Words: Colin Levitch

Photos: Timothy Arch, Andy Rogers, Nick Waygood, Daniel Milchev, TBS, Dom Hook

Remember front derailleurs? It wasn't all that long ago the general consensus was multiple chainrings on the front was the way to go, and we needed these weird-looking cages to wrangle the chain up and down them. Then in 2012, SRAM debuted its XX1 drivetrain, and now everything bar a select few entry-level mountain bikes have a single narrow-wide chainring, clutched rear derailleur and wide range cassette. The same can be said for hub spacing, metric shocks, handlebar diametre, the list goes on and on.

Remember these things?

Considering the very first Specialized Stumpjumper rolled off the factory floor in 1981, in the scheme of things mountain bikes haven't been around for all that long, and have evolved at a lightning pace. The frames and everything that is bolted onto them are totally unrecognisable when compared to their ancestors, and they are better in every way.

Glen Jacobs, Founder of World Trail, and Australia's only Mountain Bike Hall of Fame inductee, spent his younger years racing on some of these early mountain bikes and has experienced first hand their evolution.

"We were racing hardtails with no suspension, and if you made one little mistake that was it, you were on the ground. Now, the bikes are so much more capable, and as you get older you can still learn and improve," he says.

"We've got a track here (in Cairns) called Kuranda, we built it in 1989 and held a race on it in 1990. I've still got the book with times from that race; now I'm 60-years old and have shaved 20-per cent off a race run I put down in the prime of my life, and it's because of the bike."

Taking a step back, it's crazy to think just how far everything has come. What was considered the pinnacle of technology a decade ago would seem almost unrideable by today's standards.

But the thing is, in another five or ten years, you may look back at the bike you're riding now and think the same thing. So, what's next, what is the future of mountain biking? Look into AMB's crystal ball, and we will try to piece together where we think things may be headed.

But before we look ahead, we need to look back to understand how things have come to be this way. 

A penny-farthing, but with knobby tyres and V-brakes:

Early mountain bikes were terrifying. You had tyres that didn't grip, brakes that didn't work and steep angles, making for handling characters that make a V8 Supercar look like a Holden Barina.

"Going over the bars was pretty much a standard component of any given ride in those days," laughs Joe Mullan, Co-Curator at the Australian Museum of Mountain Biking.

Fancy a lap down the local downhill trail on this weapon?

The first mountain bikes were built around modified touring bikes, made with a bit of backwoods engineering, a bit of elbow grease, and a never say die mentality.

So it should come as no surprise that a similar ethos was applied to early commercially available mountain bikes and this period in the '80s and '90s saw all kinds of experimentation, and plenty of terrible ideas that simply did not work.

"The perfect example is URT or the Unified Rear Triangle; it has to be the worst idea the bike industry ever had. Manufacturers changed their factories overnight to create these things because they were supposed to be the best thing since sliced bread, and then everybody worked out they were crap, and moved on just as fast," Mullan says. 

"Then, in the early 2000s, the mountain bike industry learned a lot of lessons. At this point they had become real companies, they had investors, money to spend, and they had a bit of engineering practice behind them," Mullan says. "There was still quite a bit of experimentation, but they were a lot more disciplined.

By the turn of the century, disc brakes had moved past the 'you don't need them, they are heavier and they are dangerous' phase and were becoming standard, carbon fibre frames had transitioned from a single unicorn in the catalogue, and now almost every model had a plastic fantastic spec.

Mountain biking has come a long way from here!

This was also the period where the mountain bike industry started to understand suspension.

"Probably 2003 or 2004 was when the Fifth Element Shock came out. The way it was designed with high and low-speed compression, and rebound forced Fox to lift their game," says Mullan. "This was huge because we went from having incredible complex suspension designs, to having a shock revolution which meant (frame) designers could simplify their suspension design because the shock did more work.'

This was about the time when tubeless tyre started to be more widely adopted, and bikes began evolving into the modern two-wheeled machines we're riding today.

Rubber + Air + Tread = Tyre:

No component affects the way a bike rides more than tyres, and they are also the component that fails more than any other. In fact, there are entire product lines devoted to solving the shortcomings of our tyres, whether they be tyre inserts or bacon strips or even sealant.

There's a whole market segment dedicated to overcoming tyre shortcomings.

"The last few years have actually been frustrating because you see all the tyre inserts coming out, which is kind of saying to tyre manufacturers ‘hey, your tyres are not good enough so we need to run an additional system,’" says Schwalbe Product Manager Carl Kamper. “It's funny for me to say that Schwalbe started the trend with ProCore back in the day."

There is no question that tyre inserts have changed the way we think about the rubber we roll on, but they haven't necessarily made life easier. While a CushCore admirably prevents snakebites and some rim damage, even when you know how to install it properly, it’s about as easy as pulling teeth. Plus there is the additional rotation weight it adds, which also changes the handling characteristics of the wheel.

