BLISTER Symposium: The Tech That’s Changed Mountain Biking

Welcome to another BLISTER Symposium, where we present a topic to several of our reviewers for discussion, then encourage you to weigh in on the debate.

It doesn’t happen often, but sometimes a new piece of technology enters the scene that can change a sport. Granted, some people (including a handful of Blister reviewers), argue that all supposed “innovations” are just the natural evolution of products already on the market. So is it possible to pick out a few pieces of gear and call them truly revolutionary?

Maybe not. Blister reviewers weigh in on what developments have left the biggest impact on mountain biking, plus the areas that still have the most room for improvement. Read what they have to say, then chime in with your own arguments and opinions.

First off—what are the products or innovations you think have had the greatest impact on the way people ride? 

Marshal: I’m skeptical that much has truly changed the way people ride. Disc brakes and full suspension designs have both existed for more than 15 years. They have continuously improved though.

Noah: There are relatively few products that have really changed the way people ride, and not many are recent.

But I’d put the Rock Shox RS-1 on the revolutionary list—that thing definitely changed how bikes were ridden.

Rock Shox RS-1, Blister gear Review.
Rock Shox RS-1

I’d also put the early gravity droppers on the list. They didn’t change the way people ride to the extent that suspension has, but they were a noteworthy innovation that:

  1. Solved a problem
  2. Weren’t simply a logical “next step” from existing technology.

But really, bikes have been around for a long time, and there have been lots of ideas (both good and bad), over the years. The RS-1 wasn’t the first time suspension appeared on bikes, and the gravity dropper wasn’t the first mechanism to easily change seat height. But they were the first designs that worked well and achieved widespread acceptance.

What about the hite rite? 

Noah: It’s not really the same. It didn’t have the necessary functionality to make it markedly different and noteworthy. You could call it an evolution—quick release -> hite rite -> gravity dropper. My point is that the gravity dropper was a big leap forward.

Kevin: I think the single biggest thing that has changed the way people ride is the internet.

Trails that used to be protected by the builders no longer are. We have helmet cams with built-in GPS. Most user-built networks appear on Strava these days.

It’s not all bad since some of the more successful advocacy campaigns have come along thanks to the internet. But at the same time, the awareness groups wouldn’t have needed to form in the first place if it weren’t for the additional traffic generated by the internet.

Tom:  I agree with Noah that dropper posts and suspension forks are two very important improvements for mountain biking.

I’d also add disc brakes and rear suspension. Suspension separated riders from the terrain they were traveling over, and it’s let them go faster. That, plus the increase in control afforded by more powerful brakes, and I’d say the average rider is traveling faster today than if they were riding a rigid, cantilever brake-equipped bike. That doesn’t mean the new bikes are always more fun to ride though…

The 29” wheels have boosted the skills of intermediate riders, I think. The larger wheels allow a rider to buy greater capability. Bigger wheels carry these riders over larger roots, logs, and rocks than they might be used to riding, and they can make rough downhills seem smooth.

I think Kevin is onto something with his comments regarding the effect media has on the average rider. I know my interest in owning and riding a downhill bike skyrockets every time I watch a typical bike video. In my opinion, a good edit that sensationalizes some aspect of riding can incite people to buy more bikes and it can make aggressive riding styles more popular.

Lift access for bikes has also pushed technology and riding skills forward for years now. Lifts mean that designers can build heavy DH bikes that would be impractical without easy access to the top of the mountain. They also let riders descend thousands of vertical feet in a single day. I think lift access has pushed suspension, brake, tire development, and riding skills forward.

Which has more impact on the way people ride—the constant refinement of products, or “revolutionary” breakthroughs? 

Marshal: Neither. I think riders are better at riding because the average age of riders is going up as the barrier to get into riding bikes gets more and more expensive. Older riders = more experienced = better technical skills.

Noah: I don’t really agree. Yeah, there are more guys that have been riding bikes for a long time now, and more experience definitely equates to better technical skills. But, if I take myself as an example, I’m way faster on modern bikes than I am on the early 90s bikes that I was riding when I first got into the sport.

So, to answer the question, I’d say the constant refinement of products ultimately is what makes them better. Revolutionary designs are rare, but the incremental fine tuning of an idea can make it awesome.

Take disc brakes—when they first came out, they were pretty bad. The potential was clearly there, but most of the designs on the market were problematic for a number of reasons. Over the years, the designs have been refined and now the benefits over any rim-braking system are tipped so far in favor of disc brakes that you can’t even find rim-brake-compatible rims anymore.

Avid XO Hydraulic Disc Brake Set, Blister Gear Review.
Avid hydraulic disc brake set from ’11

Marshal: Of course constant refinement makes bikes better, and of course you’re faster going downhill on a modern full suspension bike. My point is that you can take a 1993 hardtail on most trails (non-true DH race tracks), and still have fun doing so.

Have bikes come a long way?  Absolutely. But it’s not a fundamentally different sport (outside of DH racing). The average person riding a mountain bike is not doing what was unthinkable 15-20 years ago. Granted, pro DH racers are, but most freeriders are just doing BMX Jr. moves.

Kevin: While the average Joe might think that the things that save a fraction of a second at the World Cup level will help him or her, I think that’s a fallacy. Once a rider gets into a certain range of the current bike builds for a given discipline, it’s rare that a component will really bring a rider to the next level.

Tom: Constant improvements have resulted in bikes across the board that ride well and are reliable. More than anything else, this slow change has improved the quality of experience for almost all riders.

Being able to get on something and have it work from the get-go is huge. In the past (especially when the technologies mentioned above first became available), there were some really bad bikes on the market. These bikes had bad geometry, terrible suspension designs, and broke frequently. It could make for a terrible riding experience.

That’s not the case today. Almost any bike you buy now won’t get in the way of a good ride.

What are the supposed ‘innovations’ that have received the most undeserved hype in your opinion? 

Marshal: In the bike industry, every mild incremental improvement is sometimes purported to be a major revolution. Granted, some of those incremental improvements shouldn’t be underestimated. SRAM’s XX1, readily available aftermarket custom shock tuning (Avalanche Ava), and carbon wheels all really do contribute to a better ride.

Noah: Agreed. And like I said earlier, most ideas in the bike world aren’t new. Mountain bikes have been around long enough that most of the ideas that come out aren’t even new with respect to mountain bikes. Companies come out with “new” products that are basically just re-hashed versions of stuff that’s been around for 20 years.

Where is there the most room for improvement? 

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