My career has spanned the history of the mountain bike and I can say without hesitation that this past decade has been one of the sport's most dynamic periods of change. Innovations and new standards seemed to pop up monthly, and the controversies they spawned were legion at times. Let's revisit some of them.
Founded October, 2009, by Mark Gainey and Michael Horvath, the Strava smart phone app was predestined to revolutionize cycling. Think about it; cyclists are predominantly nerdy loners, preoccupied by our levels of fitness and skills, who often train in isolation and are competitive to the point of diagnosable neurosis. Furthermore, we are habitual liars anytime we discuss our performance and mileage with other cyclists.
Strava turned every trail into a World Cup race course. Our smart phones became a coach, a court of law, a confessional, a hall of fame, and a one-swipe source of self gratification. "If you didn't record it on Strava, it didn't happen," is her mantra. She is cycling's deity of truth, cold, but not cruel. She alone determines our rightful place. She justifies our desire to crush the unworthy, and we bow to her in silence before and after every ride, hoping she will reward us with a cup or a personal best.
Strava's unintentional consequences have had both positive and negative effects. On the negative side, riders have become much less willing to slow or move off the trail in consideration for others, and many who would never have lifted a finger to volunteer for trail work are busy grooming technical sections and straightening corners to claw time from their virtual competitors.
On the plus side, Strava has helped move technology forward. The wholesale shift by once-reluctant riders to larger wheels and dual suspension - especially dual-suspension in the cross-country ranks - can be attributed in part to irrefutable data from their own Strava results.
Death of 26-inch Wheels
"Twenty six ain't dead!" There was no reason to utter that phrase back in 2010. The 29er was marginalized as a means for cross-country riders to avoid switching over to dual suspension. The mountain bike's seminal wheel diameter could not be challenged as long as downhill racers and freeriders ruled the roost. Trouble was on the horizon, however, and the throne of the full face helmet would soon fall to the half-shell-and-trail-bike coat of arms. In less than ten years, the 26-inch wheel would be dead to the mountain bike community - survived only by a vestigial population, kept alive by circus performers at pump track and slopestyle venues.
Big wheels, it turns out, actually did roll faster, just like Wes Williams, Gary Fisher, and Chris Sugai said they did. Strava verified that truth, but in spite of the fact that avid trail riders were shouting about their advantages, the world was not quite ready for 29ers - especially in Europe, where many believed that North American brands like Trek and Specialized were shoving 29ers down their throats.
The ensuing battle between 26-inch traditionalists and 29-inch evangelists would soon escalate into an all-out war after bike designers ran into a wall attempting to squeeze more than 120-millimeters of rear-wheel travel from their 29er frames.
The answer was a mid-sized wheel - large enough to gain a more advantageous roll-over than puny 26-inch wheels, but just small enough to gain tire clearance for DH-width rubber and for wheel travel in the neighborhood of 150 millimeters. North American brands called the mid-sized wheel 27.5 inch. European bike makers insisted upon 650b and they ran with it. Three camps were now banging out insults on their keyboards, but 27.5 was the last nail in the coffin for 26-inch wheels.
Enduro is almost all 29er. Here, Shawn Neer helps Team USA earn the gold medal at the EWS Trophy of Nations...
...Downhill racers are still divided. Loic Bruni earned his third World Championship gold on a bike with a 29" front wheel and a 27.5" rear wheel.
One can argue that it was a compromise, but the wholesale adoption of the 27.5-inch standard also was an industrywide confession that larger wheels were better. Once the bitterness of that pill faded and designers optimized kinematics, geometry and fork offsets for larger wheels, 27.5 became the new 26 - and by the end of the decade, the 29er would be anointed as the next to wear the crown.
Pinion P1.18 Gearbox
It's hard to believe that ten years ago, most mountain bikes had three chainrings
, ten cogs, a front derailleur, and shift levers on both sides of the handlebar. It's even harder to conceive that almost nobody was complaining about that. There was (and still is), however, a vocal band of anti-derailleur activists among us who prayed every day for a sealed gearbox transmission that could forever eliminate the mess and complication we call a derailleur drivetrain.
