In his follow up to last month’s piece on the history of the mighty bicycle loose cannon columnist David Bristow makes a bold prediction about how the battle of the wheel sizes will be resolved…
It is generally accepted that mountain biking (or bundu biking as I think it should be called), was invented by Gary Fisher and his band of long-hairs back in the 1970s, when they started bombing down steep hillsides in northern California on home-modified dikwiel contraptions. But that’s not the truth of it. Back in 1896-7 the 25th US Infantry Regiment – the fabled Buffalo Soldiers – tested all-terrain bikes, riding hundreds of miles from Fort Missoula to Yellowstone Park.
Fast forward 100 years when I bought my first mountain bike in the early 1990s. It was a Kona Lava Dome in luminous green and I thought it was volcano hot. It cost a whacking R3 000 at a closing down sale. Not many of us brave few had suspension but we’d bomb down any track like fearless time travellers. Bones were broken and gashes were stitched. Beer and laughter were good medicine. Ant used to wear a T-shirt “Wounds heal, chicks dig scars”.
One day Don arrived on a new bike with elastomer front suspension and we thought that was really racy. When Ant fitted bright orange Manitou compressed-air front shocks to his Giant we were enormously impressed. Things were moving at warp speed.
I went from the Lava Dome to a Kona Explosif Pro with first generation XT drive train, and I still have it, just so. It’s fitted with “town and country” semi-slicks for road riding and still gets taken out on dirt track in times of need. It’s got Kevlar tyre liners and I’ve not had a puncture on it in 10 years.
I first rode the Cape Epic course on my chrome-moly Kona, but since then MTB technology has really gone astral. It was sound engineer Matthew, on his brand new Santa Cruz, who looked at my trad bike and said: “Once you have tasted the forbidden fruit of rear suspension, you can never go back.” He was right: riding a mountain bike without full sus is like riding a road bike with square wheels – why would you want to! I bought a new generation GT with its hip iDrive cam-action bottom bracket; it was a brave innovation to overcome rear suspension bounce. The fashion did not last, but it was a brave move at the time. Since then there’s been a Diamondback, a Scott, a much beloved Morewood, and now a Rocky Mountain 29er.
I could go on and on about the developments in suspension, new materials, rear suspension pivots, frame triangulation and the arrival of things like lockout and intelligent rear suspension (not so, it kicks in after you need it), and gear ratios, but the boys from Revolution Cycles have already taken us down that path (and taken us in other ways too: sure SK and SJ, carbon fibre is nice if your bank or ex-wife has not extracted your wallet through your saddle bone).
By and by aluminium replaced alloy then carbon fibre replaced metal. Things got lighter and lighter, and more and more expensive. Imagine a newcomer breezing into a bike shop and asking: “how much will a really nice mountain bike cost?”
“Thirty, fifty, seventy thousand, how much have you got?”
And finally, when everything seemed to be in place, the product developers looked back at the old pictures and wondered (as humans will): what if we made a bigger wheel…?
I believe this battle of the wheel sizes is just one small step in the giant leap of mountain biking development. It too shall pass, when we bring cold logic to bear on the problem: small bike frame, 26; medium frame, 27.5; large frame, 29. And for ex Springbok rugby forwards, maybe 31. Morné du Plessis once passed me on the Argus and it looked like he was riding a double-storey bike with a one-metre seat post and BMX wheels.
So my prediction is that the most brilliant of inventions is yet to be unveiled by the clever boys in California. You can bet, given its efficient use of energy and our obsession with the new, we’ll be throwing good money after Osymetric groupsets within a year or two. From there it is just a small intellectual hop and skip to reason that an elliptical wheel would offer the best of 26, 27.5 and 29 inch rolling options. To counter the dead spots it would have to be rolled out synchromeshed with Osymetic chainrings and caming iDrive bottom bracket. Remember, you read it here first. But, like the iDrive, it might not last.
My next prediction is in the region of gears, and in particular that Achilles heel of mountain bikes – the rear derailleur. Internal gear hubs have been around for a long time. Some of us rode Sturmy Archer 3-speed bikes to school some time way back in the past century. On the first Cape Epic there was a tandem ridden by two German Rastas that had internal hub gears. It looked like the future to me, but weight seems to have been the barrier to market entry.
But now we have Niners, and single speed world champs, and SRAM XO1 and the like, so it does looks like the acceleration to more and more gears is starting to reverse itself. So why not a single chainring with simple three-speed rear hub? One for up, one for flat and one for down. If Sturmy Archer still holds a copyright, buys shares now. But remember, you read it here first.