Dirty Innovators

Ok all you roadies, listen up. You’re not gonna like what I’m about to tell you, but it’s the truth. And sometimes, the truth hurts. You ready?

Road cycling owes a lot to mountain biking.

“You what?!” I hear you screaming at the monitor in disgust. “Road cycling has been around for more than a hundred years, and the mountain bike for about thirty!” Well, nice theory, but bikes were ridden on dirt long before their tyres ever saw a sealed surface. But this isn’t about the chicken or the egg, it’s about the way technology crosses over from one discipline to another, and how similar, yet different aspects of the same sport inter-breed, cross pollinate and spawn innovations that better the machines we ride and the kit we wear. And I hate to be the one to break it to you, but that sleek road machine you’re riding now probably wouldn’t exist if it weren’t for our dirtbag cousins.

It all took off in the early 90s; the mountain bike was undergoing its own metamorphosis, rapidly dropping the ‘klunker’ heritage and becoming lighter, stiffer and racier. The geometry was changing from slack and raked-out head angles to more sharply handling, longer and lower front ends. A little like road bikes, granted. The first big change up front though was the oversized headset and steerer tube combo, dubbed the Avenger by Tioga, the first company to bring it to market. The steerer increased from 1 inch diameter to 1 1/8″, giving the front of the bike more precise steering and a more solid feel over rough terrain. Soon, Dia Compe came up with the AHeadset, doing away with the threaded steerer and headset in favour of a threadless system held together by a stem clamped over the smooth steerer tube. There’s not a road (or mountain) bike to be seen with a threaded front end these days.

Having a bigger steerer attached to rigid fork blades made some difference to the mountain bike, but even more was needed up front to tame the terrain and reduce the pounding that riders’ arms would take on proper off-road trails. While some weird and wonderful contraptions briefly held court (like the Girvin Flexstem, as terrifying as it was), the obvious solution was to borrow technology from the motocross crowd, and the first suspension fork for bicycles was born. The Rock Shox RS1 was as rare as hen’s teeth, but when one was spotted in the wild the geek-out factor went through the roof, and any rider lucky enough to have one bolted to the front of their bike would be accosted for twenty minutes and bombarded with questions about “how it works”. In the space of a year, there were three or four different iterations of suspension forks on the market, most of them completely unaffordable to the Regular Joes that rode in the dirt.

Looking back at the suspension tech of those days now, the word ‘archaic’ springs (pardon the pun) to mind. The modern mountain bike is an engineering marvel, and I’m as amped on new technology now as I was in the early 90s. The sport has continued to push the boundaries and is constantly evolving. And road cycling has benefitted greatly. We’ve all seen the Rock Shox Ruby forks that appeared on the bikes of Paris-Roubaix for a few glorious years, even taking a couple of wins in the Queen of The Classics. The MTB forks of the day were mostly heavy, elastomer sprung and undamped, giving the effect of a pogo stick on the front of the bike. To try and put one on the front of a road bike was preposterous at best, a blasphemous disaster at worst. Then there were the failed attempts at rear suspension which disappeared as quickly as they came. But riders and teams were willing to try anything to tame the brutal cobbles of the Hell of the North, and if you didn’t have a Ruby fork then you were behind the 8-ball straight away. The fact that the bike would bounce around under pedalling load on the smooth roads was outweighed by the comfort and control on the cobbles.

But roadies being roadies, the extra weight and inefficiency soon rendered the Ruby detrimental to the performance of the bikes… but that comfort was welcome. How to get some shock absorption and keep the weight low? Carbon fibre forks were conceived, giving a smooth ride up front on the stiff yet light aluminium frames that were taking over the peloton at the time (another innovation gleaned from the mountain bike). If it worked up front, then why not at the rear too? Carbon seatstays were bonded onto the back ends of just about every bike that came out in the mid 90s. If it worked for the fork and stays, then why not the whole frame? The carbon bikes so ubiquitous today were spawned from the need for a smoother ride, without the weight and complexity of suspension. Thanks, mountain biking.

Now, check out Hodgey’s helmet in the lead photo. Look kinda familiar? Well, helmets pretty much came from mountain biking, and the early examples looked just like that; round, few vents, not pointy at the back. And what do we have now? Round, sparsely vented, not-too-pointy ‘aero’ road helmets, that we are all crying about being ugly and unnecessary. But how cool does Hodgey look? Badass! It’s only a matter of time before we’re all wearing them, and possibly with visors. (In the 1999 P-R, several riders wore helmets with visors, including 3rd placegetter Tom Steels and Frank Vandenbroucke.) Okay, maybe I’ve gone too far there, but I saw a guy riding in an Air Attack the other day, and by Merckx did I think he Looked Pro! These helmets will be the norm sooner rather than later; after all, don’t we take our cues from the Pros?

