Top 10 Most Innovative Mountain Bike Companies of 2020
Award-winning journalist Morgan Tilton identifies the ten most innovative mountain bike companies of 2020, and interviews their founders and leaders.
We’re in a golden age of mountain bike design, according to the industry forerunners I interviewed for this story. And above all, these pivotal manufacturers are pushing the boundaries from e-technology and eco-design to gender and body inclusivity.
When I moved to Crested Butte, CO, I was aware of the high-altitude hamlet’s prolific mountain bike trails. As a fourth-generation Coloradan and adventure journalist, I’d ridden off-road for most of my life and covered stories on the sport, including when local endurance athlete Brittany Konsella became the first person to mountain bike every inch of singletrack in Gunnison Valley, in 2018. More than 750 miles of alpine and desert trails occupy the terrain from Gunnison to Crested Butte: the highest concentration of singletrack in North America. From sweeping meadows to abundant wildflowers, the trails here epitomize quality and variety. Even Outside Magazine calls Crested Butte the best mountain bike destination in the country.
And the singletrack in Crested Butte isn’t new. Nearly four decades ago, residents started hand-building two-wheel tracks in Gunnison National Forest, when Crested Butte Mountain Bike Association (CBMA) was founded, becoming the world’s debut mountain bike club. The more I learned about my town’s pivotal role in this booming industry, the deeper I dove into bike history as a whole, which inspired this roundup of innovation pioneers.
Self-proclaimed hippies in Crested Butte and Marin County, CA, built the earliest iterations of mountain bikes, called clunkers, to explore woods, cow trails, fire and mining roads, mountains, and pot-holed streets. The movement began in 1974. At first, bike builders used recycled parts from Schwinn paper-delivery bikes with balloon tires--which were wide with less air pressure and absorbed uneven terrain--single-speed junkers,10-speed road bikes, and even motorcycles to create never-before-seen renegade bicycles. As you can imagine, those salvaged designs weren’t durable, smooth, or comfortable. By the ‘80s, a handful of craftsmen were developing unique frames for the cutting-edge sport including Scot Nicol, who I interviewed for this story. In fact, before founding Ibis Cycles, Nicol ventured from Marin County to Crested Butte, in 1978, to check out the clunker movement. He road-tripped with friends including Joe Breeze and Charlie Cunningham, two of the most influential framebuilders, who offered Nicol an apprenticeship when they returned to the coast.
Due to passionate deep-rooted leaders like Nicol, the mountain bike industry burgeoned. Today’s refined off-road bikes offer unparalleled travel through uneven terrain from trails to jumps, dirt roads, and gravel. What surprised me most throughout my research, though, is the industry’s mix of long-standing and rising brands. Below, you’ll find that a handful of the earliest adopters—who laid the sport’s groundwork—have continued to remain at the forefront of bike creation. You’ll also find contemporary companies that are pushing the boundaries of manufacturing, marketing, and inclusivity. Regardless of their age, these ten mountain bike companies are among the best in the business. Read and ride on.
Most Innovative Mountain Bike Companies of 2020
Narrowing down the most innovative mountain bike companies is a harrowing task. These days, an overwhelming number of mountain bikes are exceptional and each one is tailored for riding style, preference, and terrain. To whittle down a list, I solicited input from my industry colleagues followed by a ton of research. I read through countless published lists, news, and reviews of the best mountain bike brands. But, that data didn’t tell me what brands are up to now. So, I reached out to the company founders, vice presidents of product development, and managers for an update. I spent more than 1,000 minutes speaking with those experts to take stock of today’s greatest innovations.
For this round-up, innovation refers to goods but also includes manufacturing, leadership, marketing, e-commerce, technology, philanthropy, and inclusivity. The most innovative mountain bike companies of 2020 feature a range of footprints—small, medium and large brands—that are manufacturing mountain bikes while continually pushing the needle on research and development. These leaders have received third-party validation, accolade, and peer-endorsement as pioneers in the industry. And each of them chatted with me directly for this article.
Founder Adam Miller has been a serial entrepreneur since age 11, when he bought and deconstructed bikes from garage sales and eBay to resell the parts—or build his own bicycles. As a teenager, he worked in a local fat bike shop. Later, as a collegiate mountain bike racer at Colorado College, Miller launched Borealis Fat Bikes with the category’s first-ever carbon fiber design. Borealis rapidly grew and Miller sold the company. He then started Why Cycles in 2015, with a focus on artistic, high-end titanium hardtail bikes for road and gravel—plus a fat bike and a dirt jumper. Simultaneously, Miller established a second brand specializing in full suspension mountain riding: Revel Bikes, which officially unveiled products in March 2019, after four years of development. Miller’s mission? To create kinematics and suspension that support uphill travel—not just downhill “shredding,” he says.
