Full Circle: The ‘Evolution’ of Mountain Biking

Add a number plate and you've got a race. Photo: Caleb Smith spokemagazine.com
Add a number plate and you’ve got a race. Photo: Caleb Smith spokemagazine.com

Think back to the early days of mountain biking. A bunch of friends, getting to the top of the hill any way they could, not needing to ride up at any great pace, saving themselves for the real buzz, the ride back down. It didn’t matter who got tot the top first, as long as everyone made it and then could share a chat, maybe a beer and a toke, before they pointed their rigs back downhill. The hair was as flowing as the conversation, and that was just the guys.

The weight of their bikes wasn’t a factor, just making it to the bottom with functioning brakes and their jeans not tangled in the chain was the most important thing. Most of the bikes and parts were derived from road-going machines, and most of the early wheels were either cut down and re-welded road hoops, or beach cruiser wheels which came in some strange diameter. Innovation and invention was strong from the start, with a bunch of them making their own frames and cobbling together parts. They shaped the development of this new sport, which in turn helped revive and push road bike technology too.

While racing down the hill was the way it all started, soon the predominant racing genre would become riding around in circles, up long climbs and then back down again. Even though the climbing was the major element, the races were dubbed cross country. Downhill was usually raced on the same day, on the same bike, on the same part of the XC course. Gradually downhill technology advanced with suspension at both ends getting longer, while the XC bikes (and riders) looked to go on diets that would make Jenny Craig envious. Somewhere in between, regular mountain bikers just rode their bikes on the trails, up and down, without a label of their own to identify with.

Sometime in the last few years, the bikes that most people ride on most trails most of the time took on an identity of their own. The marketers, in a moment of brilliant clarity, called them trail bikes. But what were these trail riders going to do if they wanted to compete every now and then? The bikes didn’t fit into the XC category (too heavy, too much travel), they were too under-gunned for proper downhill racing, and most of the riders just wanted to have a bit of fun more than set any PBs or have to wear lycra and shave their legs to be considered worthy of the ‘racer’ tag. What they needed (even if only the marketers knew it) was a new type of racing, where the fun bits, the singletrack and the descents, mattered more than the boring hard bits, the climbs. Enter enduro.

Just about every company at Interbike recently released something that had the word enduro attached to it. Bikes, components, shoes, helmets, clothing, there’s something for everyone to just go and ride with, just like we used to, but now only better. Enduro has maybe not saved mountain biking, but has given it a whole new lease of life by bringing back the core elements of why we ride a bike on trails. Whether that needed a tag or not, well that’s debatable, but I know that the bikes we ride now are some of the most dialled and most versatile that I’ve ridden in my 23 years of mountain biking. They have certainly brought the fun back to my riding, by allowing me to ride faster, with more control and more confidence.

Those hippies back in the 70s and 80s were way ahead of their time in many ways. That the preferred wheel size back then was 650b could have changed the way bikes developed a lot sooner, and the way we’ve arrived at this ‘new’ wheel size via a smaller and then a bigger one is maybe a blessing in disguise. Maybe we wouldn’t have three sizes (soon to be two) to choose from, and all bikes would have at least one component that was a true ‘standard’. The way things are heading though, most trail riders in the next three or four years will be on the medium hoops whether they like it or not; the 26″ wheel holdouts will have nothing left to complain about except the fact they can’t get any tyres any more, and that they secretly wished they’d switched to medium wheeled bikes sooner, because, shhh, don’t tell anyone, they’re actually better.

I get to ride a few bikes in my job, on a lot of varied trails all around the place, and it’s hard to find many bad bikes these days. Whether it’s down to frame design, angles, suspension technology or wheel size, I don’t know. Probably all of those, combined with other factors like wider bars/shorter stems, the banishment of the front derailleur, big fat tubeless tyres, and the best invention in mountain biking in the last ten years, the dropper seatpost. All these things are staples of the modern trail bike, and whether or not they have the word enduro attached to them doesn’t really matter. But I know this; mountain biking is looking healthier than it has since the halcyon days of the early nineties, and racing is becoming popular again because the fun is being put back into it. Heck, I’m even having a crack at one of these new races next weekend too, and I’m actually looking forward to it.

