Opinion: Innovation, where would we be without it?

Dear Mountain Biking, you’ve changed and I thank you for it.

The early mountain bike experience was not what it is today, and if it was, as much as I love riding, I’d have stopped years ago.

Not long ago a simple mountain bike ride involved a whole lot more nursing of equipment and trail-side hacking – just to make it home. I recall almost every ride involved a mechanical of some sort. Punctures, dropping chains and brake failure were regular occurrences. So to were the more severe mechanical failures like frames, bars or stems snapping. Wheels exploding? – yes, some unlucky souls had wheels folding underneath them.  Do you remember those suspension explosions where elastomers would shoot out the top of the fork when landing a ‘massive’ 30cm drop? Crazy.

knysna fat tyre mountain bike festival
The early days of Cross-country racing in South Africa. Sedgefield circa 1991/2

Perhaps equally catastrophic were the sudden oil eruptions from suspension — without warning they’d spew oil out (sometimes onto the brakes!) turning a ‘regular roll’ into a frightening brakeless ‘death grip’ experience. These things really happened people – I mean really!  I would be amiss not to mention the ridiculously regular crashing in those early days – most likely caused by the ‘steep, short and high’ road bike geometry that inspired early mountain bike design.

Needless to say, things are a whole lot better today. Firstly, a mechanical is a very rare occurrence. Secondly, modern bikes are incredibly efficient machines that float along like magic carpets – eating up square edges, slick surfaces and just about anything in our path. Not to mention the incredibly steep and technical trails we are now able to blitz. Then there are those 20m (or longer) jumps we clear and the atrocious weather conditions we are able to ride in. All thanks to the modern mountain bike. They have come so far over the last 30 years and to get where we are today there’s been a lot of innovation and development. The type that has taken the sport from a Hackfest to a hassle-free outdoor Zen-like experience. Inspired from a conversation with a riding buddy, here’s my list of the top six mountain bike innovations that have impressed me the most – and, made riding better for everyone, whether rookie or pro.


greg herbold winning the 1990 mountain bike world championships
Greg Herbold was the first rider to win a World Championship Title with front suspension. Circa 1990.

Arriving in the early ’90s and initially shunned by the purists, suspension started with elastomer internals before progressing to coil and air springs. Those early forks had 48mm of travel for XC and 60mm for Downhill – a far cry from the 120mm and 200mm modern staple. The focus on those early XC forks was to keep them low and superlight which meant although faster than a fully rigid, they were also thin and pretty flexy. A lot of the early development and push into this space was through RockShox, who together with Greg Herbold was the first to win a World Championship with front suspension, back in 1990. Fast-forwarding a few years and new companies arrived, each adding their technology to the game – a lot of which originated inside the motorcycle industry. We soon had longer travel forks, wider stanchions, and a slew of adjustability. In the late ’90s and early 2000s things progressed fast and (understandably) reliability was often an issue. Complete and often catastrophic fork failures were happening and suspension service intervals on some brands were (unofficially) reduced to every ride. This is how we rolled – we hoped things could improve but we had no idea just how good things would get.

As the demand for full suspension bikes increased, shocks went through a similar process to forks. Luckily, through constant innovation, the quirks of early shocks were solved and every few years there were significant breakthroughs in technology leading us to where we are now. Today, thanks to all that innovation, suspension is easy enough to set up, pretty reliable, and whether we are charging XC miles, shooting singletrack on trail bikes or blasting about on eBikes the performance of suspension (even base level models) is insanely excellent. Nowadays we have low-speed and high-speed compression, rebound settings, volume adjusters, different spring weights, pre-loads, manual lockouts, electronic lockouts and so many travel and stanchion sizes to choose from. Who’d have thought? Overall, it’s an incredible time to be riding. 20 odd years ago, if you told me about the performance we’d get out of suspension in this modern era, and the terrain we’d be able to blaze through, I’d have said ‘you’re drunk mate.’

Dropper posts

rockshox reverb electronic dropper post
RockShox broke the internet when they dropped a wireless electronic dropper onto the scene.

Imagine this, it’s about 17 years back and dropper posts never existed. You’d be out riding and get to the top of a trail, where you’d dismount, scratch around for a multitool which you’d then use to lower your saddle to a safer and more efficient height for descending, then drop in. At the bottom of the trail, you’d then repeat the process and lift your saddle back up to an efficient climbing position. This was mountain biking. That’s how it happened, except during XC races, where we did all kinds of yoga climbing around that saddle on the downs trying not to get pitched over the bars.

Nowadays, partly due to the unpopularity of typing with one arm for six weeks whilst a collarbone heals, almost every performance-orientated mountain bike is equipped with a dropper, making riding and racing far safer. Top of a trail, push a lever (or a button on the wireless electronic option from RockShox) and slam that saddle for the descent. All of a sudden you are not getting pitched out the front door, your hips are free to move about so you can shift your body weight around to ride safer and faster. Incredible. Again, if you spoke of this dropper post technology back in the day, I’d have questioned your sobriety mate. It has truly changed the game.

Tyre technology

pirelli mountain bike tyre
Global super-brand Pirelli entered the mountain bike (and road) markets some 5 years back, bringing a wealth of technology and innovation to the cycling world.

In the beginning, we only had uber-narrow 1.8” tyres in a Lego-like (hard) rubber compound that provided almost zero grip. They were mounted to skinny (inner diameter) rims, in the tiny 26” wheel size with thin inner tubes that would pinch flat on the tiniest square edge hit. Per manufacturer, we now have tyres per genre in different widths, casings, tread patterns and compounds. The result is we have more grip, better rolling speed, lighter weights, and more durability. One thing is for sure, the innovation in this space means we climb and descend far faster, with more control and safety.

