HOW OMINOUS IS THE PRE-SEASON PACE OF THE 29ER?
Lourdes France, April 29th 2017. It didn’t take long, less than 48 hours under the envious eyes of the public and scrutiny from internet forums everywhere and the Santa Cruz Syndicate riders put a bespoke 29er into three of the top six positions, including fastest of all during qualifying for Round 1 of the UCI DH World Cup. Deep in the heart of France, ensconced by thousands of country men and women, you had the heir to the throne of cycling royalty complaining of unfair advantage the second qualifying had finished. After the dominance of ten-time Downhill World Champion Nico Vouilloz (clearly French) pushing the boundaries of technology, including using pit-to-rider communication, the irony of Loic Bruni calling out a U.S manufacturer for any engineering advantage surely must have put smiles on the faces of everyone present who didn’t know how to speak the local lingo. Present day and temperatures have cooled dramatically, riders and engineers have all learnt the lessons of developing products in such a public environment where perception is often quite different to reality. The UCI seems in no hurry (are they ever?) to regulate what they feel should be the core elements to mountain biking and it seems the industry is set to self-regulate what constitutes a fast racing bike. After that initial scramble of everyone in the paddock after the first round in 2017, teams and manufacturers who felt they had missed a beat produced hastily thought-out bikes with grooves machined out of fork crowns, modified swingarms and prototype tyres all to accommodate the 29er at the following round in Fort William. Apart from Trek and Intense, who had also been (semi) secretly developing their own bespoke 29er bike from the ground up. Now they thought, against the back drop of Fort William, well-known as one of the fastest and roughest courses in the world, what better place to see how their bikes stack up? Cue Jack Moir. Having had an injury free offseason for the first time in as long as he can remember, a works Intense 29er at his disposal sized to match his own height, down he came and into his best result to date in front of thousands of screaming fans, third in qualifying, second in the final, who won? Minnaar aboard his own custom Santa Cruz 29er. At this point it seems a given the championship would surely fall to a rider on one of those three brands building a bespoke bike to suit the larger wheels, but as you know, it seems you can never count out Aaron Gwin. It’s worth noting that looking to the EWS where 29ers have been present since the inception of the sport, not one of the men’s overall titles have been won on a 29er. Enduro is much more a reactionary sport though, with limited practice in some instances whereas you have an incremental approach to speed on the DH World Cup. It might not seem that way were you to stand on the side of the track during first practice and see riders come past at speeds you thought unimaginable, but venture back up there to watch finals and you will soon be picking your jaw up off the ground. Knowing in intimate detail where you need to have the bike placed ready for the next corner before you get there is an intricate part of downhill racing, all the energy and speed that comes with a properly designed 29er does take a different riding style to produce fast times, and at times can be harder to manoeuvre than a bike with smaller wheels, with less rotational mass, and therefore less energy required to achieve a fast change of direction, which could be a very real factor in the EWS, where you are not sure what is coming up around the next corner, but not so downhill. Engineers can’t unlearn the lessons from the past 12 months and will be pushing technology they believe will make them the quickest. Surely the design offices of all bike manufactures, and suppliers for that matter would have been taking note what happened in April 2017. Now only a month out from Round 1 of the 2018 season and the question will be, are we about to see a repeat of 2017 or has everyone learnt the lessons from those initial 48 hours in France?