We TEST a the­ory: Make XC fun with Yeti’s SB100 and we take an IN DEEP look at the state of World Cup cross coun­try as drop­per posts now in­fil­trate the world of gram-coun­ters and take a ret­ro­spec­tive gan­der at Mavic’s Cross­max, MAT­TER-of-factly defin­ing the wheelset mar­ket.

This com­ing July, an es­ti­mated 11 mil­lion peo­ple will come to­gether to watch, in per­son, the most in­suf­fer­ably bor­ing sport­ing event on earth. An­tic­i­pat­ing heights of monotony that only this event can pro­vide, spec­ta­tors will travel half­way around the world to catch the te­dium as it un­folds. Their days will be over­flow­ing with the ut­terly mun­dane, and book­ended with soul-crush­ing grid­lock. This Sisyphean event is, of course, the Tour de France.

The bet­ter way to watch the Tour is with the 2.6 bil­lion peo­ple sit­ting in their own homes, tak­ing ad­van­tage of its in­cred­i­ble cov­er­age. Swarms of cam­era­men on mo­tor­cy­cles, cranes, in he­li­copters and on the ground to­gether spin the race into a nar­ra­tive of the high­est drama. You can see strate­gies play out in real time, and watch them suc­ceed or fail. It of­fers a glimpse of hu­man­ity that the sport of moun­tain bik­ing rarely re­veals. What we like to watch are peo­ple com­pet­ing against the clock or for judges. There is only one dis­ci­pline of moun­tain bik­ing that di­rectly pits racer against racer in real time and on the same track, and that is cross coun­try.

Un­for­tu­nately, cross coun­try is nearly as hard to watch as the Tour. That’s meant both lit­er­ally and fig­u­ra­tively. Un­like the Tour, the races are short and things hap­pen quickly. It doesn’t lend it­self to the Tour’s me­dia blitz, nor is there fund­ing to sup­port it. Like the Tour, there’s no telling where on the course your fa­vorite rider will make a move that ush­ers them to vic­tory, or where they’ll make a mis­take that dooms them to de­feat. You can only see what’s in front of you. And what’s in front of you isn’t al­ways that ex­cit­ing. It’s just cross coun­try, af­ter all.

But that is chang­ing. Cross coun­try is chang­ing. Bikes are be­com­ing more ca­pa­ble, ath­letes are pri­or­i­tiz­ing han­dling over pure fit­ness and cour­ses are get­ting gnarlier. The new shape of XC ter­rain is a hot topic. Be­hind it are trail­builders who have to bal­ance tests of ath­letes’ phys­i­cal fit­ness and tech­ni­cal skill. Some­times that means plot­ting a loop on an ex­ist­ing trail net­work, some­times it means erect­ing a trail out of raw dirt. It’s some­thing South African de­signer Nick Floros has been do­ing for 15 years, and he’s been in­te­gral to the evo­lu­tion of ‘new XC.’

Floros’ deep port­fo­lio in­cludes sev­eral years of Pi­eter­mar­itzburg and Stel­len­bosch’s World Cup cour­ses, as well as the 2016 Olympic track in Rio. De­sign­ers like Floros are given near-to­tal cre­ative con­trol. There are no rules on how many tech­ni­cal sec­tions there should be, or how tech­ni­cal they can get. “The UCI has some guide­lines, but ul­ti­mately it’s up to the de­signer to use his dis­cre­tion.” says Floros. “Our rule is we don’t build a course or ob­sta­cle that we our­selves can’t ride in a race sit­u­a­tion us­ing a 29-inch hardtail with a 100-mil­lime­ter fork.” A safety in­spec­tion fol­lows, which Floros’ trails have never failed, but that doesn’t mean they’ve never caused any car­nage. “Back in 2011, we built a rock gar­den on the Pi­eter­mar­itzburg World Cup course, called ‘Tree House.’ A lot of riders found it dif­fi­cult.” That’s an un­der­state­ment. It hap­pened to be a mis­er­ably muddy race, and more riders walked the Tree House than rode it. Poor con­di­tions not­with­stand­ing, the Tree House was only a glimpse of things to come in XCO (Olympic-style, short-course cross coun­try). “From 2010 to about 2014, there was a big jump in the tech­ni­cal­ity of the cour­ses. The lim­its were def­i­nitely be­ing pushed back then.”

It’s hard to point to ex­actly when that trend started or where it peaked. Those years saw fea­tures like a curved rock wall­ride in the Lon­don Olympics and a de­scent in Val di Sole, Italy, that in­cluded that year’s four-cross course, which is es­sen­tially a down­hill BMX track with rock gar­dens.

This is how XC is be­com­ing more spec­ta­tor-friendly. Tech­ni­cal sec­tions are fo­cal points for me­dia and gath­er­ing points for fans. Yes, there is more dan­ger, but course de­sign­ers aren’t throw­ing the ly­cra-clad to the lions for the fans’ sadis­tic amuse­ment.

Floros, for one, feels this new XC aes­thetic is in­spired by what ath­letes are ca­pa­ble of, not what they aren’t. “Around 2010, there was a new breed of XCO rac­ers en­ter­ing onto the world stage. This was the likes of Burry Stander and Nino Schurter, to name a few. These riders had amaz­ing bike han­dling skills.”

