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Simplicity in Mountain Bikes: Less is More in These 5 Areas

November 10, 2023

Sometimes, the best solutions are the simplest ones.

Many have complained about the increasing complexity of bikes due to technological innovations, which escalate the cost of purchasing and maintaining a bicycle. However, there are still some great ideas that make bikes better while keeping them simpler.

Rather than complex suspension systems or adding electronic gadgets, sometimes the best design approach is to question: are these really necessary? In most cases, simplicity means a lighter, quieter, lower-cost, easier-to-maintain, and more reliable bike. Moreover, a simpler overall solution also enhances the elegance and sophistication of the bike.

Here are a few areas where less is indeed more:


1. Flexible Pivot Points

Currently, almost every XC bike incorporates a "flexible pivot point" instead of traditional pivot points with bearings or sleeves. The flexible pivot points, for reasons of weight and reduced parts (bearings, bolts, washers, etc.), make the entire system easier to maintain.

While bearings need replacement once per season, well-designed flexible pivot points can endure throughout the entire lifespan of a frame. The constant movement in the rear of the frame, either in the seatstay or chainstay, often exposes pivot points during suspension motion.

This continual movement may accelerate bearing wear and increase friction at a single point due to the consistent force application. However, components made of carbon, steel, or even aluminum can adapt well to this limited range of motion without fatigue. While they're most commonly seen in bikes with 120mm or smaller travel, Merida recently introduced a 170mm travel bike with flexible pivot points, hinting at potential improvements in manufacturing techniques that could lead to more long-travel versions.


2. Single Chainring Systems for All

For mountain biking enthusiasts, the advantages of single chainring systems are almost self-evident. They eliminate the front derailleur, front chainrings, cables, and often the chain guide, while still offering a range of gear ratios. However, for novice riders, the simplicity and ease of operation of single chainring systems also make riding more accessible. They're not only simpler to install and maintain but also make riding simpler, as you only need to focus on one shifter and a continuously spaced cassette.

Although not entirely new, entry-level mountain bikes now offer decent single chainring drivetrains. This is a fantastic advantage for those new to the sport.


3. Single Pivot Point Suspension Systems (Done Right)

The primary reason for utilizing a single pivot point in the suspension linkage, particularly with a Horst-link design (the most common today), is to minimize the influence of braking forces on the suspension's anti-rise characteristics. Allegedly, this allows the suspension system to work more freely during braking. But in reality, this isn’t a significant issue. In fact, the high anti-rise characteristics of single pivot points aid in countering the effects of braking forces, making the system more stable during braking, which I find quite noticeable. Many mountain bikes utilizing single pivot point suspension linkages from brands like Commencal, Kona, Nukeproof, Cannondale, Honda, and Saracen have won numerous World Cup and EWS races over the years.

The second drawback only applies to truly single-pivot bikes, where the shock mounts directly to the swingarm. They typically lack the progressivity of the frame, meaning any compression or "rise" in the suspension must come from the shock. Through progressive linkages, the shock resistance increases as the travel ends, further preventing bottoming out.

It's worth noting that some multi-link designs like Specialized's Stumpjumper Evo might not offer more compression than a single pivot point (lower leverage ratio).

Moreover, air shocks with volume spacers enable easy adjustment of suspension travel. The latest air shocks with negative volume or progressive coil springs mean modern shocks are better suited for linear linkage motion, reducing the advantages of progressive linkages.

Certainly, progressive linkages increase damping and spring stiffness throughout the travel, which is hard to replicate through shocks. However, not everyone sees the travel-dependent damping effects of progressive linkages as entirely beneficial. This is why Cannondale developed a bike with both a progressive linkage driving the coil spring and a linear linkage driving the damper for downhill racing.

Nevertheless, from a performance perspective, I do believe that progressive linkages have an advantage, at least in many of the environments available today. But single pivot points can indeed work well under the right shocks. I know people who change frame bearings multiple times a year where I live; for them, the benefits of a single pivot point might outweigh the drawbacks significantly.


4. More Travel

There are various ways to enhance suspension performance: fancy linkages, expensive shocks, idler pulleys. But there's only one reliable way to help a bike absorb bumps: provide it with more suspension travel.

Increasing travel doesn't necessarily increase weight, cost, or overall system complexity, but it fundamentally alters a bike's shock-absorbing efficiency. While not everyone wants an entirely plush riding experience, you can tailor the ride of a long-travel bike to be more firm by reducing sag, locking out the suspension, or adding volume spacers. However, you can't make the ride of a short-travel bike as plush as desired without risking bottoming out its suspension.

I'm not suggesting everyone should ride downhill bikes, but compared to more complex suspension designs, adding an extra 10mm of suspension travel might be a simpler, more effective way to improve ground adherence, traction, and comfort.


5. Larger Disc Brakes

Complex methods exist to improve braking performance, such as dual-piston calipers, finned brake pads, and leverage cam mechanisms. Most of these methods increase costs and occasionally introduce issues. For instance, finned brake pads often generate noise, while leverage cam mechanisms can magnify inconsistencies or sponginess in the hydraulic system.

In contrast, larger disc brakes enhance braking efficiency, heat dissipation, and consistency without adding complexity. A 220mm disc can enhance about 10% of braking efficiency compared to a 200mm disc, offering a larger surface area for heat dissipation. While they might be heavier, SRAM's HS2 disc is only about 25 grams heavier, and the added weight aids in absorbing heat during braking. To simplify, you can try using a 220mm disc with a dual-piston caliper instead of a 200mm disc with a four-piston caliper; dual-piston calipers are easier to maintain and offer weight and braking efficiency advantages.


Conclusion

I don't intend to come off as an armchair critic. I appreciate the technology that enhances bike performance, even if it's just a small fraction of improvement. I'm a staunch fan of innovations like long-travel dropper posts, 12-speed cassettes, and adjustable geometries, as they genuinely benefit the riding experience, at least at times. However, in cases where designs with fewer components perform equally well in the real world, I'd prefer the simpler approach in all aspects. Remember, bike brands want to stand out among competitors and convince you that their bikes are superior. It's easier for them to let people know what they've added in terms of innovation rather than what unnecessary components they've removed.


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