Innovation of the Year
This year might not be remembered as a transformative year for mountain biking innovation – as technology gets more refined, most of the game-changing innovations are probably already here, and plenty of would-be revolutionary ideas have been – mercifully – consigned to the dustbin of history. But there were plenty of interesting concepts and exciting new products in 2021. There was a new take on electronic suspension, a bike with the shock in the top tube, a product made of sawdust that claims to solve the drawbacks of air suspension, e-bikes you can actually ride all day, and a more reliable take on the derailleur drivetrain.
Which of our five picks would you like to see take the crown? What did we miss?
Why it’s nominated
Electronically-controlled suspension isn’t a new idea, but RockShox’ Flight Attendant is “the best execution of the concept yet”, according to Mike Kazimer’s review. It improves on Fox’s Live Valve system by going wireless, toggling between three compression settings (not just two) and incorporating a pedal sensor so it knows to open up the suspension if you’re not pedalling.
As a result, Mike says, “Flight Attendant has the potential to turn more gravity-oriented bikes into potent all-rounders, or to make mid-travel options more XC-oriented nature on the climbs, all without sacrificing anything on the descents.”
It’s expensive, the noise of the servos changing modes is noticeable, and it’s yet another thing to remember to charge, but while bikes are always a compromise between climbing and descending performance, this is about as close as it gets to having your cake and eating it too.
Why it’s nominated
This one’s a lot harder to explain. I thought it was a joke when I first heard about it. But Carbon Air has been used in the air suspension of Audi’s luxury sedans for years.
In short, its aim is to make air suspension work more like a coil. It does this by using activated carbon, which can be made from sawdust and has the counter-intuitive property of mopping up more molecules of air per cubic centimetre than the same volume of empty space. It acts as the opposite of a volume spacer – effectively increasing the volume of an air chamber.
Carbon Air promises to do all this without the need for physically larger air springs that simply wouldn’t fit in many forks and shocks.
Also, air springs are speed-sensitive – faster compressions cause the air inside to heat up, which increases the spring force, and this can make it hard to use all the travel when needed. Carbon Air claim their product soaks up this heat, making the spring perform more consistently at different speeds. Again, making it perform more like a coil while retaining the lightness and tunability of an air spring.
Carbon Air is yet to hit the market, but they’re aiming to work with suspension manufacturers on forks and shocks designed around it. I’ve ridden a sample in a 190 mm travel RockShox Zeb and it certainly makes it easier to use all the travel.
Why it’s nominated
The suspension design of Digit Bikes’ Datum isn’t an entirely new concept, but rather a more promising execution than we’ve seen before. Engineered by Tim Lane, the Datum uses a structural shock strut mounted in the top tube. This both acts to control the suspension forces like a regular shock, while at the same time acting as a key structural member of the linkage. This reduces part count and weight when compared to a conventional multi-link suspension design, which requires some sort of rotating upper rocker or clevis link as well as a shock. Digit claim they can save almost a pound when compared to a four-bar or faux bar design, plus superior stiffness, reliability and lower environmental impact due to the lower part count.
Resistance Bikes, Maverick’s Monolink and Boulder Bicycles all used integral shock struts, but the Datum is a little different to all these designs in that it uses a short lower link and a complete rear triangle.
More significantly, Lane designed a fully bespoke shock. Mounting it in the top tube allows it to be physically bigger (it’s twelve inches long), which allows for larger positive and negative air volumes; this offers similar advantages to those promised by Carbon Air – a more linear spring curve. The frame design also allows for an uninterrupted seat tube, making it possible to save more weight, allow for longer dropper posts and offer practically the same effective seat angle at different saddle heights. I happen to think it looks pretty good too.
We’ve not ridden the bike yet, although our counterparts over at Beta have, but we still think it’s innovative. In a world where suspension designs look increasingly alike, Tim’s breathed new life into an under-developed concept and maybe, just maybe, made progress by asking which parts can be eliminated rather than added.
Why they’re nominated
I’m sure this will raise a groan from many readers, but those of us who ride e-MTBs regularly know that running out of battery mid-ride isn’t much fun, and constantly stressing about how much assistance you can use and still make it home isn’t ideal either. On full power, with a steep climb and one of the early e-MTBs, you could run out of juice in under an hour if you weren’t careful.
Last year we nominated lightweight e-bikes like Orbea’s Rise in the Innovation Of The Year category. They make sense for people who want to feel almost like they’re riding a regular bike, just with (relatively) subtle assistance. These “half-fat” e-bikes have freed-up other models to find another niche by going in the opposite direction. With bigger batteries, they offer more range than ever.
This year I tested the Norco Sight VLT with a whopping 900 Wh battery. Using only the most powerful mode and in awful conditions (a worst-case scenario), I managed 1,706 m (5,600 ft) of climbing over 39.3 Km (24.4 miles) on one charge. By being more frugal with electrons, you could get double that range.
This year also saw Bosch release their biggest battery yet, with 750 Wh, and Rocky Mountain updated their e-MTBs with a 720 Wh battery, which can be used with an external range extender for a total of 1,034 Wh.
These extra-bulky beasts certainly aren’t for everyone, but they make it possible to enjoy a serious amount of riding in one go and could genuinely replicate a day of uplifting without the diesel fumes and sweaty seats. Alongside the new breed of lightweight e-bikes, we think we’ll be seeing more bikes with bigger batteries in future.
Why it’s nominated
I’m sure most of us have snapped or bent a derailleur and thought, “Surely there’s a better way?”. Canadian engineer Cedric Eveleigh had that thought back in 2019 and appears to have come up with a solution that combines the reliability of a gearbox with the efficiency, low weight and easy-shifting of a derailleur drivetrain.
In essence, he’s kept the shifting part of the derailleur on the rear wheel, but tucked it up a bit higher out of harm’s way. Meanwhile, he’s positioned the other function of conventional derailleurs – to tension the chain while allowing different chain lengths for different gears and suspension movement – to the bottom bracket. This dramatically reduces the risk of derailleur damage and reduces the suspension-sapping sprung mass on the rear wheel, too. It’s only compatible with high-pivot bikes with a forward idler location, but the growth of these high-pivot bikes could play well with this system in future.
It’s still at the development stage, but Pinkbike’s Matt Beer gave it the parking lot test and came away impressed. “In a blindfolded test,” said Matt, “I would not be able to tell the difference in the shifting system versus a traditional layout.”