Thanks, enduro.

burner-26351

This is what a modern mountain bike looks like… my new Turner Burner.

The Rise of Enduro – Teaser from Tom Teller on Vimeo.

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84 Replies to “Full Circle: The ‘Evolution’ of Mountain Biking”

  1. @Dr C

    If he has an ounce of Aussie in him, can I retract my commiserations for Brett?

    Just amend it slightly, the Aussies have lost just about every sporting event they’ve entered this year.

    @Dr C

    @Chris

    @Teocalli

    “Sir Ben Ainslie’s Oracle Team USA

    I’m surprised they made any reference to the USA at all.

    Amazing to think that a guy who spent all his time sailing from a very young age had the time to build up and run a tech giant like Oracle.

    The BBC are incredibly fuck useless at times.

    Good work by the Grand Ole Lady – let’s see what they make of Sundays thrash around Florence – Maybe Sky’s owner Chris Froome might do the business?

    They would be better off hiring UK Cycling Expert than lettering their own so called journalists cover it.

  2. @Dr C

    MTB has always been cool. I’m a mountain biker who also rides road, I started road when it was too wet to ride trails, doing 50km rides with slicks on my hardtail. When the roadies would get pissed at me for passing them, I thought I could piss them off more if I had a road bike and rode in baggies and mtb shoes. I did.

    “My boys” weren’t even in the America’s Cup, although we had the winning skipper. The Arab team did ok though, but it seems everyone who never gave a fuck about rich men in boats seems to be clinically depressed about some Arabs losing a boat race. The Kiwi public are pretty unsportsmanlike to be honest, terrible losers and gloating winners… all the talk is of “we was robbed, American cheats, changing rules, too much money” bullshit… makes me sick actually.

    @Harminator

    I’m not that stupid!

  3. bretto, is it possible to put 650 wheels on a bike designed for 26″ wheels? I would think as long as the tires clear there is no big downside. I would hate to get a new bike just to change wheel size. Because I’m a cheap prick. I’ve rented a few 29ers and they are a big improvement but I bet the 650 wheels are the perfect balance between the two.

    Your enduro bike is badass.

  4. @Gianni

    Yeah, it’s possible on some bikes, people have been doing those conversions for years, there’s plenty of info online if you look. Clearance is the main problem, no point in running a bigger wheel if you have to run a small tyre (2.1 or under).

    @asyax

    I read an article that when they fitted a 2.25 tyre to a 26″³ the diameter difference between that wheel and a 650B was around 10mm – really – why all the fuss!

    Yeah, plenty of that bullshit around… if you put the same size tyre on both wheel sizes, then the difference will be the same. Putting a big tyre on a 26 and a little tyre on a 650b will bring it closer but still not the same diameter.

  5. @frank

    @brett

    @EricW

    Yeah it’s my Burner, longer travel than the Flux, which is also now a 650b bike (though Dave prefers to call them 27.5). The Burner is 140mm travel, the Flux now is up to 120. My mate who runs the Singletrack Colorado tour I did recently was on a loaner Enduro 29 and loved it. I was on a loaner Burner and that’s what helped my decision. Funny how when 29ers were first appearing, Specialized said they’d “never make a 29er” and now that’s about all they make… looks like they’re doing the same with 650b, so it’ll be history repeating when they finally catch up in a couple of years.

    @Fausto

    Max?

    @frank

    I think someone got a new camera and maybe some lights. That shot and his updated shots of his Merckx over on the Cable Obsession discussion are glorious.

    No, I can’t claim that, they are shot by Caleb Smith who owns Spoke and is a Pro, one of the best in the world…

    So what is it with the 29er and 650b thing? The first move was to 29er and everyone seemed to agree that was the way to go, but now it seems like 29ers are considered to be a bit too big? Not responsive enough maybe? Is 650b just a middle ground between the two?

