2001… 2011… Beyond

When putting together the “2001 MTB v 2011 MTB” feature in the new issue of Singletrack it struck me how the difference between 2011 stuff and 2001 stuff wasn’t anywhere near as massive as the difference between 2001 stuff and 1991 stuff. I had assumed that this feature would have been easier to do. Or more obvious to find the differences. As it turns out, with the three companies chosen to illustrate the past 10 years of MTB evolution anyway, there are very few hideously outdated or ridiculously off-the-wall bike designs from 2001. By that point in mountain biking’s history things had settled down a bit.

So what have we learned from looking back at the bikes and product catalogues of 2001? Speaking from a purely engineering or technical point of view the changes have been significant and desirable but they haven’t been immense.

Geometry has changed a bit. The overly high bikes of the early 21st century – as designers were getting to grips with how to deal with sticking more and more suspension under a frame – are thankfully a thing of the past. In a strange but understandable way bike are a lot more like bikes of the early 1990s; long and low. It’s just that nowadays they have a few inches of suspension travel at either end, are loads stiffer, and have shorter stems and wider handlebars.

Suspension damping has arguably been the biggest leap forward. Modern shocks are much more “intelligent”. Modern shocks can be tuned to high heaven to do pretty much whatever you want them to. Air shocks really do work nigh on as well as coil shock (better in certain applications in fact).

What has changed is people’s riding. Especially those people who started riding since 2001. Trail centres are a big factor. There are now people who have been riding for a few years who have never ridden a mountain bike outside of a trail centre. They have no experience of dealing with boggy moorland crossing. Or navigating a Lakeland pass in minimal visibility. They’re “resort riders” who expect and demand fast, flowing trails with plenty of berms and jumps please.

The “norm”, or rather, the marketing man’s “ideal” is no longer XC (in the racey sense of the word). Full suspension bikes with about 140mm of travel are everywhere. People are now less concerned with weight saving being the be all and all of a good bike. They want to be riding a bike that enables them to ride increasingly demanding terrain.

Hardtails at the “decent” price point have split between big forked, big tyred, slack angled “hardcore hardtails” and big wheeled, comfy, efficient 29ers. Even XC racers have realised that most decent modern XC courses are better ridden on a full susser.

Where does this leave the thirty or forty year old riders who still like to do it in an old skool style? Well, in a funny way they’ve never had it so good. The trails are quieter. The bikes are lighter. Comfier. Safer. Easier to maintain. More fun. They’ll continue to be ignored by the marketing men. Until the time when there’s a genuine threat to rights-of-way access (whether its the sell off of trail centres or a restriction on bridleways) whereupon they will rise up and save the day.

Some Predictions For Post-2011. Discuss…

- The rise of GPS enabled Smartphones will see a new generation of riders breaking out of trail centres and getting out there in the proper stuff.

- Increasing petrol prices will also see more people exploring their doorstep trails rather than driving hours to another part of the country.

- Carbon fibre will be the norm for bike frames by 2015.

- More and more new formats of racing will be invented to satisfy whatever categories the modern MTBer wishes to be assessed on.

- The death and rebirth of the Local Bike Shop. Cyclists will still buy things cheap online. Bike shops with poor customer service will die. Decent, friendly real world bike shops will strive for a higher level of service and will thrive.

- People will choose their bike based on almost entirely on brand affiliation and loyalty – fandom – rather than functional performance. Some big names will fall. The Little Guys will do just fine.

- 29ers will be the norm for hardtails.

- There will be no more talk of the “perfect suspension design”. There will be a wider degree of knowledge and marketing for the most appropriate design for the chosen application/rider. This will lead to certain brands narrowing their range to a specific type of riding that bests suits their (patented) suspension design.

- Bikes will not get cheaper.