Salvation came in the form of two German automotive engineers who originally worked for Porsche. Michael Schmitz and Christoph Lermen
created a compact sequential-shift transmission. It required three years to bring it to market, but for many, their Pinion P1.18 gearbox was the breakthrough they had been long awaiting. Launched in 2010, the compact 18-speed transmission offered a whopping 636% range with even, 11.5% steps between shifts - gear spacing that could not be matched by any chain transmission.
Pinion's P1.18 gearbox set a high bar for anyone who dared challenge the derailleur, and it still stands as the best gearbox made today. Pinion followed their 18-speed masterpiece with lighter and even more compact 12- and 9-speed versions, all of which have enjoyed some success in the high-end market place. Most truly innovative products come with a learning curve. Pinion's was its rotary shifting. Ultimately, its weight (2700g to 2200g), moderate drag penalty, and its justifiably high MSRP prevented the Pinion gearbox from displacing the longstanding alternative, so it exits this decade as a reminder that the best way to thin a crowd of enthusiastic fans is to ask them to pull out their wallets and make a substantial purchase.
Chain drives are hobbled by evenly spaced teeth. Pinion attains perfectly spaced gear steps by altering the tooth profiles of the gears. Pinon image
That said, Michael Schmitz and Christoph Lermen's transmission set the bar so high that anyone who does find the materials, financing and technology to best them will most certainly match the performance of the humble derailleur transmission. I hope it will be Pinion who accomplishes this miracle.
The Decade of Dave
Dave Weagle didn't invent anti-squat - race car and motorcycle designers already abided by those rules. Weagle was the Prometheus who brought this fire to the mountain bike. Weagle's successful string of design collaborations with the likes of Turner, Ibis, Pivot and Evil became a wake-up call for bike designers large and small to calculate anti-squat values into his or her suspension kinematics.
Roll back the clock ten years and the you'll discover that the most successful solutions to make a suspension bike pedal well were some sort of lever to lock it out. The modern trail bike was just gaining traction, but bike makers largely relied upon shock and fork suppliers to make them pedal well. Weagle taught us that the frame could do a better job.
Weagle's successful demonstrations of how to trick the bike's rear suspension to counter the lagging mass of the rider became the key that unlocked the long-travel trail bike, which in turn, spurred the most rapid period of successful improvement in the history of the genre. If someone told me back then that I would be able to hop onto a 160-millimeter-travel bike with its rear suspension set soft enough to descend steep, techy trails - and still climb efficiently - I would have laughed. Today, when I roll out for my first ride on any test bike, I expect that level of performance and versatility. It is doubtful that the industry would have achieved this without Weagle's influence.
The Duke of rear suspension, Weagle closed out the decade with his Trust linkage fork. Trust image
Clutch-Type Rear Derailleurs
Shimano surprised the world by adding a one-way friction clutch to the chain-take-up cage pivot of its 2012 XTR Shadow Plus rear derailleur.
The innovation - a tiny adjustable band brake, encircling a needle bearing clutch - came out of nowhere, but one ride was all it took to realize its potential to calm the slack side of the chain, which in turn, stabilized shifting performance. Shmano's invention was sorely needed.
One-by drivetrains were just beginning to blow up and with no front derailleur to guide the chain, designers were wrestling to lock down lightweight solutions to keep it in place over technical terrain. The bandage was a smaller, lighter version of the chainguides that downhillers used. The roller clutch, however, meted out just enough chain on the slack side to facilitate shifts, but not enough to allow the chain to escape from the bottom half of the chainring. After the clutch (and the next invention on this list), chain guides became optional equipment.
Unlike Shimano, SRAM was completely invested in the one-by concept, so it came as no surprise that the Chicago brain trust fired back with its own clutch design shortly thereafter. Before and after photographs of riders at speed bear witness to the dramatic improvement the addition of cage-pivot clutches made to chain control. Perhaps more welcome, however, is that bikes run much more quietly now.
The gold anodized clutch lever above the XTR Shadow Plus cage pivot forever changed the rear derailleur. Shimano image
Shimano's first Shadow Plus clutch included a tiny wrench used to adjust the friction band.
Launched by SRAM 2012 the narrow-wide concept was originally patented in 1978
by Gehl, an industrial equipment manufacturer. It was SRAM's designers, however, who realized that a combination of the narrow-wide tooth profile and specially shaped tips on the sprocket teeth could be used to feed a writhing bicycle chain smoothly onto a chainring from a variety of angles – a technical coup that virtually eliminated the derailing issues which plagued mountain bike riders for over 30 years.