    As for the single ring, top marks on the approach, although I’ll have to learn more about why you want a 12T on the front. I remember Tinker used to ride only in the big ring and when I’m CX’ing I never – ever -use the 38T. I just grind it out in the big ring and chain cross as much as I need to. Big gears on technical climbs is a massive advantage because if the wheel slips at 50 rpm then its just a quarter turn, whereas if you’re spinning at 90 or 100 rpm a slip with send you buzz-sawing. (I exaggerate, but you get my drift.)

    That said, I’m still riding my 50T on the front because of the Heck of the North I’m riding this weekend, and I’ll be grateful for the 44T on those steep, rooted climbs when the race is over. Long way of saying, if this was a dedicated CX rig, I’d go single front for sure.

    Meant to reply to this yesterday. The small (tiny) chainring is to increase clearance. the bigger the ring, the closer your spiky wheel is to the stump you are trying to clear.

  6. @brett

     The Kiwi public are pretty unsportsmanlike to be honest, terrible losers and gloating winners… all the talk is of “we was robbed, American cheats, changing rules, too much money” bullshit… makes me sick actually.

     

    Haha way to generalize bretto, you just need to surround yourself with people with a better perspective by the sounds of it. These egg heads you generalise kiwis all to be kind of make me think of the Aussies feeling sawn off in the Ashes for some guy not walking when that is their speciality etc etc. Just negative perspective. There’s always going to be idiots, but I find they are the minority. Most I know are disappointed but proud. We’re not all like the media or talkback callers!

    If my kids get into sport, I want them to have a never say die and win at all costs attitude more akin to Aussie grit shown by Spithill, but in terms of internal thought rather than public persona, combined with Barkers calm external demeanour, less showy. I’m going to build that into them as much as I can, self belief.

    It was nothing more than a race between two professional teams (representing particular yachting squadrons, not countries), not national teams. Kind of like a champions league footy match or something.

    Whichever way you look at it, it was very enjoyable to watch! Fuck those boats were fast.

    If you enjoy sailing that is, I get the feeling our American bretheren had no idea there was a boat race on in one of their most famous locales..

    BTW the mag is one of the best out there, read a report in it that convinced me to do ‘Poti a year back.

  7. @Beers

    My perspective was from the comments on the news sites’ comments sections, and it was pretty disheartening. Most of my friends didn’t really care that there was a boat race happening! I think most of the general public looked at it as “national teams” though, kind of a big brother vs the little guy battle, as most were complaining that it was only money that won the race (which is probably true)… but more complained that it was just plain cheating, which smacks of sour grapes.

    Poti eh, mustn’t have been my article! One of those events you have to do once, then you get suckered in, then never want to do again! Glad you enjoy the mag, thanks for the kind words!

    Where are you based again?

  8. @brett Haha, yes as we know just like anytime an article comes out about cycling, the comments section brings out the trolls and numpties!

    Yes, the ups suck at Poti, but Big ring was magnifique. MTB gave me big love for descents, since then I ride to go down, and climb like a stone from the rockgarden, which I incidentally walked down.

    Waitakere. Piwaka was looking at setting up a cogal which would be awesome, not sure family life would allow, aside from having my arse handed to me by you lot worse than Barker has just suffered, we’ll see, but you guys should definately sort one out…

  9. @Andre the Fish

    @El Mateo Sweet Bontrager. I have just gone back to fully rigid on my Race Lite from the mid-90s with a pair of Project Twos. Its a real gem and fun to whip around after bouncing around on a modern bike.

    Not better, just different.

    Nice rear mudguard! FFS that’s a fucking disgrace!

  10. @brett I’ve never really understood the need for one.  I can see the convenience but is a dropper post just a substitute for not getting technique right or is it a safety issue when it all goes pear shaped.

  11. @Teocalli

    @brett I’ve never really understood the need for one. I can see the convenience but is a dropper post just a substitute for not getting technique right or is it a safety issue when it all goes pear shaped.

    What technique are you talking about? Maybe the ones you can forget about because you have a dropper post? Nothing better than getting the seat totally out of the way for technical descending an popping it straight back up when the trail flattens out. All from the cockpit.

