others aren't even in the same class as innovation that Cedric has come up with.
  • 27 0
 When you’re trying to make suspension performance better at the molecular level, you get my nod.
  • 13 0
 SR Suntour's electric suspension was the one that won the Olympics but I'm sure the $12,500 Rock Shox version will win this...
  • 1 0
 I'm not sure it should even be called electronic suspension if it's just switching a lockout lever. There will be some lame excuse for the derailure not being commercially available yet it still makes the list.
  • 12 3
 Changing a shock position and making it bigger, Live Valve 2.0, a bigger battery, anything with the name carbon in it that replicates the performance gains of another product ....... or a completely new drivetrain idea. Cedric all the way....
  • 8 0
 I'm all for Carbon Air. I hope they release volume spacers made of the stuff. There's already a space in the fork and it would mean you can run a Luftkappe on the longest travel forks and not get too progressive. That would be almost all the performance of a Secus at (hopefully) much less cost and a cleaner look.
  • 2 0
 I don't understand people wanting to make their travel easier to use, but i heartily approve of more supportive mid stroke so if you could use on of these in with a volume spacer to get more midstroke and then more ramp that would be sick.
  • 10 0
 I'm skeptical about all of these. As a real™ mountain biker, I only want things that yield an almost imperceptible improvement in performance at an astronomical price tag.
  • 11 0
 I'm working on some innovative bottle mount hardware. The bolt is carbon fibre and has a patented aerodynamic dimple design that is used on Elon Musk's rockets. They will be the lightest and most aerodynamic bottle mounts on the market, available in both wired and wireless versions. Prototypes are coming in around $5,000 (for a pair), but I think we can slash that in half once we get to production volumes. Shall I put you down for a pair?
  • 2 0
 @MuddyBrit: does it come with Bluetooth?
  • 10 0
 @mdinger: Sorry, we're not big on standards, we developed a new communications protocol that will only work with our proprietary smartphones ($10,000).
  • 13 3
 In an homage to a previous comment on a post with a frame-integrated rear shock:

"What are you doing step rear triangle?"
  • 12 0
 I’d love to answer your question. Could you pose it again in another way please? My apologies, I don’t understand what you’re asking. (I’m Tim Lane, the Digit Bikes guy)
  • 1 0
 @DirtBagTim: Is it Digit or Dig It? Thanks
  • 3 0
 @Lundeee: it’s Digit, dig it?
  • 6 0
 @DirtBagTim: It's a sex joke.
  • 10 3
 Carbon air seems like the biggest deal. The option of waaaaay more tunable suspension on existing platforms at modest cost? Yes, please!!!
  • 3 3
 It's Carbon it will cost as much as a new Fork
  • 5 0
 Most innovative is easily the Supre, but not the most likely I'd buy out of this list: that Datum is so sleek and simple it inspires an unhealthy level of want! (To be fair, I've never successfully smashed a derailleur so hard I couldn't bend things back and keep riding, so I'm not in the Supre market)
  • 6 0
 The Digit Datum is the answer to Flight Attendant! If our bikes were Actually innovative, we wouldn’t need flight attendant. It would’ve never been.
  • 4 0
 Still waiting for a fork that feels as good as an Italian-made early 2000's open-bath Marzocchi fork. You guys raised on shitty air forks don't know what you are missing. Lightweight does not always equal better.
  • 3 0
 The Digit Datum gets my vote (not that it matters)! I was an early adopter with the original VPP (Outland), was stoked to see Santa Cruz and Intense improve upon the VPP design and now Tim does this even better with actually putting a pivot around the BB spindle while removing excess linkages. Plus I like that he solved the common issue of not having a usable bottle cage (Datum has 2) and not a lot of room for a long dropper post (straight seat tube). There's so much innovation going on with this bike, I was so impressed that I put my money where my mouth is and ordered one.
  • 1 0
 Thanks Shidan, you rock!
  • 2 0
 Is that lal bikes drivetrain really only compatable with high pivots bikes? Or is it just the idler that's essential? I know high pivots are getting more comon, but they are the still the minority by a big margin. And it would be a right PITA to have one type of drivetrain for high pivot bikes and another type for non high pivot bikes
  • 6 0
 The idler pulley is needed because it redirects the chain in a way that enables the range of motion of the tensioner arm. The derailleur is the only part of conventional drivetrains that's changed in the Supre Drive - the other parts remain. So it's not like there's two totally separate drivetrains to deal with.
  • 1 0
 @cedric-eveleigh: Smile thanks. The article says it's only compatable with high pivot bikes with an idler wheel. But it sounds like it's the idler wheel that is the essential bit, not the high pivot. Is that correct? Could a bike have something other than a high pivot but still be compatible by having an idler pulley?
  • 3 0
 @Bobadeebob: The Supre Drive can go on hardtails. A couple of smale-scale frame builders are working on that right now. For suspension bikes, the pivot doesn't need to be terribly high. For example, the axle path can be moderately rearward with, for example, 18mm of horizontal travel as opposed to, say, the 30mm of horizontal travel of the Forbidden Dreadnought.
  • 1 0
 @Bobadeebob: I don't think there are many designs that would work well as a low-pivot idler design. But a medium-high or just a little high pivot might make sense in this case!
  • 4 2
 I hope carbon air costs the same as a bag of activated carbon for out fish tank filter, seems unlikely though.. The drivetrain feels like another daft barrier on the road to a proper gearbox. Why can't we just get a proper solution.
  • 1 0
 You can try some from your fish tank and say us what happened!
  • 5 0
 Cool to see a motorcycle nominated on a bicycle site.
  • 1 0
 This is an interesting and thoughtful selection of products / inventions. Good work @seb-stott
It's between the Carbon Air doodah and the drivetrain with the chain that goes all around the bike for me.
But did anyone else get halfway through reading about the Carbon Air and think "sod it, I may as well just get a coil if I'm going to this much trouble"?
  • 1 0
 Just a note on e-bikes, and this line in particular: "I managed 1,706 m (5,600 ft) of climbing over 39.3 Km (24.4 miles) on one charge. By being more frugal with electrons, you could get double that range."
This is pretty much a "big" UK ride, so does that mean a normal full-power eeb can't do much more than I could manage under my own steam?
  • 2 0
 You could. But you'd also be f***ed. And it's time too, time you don't always have spare.
I did a full eco day on mine (500w/h)on a shit wet day up BPW, managed 33miles, 7350ft climbing. So I did a sh*t tonne of laps, decent milage, and the main win.... I was still able to go for a run with my Mrs after she finished work and it didn't take me all day. (I appreciate you can smash the milage anywhere else.. but I'm sure most people cirtainly couldn't put in that many laps of BPW in that time and not be totally spent by the end of it) I used to be a hater, but now I can't see any downsides!
  • 1 0
 @steviestokes: Good point, that could be six hours for me. Seb might have done it in three.
I'm not slagging ebikes, just trying to get my head around the use case for them vs. normal bikes.
  • 1 0
 I think that in the long-term, Flight Attendant (generally electronically tuned suspension) has the most potential.

