10 mountain bike inventions
that seemed like a good idea at the time
Some would say there are too many 'innovations' hailed as the next
big thing when they drop...
Mountain biking is not the oldest sport in the world, but there
have been plenty of fads that have come and very quickly gone since
it first got going. There certainly aren’t enough fingers
on one hand to count how many ‘next big things’ have
disappeared and died off not long after their inception, but here
are just some of the trends that are particularly memorable for
failing to live up to the hype…
Odd wheel sizes
Today you’ve generally got the choice of three wheels sizes:
26in, 29in or 27.5in. However, back in the day (BITD) it was simply
26in. Well, that’s what you’d think if you look back
at the bikes we used to ride, but we had our dirty little secrets.
Bikes like the 1984 Cannondale SM-500 with a 26in wheel at the front
and a 24in wheel out the back. The thinking behind the design was
really quite simple – let’s copy motocross ideas but
use what we have available. Conventional wisdom suggests the larger
front wheel will roll easily over trail obstacles and the smaller
rear wheel will be easier to accelerate for fast sprints. Shame
they didn’t think about getting laughed at for having a clown’s
bike, or having to carry two different sized inner tubes.
What’s really sad is that bike designers failed to learn
from Cannondale’s mistake. In 2007 Trek used the same idea
of a big wheel at front and a smaller wheel at the rear for its
Snowflake laced wheels
The ’90s could be described as the time that style forgot
for mountain bikers. And when style wasn’t being ignored,
sound engineering was. There can be no other explanation for the
snowflake laced wheel. These wheels were built with a regular three
cross design, but using spokes around 3mm longer than they should
be. The extra length allowed them to be twisted around each other
at the final crossing point. The benefit? To some people it looks
good. The downside? A pain to true and if a spoke breaks you’ll
spend all day trying to replace it.
Some bright sparks took the aesthetics of this concept even further
and used aluminium spoke nipples. Yeah right, make the wheel difficult
to true and then use nipples that will round off when you start
to try and put serious tension into the spokes. Engineering, who
Tioga Disc Drives
If you were a real poseur and a snowflaked wheel was too common
for you then the hot ticket was a Tioga Disc Drive. If it was good
enough for multiple World Champion John Tomac it was good enough
for us to rag about the woods on.
The Disc Drive itself was a set of Kevlar strings laminated into
a plastic disc that replaced the spokes in a rear wheel. It looked
awesome and sounded even better. Shame they had a tendency to collapse
without warning. Not good when they cost in the region of £500
- and that didn’t include the hub or the rim.
A supposed benefit of the Disc Drive was a small amount of suspension.
What to do about getting some bounce at the front of the bike at
a time when suspension forks didn’t exist? Fit a Girvin Flexstem.
There’s a clue in the name about how this gem of a design
worked. It was a handlebar stem that pivoted just in front of the
steerer tube with a small elastomer underneath to provide the suspension
damping. As for suspension, your ‘bars simply wobbled up and
down as you rode and you had a relatively heavy stem at a time when
we were all weight obsessed.
Being a weight weenie
In 1990 my first serious MTB weighed over 30lbs and it didn’t
even have any suspension. It soon went on a diet, swapping out stock
parts for supposed lighter upgrades at great expense. Some riders
were far more obsessive than I was. I have distinct memories of
chatting to a professional racer who had gone and drilled random
holes in his cranks and then spent a whole day filling down a first
generation set of Shimano SPD pedals just to save a few grammes.
He could have saved as much weight by just going to the toilet on
race day morning.
Cut down handlebars
Today everyone rides with wide bars, the wider the better, but
back in the day, the opposite was true. You know I mentioned how
we were weight obsessive? Well, we would do all we could to get
our bike’s weight down and, to us, it made perfect sense to
cut an inch or two off the ends of our bars to drop some grammes,
in the process throwing away anything up to £10 worth of offcuts.
The fact that you could barely steer the bike afterwards wasn’t
thought about when we pulled the hacksaw out of the tool box.
Today you get disc brakes on even the cheapest of mountain bikes,
but BITD they simply didn’t exist; mechanical or hydraulic.
Back then if you wanted good brakes you had V-brakes as an upgrade
from the existing cantilever brakes, or what has now happily been
all but forgotten – the U-brake. The horseshoe shape of a
U-brake meant it collected mud – badly. Then to aggravate
the problem, bike designers put the brake under the chainstays where
it could get even more clogged up.
In the mid- to late-‘90s we went a bit crazy colour wise
and one of the easiest and cheapest ways of getting some colour
on your bike was to swap steel bolts out for anodised aluminium
ones. Hey, there was even the bonus of a bit of weight saving.
Some riders must have been colour blind, as there was no other
excuse for the terrible selection of colours used. However, a far
greater problem was the use of alloy bolts in the wrong locations.
Due to the tensile strength of the average anodised alloy bolt it
should only be used in low-stress applications like brake lever
clamps. That didn’t stop idiots from using them on their brakes.
Just stop and think for a minute or two about how much stress can
potentially go through a bike’s brake when it’s being
applied… and that’s why I never used alloy bolts for
When MTBs first appeared they took a lot of technology from road
cycling and, while a lot of it worked well enough, some of it just
wasn’t up to the job; headsets being a case in point. Today
there doesn’t seem to be much in the way of standards, but
back then all bicycles had 1in diameter headtubes and headsets that
threaded on to the fork’s steerer tube. On the road this wasn’t
a problem, but the hammering the average rigid mountain bike of
the time got meant that the two big nuts on the top of a headset
would soon loosen off and need tightening. A simple job but one
that required two 32mm spanners. Not the sort of thing you through
in your pack when you go riding. And that is why today almost all
bikes have threadless headsets that can be adjusted with an Allen
I’ve heard it said that there are no new ideas and there're
lots of examples of people trying to reinvent the wheel in mountain
biking, and some are more successful than others.
One current trend is dropper seat posts, but they’re nothing
new. It’s just that these days they’re far more sophisticated
than the option we had BITD. We simply had a quick release on the
seat post clamp and would stop and move the post up and down as
needed. Then some bright spark in the USA came up with the Hite-Rite.
It was basically just a scissor spring, one end of which fitted
the seat post quick release and the other bolted to a clamp around
the seat post itself. When you wanted to drop the post you opened
the quick release, and, in theory at least, the saddle would drop
out of the way when you put your weight on it. Shut the clamp, ride
that tricky section, undo the clamp and up slides the seat. Well,
it only worked if your post was well greased and there was no guarantee
that your seat would be back in the right place or even straight
when you let it raise.
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