The mountain bike, evolving from existing bicycle technology, bypassed a lot of the growing pains and technical leaps that its skinny and balloon-tire ancestors endured. However, off-road specific bicycles did not sprout from their Godly father’s forehead fully formed, and have added performance enhancing doo-dads of such import that they were seemingly forged by Hephaestus himself. So extensive has been the mountain bike’s maturation, that to pit one of the first high-end mountain bikes against today’s uber-cycles would be akin to attempting a lunar expedition by rowboat. While there have been many advancements, the following five benchmarks stand out as forcing us to wonder how we enjoyed riding bikes without them.
Suspension—While sprung forks were (kind of) figured out first, rudimentary rear wheel suspension soon followed. As primitive and fragile as early suspension components were, they enabled cyclists to go faster—both climbing and descending—and to ride previously impossible routes, paving the way for a proliferation of knobby tires on trails that had heretofore seen only Vibram and moccasins. Today’s technological marvels like the Rock Shox Pike and Fox 40 Float forks, and the Cane Creek Double Barrel shock, enable properly-designed bikes to seemingly levitate over terrain that hikers would have a hard time walking through.
Disc Brakes—As any savvy cyclist knows, you can’t go fast unless you can slow down, an adage many riders found out the hard way as early suspension allowed speeds that easily out distanced the stopping power of rudimentary cantilever brakes. Linear pull, or V-brakes, were a major improvement over cantilevers, but still faded on most descents to the point of failure, and were useless in wet conditions, not to mention they lacked any semblance of modulation. Disc brakes presented a major upgrade in every way, not the least of which was simple brute force stopping power. While early disc brake performance was a long way from today’s high-power/modulation/adjustability stoppers, they enabled cyclists to harness the speeds afforded by suspension and unlocked new levels of fun for everyone.
Tubeless Tires—Perhaps the most amazing thing about tubeless technology is that some cyclists don’t use it. Maybe I shouldn’t be so surprised; after all, who would want to virtually eliminate flats, and/or improve traction and comfort while saving money at the same time? By going tubeless, lower tire pressures are possible, which increases traction and control as your tires will better conform to irregularities on the trail. Pinch flats are essentially eradicated, as the tire’s sidewall would have to tear, not just the thin, fragile tube inside. With the use of sealant, punctures are also reduced, as particles in the sealant solution fill small tears and holes. The only possible excuse not to run tubeless—complicated installation—has been rendered invalid with the widespread availability of Tubeless Ready tires and rims. Mounting compatible tires to rims is easily accomplished with a floor pump, and the range of compounds and tread designs of tubeless/tubeless ready tires is just as great as standard tires. Thank you, tubeless, for getting rid of flats and making it easier to shred at the same time.
Dropper Seatposts—Like disc brakes, adjustable-height seatposts were initially met with skepticism from some riders. Just like rim brakes were thought to be “good enough,” the humble rigid seatpost was deemed as having performed its duty admirably over the years, so why add an extra pound to your bike when we already had quick-release seatpost collars? If you’ve ridden a dropper post, then you know the answer; the perfect saddle height for every situation is instantly available, no stopping to interrupt your flow. If you never thought lowering your saddle for descending was worth it, a dropper post will show you how wrong you were. Once you have become used to riding with a dropper post, and realize that you are riding faster and having more fun overall, you’ll never limit yourself with a static seatpost again.
Mountain-Specific Clipless Pedals—There had to be some controversy, right? Look, I understand that flat pedals are fun; I ride flats quite a bit, and I love the freedom of movement they allow. Flat pedals enable positioning that isn’t possible with clipless pedals, letting you practically glue your tires to the ground in certain situations. I also get that we don’t actually “pull-up” on our pedals during a normal pedal stroke—although when sprinting for the finish or struggling up a technical section, pulling up can be the difference between victory and failure. However, there is no getting around the fact that clipless pedals are easier to maintain a smooth pedal stroke with. Clipless pedals also keep your feet planted through rocky sections, and allow hard pedaling efforts through stutter bumps, rock gardens, and on steep uphill sections. Flats are fun, and I know lots of riders who rip on them, but all the fastest cyclists are on clipless pedals for a reason.