It’s Time for Mountain Bikes to Lose Some Weight

Mountain bikes are getting too heavy. It's time for frame and component designers to prioritize lighter weights again.

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As far as New Year’s Resolutions go, losing weight tends to be a pretty popular one. Reduced weight is generally associated with improved health and energy, and I think the same can be said for mountain bikes and the bike industry too. After years of letting themselves go, it’s time mountain bikes got serious about losing weight again.

Loosening of constraints

Today’s mountain bikes look pretty similar to the bicycles produced in the 1800s for one simple reason: no one has come up with a more efficient and effective design. Despite all the advances in technology in the past two centuries, the most efficient way for a human being to move under their own power still involves two skinny wheels, a set of pedals, and a handlebar for steering. Whether we’re riding XC or enduro, we demand our mountain bikes let us move as fast as possible while expending the the least amount of physical energy. In that way, light weight is a big part of what makes a bike, a bike.

But we also want comfort. And dropper posts. And grippy, durable tires. Early bike riders were similarly demanding. Bikes produced in the 1800s, many weighing 80 pounds or more, were known as bone shakers because their wooden frames and wheels did little to smooth the bumps in dirt and cobblestone roads. Soon pneumatic tires and steel frames came along and not only made bikes more comfortable and capable, they also made bikes lighter and therefore easier to pedal. Let that sink in for a moment; bikes became more capable AND less heavy at the same time.

The aviation industry has followed a similar path to innovation with world-changing results. Perhaps the most famous aviation pioneers, the Wright Brothers, worked as bike builders and mechanics before taking to the skies in their ground-breaking flight at Kitty Hawk. Like bicycles, airplanes need to be as lightweight as possible, and for this reason both industries are known for experimenting with cutting-edge materials like titanium and carbon fiber. Lightweight airplanes are easier to get off the ground; lightweight bicycles are easier to pedal up the mountain.

Take a look at any mountain bike magazine or advertisement from the 1990s and you’ll see at least one photo of someone lifting a bike over their head. It was a big deal then (and now) to own a bike that was rugged enough to ride just about anywhere, and yet lightweight enough to toss around like a piece of luggage. In the 1990s we placed bikes on the roof of our cars with our bare hands. Today we have ramps and lifts to make it easier to get your bike up and onto your hitch rack. SMH.

I can’t quantify this exactly but from my perch, it seems like weight constraints have been relaxed in mountain bike design over the past six or seven seasons. These days we’re seeing more trail bikes in for test that tip the scales above 30 pounds than below 30, a reversal from several years ago. This $8,000+ downcountry high tech wünderbike weighs nearly 32lb. Another bike we’re currently testing comes with the latest wireless drivetrain, incredibly responsive suspension, truck-stopping brakes, and killer tires — and it weighs almost 35lb out of the box.

Yes, we’ve added dropper posts and complex linkages. But we also lost front derailleurs, inner tubes, extra chainrings, and on the latest bikes, even the shifter cables and housing are gone. What happened?

I say ditch the functional but frumpy sweatpants, and bring sexy back.

Three years ago Singletracks wrote that bike weight shouldn’t be a primary concern to most riders, and in general I still agree with the sentiment. But as any artist or designer knows, constraints are an important driver of innovation and without them, we’re often left with bloated, lazy results that bring neither joy nor excitement. Making a component both lighter and more durable requires some seriously creative thinking, and those innovative solutions are the things that make bikes sexy. I say ditch the functional but frumpy sweatpants, and bring sexy back.

The eMTB in the room

Earlier I said we want our mountain bikes to ride fast while expending as little physical energy as possible. So what happens when physical energy is no longer a limitation? It would be tempting to conclude that weight doesn’t matter anymore, but the fact is it’s just as important, if not more so.

Adding weight to e-bikes is basically a doom loop of ever-increasing heaviness. Just look at electric vehicles; buyers want more range, but that requires bigger, heavier batteries which reduces efficiency and requires even more power, resulting in this. Similarly, our e-bikes will need to find innovative ways to get lighter in order to avoid the path to diminishing returns.

If mountain bikes get much heavier, fewer of us will want to pedal them uphill anymore, and the e-bikes will have won.

Since eMTBs weigh more than non-electrics, their components need to be more robust to maintain the same level of performance and durability. This isn’t an unreasonable tradeoff since the motor can compensate by doing a bit more work for the rider. But if traditional mountain bikes get heavier and more robust too, fewer of us will want to pedal them uphill anymore, and the e-bikes will have won.

A heavy mountain bike wants to stay planted and smash rocks. So we add burlier tires and wheels to avoid flats, which makes our bikes even heavier. A lightweight bike allows the rider to tread more smoothly, lofting over obstacles and avoiding many of the hardest impacts altogether.

Pick two: Cheap, lightweight, or high performance

It would be one thing if the prices of mountain bikes were going down, but they’re not. (Notwithstanding recent supply-related price reductions, some of which are ultimately a return to pre-pandemic levels anyway.) On average buyers are getting heavier but not cheaper bikes. Given the three major constraints — price, weight, and performance — it feels as if we’ve been offered just a single choice lately.

Not that it’s a bad choice. Most of us will agree that today’s mountain bikes are the best they’ve ever been in terms of comfort, durability, and capability. But in my opinion they would be even better if they were lighter than the year before, and the year before that. Easier to pedal and climb. Easier to get into the air, and more playful too. Better proportioned to a wider range of riders, including women and kids. Capable of transporting us hundreds of miles off the grid for days at a time, completely self-supported. A more natural extension of ourselves.

Lighter weight equals better performance and we shouldn’t separate the two.

Of course the lightest weight bikes today are also generally the most expensive, and none of us wants to see bike prices climb just to save a few extra grams. Fortunately history shows that over time the innovations and technologies developed to address constraints at the top end of the market eventually make it down to the average consumer. Yet without clear consumer demand, outside of elite racing there is little incentive for brands to look for additional weight savings.

Making mountain bikes that are lighter and more capable isn’t easy, but as history shows it’s not impossible either. It’s time for mountain bikes to start losing weight again.