If you’re anything like us, and we really hope not, you will have been glued to the times and stats coming in from qualifying today for the opening round of the 2014 UCI DH World Cup in sunny South Africa.
Aaron Gwin is back and looking fast, and whilst I’m not sure you can call all of last season blip, it looks set to change. Gwin is followed by Josh Bryceland, a young rider from the UK on DH legend Steve Peat’s syndicate. We are thrilled to see Manon Carpenter, another young British rider, taking the fastest qualifying female spot, though we wonder if that would have been quite the same if Rachel Atherton had been on top form (never eat gas-station sushi by all accounts).
It’s interesting to us, and we hope to you too, at this early stage to note that most of the fastest riders at PMB have been on ‘proper’ bikes, that being defined on MTB forums across the globe as a 26” (ok maybe a few 27.5” creeping in) burly DH bike with big tyres, coil shock and dual crown forks. That said, Aaron Gwin, the prodigal son himself, was running a somewhat Frankenstein-esque bike; a Specialized Enduro Evo more commonly seen at the Enduro World Series or coming out of the boot of your bosses BMW M5 saloon.
This Enduro Evo however comes equipped with Fox 40s upfront, which seem a slightly unusual choice paired with that frame, and whilst there’s no denying it worked for Gwin on the day, we doubt (hope) we’ll be seeing that setup at Cannock or Hamsterley anytime soon, it reminds us of the Dual-crown forked hard tail bikes of the 90s, and no one wants to go back to those dark days.
We suspect that the plan was to run a smaller single crown fork, a Fox 36 Float or a Talas but changed it last minute when the course organizers decided to dump a ton of rocks on the starting line to spice up an extremely pedally race. Obviously most normal Sunday riders don’t have that luxury and so we invite you all to quietly and respectfully turn your back on the American come Sunday.
Just kidding, we’re really enjoying all the innovation at this year’s WC already and whilst we don’t want to see technology becoming the only talking point, a la Formula One. It’s great to have the debate that guys and girls in trail centre car parks are having every weekend as they get ready to ride being put to the test in real life, via a red bull sponsored streaming service.
Mitch Ropelato is one to watch, or rather was, he’s also been riding a Specialized Enduro Evo but (hold on to your cereal) this one is a 29er! With single crown RockShox Pike up front and what looks a somewhat burlier Ohlins shock taking care of the rear end duties he looks more at home at a trail centre than a UCI DH course but from all accounts he was absolutely flying during practice yesterday. OK, so he did not finish in qualifying but right up until that gnarly crash his super tall skinny bike looked set to make somewhat burlier bikes look foolish.
This gives rise to a question that we will be coming back to over and over again, and one that needs input from those far more in the know than us; is the reality of the ‘great wheel debate’ that there is a bike out there which can handle the trail centre DH (i’m thinking Forest of Dean’s ‘Sheep Skull’ or Bike Park Wales ‘Enter The Dragon’) and still defend your honour when that weird accountant at work asks if you want to go out for a 50 miles XC jaunt bedecked in your tightest spangliest Lycra suit.
It would look like the pros have been keen to lead the way, unsurprisingly, and it would be only the most cynical of us out there suggesting that the inclusion of an ‘enduro’ or ‘all mountain’ or whatever you want to call it, bike at a DH World Cup stage was a marketing exercise, though we know companies like Specialized (late to the party with their first 650b bikes only recently coming out) are keen to push us towards the ‘do it all bike’ with its accompanied price tags.
We at All The Gear… wanted to make sure that we were writing for riders like us, bad riders, lazy riders, riders without all the time in the world to study form (though in the end we have ended up glued to race screens and reading articles late into the night – ask our partners, they’re the sulky looking ones!) and want to know what these advances in technology, these controversies in our sport mean for them when they’re looking to part with their cash every few years.
We think that there are two routes to take when pursuing this disciple, ok there are three, but the third one involves ludicrous sums of money, and that is either; to specialise (not the brand, though it will likely be that brand…) and follow a discipline like Cyclo-cross, Downhill, Dirt Jump, Trials, XC etc with all the kit and the specific bike that go with that perfectly valid choice or jump down the marketing rabbit hole and wade through the 650b jungle in search of all mountain nirvana. Put simply you’re either going to but a really heavy bike, a really light bike or a bike that claims to be able to take the hits whilst pushing you back up to the top to do it again, and we think a lot of punters are going to choose the latter.
The best place for us to spark this debate, in the context of this weekend impending gnarr-fest (dont blame us!) in PMB, is to imagine our own bikes taking on that course in South Africa. For my sins I ride a Commencal Meta SX 2012 at the moment, though i’ll be looking to amend that soon, and whilst i’m fairly confident that it would make it down PMB in one piece, even with my considerable bulk (holiday weight) atop it, i’m not sure I would be capable of hitting the speeds possible on a bigger, burlier, confidence inspiring DH bike like the Commencal Supreme or Stevie Smith’s WC winning Devinci Wilson.
There is a reason why elite riders, mechanics and teams continue to develop bigger, genre-specific bikes like that and that is simply they enable you to ride quicker downhill, go bigger and suck up those lip casings easier, in the back of my mind whenever i’m hitting up a DH run on the Meta is the thought ‘what if this is the time the frame brakes’ or ‘what if this is the time those fox 36 Floats don’t hold out under this level of abuse’? Whilst there is a market for those bikes, and whilst tracks are still developing and getting bigger (don’t forget Mountain biking is still in its infancy at perhaps 30 years old) the need for longer travel big bikes is going to exist even for the pros.
The only area of influence the enduro/go anywhere brigade seem to be having on the DH scene, and its in evidence across many of the teams over the weekend, is wheel size. We will come on to discuss wheel size in much greater detail in upcoming articles but needless to say we are putting all our money (so no money) on the guys and girls on the podium on Sunday having got there with the aid of a 650b wheel size, just probably not a 29” unless something very strange happens. And that, we think, will have and should have a big impact on what we are all buying over the next few months and years.