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Two decades of mountain bike evolution got me riding again

Full suspension, 29-inch wheels and disc brakes have revolutionized fat-tire bikes.

Stephen Shankland principal writer
Stephen Shankland has been a reporter at CNET since 1998 and writes about processors, digital photography, AI, quantum computing, computer science, materials science, supercomputers, drones, browsers, 3D printing, USB, and new computing technology in general. He has a soft spot in his heart for standards groups and I/O interfaces. His first big scoop was about radioactive cat poop.
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  • I've been covering the technology industry for 24 years and was a science writer for five years before that. I've got deep expertise in microprocessors, digital photography, computer hardware and software, internet standards, web technology, and other dee
Stephen Shankland
5 min read

My dog runs ahead of me on a windy mountain bike ride.

Stephen Shankland/CNET

Call it a silver lining of the COVID-19 cloud: I've rediscovered the passion I had for mountain biking in the 1980s and 1990s. And holy moly -- technology changes mean it's almost a different sport.

Mountain bikes haven't changed as radically as mobile phones since 1996, when I bought my last set of wheels. But it's close. New to me are bump-swallowing full suspension, gargantuan 29-inch wheels, powerful hydraulic brakes, adaptable "dropper" seatposts and fat, grippy, tubeless tires.

The technology improvements upgraded my attitude. Mountain biking transformed from an activity I felt I ought to enjoy into a sport I really, really want to do every day. That's good news for a middle-aged man who spends an awful lot of time parked behind a computer screen.

There are lessons here for anyone who's irritated that it's difficult to tell the difference between last year's $1,500 flagship smartphone and this year's replacement. First, don't underestimate the power of steady, incremental improvements like those that revolutionized my mountain bike. Second, technology done well can still bring joy.

And a little joy is just what I needed. The COVID-19 pandemic is an inexhaustible source of anxiety. I'm not alone. A coronavirus-induced bike buying spree has drained inventory around the country, but at my fifth bike shop I found a pair of Trek Fuel EX bikes for my son and me.

2020 mountain bike tech

Here are the big changes I'm enjoying with mountain bikes these days.

  • Full suspension. Enormous energy has gone into fitting formerly rigid bike frames with shock absorbers for both the front and rear wheels. Early full-suspension bikes had serious problems when braking or pedaling, but advancements in areas like pivots and rebound damping in the shocks make it great now. I knew it would be useful on fast downhills, but full suspension helps on uphills, too; the rear wheel tracks the ground contours better, and hitting a rock with the front wheel doesn't lurch you to a stop.
  • 29-inch wheels. When I got started, 26-inch wheels were the only option for mountain biking. Bike designers have since adapted bike frame geometry to the larger 29-inch diameter that means wheels roll more smoothly over gaps and over rocks. With the larger wheels, a bigger patch of rubber contacts the ground for better traction, too. It's worth the extra weight.
  • My new Trek Fuel EX 8 mountain bike has been a great antidote to high-anxiety lockdown life.

    My new Trek Fuel EX 8 mountain bike has been a great antidote to high-anxiety lockdown life.

    Stephen Shankland/CNET
  • Hydraulic disc brakes. Old-style caliper brakes that squeezed the wheel rim have nothing like the stopping power of disc brakes, which use small brake pads to grip a metal rotor near the wheel's hub. My first mountain bike's brake lever had room for all four fingers, but I rarely use more than one finger for hydraulic brakes. And they don't fade nearly as badly on long descents.
  • Fatter tires. My 1990s tires were 1.9 inches wide, but engineers have figured out how to squeeze in wider ones. My bike's 2.6-inch tires are better at gripping the trail and floating over loose dirt and sand. Given how big my new wheels are, I've been impressed they're not too much heavier.
  • Dropper posts. A small lever next to my handlebar grip lets me lower my seat while riding for better control on downhills. That comes in handy during my favorite, technical descents with lots of obstacles and careful steering. Pushing the lever while standing up, a compressed air chamber pops the seat back up to the perfect height for pedaling. It's really valuable for adapting the bike to variable trail conditions.
  • Tubeless tires. Cars don't use inner tubes anymore, and bikes have followed suit with new airtight rims. The approach avoids pinch flats that could deflate your tire after banging hard into a rock. I've had two punctures so far with tubeless tires, but neither was a problem: Sealant inside the tire quickly patched the holes.
  • 1x12 gearing. Earlier bikes used two derailleurs to place the chain for the best gearing -- the rear derailleur for the rear wheel gears and the front derailleur for the gears near the pedals. Now there's only one gear up front and an astounding 12 in back. That's simpler and gives better clearance when riding over logs. (Cost and battery limits mean wireless, electronic bike shifting isn't mainstream, but it's got potential.)

Phone apps make biking better

In the 1990s, high-tech biking meant a battery-powered cyclocomputer that counted wheel rotations to estimate speed and distance. Back then, I'd carry topographic maps to navigate.

Mountain bike apps

Apps useful for mountain bikers include Gaia GPS (map and trip view), Strava and Endomondo. 

Stephen Shankland/CNET`

Now I've got my phone. I can't understate how revolutionary it is to be able to use GPS to see exactly where I am on a digital map. Here are three apps I use:

  • Gaia GPS is great for navigation. I use the free topo maps, which have lots of trails already marked, but a premium subscription will get you more map overlay options. I just have to remember to look at my route ahead of time to cache the maps for those moments when the mobile network inevitably fails in the wilderness.
  • Strava is for people who want to make their exercise more social by competing against people on a particular trail or road. That isn't my style, but seeing that my friends also are out cycling is motivating. I also use it to find trails other people have ridden.
  • Endomondo is good for recording activity. I like its estimates for calorie consumption, but mostly use it to see if my times are improving. 

Not totally happy

Unfortunately, full suspension and other new technology made bikes heavier and more complex. I shouldn't complain too much when the bigger weight problem is my own spare tire. Still it's a pain schlepping my bike up unrideable stretches of trail.

You can pay for a lighter bike by upgrading from an aluminum frame to a carbon fiber frame. But newer bikes are already expensive. A good full-suspension steed costs more than $3,000, and high-end models can surpass $10,000.

This rough, rocky track is one of my favorite mountain bike rides.

This rough, rocky track is one of my favorite mountain bike rides. It's better with full suspension.

Stephen Shankland/CNET

I'd like a lower gear to crawl up the steeps and to cut down my high-elevation wheezing. One drawback of the big 29-inch wheels is it makes very low gears harder to engineer.

Newer bikes also aren't as nimble. Mine isn't as bad as my grandparents' 1972 , but frame geometry nowadays is designed for big wheels, long wheelbases, cushy suspension and going fast. Picking my way through a tight switchback turn is hard, and I'm still learning how not to overshoot curves.

But there's no question bikes are better overall. Over and over during this pandemic, I've found a silly grin plastered on my face as I purr over roots and rocks, carve through swooping turns and explore new trails. During the coronavirus lockdown, it's been a priceless attitude adjustment.

29x2.6-inch mountain bike wheel

My mountain bike wheels now are 29 inches in diameter and tires are 2.6 inches wide, offering a better ride than earlier 26-inch wheels and better traction than 1.9-inch tires.

Stephen Shankland/CNET
The information contained in this article is for educational and informational purposes only and is not intended as health or medical advice. Always consult a physician or other qualified health provider regarding any questions you may have about a medical condition or health objectives.