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The Tech of a Mountain Bike 🚵🏻♀️
8 minute read · Issue Number 43 · November 20th, 2020
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If you’ve been a subscriber of the magazine for a few months now, you’ll know how once in a while, I like to take a deep dive into the science, technology, and design of sports objects. So far, we’ve studied sports apparel, hockey sticks, and snowboards.
In general, the goal is to understand how things work.
In today’s newsletter, we’ll explore the built-in configuration, the design, and the technology of a mountain-bike. Our guiding questions will be:
What is mountain biking?
How did mountain bikes evolve through time?
What are its main properties?
What lies ahead in the future of mountain-bikes?
Let’s jump right in!
The practice of riding bikes off-road can be traced back to 1896 when a group of Buffalo soldiers tested bicycles for the army in a 1,900-mile expedition in the mountains.
The modern era of mountain biking started with a few bike builders and enthusiasts from California who adapted one-speed, cruiser bikes with balloon tires for off-road use in the late 1970s.
However, it wasn’t until the late 1990s and beginning of the 21st century that the sport moved from a little-known hobby to mainstream and competitive sports activity.
Traditionally, mountain biking has multiple disciplines and competitions, but most will land in one of the following five categories:
Cross country: riding from point-to-point or in a loop including climbs and descents on a variety of terrain;
Trail riding: hopping and jumping bikes over obstacles, without touching a foot onto the ground;
Enduro (all-mountain): long endurance cross country races that could even take a full day to complete;
Downhill: biking from the summit to the bottom of a hill, with massive jumps and rough steeps.
Freeride: the “do anything” type of riding!
While mountain bikes have several similar characteristics to regular road bikes, mountain bikes' technology enhances durability, comfort, and performance in rough terrains.
The increase in popularity of the sport for the last 30 years has demanded science and engineering improvements of mountain bikes. Like most modern sports today, mountain biking has become quite sophisticated in technological innovations, equipment, and performance enhancement.
While there are different design options for mountain bike configuration, the fundamentals are always constant. Some optimize for acceleration and breaking, others for stability and control. It depends on what the competition requires to succeed.
The element that connects the front and rear structure of a bike is called the “main frame” or “triangle.” It uses a mix of aluminum, carbon fiber, steel, and titanium to stay firm and bring all the pieces together.
A bike’s center of mass and force distribution will depend on the rider’s weight and height, which will dictate the capabilities that each cycle will present for each biker.
Forks and shocks are responsible for controlling the bike's response to the terrains' external inputs. These elements work use air springs through pressure, pistons, cylinders, stanchions, and sliders to absorb and return the energy in a controlled matter.
If you’re interested in learning how forks and shocks work, I recommend watching this YouTube video to avoid getting too technical.
“Great Ronen! I’ve seen a bike before. What are engineers are trying to optimize in a mountain bike?”
Great question, my dear reader!
Most of what the engineering and science is working on when it comes to mountain biking is to optimize the offset between different biking capabilities to enhance performance.
Think about it for a second.
The price, availability, and type of known materials and the bike’s geometry constrain the things engineers can do to improve them. It isn’t easy to develop the most efficient bicycle that doesn’t trade off advantages with disadvantages.
For instance, more robust and heavier elements may provide better overall performance at the cost of climbing and acceleration abilities.
Alternatively, the flatter the tire’s rubber's texture, the less control for the rider, but the higher potential speed.
It’s always a tradeoff, especially in braking, turning, and maneuvering capabilities.
The goal is to find the optimal balance for each particular biking discipline.
What are the essential elements that will improve the bike’s performance?
For the rest of the article, we’ll focus on four of the most relevant ones: suspension, wheels, breaks, and drivetrains.
Bike suspension is the element of the bike that isolates the vibrations and provides handling and control.
The suspension design and the proper springs, forks, and shocks allow the bike to distribute the mass and stiffness to provide the rider with the benefits mentioned above.
A great suspension is one that can optimize the most for vibration isolation and control;
For instance, a suspension element without enough rebound absorption would quickly return from a compressed state and eject the bike's rider.
Similarly, a stiff suspension element will create lots of vibration, providing muscular stress and fatigue in the rider and reduced control.
Wheels and Breaks
The first mountain-bike wheels were those of the balloon-tire of the late 1970s. Still, bike builders didn’t design them initially to endure the extreme off-road riding conditions.
Initially, to improve durability, wheels were stronger and stiffer by changing rim geometry, material, size, and hub properties.
Nevertheless, they weren’t incredibly efficient. In the last 30 years, wheels evolved massively to accommodate the dirtier off-road environment.
The most recent wheels have come from creating integrated rims and hub systems designed as one unit. These newer systems afford both a much greater aesthetic and more balanced designs to match each bike’s frame.
Tire suspension and road-holding are additional critical elements for safety and handling capability.
Breaking systems also had to evolve because they generated excessive heat that would affect the tires' performance and, hence, the bikes.
In the beginning, mountain bikes of the late 1970s had back-pedaling brakes, a system used in regular cycles but not as efficient for off-road bikes. It wasn’t until later that manufacturers created the cable-based rubber pads to provide a configuration to break with a lever next to the hands instead of the pedals.
The bike drivetrain is probably the smartest, most simple thing of the bike, that has changed little since its invention in 1985.
It consists of all the rider elements to translate the body's energy and movement to forces that move the bike forward.
Its components are the pedals, cranks, gears, chain, cassette, and a front and rear derailleur.
The main differences between a regular to an off-road bike drivetrain are the strength to support higher impact and durability while keeping the bike light and maneuverability, without giving up on aesthetics.
The materials used for these components are aluminum, titanium, and magnesium.
The Future of Mountain Bikes
In 30 years, mountain biking technology has advanced nearly beyond imagination by creating durable, light, and amazingly well-performing bicycles.
Today, solidly equipped mountain bikes retail for about 2,500 USD, and in extreme cases, prices can surpass 10,000 USD.
Independently, the future of mountain bikes will continue to work towards finding the optimal balance and will look for increased integration of function and aesthetic, with increasing capacities in electronics and information, such as bike computers, GPS, electronic control, and smart materials.
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Did you learn something new today?
Until next week,
Read more: sportstechbiz.substack.com.
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