Anyone who's serious about racing should tailor their equipment to their weaknesses rather than to flatter their strengths but, more often than not, that isn't how it's done.
I've just returned home after finishing up the B.C. Bike Race, a week-long cross-country stage race that's somewhat unique in that it puts a massive emphasis on a rider's bike handling abilities. This is in contrast to the majority of competitive cross-country events that simply reward those who have the biggest quads and lungs, and while fitness still rules the day at the BCBR, racers who manage to combine excellent conditioning with good handling skills are the ones who seem to prosper when it comes to both finishing positions and enjoyment levels. There's no way of getting around the fact that you're going to be faced with some stiff climbing up gravel roads when you're trying to serve up 50 or 60km of racing, but it really did feel like we spent the large majority of our time on singletrack during the week, with much of it being technically challenging regardless of if it was pointing up or down the hill.
It's all relative, of course, as you might not find that hairy rootball of a section too tricky when you're fresh as a daisy and still filled with hope for the day ahead, but come up on it after 40km of breathing through your eyeballs while battling for 50th position in 90° heat and you might feel a bit like you've slammed a bottle of Fireball whiskey and are now trying to play Jenga. I spent a lot of the week back in the mid-pack with riders who were quite obviously fitter than me but probably would have ridden said rooty sections better had they actually drank some Fireball before coming to the start line, and I'm sitting here now, a few days after the final stage in Whistler, nursing a taint that resembles an open can of tuna and thinking why that was the case. After all, going on appearances alone, these dudes should have been able to ride away from me at a moment's notice. These racers, men sporting body fat percentages that told me they ate way less candy than I do, with calves and quads that gave me questionable feelings of man-envy, were all on machines that catered exactly to their strengths. I'm talking about dudes who barely break the 100lb mark riding carbon fiber hardtails with scary looking 2" wide tires and handlebars that belong on a child's bike. Attached to 120mm long stems. And no dropper post. I would have been scared for their safety if they didn't put ten minutes into me on every five minute climb up a gravel road, followed be me closing the gap anytime we got back onto remotely challenging singletrack. Now, if these same riders had been on bikes with wider, more aggressive tires, a shorter stem and, god have mercy, a dropper seat post, the only time I would have seen them is at the start of each day's stage before they left me to cramp up by myself in the forest. BC Bike Race - Squamish
These all looked like men who were taking the BCBR seriously, had obviously trained hard for it, and probably had to give their bodies a coating of chamois cream so they could slip into the tightest plum smuggler suits possible, yet most were on bikes that catered to their strength: outright climbing and fitness, rather than their weaknesses: bike handling and terrain that asked you to call on all of your skills. I believe that this cost most of them some serious time, and while that counts for diddly squat on your casual ride, these boys were at the BCBR to race for position. You can spot the exact same scenario in pretty much any riding scene: local hammerheads who are obviously competitive people who put a lot of effort into their chosen discipline, yet nearly always choose equipment that flatters whatever it is that they're good at: the local cross-country phenom on the 20lb race whippet; the aggro dude with the 6" travel trail bike who climbs like a loaded tractor trailer and descends like a demon; the roadie convert who looks like he's trying to keep the same body position on the dirt as he does on the pavement (this one never ends well, does it?
). If we're talking in competitive terms and only competitive terms, all three of those examples are both very common and perfect illustrations of exactly how not to do it.
|I spent a lot of the week back in the mid-pack with riders who were quite obviously fitter than me but probably would have ridden said rooty sections better had they actually drank some Fireball before coming to the start line, and I'm sitting here now, a few days after the final stage in Whistler, nursing a taint that resembles an open can of tuna and thinking why that was the case. After all, going on appearances alone, these dudes should have been able to ride away from me at a moment's notice.|
Take a look at any sport that depends heavily upon the equipment used by those taking part, especially other wheeled sports, and you'll find that the very best tailor their gear to address their weaknesses. Supercross racers who struggle in the whoops often focus their setup on exactly that section, and race car drivers who are hard on their brakes will adjust their car's braking balance so as to inflict the least amount of stress on them. Nicolas Vouilloz, the greatest downhiller of all time and a master technician, is said to have preferred bikes that lessened the Frenchman's only weakness: tracks with loads of pedalling. Much of his success came aboard the Sunn Radical+, a bike that featured a massively high single pivot that made for efficient power delivery, as did his own V-Process NV02 downhill bike that he raced to a World Champs victory in 2002. The lesson? If you're racing, tailor your bike to your weaknesses and allow your strengths to overcome any drawbacks. You don't have to be Nico to benefit from this approach, either, as all I'm suggesting is not to let vanity and pride get the best of you and simply take stock of where you suck and then do something about it. Are you riding away from everyone on the climbs but stumbling on the downs? Try a much shorter stem and a dropper seat post - the 3/4 of a pound weight gain isn't going to cause you to lose your climbing advantage but it sure as hell is going to give you a bonus on the downs. Seriously, you have to work really f*cking hard to get fitter and faster on the climbs, but you can literally buy time on the downhills. Terrible climber? Get rid of those massive tires and tiny stem - if you've really got skill, you'll be able to descend nearly as fast on lighter weight rubber. In both cases you'll literally be buying speed once you learn how to get the most out of those changes.
Plum smuggler taking to the air. Racer #105 has got his shit together: top fitness, skills to make the most of the trail, and a bike setup that complements the terrain. Photo: Dave Silver
Why don't more competitive riders do this? I believe that it's because it requires not only an honest evaluation of one's abilities, it also necessitates that you willingly sacrifice a bit of what you're good at in order to gain in other areas. I don't know about you guys, but I'm not that good at much so I want to really show off when I get the rare chance to do so. I don't want to give that up, and there's absolutely no reason to if you're just wanting to get out on the trail with your buddies, but those who take racing seriously should take stock of their strengths and weaknesses and maybe make some changes. Who knows, you might even discover that your 120mm stem isn't required.