You can rec­og­nize Nino Schurter by his num­ber plate. It’s usu­ally got a ‘1’ on it. Schurter has won the UCI XCO for three of the past six years, and looks like he’ll take 2018 as well. You can also rec­og­nize him by his steez. Yes, an XC rider with steez. His sig­na­ture whip gets his bike, bars and body clicked into a po­si­tion equally ca­sual and un­ortho­dox. It’s ca­sual be­cause Schurter does it just for fun, and he does it it often. Not just in prac­tice or qual­i­fy­ing, but also dur­ing the World Cup fi­nals. It’s like Cru Jones do­ing a back­flip on his last lap at Hell­track. But Schurter’s whips are un­ortho­dox be­cause they’re per­formed with a fixed seat-

post at full mast.

“I feel as long as I can ride down­hill as fast as the oth­ers I can save the ex­tra weight of a drop­per seat­post to get me up the hill a bit faster.” It’s quite a thing to watch Schurter high­post at high speed with high con­se­quences. He’s re­ally good at it. He claims to not re­call his sad­dle po­si­tion ever caus­ing a crash dur­ing a race, though there’s com­pelling video ev­i­dence that it has. In Lille­ham­mer, Nor­way’s 2014 World Cup race, Schurter went over the bars and ended up miss­ing first place by 114 sec­onds. Nev­er­the­less, he and his train­ers have done the math, and they find the re­ward is worth the risk.

It seems at least some of our stereo­types about XC rac­ers are true. Schurter rides a fixed post purely be­cause it’s lighter weight. Ex­actly how much lighter de­pends on which two posts we’re com­par­ing. For ex­am­ple, a 30.9x400-mil­lime­ter car­bon Enve fixed post weighs about 200 grams while the pop­u­lar 65-mil­lime­ter KS LEV In­te­gra CI drop­per post is about 400 grams, in­clud­ing re­mote and cable. That 200gram penalty is sig­nif­i­cant. For ref­er­ence, 200 grams is about the dif­fer­ence be­tween run­ning tubes or go­ing tube­less. But droppers have a lower weight penalty than does full sus­pen­sion, which is now com­mon­place af­ter the de facto ref­er­en­dum on course de­sign. And if the ref­er­en­dum con­tin­ues, Schurter predicts it may make drop­per posts seem less out of place. “It’s a ques­tion of time. If XC cour­ses get more de­mand­ing and drop­per posts get lighter, then I will prob­a­bly switch too,” he says.

And plenty of peo­ple are switch­ing, in­clud­ing the rider who fin­ished 114 sec­onds ahead of Schurter in 2014. Julien Ab­sa­lon went on to run a drop­per in 2016, and he took home the over­all points win that sea­son. While Ab­sa­lon has slipped down the ranks slightly this year, a younger rider is chas­ing Schurter through the tape, and he hap­pens to be a re­cent drop­per-post adopter. Maxime Marotte is sec­ond in the UCI points stand­ing, just be­hind Schurter. Marotte’s been train­ing with a drop­per for a while, but has only been rac­ing with one for about a year.

“Hon­estly, my coach pushed me a lit­tle bit in the be­gin­ning. Now, I’m com­pletely con­vinced you are faster on a drop­per.” Marotte’s de­ci­sion to make the switch was a cal­cu­lated one. For the rest of us, it’s sim­ple: Droppers are more fun, so we use them. But for a pro­fes­sional racer, ev­ery com­po­nent has to of­fer mea­sur­able ben­e­fits. “We were not re­ally sat­is­fied with my body po­si­tion. I am a rider with a bit shorter arms and longer legs, so I was strug­gling to move on the bike.”

Marotte’s ex­pe­ri­ence of­fers a glimpse into how dif­fer­ently XC riders think about drop­per posts. For him, it al­le­vi­ated that strug­gle for op­ti­mal body po­si­tion, but not so he could gain sec­onds on the de­scents. The tech­ni­cal sec­tions on most XCO cour­ses aren’t long enough or fre­quent enough for a racer to shave sig­nif­i­cant time just by low­er­ing their sad­dle. Ac­cord­ing to Marotte, a drop­per post of­fers a chance to re­cover on the de­scents. The rolling game of Twister that Nino Schurter plays with his bike takes a lot of en­ergy. Pre­cious, pre­cious en­ergy. “With a drop­per, you can just chill out be­hind the guy in front of you, and then you’re ready to at­tack on the climbs.”

En­ergy con­ser­va­tion even in­flu­ences the types of droppers you see on the cir­cuit. The 65-mil­lime­ter KS post tends to dom­i­nate, but not be­cause it’s the light­est. That would ac­tu­ally be the 125-mil­lime­ter ver­sion. “125 is too much,” says Marotte. “It takes a lot of en­ergy to go that far down and come up again.” It all makes so much sense. Again, these are cal­cu­lated de­ci­sions. Maybe that’s why it’s taken 15 years for droppers to get a foothold in XC, but Marotte predicts that will start to ac­cel­er­ate. “In three or four years, ev­ery­one will be do­ing it.”

Imag­ine what that would do for cross-coun­try rac­ing. The line that sep­a­rates XC bikes from trail bikes is al­ready blurred and is get­ting blur­rier. The line that sep­a­rates XC ath­letes from en­duro ath­letes is do­ing the same. If there were a pro­lif­er­a­tion of drop­per posts in the cross-coun­try arms race, the trails would have to evolve even fur­ther to keep up, but riders would be safer in the process. The world’s most ver­sa­tile bikes would be on the world’s most di­verse ter­rain. And the world’s fittest ath­letes would gather to bat­tle each other, not a clock. That’d be quite a show.

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