SRAM will be cited most often for its decision to drop the front derailleur in favor of a wide-range one-by drivetrain - a bold move that was rewarded by their near dominance of the elite and enthusiast level trail bike marketplace. Arguably, the narrow-wide chainring, was SRAM's most important (and most duplicated) innovation. Before narrow-wide, tossed chains were considered to be part of the mountain bike experience. After its debut, the thought rarely, if ever, comes to mind. Remove narrow-wide from the wide-range one-by equation and you throw the drivetrain back to the chain-gadget stone age.
Death of the Front Derailleur
SRAM's debut of the eleven speed XX1
one-by drivetrain should have been a guaranteed success. For years, conspicuous numbers of the sport's top athletes had been riding and espousing customized one-by drivetrains. Beyond weight reduction and simplifying the transmission to a single shifter, frame designers needed it to go away to progress the long-travel trail bike. The changer occupied the space they needed to fit aggressive tires on 29-inch wheels and to accommodate those wheels into an area already cramped by short chainstays. SRAM was ready, riders were ready, bike designers were ready, but the bike industry was not ready to ditch the front derailleur.
Stodgy executives (the ones who place orders and write checks) body-blocked the concept. Reportedly, key European brands flat out refused to purchase any drivetrain with a chainring smaller than 40 teeth. However well meaning, these are the dweebs who grew up on road bikes, pushing 54 x 48 tooth cranksets, who speak about Frank Berto in hushed tones, and sneak out 30 minutes early to ensure they'll be properly warmed up for the lunch ride. Challenge these Cosa Nostras of cycling with a new drivetrain concept and they'll pull out their abacus to argue proper gearing steps before tracing crossed lines on a tattered sanskrit papyrus to chart their constellation of shift selections, then they'll proclaim the danger of the satanic cross-over gears.
Accelerated by the fact that we'd prefer a dropper lever on the left side of the handlebar, riders quickly warmed up to XX1's reduced gear selection and visually smaller chainring. Within two years, the front derailleur was scratching for its life, with Shimano crying at its bedside. The Japanese giant redoubled its efforts to convey the enormity of our mistake and comically, bike makers (even vanguard brands who pretended to be all for 1x drivetrains) hedged their bets by continuing to design for front derailleurs in the bottom bracket region of their frames. It took until the end of the decade before frame designers were given the OK to straighten out the S-turn in the right chainstay, put the seat tube back in the middle, spread the swingarm bearings apart and widen the space for the rear tire. The front changer had to endure eight years of hospice before it was mercifully euthanized.
The Dropper Decade
Dropper posts predated 2010, but not as essential original equipment on mountain bikes. The new must-have for the trail riding experience earned its place on this list because it took nearly a decade to debug this simple mechanism. Most early droppers had some fatal flaw or limitation that owners learned to live with, so when RockShox burst onto the scene in 2010 with its hydraulically actuated Reverb
, most believed that the savior had arrived. Fate, however, had other plans.
Reverbs developed a habit of sucking air into the oil column that was responsible for freezing the post in your desired location. Oil is incompressible. Air is not, so you can imagine the frustration when Reverbs occasionally became suspension seatposts. While RockShox struggled to engineer a permanent solution. a host of rivals made their appearance with outcomes that ranged from disastrous (Crankbrothers Kronolog) to pretty darn good (KS LEV). Reliability, however, was as spotty as suspension products were in the 1990s, with the possible exception of the mechanically-actuated Fox DOSS which, at 650 grams, could be used as a weapon to fend off rutting moose or grizzly bears.
The first RockShox Reverb debuted in 2010.
After the big names fell short, boutique component makers stepped up to the plate with better results (Revive and OneUp come to mind), but it was Fox who stomped out the fire with the debut of their Transfer post, which earned a reputation as one of the most reliable droppers ever and the most preferred.
RockShox rallied back as the decade came to a close. First, with a redesigned Rerverb, followed by an impressive wireless-electronic version that is already earning high marks.
Fox's Transfer post was the light at the end of the decade's dark tunnel of droppers.
