X-Factor

The high-tech fine-tuning of Utah mountain biking

By Joseph Silverzweig

New technology changes everything, in ways both obvious and surprising. Social media, politics and business are regularly rocked by big changes, and sports are no different. In Utah, the mountain-biking scene has attracted a robust hobbyist following and is growing as a professional sport. It was included as a sport in the Rio Olympics and continues to find fans in other mainstream formats.

The rapid development of mountain biking has been mirrored by changes in technology. Groundbreakers in the sport used old, worn-out, rebuilt street bikes and pounded them out of commission after one or two rides. Not satisfied with this, enthusiasts began to make modifications to the frames, tires and other aspects of the bikes. The pace of change has only increased as money and attention have flowed into the industry, and now one of these supremely well-engineered machines can set you back $10,000 for a championship-quality bike.

Materials technology has been a key factor in the evolution of mountain biking. The common diamond-frame design seen in most street and mountain bikes is structurally sound, and the use of steel is a popular choice for engineers seeking a strong, lightweight material.

However, as consumers seem more willing to open their wallets, they’re seeing bikes made from exciting alternative materials. Aluminum is now common, and high-end bikes often are made with titanium or carbon fiber. Titanium is flexible and impact resistant, allowing frames made with it to absorb a tremendous amount of punishment from the trail. Carbon fiber is incredibly strong, feather light and can be molded into unique shapes that allow for innovative engineering.

Mountain terrain deals out frequent, unpredictable blows that drives demand for sophisticated shock-absorber technology. The heavy-duty shocks mounted on the front of a bike are one of the defining features. What started as simply mounting steel springs to the wheel assembly has transformed into a shock absorption industry that’s developed full-suspension bikes with front and rear springs of varying materials.

Like everything else in this competitive sport, it all boils down to speed. Better shock absorption means less rider fatigue, more control and more time spent with the bike in contact with the ground. This all adds up to better times, bigger air and a more exciting ride.

Over the past few years, metal springs have mostly vanished from the higher-end mountain-bikes. Riders want to be able to instantly and precisely fine-tune their ride, while keeping their bike as light as possible. The innovative engineering solution is an air-filled tube, which compresses on impact. Tuning a bike for racing is as simple as adjusting the volume of air inside the tube, and the spring package is as light as possible.

The terrain in mountain biking changes in a heartbeat, going from a speed-building straightaway to tight turns and difficult maneuvers. Riders need the ability to lose speed quickly, so they don’t waste time bleeding off speed as they enter a tight corner or other tough spot. Brakes on a street bike likely sit on the rim of the wheel, adding friction to the spin and slowing it down. This is far too inefficient for mountain bikers, who have upgraded their braking systems again and again over the years.

 

Nowadays, disc brakes, which use friction more efficiently against a plate (or disc) attached to the wheel, are the gold standard for mountain bikers. At the fast speeds of competitive mountain biking, these brakes heat up quickly. Thus, a critical component of braking technology is the need to reduce heat. The discs are often perforated and have unique architecture to maximize airflow and the speed at which heat can be removed from the system.

Calipers are also the focus of relentless innovation and are now made from a host of different materials suited to various competition types and terrain. Mountain bikers have also begun adding hydraulic systems to their bikes to improve the feel and responsiveness of their brakes.

Perhaps the most crucial components of a mountain bike’s performance are its gears, and they haven’t changed all that much since they were first introduced to the sport about two decades ago— aside from the materials designed to make bikes lighter, stronger and more resilient.

Gears are still, for the most part, the same concentric rings of metal you see on any street bike. Innovation is relentless, however, and this area of mountain biking is beginning to change as experiments are undertaken with contained gear systems and shiftless transmissions. This is likely to be the next big leap in mountain biking technology, a leap that allows athletes to transfer maximum power to the ground with each pedal.

The beat of technology goes on. Materials and engineering improve, allowing riders to maximize the results on some of the most challenging terrain imaginable. While new technology can overshadow the accomplishments of early mountain-bike competitors, ultimately progress is just about connecting the will and skill of the rider with the terrain—all while removing obstacles to performance.

When technology improves, everyone wins.