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Bespoken Word: Stuck in the mud

Bespoken Word
(Image credit: Courtesy)

There are two things I can guarantee that will happen in any forum thread relating to a new product that’s different from the accepted norm. 

A: Someone will say that it looks like something that already exists. Interestingly they’ll probably not go far enough back to even make it interesting or correct either. EG all those “It looks like a Trek Session” comments about rocker link suspension bikes which should really say “It looks like a Turner Burner” if they were going to drill all the way back. 

B: Someone else - actually probably several people - will say they’re sick of being sold something that potentially makes their current kit obsolete even though it works fine. They’ll probably point a finger at people like me for being caught up in some media-manufacturer collusion/conspiracy, too.

And to be fair they have a point. One that’s being proved regularly right now as people drag out bikes that haven’t moved for twenty years and join the COVID-19-cycling revolution. The basic handlebar steered front wheel and chain-driven rear wheel format of the 19th century Rover Safety Cycle still multiplies the speed and distance a human can cover remarkably well. And if you’re going to put me in the dock over everything that I’ve recommended to people in thirty years of bike shop and testing work then I’m going to have to plead guilty on several counts.

Don't always believe the hype

That’s because there are plenty of examples of things that were hyped - or at least accepted - too readily as the great new thing. New tech where we didn’t have the time to do durability due diligence or where true production versions fell way behind the performance of the early samples we got to test. Even if you just look at something as outwardly simple and mundane as bottom brackets, the alleged stiffness boost offered by Isis and Octalink bottom brackets certainly didn’t compensate for their appallingly short lifespans. 

It’s fair to say we’re seeing most mountain bike manufacturers who jumped on the various ‘Emperor’s new press-fit bottom bracket standards’ are now moving back to screw-in setups. A lot of road manufactures are wavering in the face of growing amounts of swollen or flared warranty frames as well. The first external bottom bracket designs didn’t last much longer either and I’m pretty sure a '90s Shimano UN72 or Royce titanium cartridge bottom bracket would still outlast a modern external bottom bracket set up several times over. And maybe for some riders that outweighs the lower weights, higher stiffness, better crank security and lack of creak and squeak of a two-piece crank with an oversized axle. You know, designs like those Bullseye ones we sold in our shop in the 1980s.

However, you don’t have to start looking far away from that bottom bracket to find it hard not to admit that change has been almost entirely for the better. If you’re a road rider you’ll have to be a damn strong one to convince me that 52/42T chainrings should still be the standard ratio. Because for every Muscle Mary determined to grunt a limited gear range up a climb, there are several more grateful that dinner plate cassettes with 12 or even 13 cogs mean you can spin not strain towards a summit. Mountain biker? Have you seen a multi-chainring, front mech set up with all the tire clearance, suspension packaging and extra cabling compromises recently and thought “damn I miss all that”?

Bespoken Word stuck in mud

There is a lot we don't miss about mountain bikes of old (Image credit: Guy Kesteven)

We might not all want carbon frames and wheels, but you’d have to concede they’re the pinnacle of strength/stiffness to weight options right now. Is a mountain bike without suspension forks even a mountain bike anymore? Or is it a flat-bar gravel bike or a hybrid (which is obviously the same thing but nowhere near as cool unless you’re a ‘young at heart’ pensioner)? Even though Pogačar winning the Tour De France has proved we don't need disc brakes, most of us are now choosing to stop with rotors on the road. And if you haven’t made that choice off-road then you probably aren’t even stopping in any meaningful way in the wet.

But do you have any idea how bad bicycle disc brakes were when they first appeared? No, not those 1970s Shimano town bike ones, even I’m not that old. But I do remember trying to get a ProMax cable-to-hydraulic set up to exert even a hint of grip on its giant, almost wheel-sized rotor. And I was lucky enough to have a second-hand Accutrax fork with a direct mount for it, not trying to clamp it onto a conventional fork with some kind of billet alloy botch job. And if you ever got the thing working long enough to get past regularly ejecting from your bike in terror, the pads wore down and you realized nowhere in the known world sold spares and you’d have to try and make your own out of car brake pad offcuts. 

