Mavic reinvented the wheel with its original Crossmax wheelset. I realize that's an eye-roll-worthy cliché, but it's true. Mavic devised new and unheard-of techniques to produce not only the lightest wheels ever, but also the strongest, stiffest and most reliable. I don't know of any other mountain bike product that can make that claim. That justifies the use of at least one cliché.
Or maybe even two: Game changer—a phrase so cliché it is on Bike's banned words list. The Crossmax changed how we think about wheels—where and how we buy them—and even what we're willing to pay for them. The wheel game was thusly changed.
Today we think of wheels as a single component, but they used to be four separate parts. On bike spec sheets, there were individual rows for rims, hubs, spokes and nipples. Before the Crossmax came out in 1996, the fanciest, highest-quality wheels money could buy were assembled at local shops by resident master wheelbuilders. Back then, mechanics with wheelbuilding skills were worth their weight in brass nipples. Now, learning to lace wheels is about as useful as studying Latin.
I realize my memory around the release of the Crossmax might not be very well-rounded (pun noted, but not intended). It may actually be downright insulated and completely biased. I did have a couple years of shop wrenching under my belt, but I was only 15 then. Plus, my hero at the time, my dad, worked for Mavic. Oh, and so would I a few years later. My opinion may be a bit skewed. I decided to call my big-brained friend and former Bike gear editor, Vernon Felton, who was already reviewing bikes for a living in '96, for a sober, unbiased opinion.
"Oh, those things were dope. After they came out, they were the only wheels that mattered." This, coming from the guy who wasn't nicknamed 'Mavic Boy' in high school after wearing the logo so much it became his nametag. "The Crossmax wasn't the first complete wheel system, but the simple fact that we think it might have been is a testament to how good those wheels were. Not only did they change everything that came afterwards, they erased what came before."
Race legend Ned Overend had this to say: "Mavic really stepped it up with those wheels. They were much lighter than anything else, but they were also wider and more durable. Back then, there were no tech zones [course sections where outside mechanical assistance is permitted] in cross country, so your equipment had to be reliable. Those were the first wheels you could really count on. I remember that they had much better braking, too."
That was because of a special ceramic coating on the brake track—one of a too-long list of Mavic innovations. The Crossmax's rim walls were so paper thin that it would have been impossible to extrude them that way without the material wrinkling. So they'd stick fully formed rims into an acid bath to thin them. Seems sketchy, right? The wide box shape provided enough structure that the rim was still super strong. And Mavic made them with the same precision and consistency that made Mavic's stand-alone rims favorites among wheelbuilders. I can say this from firsthand experience. I built hundreds, if not thousands, of those original Crossmax wheels when I worked for the company. They built rounder, straighter and with more consistent spoke tension than most wheels do today, two decades later. You'd have to disassemble the hubs to lace spokes into them, but even with that extra step, the wheels still built faster than traditional wheels do.
There was no part of the Crossmax that wasn't special, from the low spoke count at stratospheric tensions, to the industry-leading hub durability, adjustability and simplicity. Even the skewers were coveted. But the real magic of the wheels was that you could ride them for multiple seasons without needing to true them. That was certainly a first.
The real legacy left by Mavic's first Crossmax is that a bicycle wheel can be more than the sum of its parts. Without it, we may not have today's iconic pre-built offerings from Industry Nine, e*thirteen, DT Swiss or even Mavic. It birthed the entire wheelset market. Maybe even the word 'wheelset' itself.