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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 29in/26in 69er.

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 needs it?

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.

Girvin Flexstem

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.

U-brakes

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.

Alloy bolts

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 my brakes.

Threaded headsets

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 key.

Hite-Rites

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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