The Amp brake was barely any better even when RockShox had a go with it after failing to get Hope to sell them their design but at least it was neat, light and ineffective. And unlike the Hope brakes of the time, you didn’t have to try and twist the dial on top of the fluid reservoir on the fly halfway down a descent to stop them completely pumping solid. In fact, it was a good ten years of truly dreadful performances before Hayes finally produced a reliable, mass-produced hydraulic disc brake. Unfortunately rather than stop rotor rub by making you add or remove tiny washer shims onto the clamp bolts that held a separate intermediate mount, they blew it by insisting on their own idiosyncratic direct mount parallel post design that let you slide the calipers sideways. You know, like those post and flat-mount calipers we’ve all started using recently. Sorry about that, Hayes.

Progress for the sake of progress

But the point I’m trying to make here is that moving forward is often a massive pain in the ass. By definition, it nearly always involves leaving behind something that’s been honed to be the best for the current situation and demands. A standard with an established supply chain, refined manufacturing and a range of pricing that includes everyone. Not some hard to find, even harder to replace exotica that has to be expensive to try and cover at least some of the R&D investment. But these freak components are the fish dragging themselves up the beaches of technology on their fins, gasping for air not using gills. Because in a dynamic world where you’re trying to push performance, it’s the freakiest that survive and thrive in these new areas, not the fittest of the old world.

And it’s when the freaks get together that things start to really move forward. Adding suspension to mountain bikes made them faster than cantilevers could cope with so disc brakes were needed. Higher speed made a rigid rear end the choke point of performance so full-suspension became widespread. That meant tires started popping and sliding so tougher, grippier, tubeless tires became the norm. As speeds and control expectations increased, geometry that hadn’t really changed from road bikes was proving increasingly lethal and the slack angles and long reaches of experimental freak bikes from riders like Fabien Barel and Cesar Rojo crept onto the trail bike scene.

And so the spiral twists upwards, dragging in strands of influence and innovation from all over and sending out vibrations into other areas. So then we see road bikes benefiting from disc brakes that have already been honed for decades so a 200lb rider can still descend an Alp with confidence. And with rim and tire widths no longer restricted by how wide you could make a rim brake before it was too flexy, a whole new area of experimentation opened up. And with faster, fatter tires that can survive rougher surfaces road bikes have started to look towards MTBs for geometry cues, single chainsets and other tech to open up horizons.

Bespoken Word stuck in mud

The culmination of progression has resulted in bikes that are far superior than even those of a few years ago (Image credit: Guy Kesteven)

And the really fun bit is that while technology marches ever on and 170mm travel mountain bikes are now almost as agile and easy to pedal as XC bikes were not long ago. Where carbon frames and rims people thought were totally unsuitable for off-road use are now the ones with no-question lifetime warranties so we backfill the gaps created by the norms becoming more extreme.

‘Gravel’ is the obvious one here, mixing the latest fat-tire road bike vibes with the performance vectors of old school XC bikes to re-invent what used to be ‘rough stuffing’ or ‘pass storming’ to a new audience of explorers forgotten by the senders and schralpers. We’re even seeing ideas like suspension stems appearing again in gravel after thirty years of ridicule as well as short-travel forks of assorted curious designs and even some full-suspension bikes that look as awkward as the first dual sprung 29ers. And for maximum irony, it was hybrids (effectively flat bar gravel bikes as I’ve already explained) where 29er wheels finally got acceptance and critical mass momentum after years of unheeded zealots pushing their MTB suitability and Gary Fisher putting his own money into the first tire molds for his wagon wheel race bikes.

So while I’m not unilaterally defending some of the dead ends we went down and many have just been a circular journey back to the start, experimentation and change is a fundamentally human thing that's occurred ever since we started lashing rocks onto sticks and waddling upright towards the species apex. 

In other words, perhaps we shouldn’t be complaining about changing standards but complaining that the leaps aren’t big and radical enough. Why didn’t we go straight to Super Boost rear axle spacing which was already established as DH 150mm rather than mucking about with 142 and 148mm spacings? If 29 is so good why haven’t I hunted down a 36in-wheeled bike to test? 

Or to put it back into evolutionary terms why are we getting stuck in the mud rather than leaping straight from the sea to dry land? 

I’m still sorry about ISIS bottom brackets and that time I said the Whyte PRST-1 was the future of XC full suspension though.

Guy Kesteven
Guy has been riding mountain bikes since before they were mountain bikes and is right handy on an offroad tandem (of course he is).