There have been numerous advances that have come from mountain biking and are now seen as standard on road bikes; removable face plates on stems, wider profile rims, lightweight saddles, tapered head tubes, integrated headsets, external cup/press-fit bottom brackets, oversize bar diameters (and let’s not forget road disc brakes. You can’t fight it!). Black socks. Tall socks. If it wasn’t for the mountain bike and the innovators working in that industry, we might still be riding lugged steel frames with downtube shifters. Which would be ok with me, as long as I can still have my off-road wonderbike.

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138 Replies to “Dirty Innovators”

  1. @G’rilla@brett

    @G’rilla

    Interesting that you list press-fit bottom brackets. Yeti tried it for a year and then went back to threaded bottom brackets because of all the pain (although I think the SB75 is back to press-fit?).

    I wore out a Chris King pressfit in 2-3 months of riding offroad (still waiting on a replacement).

    I’m not a fan of BB30, or BB92, or Press Fit bottom brackets. A standard 73mm shell with external bearings is foolproof, and one of the reasons I went for my Turner as well.

    I’ve got threaded external cups on my Veloforma CCX, thank Merckx. I do have BB30 on my Veloforma Strada iR, but that bike rarely sees the rain – also thank Merckx.

    I don’t know if its the BB or the crankset, but there was a noticeable different in stiffness and ease of pedaling when I went from Campa BB30 conversion kit to the Rotor 3D+ with BB30. They wear out quickly, but bearing are easily replaced.

    No way would I ever run one on a bike that ever sees dirt or even a lot of rain.

  2. @RVester@brett

    @RVester has a point – LeMond was riding carbon TVT’s in 1986 and even some in 1985. Kelly was on carbon-kevlar Vituseseses around the same time. They were moving to that material because carbon has no intrinsic characteristic other than that the fibers are strong in torsion but weak on compression. What it gives the builder in addition to being lightweight is the opportunity to tune the tubes 100% to their desired ride.

    That might not be true for the mass-market cookie cutter frames, but that is a consequence of the ubiquitous carbon frame – not the cause of it. It infiltrated from the top levels down in the road market.

  3. @frank

    @Gianni

    My next bike should have road disk brakes. There, I said it. It would be fun to have some slight braking potential coming into wet descending corners. If they can obey the Principle of Silence, so far, they are a bit loud. Campy disks, oh pappy, bring it.

    This disk brake thing makes you like the guy at the party who took E and then told his best (male) friend that he always was curious to fuck him.

    I find carbon rims brake just fine in the wet. So long as you’re willing to go through 2 sets of pads every season.

    Never did I think I’d see the connection between disc brakes, Ecstasy, and manlove. Wow!

    Two pads a season. Hmm, I’m on alloy wheels but I haven’t replaced road pads in a long time, almost hoping some would wear out so I could put new pads on. I guess it’s because I have a few road bikes, but I get a lot of life out of both stock Campa pads and Kool Stops.

    @antihero

    @frank

    @Puffy

    @Kiwicyclist

    I’d add to the list of innovations adopted from mountain biking – road tubeless tires which in my view are the schizz.

    Schizz? I think you mean shits. Waste of time on the road (at high pressure), still have to carry. Tube and pump, messy to put a tube in when the jizz inside fails to seal (most of the time) and don’t get me started on the clean up effort afterwards. Tubes on the road for sure. Cheap quick easy.

    I’ll second the antipathy toward road tubeless. I’d much rather glue up a pair of tubs than muck around with tubeless on a road bike.

    Why the fuck did I get pulled into that? I’ve got no dog in that fight. I’m a tubular man myself.

  4. Great article @Bretto. One thing missing, or perhaps it’s the subject for another article, is how MTB can help with your bike handling skillz on the road.

    My first MTB was a Cannonwhale with the “Pepperoni” fork. Stiff as railroad track. What it taught me though was that speed is your friend. Skip over the rocks, don’t hit them. Faster is safer. Learn how to relax while getting bounced around. I gave that bike to my parents, and anytime I visit them, I still take it out for a spin on the single track that’s all over central Oregon.

    While this photo is not my old Cannondale, it’s almost exactly the same.

  5. @Bob

    The softail has been around for a while. While not pre-dating Paris-Roubaix nearly as old.

    For a second I thought you were talking about Softride.  I’m surprised it hasn’t been mentioned yet in the ‘come and gone’ of road suspension concepts.