Fat bikes went mainstream: Norco's Ithaqua was one of many fielded by popular brands. Pat Mulrooney photo
Too much of a good thing can be poisonous. Imagine what the sport's newest members faced as the decade took shape. Everywhere you looked there was a technical controversy raging: wheel diameters, dropper designs, drivetrains, suspension patents, frame materials, handlebar widths and axle standards... That's a lot of decisions to make for someone who just wanted to ride a bike in the woods. Heck, it's a lot for a seasoned rider who may have been on the hunt to replace his or her aging Ellsworth Truth. The backlash spawned a low-tech revolution.
The vibe was, "If you're not serious about racing, who cares about a few extra pounds or the drag penalty of big tires, as long as we're having fun?" Hardtails returned to popularity. Cult manufactures like Chromag and Surly were booming. Garage builders were popping up everywhere, especially in the UK, blending old-school steel and titanium with new school concepts.
By 2013, fat bikes had become mainstream enough to crowd cross country-skiers for access to groomed trails and sanctioned National Championships would soon follow. Lessons learned from fat bikes
Pipedream's Moxie epitomizes the British new-school hardtail with steel pipes and SAF numbers.
encouraged conventional bike makers to experiment with wider rims and higher volume tires. The plus bike enjoyed a brief zenith before its assets were reincarnated in more robust forms and adopted by aggressive trail riders.
Funny then, that the anti-tech movement would spawn new ideas that would ultimately transform the cutting edge of the sport. Wider rims, high-volume 2.5 and 2.6" tires, and crazy slack geometry came from creative minds who were once marginalized by the direction the sport had taken as it rushed towards 2020 and the kingdom of Enduro Bro.
Mountain bike wheels in 2010 typically sported rims that were 26 millimeters wide, measured from the outside of the flanges. Wide rims, the kind that you'd special order for your DH bike, measured 28 millimeters outside to outside, with inner widths hovering around 23. The tubeless tire revolution was already in full swing and it was becoming apparent that narrow rims were the root of a number of evils that tubeless users faced.
Syntace pioneered wide-format lightweight rim design back in 2012. The mid-sized MX 35 was considered outrageous, with an inner width of 28.4 millimeters. Syntace photo
Simple as it may seem, Derby
offered up a solution: widening the stance of the tire. Derby's 30-millimeter inner width carbon rims were laughably huge in 2012. Syntace offered aluminum rims with inner widths up to 34 millimeters. The concept, simple as
it was, handily solved the major issues attributed to tubeless: poor lateral stiffness, burping air, and difficulties with mounting and sealing tires. Wide rims also broke ground for future tire improvements, like altering the aspect ratio of height and width to accentuate cornering grip while enhancing straight-line rolling speed.
Old habits fight to the grave and initially, wide rims were not embraced by elite riders - still aren't in some quarters - but greater forces were at play. Aggressive trail riders learned that lower pressure, higher-volume tires generated more grip and by 2019, 30-millimeter inner-width rims became the minimum standard. Tires designed for that rim width are readily available, and the fact that naysayers in the racing community are presently arguing that a 28-millimeter inner-width is wide enough underscores how far we have come.
Ray Scruggs founded Derby rims in 2012, because he couldn't convince rim makers to build wide rims for trail bikes. They look normal now. Derby photo
Flat Pedals Only Won Sam Hill Medals
The Australian who coined the phrase, "Flat pedals win medals," certainly lived up to it, but nobody else did. Sam Hill began the decade with a gold medal at the Mount Sainte Anne Downhill World Championships in 2010, which topped off his career as a DH pro. In spite of commentator Rob Warner's cheerleading, only Gee Atherton, who opted for flats and borrowed shoes from a fan at the 2014 Cairns DH World Cup, would win a World Cup Downhill on flat pedals for the remainder of the decade. "Clipped in for the win" is the new reality for pro downhill competitors, but there may be a glimmer of hope for enduro.
Sam Hill won the overall title in his first full season of EWS competition on flat pedals, then three-peated, winning three consecutive titles to close out a decade that should leave his rivals in awe for years to come. It is doubtful that anyone will come forth from the dwindling crowd of flat pedal pros who will dominate downhill or enduro racing in the future, but Sam Hill has proven - without a doubt - that it could happen.
