“Mountain bikes have never been so good,” write the authors in Pro Mountain Biker. “It seems likely that the 1990s will prove to be the decade in which full-suspension bikes are refined to near perfection.” Judging by all the ways mountain bikes continue to be refined and improved, three decades later and we still aren’t quite there.
Of course the authors weren’t wrong to say that mountain bikes had never been so good; in fact, many of us are saying the same thing today, and we’re not wrong either. Progression is a journey, not a destination, and as riders we continue to benefit from countless innovations that have made mountain bikes ever more capable.
Following a conversation with mountain bike skills instructor Simon Lawton on the Singletracks podcast, I wondered: What makes today’s mountain bikes so much more capable than those from ten or even just five years ago? To answer that, I’d first need to first define what it means to say that a bike is capable.
Mountain bike: (noun) a bicycle designed for off-road cycling1.
Capable: (adjective) having the ability, fitness, or quality necessary to do or achieve a specified thing2.
By definition, if a bike can be ridden off road, it’s a capable mountain bike. Of course that’s an extremely low bar, and mountain bikers expect so much more out of their bikes than just the ability to successfully ride over dirt and rocks.
Pivot Cycles President and CEO Chris Cocalis for one defines mountain bike capability more specifically, saying today’s mountain bikes should allow us to “ride harder, more technical terrain faster and/or more confidently.”
“I think the term ‘capable’ represents a bike’s ability to cover a broader style of riding or broader types of terrain,” adds veteran pro rider Jeff Lenosky. “For mountain bikes, ‘capable’ might refer to a bike that can climb and descend well […].”
Just like our smartphones, today’s bikes are clearly much more capable than they were in the past. And everyone, from pros to Joes, is seeing the benefit of progressive mountain bike design.
“A perfect example of this is to look at footage of a World Cup downhill race 10 years ago vs. today,” says Transition Bikes’ Lars Sternberg. “Riders like Minnaar, Peaty, or Flo Payette looked like they were riding kids’ bikes. I’d wager if you asked them if they were able to ride the exact same track in the same conditions if they would go faster and feel more confident on their current bikes the response would be a resounding yes.”
Four years ago, I posed this question to Singletracks readers: What is the biggest mountain bike innovation of all time? Responses included the usual suspects like better tires and brakes, dropper posts, and improved suspension. Of the big four, Lenosky singles out dropper posts, which he suggests unlocked all the other innovations we’re seeing.
“The biggest innovation was the dropper post, that allowed bikes to have longer travel suspension yet still be rideable, since you could get a decent saddle height for climbing and still be able to drop your saddle low enough to take advantage of the travel.
“Once that floodgate opened it pushed the industry to refine geometry and shock performance which led us to the amazing bikes we have today. Long travel, flat pedals, even E-Bikes wouldn’t be possible or at least nearly as fun without dropper posts.”
As Lenosky hinted in his definition of capability, bikes — in particular trail bikes — should be comfortable and efficient for both climbing and descending. The magic of dropper posts is that they essentially allowed designers to deliver two bikes in one. Consider that dedicated downhill bikes often don’t include dropper posts since they are only focused on one side of the equation. And at the other end of the spectrum, today’s top-of-the-line cross-country race bikes like the Scott Scale RC 900 still ship with fixed posts.
If dropper post adoption was a revolution, mountain bike geometry has undergone more of an evolution, though arguably the changes have been just as impactful. Of course it’s hard to separate geometry from dropper posts, since the two work hand in hand. But improved geometry isn’t just about seat angles and ride height.
“That’s one of the things that I think, as a coach, has become a stabilizing force, of the layout of modern bikes,” says Lawton. “I would say suspension has come a long way, brakes have come a long way, like all that stuff. But really angles, and lengths, and all the engineering that has gone into bikes is really what’s changed them the most.”
Cocalis agrees that things like longer reaches, slacker head tube angles, and wider bars are a big part of what makes today’s bike so much more capable.
Starting with modern bikes’ descending capabilities, it’s clear geometry today is much improved.
“There really is a lot of room on modern bikes to move, and there really is a nice sweet spot, and it is easier to maintain your space over the bottom bracket,” according to Lawton. “And then just the idea of how much further behind the front axle your hands are is really interesting when you think about it. Like if you think about being on flat ground on an old cross-country bike your hands are in front of the front axle so when you go off a curb, you feel like ‘oh my gosh, I’m about to go over my handlebars.’ Now our hands are like, on a modern enduro bike, four or five inches behind the front axle. So you have to get on a pretty steep pitch before your hands even line up with the axle level, let alone you get in front of the front axle.”
And on the climbing end, modern geometry comes into play as well.
“A steeper seat angle on modern suspension bikes gets riders in a better pedaling/climbing position,” says Cocalis. “Riders in certain terrain started realizing that they were in a better climbing position with a steeper seat angle. [A steeper seat tube angle] also proportionately shortens the top tube putting more rider weight on the front end, which is needed to keep bikes with really long reach measurements from pushing/washing out in corners.”
Capable bikes make capable riders
Of course bikes don’t deserve all of the credit; mountain bikers today are also very capable, perhaps even more so than our bikes, which is ultimately what drives riders and designers to build better bikes.
Lawton suggests that a decade or two ago, mountain bike designs were holding us back from descending more confidently and comfortably. “To get back, we just had to get our butts back and kinda hope for the best. They just weren’t very well designed.”
Even professional riders are seeing progressive design benefits, as Sternberg suggests and Lenosky confirms.
“[Geometry changes have] allowed me to ride faster and safer than ever before. My riding style has changed since I’m now able to ride the tech stuff that I love as well as bigger hits [and] faster lines all on the same ride on the same bike. I definitely ride steeper, sketchier terrain on ‘normal’ mountain bike rides than I would have years ago.”
Sources: 1. Wikipedia. 2. Oxford Languages.
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