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5 Ways Mountain Bikes Were Better In The 90s

Modern mountain bike technology is incredible. The arrival of decent suspension, hydraulic disc brakes, tubeless tires, and many other innovations all help today’s hard-core mountain bikers go faster than ever before, for longer, over more challenging terrain.

The contrast with the technology we used in the 90s couldn’t be any stronger. It’s actually quite hard to believe we rode off-road with rigid forks, cantilever brakes, and so few gears, and lived to tell the tale.

Few would seriously argue that modern mountain bikes are not better overall than their 90s ‘retro’ ancestor, but here are some ways that 90s mountain bikes were better…

1. Low maintenance, low cost

One of the great things about mountain bikes during the 90s was their simplicity. No shocks to tune up, no hydraulics to bleed. Keeping your bike in good working order was pretty easy, and rather cheap by today’s standards.

Thinking about going out for a ride? Just grab the bike, check the tire pressure, squeeze the brakes, double check the most crucial bolts are tight enough, and off you go.

2. Just one wheel size

When everybody used 26 inch wheels, borrowing a suitably sized replacement inner tube from a riding buddy was a heck of a lot easier than today, what with 26 inch, 650b and 29 inch. A single size of wheel also made thing simpler when upgrading to the latest frame – just fit your existing wheels to the new frame, without worrying about whether to make the jump to a trendier wheel size.

3. Steel bikes, built to last

As a material for frames and cycling components, steel is hugely under-rated. Steel is cheap, strong, fatigue resistant, and easy to repair. Rear mech hangers can be bent back into alignment numerous times before they are ruined; damaged or rusted tubes can be removed and replaced; disc tabs can be added easily to usher a retro steel frame into the 21st century.

It’s true that steel frames and components are not the lightest, yet they aren’t overly heavy and some would argue the strength of steel is worth the slight weight penalty compared to aluminium or carbon. In any case, weight doesn’t matter much these days, judging by the 28-30 lb weights of most mid-range modern mountain bikes.

There is also an argument to be made that steel bikes are the ethical choice. A good, hand-made steel frame will last a lifetime if cared for properly. Choosing this over far-eastern aluminium or carbon will significantly reduce the ‘carbon footprint’ of your bike, and as such will help the environment – you know, the wilderness and countryside we ride in.

4. Shifters that allow you to trim your front derailleur

I’ve never understood the need for having indexed front gears. Not only are shifts between chain-rings much less frequent than shifts on the rear cassette. But indexing also forces you to use a single front derailleur position, which can take a lot of tuning to get just right. When not perfectly tuned, the chain can grind noisily on your front derailleur’s chain-guide when using gears at the extreme ends of your cassette.

This is (or was in the 90’s) easily solved if your gear levers are thumb-shifters or grip-shift, because both allow micro-adjustment of your front derailleur. Goodbye grinding chain, hello perfect front derailleur alignment!

5.  Bikes were lighter despite all that steel

Back in the 90’s, a mid-range mountain bike would have weighed in at somewhere around 24-25 pounds – significantly lower than the 28-30 pound weight of a typical mid-range mountain bike today.

However, concerns about bike weight seems to be more about vanity than performance. Dwarfed by a rider’s body weight, the weight of your mountain bike is barely worth worrying about. Unless you find yourself regularly carrying the bike over obstacles, or your bike is super-heavy, just lose some body weight instead.

Suspension: is it really necessary for mountain biking?

Convention now says that mountain bikes should have front suspension forks. They are now considered an essential feature, by nearly all mountain bikers and mountain bike manufacturers. Even the lowest end, cheapest of the cheap, steel-rimmed, gas-pipe framed mountain bikes in your nearest supermarket have something resembling front suspension.

And the benefits of decent front suspension are quite clear. They allow a rider to ride faster over most off-road terrain, give extra steering control due to the enhanced front wheel traction, and absorb vibrations that would otherwise sap a rider’s energy. In other words, front suspension allows a rider to go faster and for longer. Good suspension also provides an extra margin of error when you hit gnarly terrain features a little too fast – soaking up hits and giving you a better chance of staying on the bike.

Chili_Bomber4 vs. Kona Project 2 rigid fork

What has happened to our trails since the advent of good-quality, cost-effective, long travel suspension forks? Has mother nature added extra rocks, roots and bomb-holes to make our trails that much gnarlier? Have the laws of physics fundamentally changed to make it impossible to ride off-road on a rigid fork? No, of course not. Simply put, expectations have risen regarding the speed one can ride off road; riders usually want to keep up with their riding buddies, to win races, or get good Strava times.

So, having front suspension is a no-brainer then, right? Not necessarily, as it turns out. Suspension comes with several drawbacks:

  • adds weight to the bike
  • a fraction of the energy of each pedal stroke is lost compressing the suspension – unless locked out
  • slightly sloppier steering due to fork flexure, although the most recent forks are getting pretty stiff
  • head tube angle changes as the suspension progresses through its travel, changing the steering of the bike
  • modern suspension forks require regular maintenance, particularly when used in wet and muddy conditions
  • significantly increases the retail price of a mountain bike, or means the rest of the bike will be worse at the same price point

Most riders and manufacturers now agree that the positives that come with using front suspension outweigh the negatives. I agree with this, but only if your priority is to ride as hard and fast as possible.

While generally a little slower, riding rigid forks allows a mountain biker to burn calories faster than when riding with front suspension. Riding rigid also places a greater importance on trail skills, particularly the reading of terrain and selecting the fastest/smoothest line. This means a rider generally needs to become fitter and more skilled to keep pace with riding buddies who use front suspension.

In conclusion, there is probably no single answer to the original question: is suspension necessary? The answer will depend on individual taste, riding style, budgetary constraints, and the type of terrain being ridden.

My own view is that suspension is by no means necessary, but is not worth thinking about unless you’ve got the rest of your mountain bike kitted out with a decent frame and good components.