    That said, I’m yet to fit one to my rig. But the few rides I’ve had on one it was a definitely a game changer.

  12. @Harminator Yup – Getting your nadgers out of the way of the seat rather than getting the seat out of the way of your nadgers while using your buttocks to break the rear wheel on a descent.

  13. @brett

    @936adl

    @brett

    The Dropper Post the best Mtb invention in the lsat 10 years? Really? Can’t agree there I’m afraid.

    Do you not have one then?

    No, and never really felt the need.

    I guess it’s an age thing, but if i’m descending on something that requires the seat out of the way i’m almost certianly way beyond my comfort zone.

    At the end of the day it all comes down to what sort of riding you’re doing.

  14. @936adl

    I agree. Its totally about the kind of riding you’re doing. But if you reverse the logic, the type of riding you’re doing can be completely transformed by the bike design and technology available.

    When I retired my hardtail and got a dual suspension “all mountain” bike it was a completely new world of frame geometry. I had to train myself out of the perception that I was going to go over the bars every time I approached a drop. I huck very little and take very few risks but in time, I have built up to really enjoying the kind of steepish and technical descent I would never have contemplated on the hardtail (with the seat up my clacker). Now I only scare the shit out of myself half the time.

  15. @Teocalli

    @brett I’ve never really understood the need for one. I can see the convenience but is a dropper post just a substitute for not getting technique right or is it a safety issue when it all goes pear shaped.

    Those aren’t techniques but constraints that are only necessary as a result of the limitations of the old technology. It’s a bit like describing going slow in a car on a wet road as a technique when in fact it’s dictated by drum brakes and shit tyres. Remove those limitations and there’s no need for it.

    In reality the dropper post is only eliminating the need to either stop, whip out a tool and drop the post or stand at the top of a section and say “that’s a bit tricky on this bike” 

  16. @936adl

    @Andre the Fish

    @El Mateo Sweet Bontrager. I have just gone back to fully rigid on my Race Lite from the mid-90s with a pair of Project Twos. Its a real gem and fun to whip around after bouncing around on a modern bike.

    Not better, just different.

    Nice rear mudguard! FFS that’s a fucking disgrace!

    I know, I know, look I live in Wales and it fucking rains fucking constantly.  Its a 90’s Crud Catcher thing that were the in thing when I built the bike.

    There is no excuse.  It comes off tomorrow.

    Fuck, I have really let myself down.

  17. @Teocalli

    @brett I’ve never really understood the need for one. I can see the convenience but is a dropper post just a substitute for not getting technique right or is it a safety issue when it all goes pear shaped.

    Nothing to do with technique… it’s near impossible to have good ‘technique’ when your seat is jammed in your abdomen and you are so far over the back wheel that the front end is just going where it wants. Having the seat out of the way means you can be positioned over the centre of the bike and move it around like it’s supposed to be ridden. That’s why downhillers have low seats, and XC guys descend so ungainly. Having your ass anywhere near the rear wheel should never happen.

    @936adl

    @brett

    @936adl

    @brett

    The Dropper Post the best Mtb invention in the lsat 10 years? Really? Can’t agree there I’m afraid.

    Do you not have one then?

    No, and never really felt the need.

    I guess it’s an age thing, but if i’m descending on something that requires the seat out of the way i’m almost certianly way beyond my comfort zone.

    At the end of the day it all comes down to what sort of riding you’re doing.

    Not really, any trail can be ridden better with a dropper post. I was the same years ago, my mate Josh had one and I poo-pooed it all the time, saying a QR was all I needed… watching him ride away while I stopped and fiddled, then tried to climb again with the seat too low, then stop again, made me take notice. Now, I only really have my seat all the way up if climbing… tight switchbacks, rolling singletrack, any sort of descent really, doesn’t have to be steep, just getting the seat even a couple of centimetres lower makes a huge difference. And it’s not an age thing, I’m almost 50 ffs, and am riding better, faster, more technical terrain a lot more confidently than when I started in my 20s.

    @Harminator and @Chris get it totally.

