Singletrack Issue 120
I took a trip back in time recently, revisiting a place I used to ride when I was just starting out. Back then the mountain bike world was a rich, but obscure landscape. I’d not ridden in many places and I didn’t have many riding friends – or even miles in my legs. It was all new and every bike ride was a challenge and a treat. I’d learn new trails and techniques with every outing, as I started to fill in the gaps in my personal local trail knowledge. And it was great. Still is, in fact..
Revisiting this old track, with its lumps and bumps and twists and turns that used to entertain and terrify, I was unsurprised to find that I was able to skip down it at speed and in comfort, as my full suspension bike, with its ‘progressive geometry’ and ‘buttery suspension’, soaked up the trail debris before I pulled up to a graceful stop by using my powerful and consistent disc brakes. It got me thinking that I’d not ridden that trail since bikes had got good, some time in the past couple of decades.
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Bikes are great these days. Of that, I think we’re all agreed. Every year brings an incremental improvement over the previous year’s models, although those increments are getting slimmer every time. The early ‘wild west’ years of mountain biking brought huge improvements with every new model, as the engineers worked on major structural upgrades while the product managers and test riders worked towards better geometry and ergonomics for the riders.
There was, however, a point at which bikes got ‘good’. Not better, as that happened every year, but there was a point at which they tipped over to where they were consistently reliable and usable and suitable for whatever you threw at them.
I think that this is a finite point in time, before which most bikes still held onto their slightly cobbled together roots and bike rides weren’t complete until something had gone wrong with a rider’s bike and you either all had to pool your tool resources to repair it or the victim started the long walk home. And then, after this specific, made-up point in time, bike rides were more about where you rode and how far/how fast you went than how far you went before Jimbo’s bike broke again. Obviously, this still happens and we all know riders who only ever make it halfway through a ride before something implodes on their bike, but that’s usually not down to a lack of decent bike frames and components being available.
Was it the start of the ’90s? No, I don’t reckon. We still had unreliable brakes, puncture-prone tyres, wacky geometry and the legacy of mountain biking’s touring-bike-meets-paperboy-bike legacy.
How about the glory year of 1996? The pinnacle of the retro bike movement? Nope, we still had an assortment of ideas of what made a perfect bike but most of them didn’t stand the test of time. Tioga disc wheels and Judy forks anyone? Even the end of the ’90s, and the birth of 24-hour racing didn’t bring bike perfection, with most still bikes coming with V-brakes, tiller stems and questionable rubber. And 29ers hadn’t even been heard of.
Perhaps we should skip forward to a more modern year like, say, 2010? We had bikes like the Gary Fisher Superfly, the Specialized Epic Marathon, the Trek Fuel EX – all good bikes, but we’d already had good bikes then for a few years, so we need to go back in time again.
2001. That’s when I reckon the cusp is. This year saw the arrival of the leap-forward Fox Float suspension fork – it was also the year that Stan’s tubeless tape and sealant started to appear, production bikes started to come with disc brakes as a matter of course, and we mostly knew what we wanted from our playthings and could rely on them to stay together.
We had the Klein Attitude Comp, the first Specialized Enduro, the Orange Sub 5… things were starting to look up. While there were still a few kooky bikes, in general, you could leap onto just about any mountain bike and know that you’d get to the end of the ride. It would be a while before we had the robust, slick shifting, bombproof machines that we have today, but it was a turning point, and things have just been getting better ever since.