Wheel sizes, tire sizes, suspension travel, frame material, suspension design, so many damn choices. And that is just from a single company. Add in everyone else making kick-ass bikes these days and it gets hard to think.
How did we end up here? I’ve been thinking it is a case of deferred maintenance. Let me explain.
Let’s take a house for example. Let’s say a house built in 1910. This is before most things like modern electric wiring, central heat and plumbing were common. But for the time, it was a great house. Plaster walls, fireplaces, the finest wooden windows and trim work.
Years go by. New house technology comes along, and talented and not-so-talented people work hard to get that new stuff installed in the aging house. Fireplaces are replaced with gas space heaters. Fuses replaced with circuit breakers. A toilet in the basement replaces the outhouse. For most people it would be hard to argue that these upgrades didn’t make life better.
But those upgrades are always fitting new tech into the old bones of the house. When a boiler is installed in the basement, walls and floors are cracked open to install the feed and return pipes for the radiators. Or maybe it is a furnace and ductwork that needs to be installed in similar fashion.
Years later this big old house gets converted to a multiple-unit building. This requires more demo work to install a second kitchen and bath. Walls and doors are installed to separate the living spaces for each tenant. These are all functional changes, but things are getting less and less pleasing to look at and don’t function as well as they could.
Eventually the house falls into disrepair. The mortgage goes unpaid. The house goes into foreclosure and sits empty for years, plaster cracking on the walls and windows broken. Perhaps the copper gets pulled out when scrap prices are through the roof.
A few years ago, mountain bikes were where this old house was sitting. Technology was marching forward, but it was being stuffed into frames that were rooted in decades-old standards. Rather than biting the bullet and making the small changes as things were needed, the tech was adapted to the old specs, pushing off the responsibility of developing new standards that could truly take full advantage of modern technology on to future designers and riders. Today, the basic architecture of the bike remains intact, but the way we build is totally different.
I’m not calling anyone a villain here. A lot of this happened as a way to protect the consumer from the pain of obsolescence, or at least the perception of obsolescence. Hell, it’s a lot easier to find someone with the skills and parts to replace a set of cantilever brakes on a mid-’80s mountain bike than it is to find a contractor to repair damaged plaster. But with all the new stuff in your face, it is rare to find a serious rider content on a bike with decades-old technology.
But even without a villain, things are painful right now. After spending a long time stuck with a single wheel size and frame material, the dam has broken and we are in a period of intense innovation. My gut tells me we’ll see a slowdown as diminishing returns for continued changes become apparent.
I’m basing this idea on things like the 1 1⁄2 to 1 1⁄8 tapered steerer. Giant tried to “improve” on this standard by bumping up the stem end of the steerer tube to 1 1⁄4. I’m sure this system tested as “stiffer” than the widely accepted 11⁄8 inch steerer, but riders seem to think the stem/steerer interface is stiff enough as is, and Giant quietly dropped the 1 1⁄4 stuff from its 2017 bikes. And let’s not forget a few companies returning to the good old threaded bottom bracket shell after years of pushing the problematic PF30 standard.
Right now we are standing in the plaster dust of a full-on, down-to-the-studs remodel of our beloved mountain bike. We can’t expect all of the rooms to be done at once. But even with all the dust, it is not a bad place to be living. And just imagine how nice it will be when it is finished.
Words and photos by tech editor Eric McKeegan.