Arriving at Interbike means hopping the shuttle out to Boulder City, Nevada to check out the Outdoor Demo for our first glimpse at what’s new and cool in the bike world. It’s also an opportunity to ride the rugged trails at Bootleg Canyon. This year’s Outdoor Demo was a downsized version of its former self, but the trails were still there and they were still a ton of fun. Here are three things I noticed about Outdoor Demo that I think will matter in 2018.
1. Tech trends
Interbike has historically set the trends for bicycle technology in the United States. If we are to believe that’s still the case, look out for a lot of e-bikes in the near future. The Outdoor Demo in the Nevada desert was diminutive when judged against previous years, but the brands that were present indicated a distinct shift in what the future holds, particularly for mountain bikes. And that future is electric.
In fact, the majority of brands holding down the windy fort in Boulder City had e-bike offerings, most notably Focus and KHS. Shimano also showed off its updated Steps drive unit, which integrates pretty slickly with its XT Di2 system.
Yet e-bikes — and more specifically, e-mountain bikes — have been slow to catch on in the United States. Contrast that with the ubiquity of the powered mountain bikes in Europe and you’ve got a bike industry with a conundrum on its hands. How do you sell e-mountain bikes to an American population that already has a host of problems like trail access issues and dangerous roads? It seems brands are becoming bold enough to try, and it’s happening at all levels, from brands like Trek with its drop-bar Crossrip to relatively new names like Haibike and Pedego.
So there’s faith that Americans will embrace e-bikes, both on and off the road. And that, to me, seems admirable, as long as the growth of e-bikes comes hand in hand with a fight for better, safer infrastructure and trail stewardship. The former has long been a significant American weakness, and the bicycle industry has so far relied heavily on PeopleForBikes and IMBA to do the big lifting.
My take: That’s no longer good enough if these pedal-assist bikes become ubiquitous. We all suffer the first time an e-biker makes headlines for going far too fast and taking out a pedestrian or hiker. If e-bikes are the future, their presence should come hand-in-hand with new stewardship and infrastructure partnerships between brands and advocacy groups.
2. Gear Boxes
Pinion showed off its C1.12 gearbox at the Outdoor Demo. It lives in the bottom bracket shell rather than in the rear hub. This moves the added weight (Pinion says its system weighs about a pound and a half more than most derailleur-based drivetrains) to the center of the bike from the rear, which should improve handling. I tested this bike on the trails in Boulder City. While it is certainly an improvement over rear hub-based gearboxes, the added weight was still very noticeable. I had to really work to lean the bike over in corners. Once that weight reached a certain lean-over point, it took some work to keep the bike from diving further than I wanted.
It’s an interesting concept that’s been skirting the mainstream for years with hub-based systems popularized by Rohloff. Moving the system to the bottom bracket area certainly improves the likelihood that internal gearboxes could catch on, but my first experience with Pinion’s system left me with the sense that this is promising but not ready for primetime. Any system that requires the rider to re-learn how to shift is bound to run into some stiff resistance, and I’m not anxious enough to ditch my derailleurs. Quicken the shifting here and Pinion’s got a real contender on its hands.
3. Where art thou, roadies?
Road bikes were conspicuously absent from the Outdoor Demo. A few brands like Focus had a road bike or two kicking around. Campagnolo was on hand to show off its new disc brakes. But this year’s Outdoor Demo was almost exclusively a mountain bike affair. Where have all the roadies gone?
For starters, much of the new technology in road bikes has already been released, either at the Tour de France or at Eurobike. A show this late in the year perhaps doesn’t make a lot of sense for road bike reveals, since the pros have largely been riding the new stuff throughout the season.
Of course, there may be other issues at play, like Interbike’s shaky future (the show will high-tail it out of Vegas next year and land in Reno). Perhaps it’s simply the fact that the mountain biking around Boulder City is much better than the road biking.
Or maybe there just isn’t a lot of groundbreaking tech happening on the road side this year, while there’s quite a lot happening on dirt. Gravel bikes, e-mountain bikes, new suspension … all dirty bits. Sure, there’s a lot of engineering underpinning the leap to road disc brakes, but that’s hardly a sexy showpiece for a visual affair like Interbike.
So will we see the subjugation of the “stiffer, lighter” mantra that seems to be the core of just about all road bike marketing and engineering? Not likely, since those two aspects of engineering matter so much to road bike development. And that begs the question: Are road bikes as good as they’ll ever be right now? It’s certainly possible. My guess is we’ll see a new frame material crop up in the next few years that will push the envelope even further. It will likely be some play on carbon fiber, but speaking strictly as an observing writer and in no way as anything resembling an engineer, road bikes will change again and we’ll be sitting around in five years reminiscing about the quaint years we rode just regular ol’ carbon fiber.