There’s more – a little over 12 years ago we started to move away from those capricious tubes, to a tubeless system, with a milky liquid known as a sealant that actually does a pretty good job of sealing holes from thorns or pinches. We’ve also got tyre inserts now, they add yet more durability and performance to the tyre. Bliss!

Modern geometry

myles kelsey riding the bloemendal mountain bike track
Bikes are now longer, lower and slacker and what that means is they offer more grip when cornering, are less likely to chuck you out the front door on the steeps and you are far more stable at higher speeds.

As I mentioned earlier, road bike geometry was the name of the game in the early years and this was a hugely limiting factor on where we could ride, the speeds we could ride at and our safety. Little did we know at the time that the staple 120mm stems and 600mm bars amplified the sketchy handling traits of our dirt ‘roadies’. The shift to true mountain bike geometry started in the late ’90s, and it was a gradual move as nobody really knew where to go with it. Over the last 15 years, things progressed but for me, it’s really about the last 6 years that I’ve seen just about all the brands pivot to contemporary geometry. Thank goodness! Bikes are now longer, lower and slacker and what that means is they offer more grip when cornering, are less likely to chuck you out the front door on the steeps and you are far more stable at higher speeds.

One of the first brands to really push the elements here is Mondraker (not available in SA). Although they went a little outrageous at times – they were one of the pioneers of short stems, longer reach numbers and slacker head angles.  All bikes that are winning World Cup XC racing today have very similar geometry to trail bikes and those are now pretty close to where DH bike geometry is. The result? – when you buy a mountain bike today (from reputable and performance-orientated brands) you can be pretty confident the chassis is modeled around contemporary geometry. This modern geometry means we all ride faster, safer and better. It also means more people are taking to mountain biking as it’s not a kamikaze sport anymore.


We went from cantilever, to V-brakes, to hydraulic disc brakes in a little over 10 years. Before disc brakes, half of the challenge on the mountain was not to buckle a wheel, as it meant suffering through the ride with the pads touching the bent rim and sucking watts out of every pedal stroke. Of course, the rim brake setup also meant any wet weather rides were a game of Russian Roulette – the probability of slowing down the first time you hit the brakes was better-than-even odds but eventually, those odds stacked against you – a few turns later, when things were really damp, there’d just be no slowing down.

My first disc brake ride experience was in 1998 on a Trek Y-Bike and it blew my mind. That set of Hayes disc brakes was pretty good but had reliability issues in the early years. These days, disc brakes are a thing of beauty, with 2, 4, or sometimes 6-piston setups, different rotor sizes, and pad compounds, they perform very well, in all weather. Brake failure is simply not a thing anymore. Looking into the future – there’s a bit of chatter about electronic brakes and if (or likely when) they will be arriving. Considering SRAM has already gone wireless electronic with droppers and shifters, perhaps the fly-by-wire brake systems are indeed more than just chatter. That technology does exist. If they materialize, imagine how clean the cockpits will be without any cabling… yes, please!


sram 1x12 drivetrain
The modern drivetrains are a 1×12 setup offering wide range, slick-shifting with almost zero maintenance required.

Oh boy. Drivetrains have come so far since those early days – so very far. I mean, just imagine it being quite normal to stop a few times in every XC race to put your chain back on. Or worse yet, dropping the chain onto the frame side of the chainring, wedging it into the small space between the frame and the crank arm which would often necessitate flipping the bike onto its bars and saddle to yank the chain free. This was a regular mid-race mechanical and it happened so often we had an actual name for it, ‘chain-suck’. I love mountain biking, I really do, but looking back at how we used to hack with drivetrains I’m pretty sure I would have moved onto another sport had drivetrain technology not progressed as fast as it did.

rudy project mountain bike
My Rudy Project fully rigid, 3X setup from about 1993. At the time it was cutting-edge technology. Looking back it was nothing but stiff, sketchy and scary.

We began with heavy and loud Triple-chainrings and an 8 or 9-speed cassette before the industry moved to a double-chainring setup. Not long later, SRAM pioneered the push into the 1x (single-chainring) space that every brand now provides. Honestly, at the time, the move to 1x was bold but they had luckily identified the many hidden benefits of a 1x system, early and were bang on with the innovation. A quieter, lighter bike with fewer moving parts and more real estate for bike designers to put pivots, suspension and linkages in the right place are but some of the upsides of 1x drivetrains. Enabling the 1x setup was the advent of wide-range cassettes that started with a 10-42t. Nowadays we are looking at 10x50t or 52t options, in 12-speed, giving us all the required range we could possibly need. At the same time, SRAM rekindled the narrow-wide tooth design on chainrings which prevented the chain from popping off and this really put the front derailleur out to pasture. Another drivetrain feature that changed the ride experience is the modern derailleur clutch that increases the tension on the chain to prevent it from clanging about or coming off. Genius.

Five and a half years back, SRAM’s wireless electronic shifting arrived – giving us cleaner cockpits and maintenance-free shifting. What??? Do you mean I never have to tweak the barrel adjuster to fix the half-shifting, replace a cable or worse yet, miss a shift when on the rivet? There’s that inebriated talk again…

myles kelsey riding the bloemendal mountain bike track
What will tomorrow bring?

When I look at all the innovation that exists on a modern mountain bike and how everyone is benefitting from it, it makes me smile. Peace.

| WORDS: Myles Kelsey | IMAGES: Gary Perkin |

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