Laugh if you want, but it took 20 years of air-sprung suspension development to figure out that a inserting measured plastic spacer into the air chamber could fine-tune its spring rate. Fox offered an air volume spacer kit
for their Float RP23 shock in 2011, but the concept fell on deaf ears until wheel travel passed the 150-millimeter mark. Suddenly everyone was talking about small-bump compliance vs big hit bottom-out resistance. RockShox revisited the concept in 2014 with their "Bottomless Token"
fork-spring spacer - and it took off.
Air springs may be easily adjusted with a hand pump, but only if you are tuning for one side of the spectrum. Before volume spacers became common, riders had two choices: pressurize your fork or shock until it didn't bottom, at the expense of a harsh ride in the first part of the stroke; or suffer the opposite - a supple ride off the initial stroke, with a tendency to bottom out.
After the Token became suspension currency, with the simplest of tools, riders could modify their spring curves to achieve satisfactory spring pressures at
Volume spacers are attached to the underside of the fork's top cap and either snap or screw together.
Air volume spacers for most shocks can be added inside the air-spring canister.
both initial and full compression. The performance improvement is night and day for some. Fork- and shock-spring volume spacers are included (ask for them) with many new bikes and most every suspension purchase.
The Enduro Effect
Jesse Melamed is no stranger to forest stages. Zermat EWS
For a brief moment, EWS racing appeared to be where the world's trail riders would finally be given a competition format to showcase their skill-sets, their aggressive single-crown dual suspension machines, and preference for natural terrain. Add to that the fact that Strava had already divided local trail centers into segmented race courses and one can understand how enduro captured the imaginations of the sport's wannabe racers.
Of course that didn't happen. EWS racing was hijacked, first by ageing World Cup DH champions, and then by a larger body of gravity experienced pros who saw the enduro format as a second chance to move up the ladder to a podium spot. Within two years, the EWS, like its downhill and cross-country counterparts, distilled into a 100-rider travelling circus of paid professionals and hopeful hangers on - but that was inevitable. This story is about but the profound effect that enduro racing had upon the evolution of the trail bike.
DH has heavily influenced the EWS, and in turn, enduro has had a profound effect upon the basic trail bike.
Mountain bikes, even downhill racing bikes, evolved from cross country. Somewhere around the Intense M1, though, downhill split off and evolved into a gravity powered machine that couldn't be pedaled uphill, but let's forget about that for a second. Sadly, the trail bike's development was tied to its cross-country origins, so its performance was measured as such. Every gram counted, every pedal stroke measured for efficiency, and worse, its geometry had to facilitate arduous climbing. No surprise then that it took over 20 years for the trail bike's head tube angle to progress from 71 to 68 degrees, stem lengths to retract from 130 millimeters to 50, and suspension travel to squeeze out to 130 millimeters. Trail bikes were essentially cross-country designs grudgingly modified to go downhill. That's where we were in 2012.
2020 Santa Cruz Hightower
The near-instant assimilation of enduro by the downhill community reversed that equation. Enduro bikes (true enduro bikes) were downhill machines, modified to go uphill. Somewhere around the middle of this decade, the trailbike got a little too close and was magnetized by enduro. Boom! Permanently severed from its laborious XC evolution and spliced to the DH genome, it was free to adopt once-forbidden gravity-specific attributes. The do-it-all mountain bike was completely transformed in the latter half of the decade. The timid adventurist became a master of its environment. Enduro may have temporarily stolen the trail bike, but it returned it in much better shape.
Batteries on Bikes
Lapierre ei: Lapierre debuted "ei," an electronically controlled RockShox damper that was triggered by an accelerometer on the fork in 2012. The system registered impacts at the fork, then combined information from the cranks to determine whether the rider was pedaling or coasting, and adjusted the compression damping of the shock accordingly. All this occurred before the rear wheel contacted that same bump. Ei captured our attention, but didn't move the needle in the marketplace.
Lapierre collaborated with RockShox to develop a servo motor that operated the Monarch RT3's low-speed compression circuit.
