“How long have you been riding?” It’s a question that pops up frequently. For me, I’ve been riding seriously for more than 20 years. New riders often lament how they wish they had starter sooner. I can understand that sentiment, but the cold, hard fact is they didn’t miss out.
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Mountain bikes have always been fun, but they were really quite crappy for a long time. It’s true that bikes are more complicated today, and it can be argued that new standards suck, but all it takes is one ride on an old bike to see how far we’ve come.
Mountain bikes have evolved so quickly recently that it’s barely the same sport as it was at the turn of century. Literally, every piece of the bike has been dramatically improved.
Here are six pieces of mountain bike tech that are light years better now than when I started.
1. Bike frames
“It’s not even the same sport!” I’ve said it. Others have said it. And it’s absolutely true. Riding a 26in hardtail with V-brakes and an 80mm travel fork now is like begging to get hurt. It feels like the bike is actively trying to bring you physical and emotional pain.
Not only are bikes insanely capable now, but the frames also don’t break all the time. In the late nineties and early 2000s, my riding buddies and I were breaking roughly one frame a season.
Typically it was a crack at or near a weld. Nowadays, though, it’s rare to mortally wound a frame, even though I know speeds have increased and the hits are bigger.
2. Modern geometry
What were we thinking? Two decades ago we basically had road geometry for bouncing over rocks and roots.
Thankfully those days are over. Mountain bikes have adopted long, low and slack geometry. It’s a revolution that took riding from merely hanging on to full-on shredding.
Man, we looked like goons for a long time. Gone are the days of having to choose between wearing a sausage casing or baggy pajamas.
Mountain bike shorts and jerseys have grown up to be excellent on the trails while letting you go to the bar or store without looking like a total kook.
And like our roadie siblings have figured out, getting the right cut is hugely important. No longer do baggie shorts snag on saddles, humping up a climb doesn’t have to reveal plumber’s crack, and carrying a phone or ride essentials can be done without the pocket flopping around banging your thigh.
I’m surprised I can still hear. Riding a bike in the nineties and early 2000s sounded like a can of bolts falling down a flight of stairs.
Seriously, it was a racket. Endless clacking and nonstop banging was the soundtrack of my early mountain biking.
Then in 2011 Shimano blessed the off-road world with silence in the form of a clutch rear derailleur. Mountain bikers everywhere rejoiced.
Next came SRAM with its unrelenting march towards killing the front derailleur and simplifying drivetrains altogether. They re-introduced the narrow/wide chainring and the rest is quieter, better-shifting history.
But wait! Modern drivetrains aren’t only quiet, they actually work and hold a tune. Imagine that! No one misses the days of having to tweak shifting multiple times during a ride. Other than cleaning and lubing, I barely think about my bike’s drivetrain now.
5. Wheel and tires
Let me tell you, wheels and tires were horrible for a long, long time. Most wheels had the rigidity of a used band-aid. Rims were ridiculously narrow and so were tires.
Truing wheels was a part of every ride, sometimes multiple times on big days. (Often it was a two for one pit stop, true wheels and adjust drivetrain.) Flat tires were a constant. My personal record was five punctures in one day, and no the rim and rim tape were not the issue, the rocks were.
Now, mountain bikers have proper, wide, tubeless tires supported by tough, durable, wide rims. The traction and ride quality of today isn’t even the same ballpark. Low tire pressures are feasible and tire compounds make the grip better. All of it, every bit Is amazing.
6. Wide bars, short stems
Why’d this take so long? Oh yeah, it’s because going uphill was the only thing most mountain bikers were concerned about for way too long. Who wants leverage and responsive control of their bikes when 30 grams are at stake?! Me, and nearly every other mountain biker, too, that’s who.
It was still fun, but I’m glad it’s over
Despite the seemingly stone-age technology, riding bikes was still a lot of fun back then, but also frustrating.
The bottom line is this: If you meet a rider who rambles on about the ‘glory days’ of cycling and how ‘back in the day, yada, yada,’ you can be assured it’s mostly a bunch of crap.
If you just recently got into riding, you didn’t miss out. At all. Be grateful you can hop on your squishy, well-proportioned, properly functioning bike and truly shred.