Most riders aren't getting the most of their suspension (myself included), and every tuning is effectively a compromise to one's average riding style. Right now, LV and FA are pretty basic, just using the gadgets to change between three compression settings. However, as it gets more sophisticated, there is a huge potential for this to tune so many other settings than just that one lever. Imagine if it had all of the insights of a Quark (now owned by SRAM, so I see LV having a huge advantage here) and tuned your suspension on the fly - not just to the average, but to the second. Furthermore, I bet there's a ton of stuff that the folks designing bike suspension would love to have available to tune that doesn't make it to final designs because product testing shows that most consumers don't want more than 2-3 settings to change, tops. As for "aLl ThE bAtErIeS", we're probably heading towards a point of cable-routed batteries so that you have one battery to rule them all (even your lights and Garmin).

At present day, I don't think that e-suspension offers anything significant to the average consumer, especially considering the price premium. Someday, though, when the price comes down and the features expand, I think we'll look back on LV and FA in a similar way as we look back on the first suspension bikes - unrefined, but now ubiquitous.
  • 1 0
 Seriousus question - how many people have actually broken a derailleur? I've never broken one in 15 years and I can't help wondering are they really as bad as the industry has been making out in the past few months?

The paranoid in me feels we are being softened up by the industry for the next new standard (gearbox compatible frames) which will make our current bikes obsolete. GMBN have been harping on for the last few months about the horrors of derailleurs also.
  • 3 1
 I love the concept of the datum but how would you service it? It looks like the shaft would contact the seat tube if you try to remove anything.
  • 2 0
 Maybe you have to fully collapse it by letting the air out first?
  • 4 0
 The shock is removed through the front of the bike. I discuss it a bit at 2’53” here youtu.be/K9gkEhr22qI, and the service is described a little in the Pinkbike first look article.
  • 3 0
 There's a port on the headtube. Fork must be dropped to pull the shock out the front.
  • 4 1
 Wonder if you could catch your shorts (or wiener) in the Datum as it compresses? Ouch!
  • 3 0
 It yours get tangled in a VPP upper linkage, they’re equally imperiled by the Analog linkage.
  • 4 0
 "Digit Datum" lol Ahhhhhhhh faith in humanity resorted.
  • 3 0
  • 2 0
Oh now you've said that I can't unsee it. Ouch.
  • 4 1
 Pedantism on Monday: why is the Datum using that IS mount?
  • 5 0
 That’s just for the prototype (which borrows a rear triangle from an older bike, it’s also 142mm). The production bikes use post mount brakes and 148mm spacing.
  • 2 0
 @DirtBagTim: Pedancy retracted. Thanks for the insight!
  • 5 0
 Oh no! Hold on your pedantry @iammarkstewart - the little details make all the difference.
  • 1 2
 Because it's superior to PM. No threads to strip, can be spaced with shims if required, and you were going to fit an adapter for a bigger rotor anyway.
  • 2 0
 @Velocipedestrian: My post mounts are for 180mm direct fit, thus if you do choose to use a 20Xmm rotor you can still use the nice adapter with the straight through screws.
  • 4 1
 Has to be long range e-bikes for the collective hissy fit it would cause.
  • 1 0
 When are you going to appreciate the Pinion gearbox? For many years, they've been ahead of the largest manufacturers of drives.
  • 2 0
 I’d nominate Mic’s components with Williams Racing Products.
  • 1 0
 Supre Drivetrain having that very pointy and sharp looking idler close to my junk would make me nervous.
  • 8 6
 Not a single one of these would I vote for.
  • 3 0
 What would be your innovations of the year for 2021? (Didn't down vote you, curious what is more worthy in your opinion. )
  • 1 0
 @JDFF: 1995 girvin vector fork ftw. Linkage is sooo much better.
  • 1 0
 @uponcripplecreek: how are those 1995 elastomers feeling about now though? Ha ha!
  • 3 1
 Literally none of this is innovation but the super
  • 3 1
 Supre drivetrain for the win. Give the man his prize already
  • 1 0
 So Williams Racing Products Centrehub doesnt get a nomination? Or any of their Mullet Links for various bikes?
  • 2 0
 lal bikes!
  • 2 0
 Lal Bikes all the way!
  • 1 0
 Flight attendant will crash and burn
  • 1 1
 The flight attendant is the one I'd most like to try and most like to buy.
  • 4 5
 Let's fusion "anus-frame" with "penisless drivetrain". I ll take one
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