No, this isn't a 1984 throwback post. I'm waxing philosophical (which is a hint to stop reading if that sort of thing bores you) about the relationship between technology and unanticipated consequences. With regard to alien civilizations, and also mountain bikes. I think.
This will become relevant to bikes in a minute, really. Bear with me.
One of the interesting conundrums of our times is that, while we've got all kinds of powerful and sensitive telescopes and instruments, and have spent a lot of time looking for evidence of other intelligent life around us in the galaxy, we have yet to find anything. This logic problem is known as the Fermi paradox, after the famous mathematician. There are several responses to the Fermi paradox, which are basically:
-Intelligent life actually is very rare, or unique (ie, we're special).
-We're looking in the wrong places or the wrong ways (ie, we're the only intelligent life using radio, everybody else is telepathic or something).
-Other intelligent life is deliberately laying low so that we can't detect it (ie, nobody likes us).
-Intelligent life tends to develop technology that allows it to quickly kill itself off, so at any given time, intelligent life is rare in the galaxy (ie, civilizations don't last long).
Call me a pessimist, but the final option seems the most plausible to me. We're a competitive, intelligent race of tool builders who have an exponentially growing population and limited resources - and better technology almost always means better weapons. My money is on all those alien species having wiped themselves back out shortly (say, within 500 years) after getting to the point where they could use radio. My money is also on humans to go the same route, but I'm trying to work this back to bikes now, so I'll stop with the depressing exobiology. The point I'm trying to make is that technology improvements always bring unanticipated side effects. Splitting the atom makes electricity, or it makes lots of people dead - it just depends on how you go about it.
Since I can't think of a good segue for this, here we go.
In the last 20 years, mountain bikes have changed a LOT. Here's a 1989 Stumpjumper:
I don't have to tell you that a basic XC mountain bike looks nothing like this now. You can easily poke around online and find a <30 pound 6" travel bike for <$1500, which is lighter, faster, smoother, and better in pretty much every way than the old Stumpy. You'll feel like a superhero on techy terrain on the new bike in comparison.
But that's starting to become a problem, I think. Inexpensive, commonly available mountain bikes are good enough now that even inexperienced or unskilled riders can tackle relatively steep and technical terrain in relative safety (well, safety for the rider, anyway), and can ride much, much faster on all types of terrain than they could on the bikes of two decades ago.
So instead of a few expert riders going fast on any given trail, along with some novices rolling slowly along, we've got a situation where lots of riders on long-travel, capable XC bikes can go fast enough on multi-use trails that they won't be able to easily stop in time to avoid a collision. The curves on the trails haven't gotten any less sharp, and the sight lines aren't any better than they were 20 years ago. And while brakes are unquestionably more reliable and easier to set up (cantilevers, barf) than they used to be, it's hard to argue that bikes actually stop any quicker - you can lock up a wheel with a cantilever just like you can with an 8" disc rotor.
In other words, the goal of building faster and more capable bikes may be incompatible with sharing trails with other types of trail user unless we come up with ways to avoid collisions and stop better. We already have lots of trails like this (bike specific ones, that is) at the bike parks and resorts - trails where having users go uphill would be unsafe, and even ones where having users going significantly different speeds (or stopping) isn't ok. Right now, the bikes that are capable of being safely ridden on those trails are basically only intended to go down - but they are getting lighter and easier to pedal every year.
If someday we could build a 15 pound bike with 10" of suspension travel, capable of changing geometry for climbing or descending, would it be a good idea to build it? I'm not sure. While I'd love to ride that bike, I suspect that making something like that available to the general public would lead to bikes being banned from a lot of trails. It's worth noting that motorized vehicles aren't really banned from trails because of some inherent unsavory quality of motors (they can be made quiet, stink-free, and unobtrusive) - they are banned because they go *too fast* to share the trail easily in many cases, or do too much damage to the trail surface. I think mountain bikes are coming closer and closer to motorcycles in their capabilities (which from a tech-geek standpoint is super cool), but that's a potential problem as trails get more crowded with users of all types.
I'm not trying to be down on new technology, but I do wonder what will happen to mountain bike trails in the next 20 years - I hope that my kids will be able to ride the same trails I do today, but I don't know if that will happen if any yahoo can go to Performance and buy a 10" travel cross country bike, then go scream down some local trail and run over people's kids and dogs.
In other words, hopefully we won't become the victims of our own technology. My solution? 1: Join IMBA, and 2: Take your long-travel bike and smash it with a rock, then get your old Trek Antelope 820 out from the rafters and pump up the tires...
Just kidding about that second part.