  6. @scaler911 Good point. Always attributed my long lost psychlo-cross riding on trails to finding small openings in the pack and hopping over bikes and bodies on the course — road racing.

  7. @antihero

    there’s one problem that disc brakes can’t solve: I don’t want a squadron of searing-hot metal blades rolling toward me if the bunch goes tits-up on a descent. Nope nope nope.

    But you’re OK with raining chainsets?

    As you all probably know disc brakes offer some positives like better modulation, all weather performance, zero wear and overheating on carbon rims and some negatives like weight, aero. Weight may come down of course in the future. I ride disk brakes on the road and have to say I like it.

  8. @scaler911  A few of our mtb friends ride single-speed hardtails all the time, and one of them runs rigid carbon forks on his. Personally, my aging joints and beat-up spine like my full-squish ride. And disc brakes! They’re like…sex…

    @frank  Your vehemence is amusing.

    Seriously, I don’t need, or even want, discs on a road bike. They are a lot of trouble for braking power I’ve never needed on the road. But who knows what the future holds? Societal collapse and wide-spread cannibalism? Cold fusion and nano-disc brakes?

  9. @PeakInTwoYears

    @Optimiste

    @wiscot

    Yeah, hard to believe in the 80s that 19mm tires were the bomb-diggedy! Now 23s are considered narrow.

    At the time, I didn’t care how harsh the ride; the narrower the better.

    I don’t know what the roads are, and were, like where you ride and rode. In the Portland area in the 80s, the word “chipseal” wasn’t in my vocabulary. Unless we were in the boonies, we were on smooth pavement, and it was easier to believe that stupid-narrow tires inflated to nine thousand psi were the bomb.

    They were shitty Scottish roads. They’re not much better now from what I can see on return visits. I think the rationale for 19mm was narrower = better aerodynamics. Forget, speed, comfort or ease of getting on/off. Narrow was best! I think I rode them at 120 psi . . . and tubulars at 140! We’ve come  long way, baby . . . .

  10. @brett….I am sorry but this is like…well I don’t know what it is like but as much sense as it all makes I would like to buy an N with 5 O’s

    This is pure heresy!

  11. @G’rilla

    Interesting that you list press-fit bottom brackets. Yeti tried it for a year and then went back to threaded bottom brackets because of all the pain (although I think the SB75 is back to press-fit?).

    I wore out a Chris King pressfit in 2-3 months of riding offroad (still waiting on a replacement).

    well thats concerning. put a ck pressfit in the new mtb on the premise that it would need periodic service but not replacement for at least 5years.

  12. @brett

    I really hope you’re wrong about helmet visors making a transition back to the road.  The only visor a roadie should need is the one on his cycling cap.  I hate the Air Attack helmet, but I have to admit that there were a couple guys in our local CX series racing in them this year and they looked pretty cool.  (I can’t believe I just typed that – I need to go wash my fingertips)

  13. @VeloVita

    @brett

    I really hope you’re wrong about helmet visors making a transition back to the road. The only visor a roadie should need is the one on his cycling cap. I hate the Air Attack helmet, but I have to admit that there were a couple guys in our local CX series racing in them this year and they looked pretty cool. (I can’t believe I just typed that – I need to go wash my fingertips)

    As helmets go there are way worse looking ones. I agree though – the only visor you should have is the one on your Velominati cotton cap.

  14. @wiscot

    @Minion

    Mountain bikers; innovators like this fuckwit?

    I hope he has a good dentist/maxilofacial surgeon for when that thing collapses.

    Phfft…  Those things are so overbuilt. I’m sure it’ll be fine. As long as he has no one depending on him for a wage or child support or anything, it’ll be fine.

  15. @frank

    @Zach

    It’s probably anecdotal, but it seems that fewer and fewer riders are exclusively roadies anymore. Too many stupid incidents with traffic, weird declines in road racing, etc. All the formerly 100%, all-in roadies I know in areas all over the country now are more stoked on unsanctioned racing on gravel on CX bikes, MTBs, or fatbikes (yeah, that one I am still digesting).

    I’ve found the minority of riders were ever pure roadies (in my circles at least) but what is much more common to me is the pure off-roader. A MTB rider is much less likely to go dip their toes into road riding than a roadie is into the dirt.

    But absolutely I agree that the most exciting trend at the moment is road-position tuned CX bikes being raced on gravel of off road. In fact, I have line of sight into a 40-50km route in Seattle proper that is probably about 10% tarmac and the rest is off road or on trails.

    Riding the cobbles is an experience that will permanently give you a hunger for the trill of flying off tarmac onto wildly rough terrain. If you love the cobbles, and don’t live in Northern France or Flanders, you owe it to yourself to get a gravel rig and ride it on mixed terrain.