Shimano Di2: Shimano opened up the can of worms with the much anticipated debut of Di2 XTR. Encouraged by the success of its electronic-shifting Dura-Ace and Ultegra Di2 ensembles among its road customers, Shimano set its sights on elite mountain bike riders and it was released in 2014 for an asking price of $2800 USD. Two years later, Shimano followed with an XT-level version at a more affordable, $1300 MSRP. There was no question that Di2 shifted better than Shimano's mechanical counterparts, a victory by itself, but that wasn't enough sizzle to justify its cost, or to divert attention from SRAM's burgeoning fan base.
DI2 XTR used a single rechargeable battery to run all of its components - an environmentally friendly option that may have cost Shimano in the long run. Colin Meagher photos
Fox Live Valve: Fox followed in Shimano's wake with the release of Live Valve. Fox electronics were much faster than Lapierre's, which allowed Fox Live Valve forks and shocks to react individually to impacts before the tires had compressed enough to activate the suspension. Live Valve's purpose was to enhance pedaling feel and efficiency without degrading suspension performance, and it worked seamlessly in its final form.
Unfortunately, during Live Valve's protracted gestation period, riding styles and bicycles had evolved in a different direction. Live Valve was expensive and bikes already pedaled well enough to lug new-school riders to the top of their next descent. Speed, grip and suspension travel were the new currency.
Live Valve managed to enhance the pedaling feel of the already good Pivot Mach 5.5. Ian Collins photo
Magura Vyron Dropper: Launched in 2016, Magura's wirelessly actuated dropper seatpost could have transformed the genre. The wholesale shift by bike makers to internal cable routing made switching and installing dropper posts a pain in the butt. A wireless post would be a sell-and-forget slam dunk for retailers, and riders could switch out their dropper between bikes in a minute. The lackluster response time of the Vyron, however, took some getting used to and bad press killed the concept before riders had the chance to vote on it. Had Magura held back until that glitch was solved, the dropper post landscape might look much different.
A vision of things to come. Magura's wireless dropper was almost revolutionary. Colin Meagher photos
SRAM AXS: Being late to the party has its advantages, SRAM's AXS is wireless - a fundamental element and skillset the iPhone generation has mastered, and that alone may explain why SRAM's electronic component ensemble apparently has reversed the opinions of a decade of naysayers.
Armed with a basic tool kit, just about anyone can install an AXS derailleur and dropper on their bike in under an hour's time. No worries, no compatibility issues, just remember to charge the batteries. Most of us can handle that.
Rumors floating around suggest that SRAM is working overtime to bring AXS to its more affordable ensembles - but those bombs won't drop until the next decade.
SRAM's decision to go wireless will have ramifications beyond its near-perfect shifting. Faster assembly time for both factories and aftermarket customers are only two. Margus Riga photos
Battery Powered Bikes
Bosch forever altered the course of the sport with its pedal-assist electric motor. If anyone had told us in 2010 that we would be sharing trails with electric powered mountain bikes we would have laughed. If a global power tool maker approached government transportation agencies with a proposal to allow uninsured, unlicensed electric mopeds equal access to bicycle lanes and trails, they would have laughed. Instead, Bosh handed off its pedalec system to bicycle makers and we mowed the lawn for them, lobbying government bureaucracies and convincing the naysayers to make it happen. It was marketing brilliance. There's a book in there somewhere.
The start of the men's 2019 UCI sanctioned eMTB World Championships in Mont Sainte Anne.
The marriage of eMTBs into the mountain bike family brings a new crop of riders to the sport who are not wedded to the nuances of our sacred technology - which offers a new opportunity for meaningful change. Once you add a motor, ethereal improvements derived from things like bladed spokes, directionally compliant rims, Kashima coatings and the molecular makeup of frame materials are not all that important. New-school eMTB customers will no-doubt value more measurable performance enhancements like battery life, power output, wheels that stay true and straight, consistent braking power, tires that don't flat, and pro-performing suspension that doesn't require a professor to tune. Fierce competition to court a less technically minded customer will most likely drive down the prices of those high ticket components too.
The last four items on that list should be the first to bounce back to conventional mountain bikers, many of whom have given up on such improvements. Sometimes, it takes another pair of eyes to see that we've missed something crucial, or enough naivety to restate the need for fixes that were swept under the rug. Mountain bikers did that to road bikes, and I anticipate the same treatment from our electrified in-laws. Once again, however, we are talking about the decade to come. Hindsight, they say, is 2020. We shall see...