You may well argue that the article is missing some points here and there but these twelve technical innovations strike me as the greatest, at least throughout my entirely amateur cycling career.
1990 – 2000
Despite being designed by a handful of Californian pioneers in 70s, mountain bikes waited for mass production until the 90s. Offering wide tyres, sturdy frames and a lot of gears, they enabled cyclists to access almost any terrain they wanted. Manufacturers from Taiwan made those all-terrain challengers available even for kids like me, releasing a World MTB revolution.
Not mentioning some historical experiments, a front suspension first appeared on a bike in 1990 when the Manitou company founder, Doug Bradburry, designed and built the first suspension fork in his garage. The invention enabled riders to cope effortlessly with much more technical terrain than ever before. While most modern forks use an air spring, Manitou was based on elastomers that provided 5 cm of travel. The design was far from perfect but the idea swept the way for more advanced constructions like the Judy suspension fork introduced in several different versions in 1995, which became a trendsetter of the industry. Unlike the original mountain bikes, most modern MTBs that are also intended for cross-country cycling are now designed with not only the front but also rear suspension.
Lift-accessed mountain biking
With more and more people entering mountain biking, the joy of riding down the hill became addictive mainly for the members of the younger generation. In 1998, the Whistler resort enabled bikers to access the purposely built trails by a lift, which turned biking into the skiing of the summer season. Only ten years later, 100,000 riders turned up every summer, having fun on more than 47 trails for all skill levels, totalling 250 km. Inspired by the successful business model, every resort worldwide developed its summer program dedicated to mountain bikers, so now you can find a perfectly-shaped bike park in almost every country.
2000 – 2010
By the 1990s, the basic design of brakes had not changed in decades. The rider pushed a lever that pressed the pads of calliper brakes against the rims of the wheels via a cable. The system worked fine unless you entered rain or hammered the wheel out of perfect alignment in a pothole. In the early 2000s, disc brakes evolved from the motorcycle braking-system pattern and became a smaller and remarkably lighter version of them. They performed flawlessly, regardless of the weather or surface conditions with immunity to dirt or mud. Recording great sales in the MTB industry, they faced distaste from road cycling purists for a surprisingly long time yet now it is hard to find a road bike without discs.
Until the introduction of another great cycling innovation called Strava in 2009, the only way to record daily performance was to use a bike computer. Today, 48 million athletes are recording 19 million activities a week, equating up to 5.6 billion rides. Even city planners are now collecting Strava to design future cycle-path networks.
The advantages and disadvantages of 29” wheels were debated among riders for many years. The most cited disadvantages were additional weight, higher pressure on the spokes, and sluggishness in handling. Gary Fisher, one of the MTB pioneers, did not succeed with the 29” wheel size idea until 2004. Even then, it took some more years before the rest of the producers agreed on 29” as the norm, now perceiving ‘twenty-niners’ as the new standard and best-selling models. The advantages are now widely accepted. With 29” wheels, you gain the ability to roll easily over obstacles and better momentum to keep speed, which contributed to 26” wheel size’s extinction.
2010 – 2020
Thirty years ago, bicycle makers used mainly steel or aluminium tubes they bought on the market and linked them up. The geometry was based on the traditional triangle design. Even though carbon fibre was regarded as a potentially brilliant material for its light weight, corrosion resistance, strength and ability to be formed into almost any shape, it used to be expensive and thus intended mostly for the professionals. From 2010 on, though, the number of carbon-fibre frames manufactured grew, pushing the price lower so, even hobby riders could afford them.
Dropper seat posts
In the past, you either adjusted the seat height for optimal pedalling efficiency or dropped it down almost to the frame’s top tube for better body positioning and manoeuvrability on technical sections. To change the saddle position, you had to dismount the bike and fiddle with the bolt holding the seat post in the frame. In 2010, RockShox offered its Reverb dropper post that could be remotely adjusted while riding using a lever or switch on the handlebar. Most of the current dropper seat posts use a hydraulically damped air or coil spring with cable allowing a quick adjustment according to your needs.
Single ring chainset
In the past, mountain bikes offered a big number of gears by combining three rings in the front with a multi-speed cassette in the rear. In 2012, SRAM released XX1, the first 1x dedicated mountain bike drivetrain. A single-ring chainset was nothing new in bicycling yet in modern conception, it represented a real comeback to the roots. Riders could take advantage of less thinking, less maintenance and less weight with better ground clearance and no ‘chain suck’. What worked well for mountain bikers found its way slowly even into the world of road cycling.
Virtual cycling trainers
Just a few years ago, stationary cycling was nothing but sitting on a boring trainer and staring into the opposite wall of the garage. Indoor trainers underwent unbelievable progress since then. Zwift and Peloton, which came with another great cycling innovation and launched their virtual races in 2014 tightly followed by Rouvy, completely revolutionised indoor training. Over a million people are now enjoying a variety of entertaining adventures from the warmth of their homes, taking advantage of the connection between a trainer and a display or a TV screen, almost realistically recreating a real-life race.
Long disfavoured due to large, heavy batteries and a widespread feeling that riding them was cheating, e-bikes have been experiencing a slow evolution for decades. With lithium-ion battery technology refinement happening at rapid speeds, e-bikes took over in any possible field of bicycling including mountain bikes, road bikes, foldable bikes or commuting bikes. It is clear to everyone that e-bikes are currently the dominant trend within the European bicycle market and experts forecast the sales will triple in a few years to come.
When Cannondale introduced Slate in 2015, a ridiculous road bike with fat tires and front suspension, only a few people understood how much this cycling innovation was ahead of its time. These days, gravel bikes are blockbusters of the cycling industry. They are partly road bikes, touring bikes and mountain bikes. With the classical drop bars, they resemble traditional road bikes but some other features add a flavour of adventure-ready bikes. Their wider tyres have more knobs for better traction and the frame geometry is ready to tackle unexpected technical passages. They are the versatile bikes to deploy in any possible condition.