    When I only owned road and commuter bikes, I was exclusively a road rider. Once I picked up a CX bike that opened an entirely new world of cycling to me. It’s an incredible addition. Terrible weather, extreme cold (a rarity where I now live) or…Friday between 16-19:00 – I head to the woods or trails or park on the cross bike. No need to put up with crazy drivers, plus crazy weather, especially if I’m only able to fit in an hour ride. As much as I like to double middle finger drivers (usually not literally) who don’t think I should be on the road and assert my rights and place, some days I just am not in the mood to deal with fuckwit cagers.

    Most folks I know who ride do all sorts of cycling. If you really love cycling, life is better when you have a variety of forms for that passion.

    For me it is really cool to see new paths open, like gravel road cycling.

  16. I need a gravel bike. I’ve got nine million miles of gravel in my back yard, and it would be so much more fun on a gravel rig than on my mtb.

  17. @scaler911

    Great article @Bretto. One thing missing, or perhaps it’s the subject for another article, is how MTB can help with your bike handling skillz on the road.

    My first MTB was a Cannonwhale with the “Pepperoni” fork. Stiff as railroad track. What it taught me though was that speed is your friend. Skip over the rocks, don’t hit them. Faster is safer. Learn how to relax while getting bounced around. I gave that bike to my parents, and anytime I visit them, I still take it out for a spin on the single track that’s all over central Oregon.

    While this photo is not my old Cannondale, it’s almost exactly the same.

    That’s a Red Shred. Those were awesome.

    And yes – exactly about speed. Several Belgians and Frenchmen asked me how it was possible I was good at riding cobbles if I came from the US. The answer was riding a Bridgestone with no suspension over rocks and roots: full gas, big gear, float over the saddle a bit, and let the bike do its thing. The body is actually really good at observing shock. Certainly with the tech we had then, the Rock Shock was more useless than useful on the rocks and roots – you had to hit something so hard that you normally would have endo’d over it. Then it would help keep the wheels on the bus. But with that level of tech, having a small light frame bouncing around under you and using your legs and arms to absorb the shock was the way to go.

  18. @TheVid

    @Bob

    The softail has been around for a while. While not pre-dating Paris-Roubaix nearly as old.

    For a second I thought you were talking about Softride. I’m surprised it hasn’t been mentioned yet in the ‘come and gone’ of road suspension concepts.

    Nice one, dude. My dad has two mountain bikes and three road bikes with a Softride beam. Also the stems were great because they could actually dampen the small bumps. They also made you do air pushups any time you climbed out of the saddle.

    Franco Ballerini lost P-R because he had on in a sprint finish.

    I’ll tell you though, riding a softride beam for an afternoon at 90-100 RPM will smooth out your stroke for the rest of the season.

  19. WA residents who want to race off-road (Washington, not Western Australia) can get their kicks here: https://www.signmeup.com/site/online-event-registration/96816 CC @frank, @peakintwoyears

  20. @G’rilla Let me know if you plan to make the Port Gamble or Whidbey events this year. Maybe I’ll hit it this time–in a wheezy, sucky sort of way.

  21. The Air Attack is fugly…period.  It is not cool in any way.  Disc brakes?  Don’t need ’em.  Are they like VMH hemlines?  They have to change something to sell more merch.  What next?  Are the ‘pros’ going to lead us to wear compression socks out on the road.  I repeat…the Air Attack is FUGLY!!

  22. I hear that needin’ to sell stuff.

    Nothing like seeing someone out for a twenty minute “jog” wearing a strap on a hydration belt and lower leg tourniquets. Jeez.

  23. @RVester

    “The carbon bikes so ubiquitous today were spawned from the need for a smoother ride, without the weight and complexity of suspension”

    This, and really the whole paragraph claiming that mountainbikes are the cause for carbon frames is reaching for straws. Carbon frames aren’t there for comfort. Carbon frames are there because they are lighter and more aerodynamic than steel, titanium or aluminium frames. The only race that had riders begging for comfort was Paris-Roubaix, and the first carbon parts were used in every race, not just Paris-Roubaix.

    I think you’ll find it’s more that just weight that makes carbon attractive. Shape is virtually unlimited (you hint at that with the aero remark) but more importantly, by using various weaves, in various directions, in various thicknesses you can tailor make your desired charactisitics. Things such as stiff for power transfer (horizonatally) but a smoother ride (vertically compliant). With Ti, Steel or Alloy the frame designer is stuck with a single thickness (for the most part) section with the same physical charactistics across it’s entire length.