Within a year, the Revel Rascal 29er was awarded Best Mountain Bike of 2020 by Outside Magazine for overall versatility and maneuverability across various terrain. Revel is the only company licensed to use CBF, an industry-changing patented suspension system that remains unlocked and consistently neutralizes the rider. “You can efficiently pedal a steep uphill, on gravel, or a downhill rock garden with the suspension open. And the brake is completely independent from the suspension—it doesn’t lock up: You want your rear wheel to stay on the ground going over rocks and bumps, for traction control,” explains Miller.
This month, Revel also announced Fusion-Fiber, the “first 100-percent recyclable, environmentally-friendly composite material in the outdoor industry,” which debuted in the Revel Wheels and is 100-percent made-in-the-USA, says Miller. Traditional carbon fiber uses epoxy, a non-biodegradable toxic substance that impacts environmental and human health, plus it’s brittle. Instead, this material employs a nylon polymer. “Fusion-Fiber is way stronger than traditional carbon fiber, so you can make a lighter product. Our RW30 Rims are way stronger and way lighter than any competitor on the market,” says Miller, who intends to incorporate the sustainable material into as many bike parts as possible. Revel’s manufacturing partner, CSS Composites, was co-founded by Joe Stanish, who was the former Vice President of Operations at Enve Composites for nearly seven years.
A handful of publications including Worldwide Cyclery have published positive reviews, yet no trade show awards or research parties have released data on Fusion-Fiber. However, manufacturing companies across other industries, such as Simpson Manufacturing Company, an engineering firm and building materials producer, support the claim that fiber-reinforced polymer systems--which are created by combining carbon or E-glass fibers with a polymer--are high-strength and lightweight.
Most innovative peer, according to Miller: Ibis Cycles “Ibis Cycles recently started experimenting with manufacturing certain frames in their facility in Santa Cruz, California, instead of overseas, which is great for quality control and an environmental standpoint. They also make fantastic bikes—they keep winning awards like Enduro Mountain Bikes ‘Best Trail Bike.’ I've just always had a ton of respect for Scott Nicol,” says Miller.
Not many bike parts are actually manufactured in the U.S.A.—but, from day one, Guerrilla Gravity shifted the paradigm. Founder Will Montague envisioned a consumer direct mountain bike company with pragmatic designs. He co-launched Guerrilla Gravity alongside Owners Kristy Anderson and Matt Giaraffa in 2011. True to his goal, Guerrilla Gravity designs and builds its frames in-house, in Denver, CO. Localized manufacturing “allows [us] to shorten the supply chain, lower the carbon footprint, and reduce inventory,” explains Montague.
Last year, the company also commenced Revved Carbon Technology (RCT), a patent-pending manufacturing process and eco-friendly carbon fiber blend (ingredients undisclosed) inspired by materials used in the aerospace industry. Compared to traditional carbon fiber, RCT is recyclable, and 300-percent more impact resistant. The material is economical to manufacture and recycle, which saves time, energy, and costs. Overall, RCT is ground-breaking, given that conventional carbon utilizes toxic resin, is extremely difficult to reclaim, and its nonbiodegradable scraps are usually dumped in a landfill or the ocean.
Also in 2019, Guerrilla Gravity premiered the Modular Frame Platform, which allows riders to alter their bike for diverse trails without buying a new one. Each full-suspension model features a universal front triangle, adjustable reach and wheelbase, and swappable seatstay. The wheels and forks can also be switched. As life “evolves, you can have a platform that evolves with it, as opposed to scrapping your old bike, which reduces throw-away culture,” says Montague.
Most innovative peer, according to Montague: Specialized “Specialized is doing cool stuff with e-bikes to drive down weight and treading new ground in helping people think about what e-bikes can be,” says Montague.
Liv Cycling pioneers female-specific frames and upholds an all-women team from marketing to the engineers. When Giant CFO Bonnie Tu rode the 2007 Tour de Taiwan, an annual road stage race, she couldn’t find a cycling kit or bike that comfortably fit. Bonnie thought,“‘We are the largest manufacturer of bicycles in the world: Why aren't we designing specifically for women? I want gear, apparel, and bikes designed for me.’ So, she developed an intentional brand focused on supporting women in cycling across road, gravel, and off-road,” says Senior Product Marketing Specialist Jen Audia.
