Anyone that’s been riding mountain bikes for a while will appreciate the incredible changes in the bikes, especially over the past decade. It’s remarkable just how technologically advanced mountain bikes have become. With these changes in the bikes, we have been able to change how we ride. Here are seven ways we can now ride differently.
By Sean Badenhorst
Most of us older mountain bikers will remember riding 26-inch wheel bikes with three chainrings, less than 100mm of suspension and rim brakes. We had narrow bars and long stems on our steeply angled headtubes and when we rode down anything technical or did fast turns there was always a small part of us that wasn’t quite sure if we’d make it…
Here seven key improvements to bikes and why they allow us to ride better.
THEN: We would have three chainrings on the front with an all-important ‘granny gear’ – the small one on the inside that would allow us to scale steep or technical climbs. Of course shifting to that small chainring was risky and required some awareness of the upcoming gradient and finesse to ensure the shifts were progressional and not panicked. A panic shift with the chain under pressure would see us derailing the chain and coming to a halt, seldom with composure and always facing the fact that we had lost the required momentum and rhythm to scale the upcoming climb/obstacle. Pushing the bike up was common in this case.
NOW: With single-ring drivetrains, we have a ridiculous range of gearing on the 11 or 12-speed cassette and just the one chainring up front, which means no drama when shifting and the confidence to ride up steep ascents and obstacles knowing that our drivetrain won’t let us down. So now we ride more climbs, more swiftly – and we have less chain anxiety.
THEN: We didn’t know any better and toiled our way with our small wheels into mountain biking nirvana. Early Cape Epic editions had stages longer than 140km and we just tackled them, taking ages to reach the finish. Curiously, the early pioneers in mountain biking in California wanted 29-inch wheels for the bikes they were building, but there weren’t any tyre brands that made chunky, knobbly tyres in that diameter in the 1970s. So, 26-inch wheels it was, until Gary Fisher started reviving the potential for 29-inch wheels in the mid 2000s…
NOW: The majority of mountain bikes, certainly in South Africa, come with 29-inch wheels. An adult bike with 26-inch wheels looks freaky – almost circus-like! Twenty-nine-inch wheels allow us to roll better over any terrain. This ensures we can cover distances faster and more smoothly. We can also roll more confidently over roots, rocks and ruts which means we have greater control and improved composure – without even trying.
Geometry, narrow bars, long stems
THEN: We rode bikes with 72-70-degree headtube angles. That’s an aggressive angle that put us in a position that made us feel in control on steep climbs, but quite vulnerable everywhere else. We also had long stems and narrow handlebars, which made handling very sketchy, especially on fast turns and steep and/or technical descents.
NOW: Most marathon bikes now have a headtube angle ranging from 66-68 degrees. This slacker angle puts the front wheel further out in front and makes us feel like we are riding between the wheels rather than on top of them. It also lengthens the wheelbase, which makes the bike more stable at speed and on steep, technical terrain. The slacker headtube angle, combined with a steeper seattube angle allows us to have a shorter reach, which means a shorter stem is needed. A shorter stem gives us more direct steering. This, combined with wider bars gives us a lot more control over the front end of the bike and means we don’t have to lean as far back as we used to on descents, drop-downs and drop-offs.
A 2003 SCOTT Genius (top) and a 2022 SCOTT Spark 900 (below) show the significant progress made in mountain bike design. | Photos: SCOTT Sports & Jochen Haar
THEN: Our little 26-inch wheels had 100mm wide front axles and 135mm wide rear axles. The axle diameters were quite thin too. Looking back, they were indeed flimsy. For years we just accepted that was our lot with axles. We didn’t realise how limiting they were.
NOW: Boost width axles (110mm wide up front and 148mm wide at the rear) have not only made axles stronger (wider and thicker), they have allowed engineers to make wider rims, which are stronger and change the shape of the tyre. This all leads to being able to run tyres at lower pressures, which in turn leads to increased traction, which means that our overall handling is better and our speeds quicker.
Bonus: Boost width wheels gave engineers some leeway with the BB region of frames that has led to suspension design changes (in the case of SCOTT’s Spark) and even the introduction of single-ring drivetrains.
THEN: We would just move around our saddles. They got in the way when descending, especially on steep descents. The less confident among us would dismount and rather walk the tricky dropdowns, while the more confident would lean back, rest our stomach or chest on the saddle as we skimmed and slid our unsteady way down, sometimes uttering a little prayer.
NOW: Dropper seatposts have make it possible to ride more places. Our wide-range drivetrain allows us to climb and climb. And climb with composure. Then, for the descent we simply drop the saddle remotely and plunge down in a position that allows us to make small movements AND big movements. We are no longer behind the centre of the bike so we can rail the hell out of turns and float down tricky drops and descents, all the while moving our weight around the bike, either proactively or reactively – without hindrance. What a pleasure!
THEN: We eventually had adjustable suspension, but it required moving the lever on the fork or shock, while riding. A little risk, but a lot of inconvenience. We’d lock the fork suspension and/or shock out on a climb to ensure optimal efficiency. Then, once we’d crested the summit we’d charge down the subsequent descent realising on the first major root, rock or rut that we’d forgotten to open the suspension for the descent. Depending on the situation, we’d either just keep going and bounce and jar our way down, or we’d have to quickly stop, or slow down to a less blurry pace to make the necessary adjustments.
NOW: Most bikes now come with remote suspension adjustment. This allows us to flick a switch without taking our hand off the handlebar and we have an immediate say over how much or little suspension we want active. Specialized’s Brain system automatically responds, activating suspension when terrain is uneven and then locking out when it becomes smooth. Modern suspension adjustment means we can ride all terrain with the appropriate amount of suspension and this makes us more efficient/fast and gives us a serious amount of control.
THEN: With rim brakes on a mountain bike we had some real wild experiences. For starters, those rims were prone to dents and build-up of brake-pad residue. The wheels were also easily buckled. Add some water crossings and mountain biking with rim brakes was a bit of a guessing/hoping/praying affair. Long descents would not only deliver arm pump, but our fingers would actually start hurting from gripping the levers so hard.
NOW: Almost all modern mountain bikes now come with hydraulic disc brakes and our fingers and forearms are eternally grateful. Not only are the bikes easier to control because disc brakes are so dependable and effective, but we can actually ride faster because we trust our brakes to work as and when we need them to.
These seven features aren’t the only improvements in mountain bike design, tubeless tyres, carbon fibre as a frame material and other smaller, less obvious features have taken mountain bikes through a steep evolution curve that’s given us modern bicycles that really must be appreciated.