4 Things I Learned About Mid-90s MTB Design


I just got back from a 30 mile ride to and from North Portland Sunday Parkways. For the uninitiated, Sunday Parkways is a program we have in Portland where once a month for five months in the late spring/summer, the city and private sector sponsors (this year includes New Relic and Lam Research, among the usual suspects) get together and shut down streets in a particular sector of the city to cars. That way, bikes and pedestrians have free run of the route, and the route usually includes a number of parks that have vendor areas set up. Basically you get to hang out in the parks, bike around on carfree streets, and generally enjoy the city in a way that can’t normally. Pretty cool.

I took the time yesterday morning to rebuild my Trek mountain bike, returning again to the Schwalbe Fat Frank tires around which I originally meant to build. I’ve always loved the 1990s-era Trek logo. Call it a masterpiece of turn-of-the-century design, it’s got a Tron-like feel to it, and the two lines that run across the form just make so much sense. It’s a road, running into infinity! Of course, the irony is that my best example of this work is on a mountain bike. I think that’s a really good summation of what I’ve learned today; in the 1990s, we just figuring out all that mountain bikes could be.

Things I learned about Mid-90s MTB designIMG_20150621_135144

  1. Ergonomically, we had no idea what we were doing. Mountain biking requires that you be able to get a tighter grip on the bars, so drop bars were out. At the same time, you had to be able to throw the front end around quite quickly. So, cruiser or “North Road” style handlebars were also out. What was left was the abomination of the flat bar. Either ramrod straight or just ever so slightly swept, these put your hands in such unnatural positions. It’s such a wonder that we’ve now figured out riser bars with increasing amounts of sweep. Incrementally, the minute loss of responsiveness is totally worth it.
  2. Steel is such a good material. The thing about older bikes is that they all look so delicate. When you compare them with the hydroformed aluminum or broadly laid carbon fiber that predominates today, the tube sizes are so thin! But contrary to looks, steel can really rip. Even butted tubes are just as strong as aluminum. Cheaper straight gauge tubesets, such as the one that my bike is made of, are so stiff that barely any deflection is noticeable under power. Of course, they are also heavier.
  3. 1x chainsets are the future, especially when you pair them with a wide range cassette. I don’t begrudge the original mountain bikers for this. Back then, mountain bikes used modified touring parts, mainly for their versatility but also for their toughness. You could get a 13-28t freewheel at best, so for really hammering it out you had to go smaller on the front, but you needed the second ring for descents. Nowadays, SRAM makes a 1×11 groupset that runs an 11-42 tooth cassette, so a 33 or 34t front chainring is perfectly fine. Even 7 speed cassettes come with a 34t big cog these days. If you want 1:1 or even sub 1:1, you can totally do that! I run a 38t front ring, with an 13-34 7 speed cassette because I do most of my riding on the roads anyway.
  4. Geometry and fit were very different. Remember again that the original mountain bikers were using modified touring bike gear. This same history is reflected in the frame geometry. Slacker seat angles help get the weight over the rear wheel. Front ends were still pretty upright by today’s standards. Trail was also relatively high. Top tubes were long but not that long. Chainstays were quite short. Check out the tire clearance on my front fork; you can whip the thing around like no other, but you also feel the bumps.

And three non-MTB design things

  1. Once you get a Brooks saddle, you quickly realize how much you need Brooks saddles for everything else. The difference is unbelievable.
  2. Reflective strips are SO COOL. I wish everything had them. The rim width to tire width ratio on this bike is spot-on, too. It looks great.
  3. I gotta get better grips. These are just vanity grips.

Enjoy the pictures. Click to view in lightbox.

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