“The history of cycling has been built upon the input of engineers, designers and test subjects primarily being male,” Audia explains—but Liv pinpointed anatomical and physiological research that supports the brand’s mission. According to data from PeopleSize and NASA, women have a particular physique including narrower shoulders, shorter arms, and shorter crotch heights, reports Outside. Plus, “In our proportional studies of men and women, there’s overlap but the bell curve is different. On average, a woman’s torso is shorter but as they get taller, it’s not as significant. Every size, every frame, and every bike model we develop has a unique design and geometry. We're not taking our size medium bikes, doing a 10% shorter top tube, and calling those our size small. We're not just applying percentages and lumping every bike size together. We recognize that women who are 5’4 or 5'3 can have certain proportional tendencies that women who are 5’7 or 5’6 don’t necessarily have,” Audia says. Also, Liv offers a complete size range for women including extra-small. Each bike’s geometry reinforces muscular strength patterns and optimal body position, such as steep seat-tube angles. “We want to support the activation of the rectus femoris (exterior thigh muscle), which is women’s superpower. We tune [a variety of stiffness] in each frame, for balance and leverage. We also do specific suspension tuning,” says Audia.
In a “labor of love,” Audia says, Liv Cycling debuted their first-ever 29er (read: mountain bikes that are built to use 29-inch wheels) last year: the Pique Advanced Pro 29 with extra-small and small frames, 29-inch wheels—plus a water bottle cage. Small frames with big wheels are a holy grail among mountain bikes. The industry agrees: Last month, the Pique Advanced Pro 29 was awarded top mountain bike among the 2020 Bicycling Bike Awards, following a shining review from Bike Magazine.
Most innovative peer, according to Audia: Pivot Cycles “They're very hyper-focused on the engineering of their product, and I've seen them really work hard to create a large size range of bikes. I love that consideration and support for many different riders and styles,” says Audia.
Honorable Mentions: Most Innovative Mountain Bike Companies of 2020
In February 2020, Specialized launched a game-changing superlight e-mountain bike: the Turbo Levo SL, which “marries” the Stumpjumper classic trail bike and the Turbo Levo electric mountain bike, says General Manager and USA Market Leader Sam Benedict. “It’s 10 pounds lighter than the Levo, which is crazy. Nobody has done anything like this before. Our team invented the SL motor battery system, and the whole system weighs less than the battery of the Levo, so it's incredible. The bike offers agility with plenty of power and range, plus it’s fun, so it opens up so many more opportunities for riders to get into the sport. It’s personally my favorite bike to ride right now. It’s a riot,” he says.
Most innovative peer, according to Benedict: Troy Lee Designs “There have been some really great innovations from Troy Lee Designs. I really like them, because—similar to us—they are very rooted in serving the rider and who their riders are. They take knowing the rider very seriously,” says Benedict.
Over the past decade, Alchemy has spearheaded custom, high-end road bikes. But in the last couple of years, the brand advanced their mountain bike lineup, namely via the exclusive licensing of Sine Suspension, says VP of Sales, Marketing and Product Development Joel Smith: “This suspension design offers next-level performance from pedaling to descending: there’s no bias towards either. The bikes work well everywhere.” The proprietary dual short-link system was developed by design veteran David Earle, who has created suspension systems for close to three decades.
Most innovative peer, according to Smith: Specialized “Mike Sinyard has had a 30-plus year of pushing innovations with bicycles since the first Stumpjumper he produced. Historically, he can force innovations on all fronts, in all categories, and be on the forefront. Just look at their e-mountain bikes right now—they’re next-level compared to the competition. You have to give the founder—who is really involved in the day-to-day operations, in this case—credit,” says Smith.
In the late ‘70s, Scot Nicol completed a framebuilding apprenticeship with design avant-gardes Joe Breeze and Charlie Cunningham then founded Ibis Cycles. Four decades later, Ibis still sells out among premium mountain bikes. “We have a simple philosophy: We're not trying to be everything to everybody. We make really nice trail bikes. We have an unprecedented level of phenomenal riders on staff,” says Nicol, including one of the “foremost designers in the industry,” who is also one of the industry’s only female framebuilders: Roxy Lo. To point, the Ripmo won Enduro Mountain Bike Magazine’s Best Trail Bike award back-to-back, in 2019 and 2020. The new Ripmo V2 (in a carbon or aluminum frame) was updated with a “slightly slacker head angle and different kinematics on the rear suspension to allow coil shocks. They aren’t earth-shattering changes—but that bike is sold out until December,” says Nicol.
Most innovative peer, according to Nicol: Yeti, Santa Cruz, Pivot “Santa Cruz, Yeti, Pivot. All those guys are doing really good work and we all force each other to be better companies, because if we’re not, we're not gonna survive. I appreciate the competitiveness that all of these companies bring. I don't really single any one of those out, because we're all doing such good work,” says Nicol.