"From a technical perspective, they do well to protect the rim and prevent one type of puncture; they facilitate another. If you're trying to cut something, the moment you put solid support underneath, it becomes a lot easier to slice through. That's precisely what's happening with the sidewall," Says Samuele Bressan, the Head of Global Marketing at Pirelli.

Just as ProCore came and went, the general consensus seems to be that tyre inserts will too fall by the wayside. Both Kamer and Bressan note that inserts have their place in very specific instances, like your buddy who is constantly breaking bikes, but with improvements we've already seen in tyres, and what’s still to come, you simply won’t need them in the not too distant future.

Pirelli believe their tyres work better without inserts.

We already see riders obsessing over tyre pressures and components, casings and tread patterns but have you ever thought about how it all plays into your suspension? In the next five years, you probably will be.

With most riders abandoning the 2.8-3.0” Plus casings that were popular a few years ago, this thought process may already be percolating.

“A tyre is nothing more than an air spring, so when you change the pressure, not only the spring rate but also the spring curve changes. The less pressure you have, the more linear the spring curve becomes. As wider tyres have a higher volume, you have to decrease the pressure in order to maintain the same initial spring rate as with a narrower tyre. At the same time, the reduction in air pressure results in a more linear spring curve which leads to more snakebites and tyre burping when the tyre are ridden aggressively,” Kamper says. “A narrower tyre offers a more progressive spring curve as it can be ridden with a higher pressure whilst the initial spring rate stays the same, due to the smaller volume. This means it'll have more reserves for those hard hits and sharp stone edges, while also offering more sidewall support and a more precise riding feeling.”

Bressan believes that your tyre will become a future extension of the knobs and dials on your suspension.

Ben Morrison and Ryan Walsch recently tested the Pirelli Scorpion range.

"I think that damping, so the rubber damping of tyre will start to be designed for specific conditions, or at the very least chosen by the product managers at the bike companies based on the suspension," Says Bressan."Having guys like Fox offering high speed and low speed damping for rebound and compression, it's not that far off what's happening in superbikes, or motocross or Formula 1. But I don't see the point in having 20 clicks of high speed rebound, in your fork, and not knowing the rebound characteristics of the compound used in your tyres."

It's not unreasonable to think an upcoming advance in suspension tuning may come in at the ground level.

"If you look at slow motion video, every time the tyre touches the ground, by the time the suspension starts to react, the tyre is already compressed by half. So much is happening before your fork even begins to compress."

Bressan did note that this is something Pirelli is working on for its yet to be released Downhill tyres, but he believes that in a few years time when you walk into a shop to buy a Minion, Wild Enduro, Big Betty or a Scorpion, in addition to being able to choose your compound and casing you will choose the damping characteristic of the rubber based on your riding style.

Michelin are another brand with big goals in the mountain bike space.

The frame of the future:

Every aspect of mountain bikes has experienced unprecedented development, but none faster than the eMTB. Love them or hate them; they are the fastest-growing and progressing niche in mountain biking.

"Motors are only going to get more powerful, batteries will last longer and get lighter not to mention all the digital tech available to us, I see leaps and bounds as far as the development of eMTB over the next few years," says Allan Cooke, 2002 X-Games BMX Dirt winner and Whip Off World Champ, who now works for Specialized.

eMTBs have come so far already.

It only takes a trip to your local trail head to see the popularity of eMTBs, and Cooke believes that the line in the sand between eMTB and analogue bikes will continue to disappear and we will just call them mountain bikes in the near future.

Mullan from the Australian MTB museum offered a similar sentiment on where he thinks eBikes may go in the future, but got into the nuts and bolts.

"I think we are going to see more of what I would term as module systems. You're going to be able to get an uplift on your bike as an eBike, and then drop the motor and the battery at the top and do your runs with your bike as it was, and then pick up another battery and motor at the bottom — all as part of a trail network service," he said.

Rob Sherratt from Nukeproof speculates whether the next generation of bikes will do away with traditional cables and hoses all together in lieu of a fly-by-wire system.

"The pure mechanical art of riding is "hopefully" going to continue, getting out and exploring on your bike is obviously amazing for mind and body, just escaping the tech world is refreshing. But in recent years riding has evolved due in part to the advent of tech," he says. "The future, possibilities are endless. Do away with a chain altogether and have a wireless drive system, fly by wire brakes. You only need to look at the car industry to see how a car has developed in recent times to see what is possible. When it comes to tech, there are some pretty smart people out there in the world and working in our industry."

Paul Burnett, Senior Product Manager at Norco, agrees as electronic shifting trickles down, it's going to become more popular. Still, a dead battery out in the woods means you're riding a single-speed home. 

"Our bikes are built to exist in the backwoods of BC (British Columbia), and need to contend with the brutality of those rides, the simplicity and relatively low cost of mechanical systems will always have a place.

Cooke, on the other hand, sees electronics finding their place in suspension.