  24. @Puffy

    @RVester

    “The carbon bikes so ubiquitous today were spawned from the need for a smoother ride, without the weight and complexity of suspension”

    This, and really the whole paragraph claiming that mountainbikes are the cause for carbon frames is reaching for straws. Carbon frames aren’t there for comfort. Carbon frames are there because they are lighter and more aerodynamic than steel, titanium or aluminium frames. The only race that had riders begging for comfort was Paris-Roubaix, and the first carbon parts were used in every race, not just Paris-Roubaix.

    I think you’ll find it’s more that just weight that makes carbon attractive. Shape is virtually unlimited (you hint at that with the aero remark) but more importantly, by using various weaves, in various directions, in various thicknesses you can tailor make your desired charactisitics. Things such as stiff for power transfer (horizonatally) but a smoother ride (vertically compliant). With Ti, Steel or Alloy the frame designer is stuck with a single thickness (for the most part) section with the same physical charactistics across it’s entire length.

    Not true, pretty much all high end metal tubes are butted in various ways.

  25. @frank I knew someone who had a softride track bike back in the day.  Any time he went around the ends of the local (and very steeply banked) the force pushing him into the banking would compress the beam and the effective seat height would go down an inch.  Not the greatest idea for track racing.

  26. @frank

    @Teocalli

    I was only the other week discussing with a mate whether we would see SRAM XX1 approach on road bikes with a single front ring.

    You mean a single 53T, right?

    Nah, 50T but with 10-32.

  27. @frank

    @Deakus

    You need to venture off road a bit, mate. You’ll become a much more well-rounded road cyclist.

    I came from the dark side….I used to MB but like a reformed smoker, or a born again Christian I am most vocal when it comes to the dirty dark past I once lived!

  28. I might be pulling the wrong part of the pig here, but aren’t successful innovations meant to, you  know, still be in use? I can’t recall having any of the ugly crap in the article hanging off any of  my road bikes, and I’m sitting in the living room looking at two of them. Admittedly there’s no way I read that whole article, what do you think I am, a lunatic? but I’m glad you realised in the end that  mountain biking’s bad for your mental stability and should be left to the criminally insane and moral deviants.
    And if you didn’t come to that conclusion you fucking well should.

  29. @minion

    I might be pulling the wrong part of the pig here, but aren’t successful innovations meant to, you know, still be in use? I can’t recall having any of the ugly crap in the article hanging off any of my road bikes, and I’m sitting in the living room looking at two of them. Admittedly there’s no way I read that whole article, what do you think I am, a lunatic? but I’m glad you realised in the end that mountain biking’s bad for your mental stability and should be left to the criminally insane and moral deviants.
    And if you didn’t come to that conclusion you fucking well should.

    +1 A-Merckx to that!

  30. @frank

    “This disk brake thing makes you like the guy at the party who took E and then told his best (male) friend that he always was curious to fuck him.”

    Holy shit that was funny!

  31. @frank

    @scaler911

    Great article @Bretto. One thing missing, or perhaps it’s the subject for another article, is how MTB can help with your bike handling skillz on the road.

    My first MTB was a Cannonwhale with the “Pepperoni” fork. Stiff as railroad track. What it taught me though was that speed is your friend. Skip over the rocks, don’t hit them. Faster is safer. Learn how to relax while getting bounced around. I gave that bike to my parents, and anytime I visit them, I still take it out for a spin on the single track that’s all over central Oregon.

    While this photo is not my old Cannondale, it’s almost exactly the same.

    That’s a Red Shred. Those were awesome.

    And yes – exactly about speed. Several Belgians and Frenchmen asked me how it was possible I was good at riding cobbles if I came from the US. The answer was riding a Bridgestone with no suspension over rocks and roots: full gas, big gear, float over the saddle a bit, and let the bike do its thing. The body is actually really good at observing shock. Certainly with the tech we had then, the Rock Shock was more useless than useful on the rocks and roots – you had to hit something so hard that you normally would have endo’d over it. Then it would help keep the wheels on the bus. But with that level of tech, having a small light frame bouncing around under you and using your legs and arms to absorb the shock was the way to go.

    let’s not forget the guys who cut their teeth on the World XC MTB circuit and went on to race, and sometimes win, some of the GT’s

    Cuddles – Sagan – Peraud – Ryder – and Tommy D to name a few.

  32. @The Pressure  You want a fugly helmet? I started MTB many years ago and this Etto was  my first ‘proper’ lid. Bombproof it might have been but it really didn’t match my kit. I fear the Air Attack will grow on me, as a winter commuter helmet though

  33. WTF is up with posting photos on the iPad? It’s there when I submit but gone on the post appearing in the timeline.

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