Yesterday yet another bit of tech became available that’s claimed to make mountain biking easier and safer. And predictably the forums lit up with the inevitable outrage and then more considered counterclaim. And I’m sure there’ll be something else launched on the same "best mountain bikes" ‘improvement/evolution’ basis tomorrow or at least next week that gets a similar reaction. Because the best ‘mountain' bikes have been evolving for nearly 50 years since they were just ‘beach cruisers’ with an extra bracing pipe added and some gears bodged on.
So why do some people get so worked up about new tech, and is it always a positive or sometimes a curse?
The new thing
To be honest, I could have picked a lot of stuff to talk about here from RockShox Flight Attendant/Fox Live Valve suspension management, to AXS wireless gears, slacker geometry, or just a grippier tire or better-damped fork. The announcement that Canyon and Liteville are attaching spring-loaded reins to the steerer tubes of the forks on a couple of bikes seems to have saddled up the techno lynch mob with particular enthusiasm.
Like pretty much everything else (apart from wireless gears) there's a whole load of precedents to this idea - mostly to stop the front wheels on cargo bikes flopping over while parked. And while I haven’t tried it, the execution looks typically neat and well-considered for a Jo Klieber product and it seems to do the intended job very well. After all, Jo has a very long string of some really smart ideas via the Syntace brand and other work including being one of the pioneers of wider rims with Syntace, who also make the only lightweight MTB stem I totally trust. It’s important to note that this isn’t a Moto (or most other steerable vehicles) style steering damper, it’s a centering/stabilizing spring. And no, that doesn’t make it feel like it has a slacker head angle or less fork offset, in fact the low-speed wheel flop they create is exactly what this new (somewhat ironically named) KIS ‘Keep It Simple’ mechanism is designed to combat. But in the grand scheme of things, it’s designed to keep you on your bike and off the floor when riding in places where you’re pushing your luck.
Every new thing
Similarly, that’s been the direction of the tide of at least 90 percent of tech developments (don’t forget there have been an unhealthy amount of ill-advised weight-saving/risk-multiplying ‘innovations’ over the years) since 'mountain biking' spawned from whichever Californian/Wisconsin/French bomb site/Pennine bog birthplace you want to credit.
You can throw that forward to the switch from the terrifying monster front wheel, tiny castor rear wheel ‘Ordinary’ or ‘Penny Farthing’ bikes well over a century ago. I mean, that's why the first popular modern-looking bike made by Rover with similar-sized wheels, a rear chain drive, and brakes were called the ‘Safety’. And now we can blast around on power-assisted bikes that will climb and range far beyond our normal limits and have the suspension, handling, and grip to get down terrain that would have been ‘pro only’ not long ago.
Haters gonna hate
At every point, there’s been a kickback against evolution. Penny Farthing fanatics decried the safety bike to be a terrible dilution of the skills and suicidal nerve that was needed to pilot their actual and figurative high horses. In the same way as the cyclocross community of America was horrified when Gary Fisher crushed the showcase Reseda to Sea off-road bike race on his proto mountain bike.
I can personally remember people saying that suspension was pointless on a mountain bike because we already had at least 24 inches of travel in our arms and more in our legs. Now there are some people taking the meat powered versus motor-powered animosity on the trails to almost civil war levels.
Kill it with fire
In some ways, I can get where they’re coming from. Every time we make mountain biking easier, we allow more people into areas defined by specific skill or fitness parameters. What was special or hard-earned becomes devalued. E-bikes are without doubt the most blatant queue jumpers mountain biking has ever seen, to the point where Phil Schofield and Holly Willoughby would be perfect ambassadors. The last time someone commented on me riding an E-bike (and it happened three times in a single lap of a trail center) I wasn’t even on one. The bulbous belly of the Scott Spark I was riding encloses the shock, not a motor. However, its superlight carbon chassis and speed-focused spec gave me exactly the same sort of climbing and acceleration advantage as a motor would. So while those “blimey mate, that E-bike is really quiet” statements weren’t correct, in a way they weren’t that wrong.
Tech doesn't always translate into faster either. Anyone who’s ever ridden a single-speed will know that they’re anti-socially rapid up climbs, purely because anything less than max attack isn’t an option. That low rev, high torque delivery also gives them far better traction too. So while twiddling up in Eagle might seem shameful compared to calf-popping ‘heroics’, if I wanted to climb stuff as fast as possible I know which I’d pick.
Take it easy on tech
At the end of the day, whatever we ride - E-bike, World Cup race bike, electrically metered enduro suspension superbike, or masochistic single-speed gravel bike - is a personal choice. Even if you’re economically barred from certain options right now, history tells us that technology always trickles down to lower cost levels and makes life a lot easier over time. No one is forcing us to adopt new tech either and Canyon has already said there’ll be a blanking plate for the KIS top tube slot if you decide you don’t like having rubberized steering reactions.
We also need to balance the perceived downsides of tech against irrefutable gains for most people too. For example, if we look outside mountain biking for a minute, technological development has given me the luxury of being able to load these words straight onto the internet, rather than putting them on a 7in floppy disc to send down to London for printing. I’m sure that universal accessibility has peeved some web necromancers along the way and it’s certainly made the web a more dangerous, sprawling, and potentially toxic ‘place’ than it was meant to be.
In the same way as being able to take pictures with phones has been hell for professional photographers who used to take days of flouncing, agonizing, and developing film to produce results, it’s also opened up a whole world of amateur artists and kitten content.
In mountain biking the more options we have, the more people can do stuff in a way that suits them. And while more people doing ‘our thing’ might mean we have to move sideways a bit, or just raise the bar further to maintain personal/group exclusivity then that’s actually a big positive in terms of evolving the sport and ourselves even further. The only thing we need to do is think about managing the impact of more and more tech-enabled riders on a landscape that’s already under increasing strain from other users as tech lets everyone access the outdoors easier and potentially encourages them to do it more.
But that’s something I’m going to talk about next week.