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.

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