"The next frontier of suspension is for sure electronics, and not suspension that will look drastically different like the Trust or Lefty forks. Stuff like Live Valve will begin to be more and more common and the elimination of wires. I don't think we are that far off from being able to jump on a bike and have the suspension adjust automatically,” he says.

Lapierre were way ahead of the times with their E:i system.

With the way mountain bikes are evolving, it's hard to pin down exactly what the next big thing will be, whether it be from a geometry, suspension or technology point of view; however, there seems to be a concurrence towards ergonomics and further dissecting how the rider interfaces with the bike.

"In general, humans haven't changed shape, so we can't keep following a trend of longer and longer bikes unless there is a benefit, but I think as we understand the rider ergonomics a little more, we can optimise the bike to the rider. Nukeproof have been looking at rider position, weight distribution and balance on the bike recently, especially around the extreme sizes. Like I said, it's a subtle evolution of the bike and frame," says Sherratt    

Bennett from Norco echoed a similar sentiment, with its Ride Aligned software.

"Our industry has just started to scratch the surface of what is possible in mountain bikes. While many see suspension, drivetrain and other mechanical systems on the bike as offering a lot of development opportunities, we see amazing potential in a greater understanding of the rider-bike connection, and how to further develop the fit, geometry, suspension and set up to meet the needs of every rider," he says.

What came first, the chicken or the egg: 

“Are the bikes evolving to the trails or are the trails evolving to the bikes? That is the age-old question," laughs Glen Jacobs when asked about what mountain bike trails will look like in the future. “But, the answer is yes.”

There is no question that the development of mountain bike trails and the bikes themselves are intertwined — there is no use in designing a bike that is no fun to ride on today's trails. And as the bikes have become better, the trails have changed to match this progression. But this is only one dimension of a multifactorial progression.

Some of World Trail's finest work.

“With trail development, we definitely have to recognise there are many newcomers, and that's not just in this new COVID world. We need to do a lot better with beginner-friendly trails, making them interesting and more exciting and progressive, without making it unsafe and daunting," says Simon French, Managing Director of Dirt Art.

“One of the best ways we can do this is by giving them an uplift, and I think something Australia is yet to do well is a beginner-friendly uplift. Beginners don't generally have the leg strength or the aerobic capacity to climb, and one of the best ways to get them into the sport, and keep them, is to give them uplift and a really fun flow trail, so I hope we see a lot more of that,” he says.

With this, French also believes that the overall structure of the trail network will change as we know it will change as well.

“I think we will see a little bit less of the IMBA stacked loop-style trail network development. It still has a place, but I also think that lots of people going on an XC mountain bike ride as a key motivator is a little bit long in the face. I think we will start to see a bit more focus on arterial climbing trails with a number of different descending trails”, he says.

"The notion of loops on loops on loops doesn't really give you that many options, and once you're stuck on a loop, you're stuck on a loop. It also means that all of the green trails are dumped right at the start of the trail network, and creates heavy congestion as the network gets busier, especially for the more experienced riders trying to get to the more difficult trails.”

“I think we will need to have a rethink about that sort of network structure to cater for this new rapidly growing beginner market."

With this rethinking of the layout of trail networks, bring in the advent of eBikes yet again. While we already see some eBike specific trails - like those at the Wild Mersey network - as time goes on, there will be more infrastructure pitched towards assisted riding.

The E-Challenge trails at Wild Mersey are designed for eBikes.

"Generally the problems surround analogue and are centred around climbing. Ebikes are not particularly conducive to slow meandering gradients, they feel a bit tedious, and you max out the speed on the motor pretty quickly. I think we will see a bit more of the steeper climbing trails that are more tailored towards eBikes and of course, really fit riders on analogue bikes,” says Simon French.

Jacobs notes that this is already coming to fruition to a small degree whether it be a small exit berm on an uphill corner to hold your front wheel, or techy climbing features that people will actually ride instead of taking the B-line — we're all guilty of this.

With the sport exploding the way it is, both Jacobs and French think that we will also begin to see land managers change their attitude towards putting in trails.

“So many of the trails that exist now are adopted trials which were originally old logging roads or four-wheel-drive trails. These were never designed for the experience, it was just, 'oh there is a corridor already cut there, why don't we just use that,’ I think that's going to change,”Jacobs says. “I can give you so many examples of trails that go from one point to another and they miss out on these beautiful lookouts and escarpments. I think that's going to be the biggest change... catering trails more towards the experience,"

Glen Jacobs and Simon French agree that trails should embrace their unique landscape.

French continues, "Some destinations and land managers are under the impression that just having the trails is enough, but as they get busier, from a tourism perspective, riders are going to want those nice places. All around New Zealand, and the New South Wales and Victorian alpine are perfect examples. They all have great trails, but they are also in great environments, and riders value that, and it's important that we continue to work to build trails sensitively.”

Asking what the future of mountain bike trails is a bit like asking someone to sum up the internet.

"All we do know for certain is that it's not going to stop," says Jacobs.