  18. @brett

     

    My perspective was from the illiterate fuckwits howling at the moon on the news sites’ comments sections, and it was pretty disheartening.

    Fixed your post. Basing anything on comments on the internet is the short path to lunacy.

  19. @Billy Savage

    @Marko Glad you like the movie. Tell your students they can still get their very own copy from me off the website.;-)

    Ride on,

    Billy

    Billy, Quite an honor to have you even find the site, let alone post.

    For anyone else, this is THE Billy Savage, the filmmaker.

    I just ordered my copy, here is the link: http://www.klunkerz.com/

  20. @brett

    From your “first look” article:

    What, no clutch? Yep, we’ll see how that pans out, I’ve read reports of no clutch mechs with narrow-wide rings run on hardtails not dropping chains, so it’ll be an interesting field test for this set up. Otherwise, a clutch mech or a top guide will get the nod… whattaya reckon?

    I hope you’ll keep us posted on how this goes. I’m turning my budgetatus Epic M5 Comp into a 1×9 and trying to do it with the least expense possible. I think my first anti-chaindrop action will be a Wolf Tooth ring. Then go from there. But a clutch mech is simply more than I’m willing/able to do, as I already have an XTR mech on the rear and too many other priorities (that I’m failing to address). I was looking at a Paul Components Chain Keeper, but one look at my seat tube-BB real estate and that idea was dismissed; no way to attach it low enough.

  21. This year we moved into a slightly bigger apartment, allowing me to get bike #3.

    Bikes #1 and #2 are my roadies, a nice one here in Singapore and a bike for Melbourne visits.

    I thought pretty hard about what to get for #3, as it needed to fill the gap below my Scott Addict, a bike that I really can’t duck down to the shops on, or ride along slowly with my little miss 4 year old. My shoes being the roadie-reverse-heels  put paid to the idea of doing anything practical on #1.

    So was it to be a SS Roadie? A SS MTB? A town bike with hub gears? Something cheap and easy to maintain were major criteria.

    So I have been a roadie for over ten years, but before that I rode MTB (before that, BMX as a young’un). So this is my new shopping and slowly tootling along with the daughter rig.

    What? Like I told the wife, it can do those things…

  22. @PeakInTwoYears

    @brett

    From your “first look” article:

    What, no clutch? Yep, we’ll see how that pans out, I’ve read reports of no clutch mechs with narrow-wide rings run on hardtails not dropping chains, so it’ll be an interesting field test for this set up. Otherwise, a clutch mech or a top guide will get the nod… whattaya reckon?

    I hope you’ll keep us posted on how this goes. I’m turning my budgetatus Epic M5 Comp into a 1×9 and trying to do it with the least expense possible. I think my first anti-chaindrop action will be a Wolf Tooth ring. Then go from there. But a clutch mech is simply more than I’m willing/able to do, as I already have an XTR mech on the rear and too many other priorities (that I’m failing to address). I was looking at a Paul Components Chain Keeper, but one look at my seat tube-BB real estate and that idea was dismissed; no way to attach it low enough.

    No problems so far, haven’t dropped the chain once… racing an Enduro this weekend so will see how it goes there. I was considering a BB-mounted top guide for extra peace of mind, but the trails I’ll be racing on in Rotorua are pretty tame compared to my home trails in Wellington, so it shouldn’t be a problem.

  23. @brett

    I just saw this solution, two bashguards at $12/ea (made in my beloved Portland, OR USA so they must be good) in place of my 22- and 42-tooth rings. Pics here and here.

    With shipping, this deal would be half the price of a new ring, and it looks like it ought to keep the chain in its proper place, with a bit of a weight penalty but with the functionality of bashguards.

    What’s your impression? Could I…just possibly, do you think…get away with using my standard XT middle ring, with its tabs and tooth profiles conspiring to rid themselves of my chain and me of my balls when they hit my stem?

  24. @936adl cant agree more. dont see xco racers use it. makes it a bit heavy. even some downhill guys dont use it. if you have time to think about dropping the seat or keeping it up your not going fast enough.

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