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Big Time OFF ROAD racing

It's coming up again pretty quick. Any bets on what's going to happen next year?

First of all, we're not going to be very involved in the sponsorship of Paul Willerton. You've heard of him right? Had a bit of success at the end of the season last year. It's a bummer in a way. Not really though; it worked out as well as we could have possibly hoped. He busted ass all year, and at the end of the season he was jammin', And now he can make a living at it. Ought to be solid encouragement for you roadies out there. There is life after suffering in the gutters of Belgium if you don't mind getting mud in the inevitable wounds you get along the way. There's going to be a lot of racing over here next year, and I'd be shocked if there weren't a few converts from the pave in the mix too. I think it's a good thing. It will make the racing more interesting, following the new careers and personalities and it will probably result in more competition eventually.

There's another point that seems painfully obvious, one that everyone seems to ignore (except Mr. Ritchey and the Italian national team). Roadies aren't the only talent pool to tap for XC racing. If you want good results quick, and possibly a World championship in a year or two, go hire a quality cyclocross racer. Get him on a mountain bike, get him to train at high altitude and to stay out on the bike a bit longer and you're there. (Was Brentjens ever a psycocross dude?). The scheme has an added benefit. Anybody who can go as fast over the bumps as those guys do on 700c sew-up equipped, screwed and glued aluminum framed, converted but really wimpy road bikes, is absolutely guaranteed to be easy on light MTB equipment. The same is definitely not true for the ex-MX and BMX racers that are migrating to the downhill events.

Oh yeah, that Costa Rican guy wouldn't be a bad gamble either. He was a hammer from what I could see.

What about the equipment?

While rigid mountain bikes, rigid bikes with simple suspension stems, and hard tail bikes with suspension forks are dead issues here commercially, thanks to a strung out industry jonesing for bigger markets, and a frenzied media in the role of supplier. No one is very interested in them; they are old fashioned - even though they are currently the fastest cross country racing bikes in the known universe. Yeah, Henrik won, so the rigid bike/sus stem was the fastest at the end, much as it pains me to admit it. But he didn't win all of the races. The others were there on the podium every now and then. No full suspension bikes made it to the podium at the top level of XC racing. If I'm wrong on this I apologize, but it's true as far as I know (still is as of 8/96). I'm sure there is an offended product manager that will set me straight if I am.

What about full suspension rigs? Look at any magazine over here and you'd think anyone would be a fool to race anything else. In spite of the attention the full suspension breed is getting from everybody (including yours truly), no dual suspension bike has proven itself to be very competitive at the highest levels of XC racing. Up until now rigid bikes and hardtails have completely dominated the sport. Not anymore.

There are a number of reasons for this. Few of the full boing bikes have been in skilled hands at this level. None of the best racers have been paid to do their work on one. That's about to change.

Why don't the fast guys use the bikes? They clearly could if they wanted to. There are several possible explanations for this. The first possibility is that the older designs are faster, on the average, around the XC courses than the fully suspended bikes are (kinda weird referring to hardtail bikes with suspension forks as older designs - things change fast). These bikes are generally lighter and faster on smoother sections, especially if you don't have a lot of saddle time in on a full suspension bike. So racers select the simpler, lighter, faster bikes because they can go faster, and that's the idea right? Sometimes, but probably not next year.

Another possibility is that the handful of athletes that can actually win a Grundig or NORBA race still ride traditional bikes for business reasons. It may be that the full suspension bike built by a given company (if there is one at all) isn't thought to be up to the task so the rider is not instructed to ride it. Their sponsors don't want to take any chances with new, untested equipment (they are willing to sell it though - weird?). Since the big time riders are able to go faster on the old fashioned bikes than the lesser riders who actually compete on the (for the sake of argument only) superior full suspension rigs, none show up on the podium. Or the bike's a bullet, but the sponsor isn't prepared to market it hard at this time - they are sorting it out carefully. Right, it could happen.

It's also possible that, if the faster riders chose to compete on fully suspended bikes, they'd win but they just haven't figured it out yet, for whatever reason, so they stick with what they have been using. I don't think so, but it's possible. If so, this will change this coming year.

This year we will get to see how fast the full suspension bikes are in skilled hands. Several big companies, and probably quite a few smaller ones, are going to pay the best riders in the world to ride plush boingy bikes. It's a BIG business thing brewing now, and the money's getting spent as we type... er.. read... er... you know... It will make for some very interesting stuff next year.

And the best are starting to train on these things now. They'd better. You have to learn to ride all over again. And you have to learn to dial in the suspension. It isn't as simple as it seems, especially at the big show. Just stomping down on the pedals however you can will not cut it. You have to understand how they move under you, and learn to flow with it. Sit down a lot more. And you need a suspension 101 course to get it set up just right. If your competitor has a better set up, maybe someone racing with the same basic equipment but with the settings perfected for the course, he or she may beat you to the finish line.

And every one of the companies that pays a rider to race on a fully suspended bike is taking a chance. The bike might break in front of a crowd. This does not necessarily indicate a bad design. These things happen in racing. But it is hard to explain to everybody that saw it. And a racer may have a bad year. It will also be hard to explain this to everybody.

I don't think the migration to full suspension equipment is going to make a world champion out of someone who couldn't achieve it otherwise, unless the courses change significantly. If I am wrong and there is a significant advantage (or disadvantage) to using a fully suspended bike, there may also be safety in numbers. If everyone uses one, and everyone goes faster or slower by roughly the same amount, nothing changes. I know, it's far fetched. I just said it to see if you were paying attention. Hopefully a few of the best riders will (voluntarily) stick with the older stuff. Then I think that there will be a much more significant demonstration of how the different technologies compare, the stuff gossipy tech eds will put to good use.

Back to the riders and their sponsors. One company has taken a big gamble in my opinion (I won't name names). Hiring a 3 time World Champion is risky stuff. He has clearly proven himself. He's fast. And now he's switching bikes. He may think a full suspension ride is the way to stay on top. I hope so. Then he'll be motivated and into it. Or he may be getting a deal where he is finally the top rider on the team. Could be... might work out. But if he repeats as champ, what have you demonstrated with respect to equipment? And if he loses ground on the field, and he cannot do better than equaling his previous accomplishments in this case, what have you demonstrated? Might make for some very creative marketing if things go wrong.

Keep in mind, I have mixed feelings about this sort of thing. Observing which equipment is used successfully in racing has very limited application to evaluating the actual performance of the stuff. Racing shows some things though, and it is an important aspect of product development. It rarely demonstrates that the brands involved are preferable or even suitable for consumers. I'll defend this some time. Right now I'll just let it cause some controversy. Off road XC bicycle racing is fundamentally a contest between humans. Almost exclusively. It will be forever, given that the rider is the power source. Equipment is rarely an issue in the outcome of a race - unless it breaks.

Yeah, yeah, I forgot to mention, the Brits will almost certainly be right there. Gary was coming on strong last year and Tim was on most of the time. Neither had a great race at the very end, but next year the conditions will be a little friendlier. Actually that would be okay with me.