Cavalerie has progressed the gearbox category for mountain bikes with Effigear. “Effigear protects the transmission in the center of the bike. It’s durable and reliable for going fast on singletrack or downhill,” and it’s an optimal choice for mountain bikes, explains Founder David Rouméas. In short, gearboxes are made by a handful of manufacturers. Each one is unique but surrounds and protects the bike’s shifting components from elements and debris. A gearbox replaces a conventional drivetrain, can improve suspension performance, lengthens the lifespan of components, and decreases maintenance. The caveats: increased drag and weight.
Among the gearboxes on the market, “Effigear provides the fastest shifting system in the direction of a harder gear: it shifts into a harder gear under full load--but will not shift to an easier gear unless torque is completely removed from the system,” reports Singletracks. Cavalerie is redesigning its gearbox, so that it will be compatible with the bike frames that are paired with Pinion, another gearbox manufacturer. Ergo, Effigear would expand across 15 other mountain bike brands. In fall 2020, they plan to introduce an e-bike gearbox integrated with a motor, a nascent category with only a few designers paving the way including Pinion and, potentially, Shimano, which recently filed a patent for a gearbox design.
Most innovative peer, according to Rouméas: Nicolai “They have produced a gearbox for their bikes far longer than everyone else, and they keep working on it. They were one of the first mountain bike brands to offer an e-mountain bike model. And they put a lot of research into their frames and the bike kinematics,” says Rouméas.
Cannondale continues to advance mountain bikes with one of the industry’s lightest full suspension frames: the carbon Scalpel SE, launched last month. The design houses the patented FlexPivot suspension, which is maintenance-free, bearings-free, and stiff. Cannondale also recently mandated 50/50 gender representation among athletes and inclusive marketing campaigns with female athletes, says Vice President of Product Peter Vallance.
Most innovative peer, according to Vallance: Nicolai “Nicolai, a German company, is really focused on unique geometry solutions, only making bikes out of aluminum, and they aren’t trying to appeal to as many people as we want to appeal to—and that’s a cool position to be in,” says Vallance.
Originally, GT Bicycles pushed forward BMX frames. Over the decades, GT emerged as one of the most accessible bike brands in the world with “affordable, exceptional products across sub-genres of biking,” explains Senior Brand Manager Mike Marro. Enter: the 2015 Grade, the industry’s first-ever carbon, disc brake, gravel-specific bike. Within five years, the gravel segment took off. GT relaunched the 2020 Grade Carbon Pro, which was celebrated with the 2020 Gravel Bike of the Year award by Bike Radar. The new Grade weighs less—it’s as light as a road bike, highlights Bike Radar—and adopts GT’s triple triangle design: the seatstays overlap the seat tube and top tube, forming a triangle. Except, the stays are no longer directly bonded to the seat tube.
“It’s a really efficient ride: there’s power without a lot of flex. But now, the triple triangle technology acts like passive suspension. On bumpy terrain, the ride is much smoother than it’s ever been with one of our frames. The new Grade frames are 50% more compliant than traditional, or ‘double-diamond’ design frames,” says Marro and adds, “We want to make sure that we are the gateway to the sport and we’re getting more people into biking.”
Most innovative peer, according to Marro: Norco “Like us, Norco has a pretty large product offering. They are always making interesting designs, but, all of a sudden this past year they put everything they could into launching a whole new line of bikes. They re-imagined a bunch of their full suspension technologies, they got amazing reviews, and they did really great marketing, which had a ripple effect as opposed to making a big splash,” says Marro.
Diamondback also sprouted as a BMX brand in the late ‘70s. The brand’s present goal is to lower the barrier-of-entry to riding bikes, in general, with an inclusive, comfort-inspired approach to designs. “We want to provide the best opportunity for riders at every level,” says Vice President of Product Development Michael Brown. Case in point: Five years ago, Diamondback launched the Hook, Line, and Sync’R hardtails with a 1x (pronounced one-by) drivetrain—meaning, one chainring in the front is connected to the rear cassette—and progressive geometry starting at $700. Yet, Diamondback also offers higher-end solutions like the recently updated carbon Mission 1 and 2. Bike Magazine reports that the new Mission 1 Carbon is one of the least expensive carbon offerings (at $4,000) and lauds the Level Link suspension platform—which can be upgraded when the rider chooses— in addition to the bike’s “confident cornering ability” and “nimble nature.”
Most innovative peer, according to Brown: YT “YT has a very interesting approach to the market where their whole brand is centralized around young progressive riders. YT stands for ‘young talent.’ In terms of innovation and offering high-end bikes for new riders in the industry, YT does a great job,” says Brown.
Is there an innovative mountain bike company you think should be featured here? Let us know for future updates!