A few weeks ago we introduced you to the plan for this three way shoot out, now it’s time for part two of the three parter, even if it is a little later than intended!
Of the three bikes, the Sunday and V10 of course require no introduction but, to those of you who perhaps haven’t been paying attention over the last couple of years, the Empire does. As a bare minimum, it’s unique and evolutionary in both the downhill and wider mountain bike market by being made of cast aluminium. Looking at it further, it could even be revolutionary. Why? Well, for starters it’s been designed from day one as a dedicated downhill frame with no carry through of technology from other designs just for the sake of fitting in with previous marketing; many downhill bikes spring to mind there. This meant that when it came to the design, the designers own experiences from many years on the race circuit could easily be incorporated into the end product.Words
: Alasdair MacLennan, Pics
: Ian MacLennan
The Empire may not have the pedigree of World Cup wins that the other two bikes hold but that isn’t necessarily an indication of just how it is capable of performing. After all, it’s worth remembering that the top riders are all capable of winning on their given day, regardless of what bike they happen to be on. However, it has a blend of aesthetics and features which immediately make it stand out from the majority of its competition and gave me the drive to go out and ride it at as soon as I could. Having been given the opportunity to test it for another website just as it was being made available to the public, I instantly liked it; the design integrating a lot of very neat features, ranging from needle bearings on the pivot which are fitted with proper labyrinth seals on each side to an adjustable wheelbase and tolerances that would put most of the mountain bike industry to shame.
When you chat with the two co-owners of Empire, Craig Robertson and Chris Williams, you soon realize that this is their passion, and that they have the knowledge and experience to ensure that what they produce works first time, every time. Craig has been at the top of his game in the UK over the years as both a racer and shop owner, and for well over a decade has had a reputation in the UK to match. Chris, the engineering expert in the equation is at the top of his game and brought the material and design knowledge to the table. Whilst it’s very easy to say ‘x head angle, y chain stays & z down tube will make a bike great’, many misunderstand the relation that these have to each other, as well as the impact that the suspension design will have on these measurements and the subsequent seat of the pants feel. The Empire falls in the middle of the pack with most of these measurements but that does not mean that as a result it rides like every other. Angles over the past few years have been refined and for the headtube fall somewhere between 64 and 66 degrees, depending on where your priorities lie and how other parts of the chassis interact. For instance, the V10 with its 67 degree static angle still rides with great stability thanks to the amount of sag that you get with the long travel back end, despite it being several more degrees towards vertical than most. No, a lot of thought and experience has gone into getting the Empire riding as it does, and it shows. But as already mentioned, the proof of that is in the times that we shall see later on.
Now I know that it has been pointed out before that you really shouldn’t jet wash bikes. Yeah, and we shouldn’t be doing a lot of others things besides but we do. If you race or ride anywhere in the world where it gets wet then it’s inevitable that a bike is going to experience a high pressure hose being directed towards it at some point in its life. Now a lot of bikes will put up with this for a few months before they start to feel a little off colour and there are of course some which will even reach the mid-point of the season but of all the bikes which I have had the pleasure of riding recently, the Empire is the best sealed of the lot. Empire are confident that it will survive a year of being blasted with the pressure washer every weekend without so much as a squeak of protest from the bearings and I have no doubt that that will be the case. Stainless steel thrust washers, precision axles, and custom made shock hardware hardened to a point well above the industry standards is all designed so that if necessary, it can be easily replaced with the minimum of fuss even if the chances of needing this are slim. Craig, being a seasoned racer, and having experienced the offerings of virtually every downhill manufacturer over the years, knows what a bike goes through, and how galling it is to have to spend money on some decent replacement bearings after no more than a few months. Friction in the rear assembly of the AP1 is non-existent and, once bolted together, is incredibly stiff. Compare this to the V10 with its multiple bearings which don’t feel particularly good, even after only a handful of rides, not to mention the flex that can be felt through the rear when really pushing. The Sunday may admittedly have one of the stiffest back ends around; up there with the empire, but the bearings still last an alarmingly short period of time before they start to feel notchy. Also worth pointing out is the annoying play that more often than not emanates from the top shock mount on a Sunday. Not catastrophic but an irritation nonetheless.
The technology which goes into your bike may not interest you much but it sure has an effect on the way that your ride rails that berm or tracks that rocky section of your local hill. One such feature, if you wish to call it that, of any design is sprung and unsprung mass, as well as the inextricably linked sprung mass ratio. What is this and why is it important? Keeping it brief, and simplifying things a little, sprung mass is mass which is supported by the springs (and which in theory keeps relatively static when tracking over bumps). Examples of which are fork uppers, cranks, front triangle etc, whilst unsprung is that which is supported by the ground. That is eliminating several factors but we’ll ignore them for now. Unsprung mass is what has to move every time you hit a bump and which therefore dissipates energy with each hit; that energy being your forward motion. The lighter you can make this, the better your suspension can track the ground as the easier it is to move out of the way over obstacles. This can help prevent the feeling of the back end hooking up on big hits. As Craig Robertson put it himself, take a broom and hold it with the brush end as far away as possible and try to move it up and down in quick succession by rotating it around where you’re holding it. It’ll be doable but it will take effort. Now hold it at the brush end and try the same movement. Far easier isn’t it? Well that’s, to all intents and purposes, the unsprung mass (swing arm) on your bike and what it has to go through every time it tries to track a bump.
But hang on, what’s this about mass ratio? Well, take yourself riding down a very rough trail. For me, several sections of a blown out Fort William spring to mind. Riding along a flat piece of ground, whilst seated your body can be considered a basic part of the sprung mass as you’re relatively rigid whilst the suspension is free to move around underneath you. Now ride down that steep, rough trail and you’re not seated but standing, with arms and legs acting as springs to lessen the impacts. The whole bike is floating about underneath you, with the unsprung part of the frame pushing against the sprung part. This means that every time that the back end takes a hit, part of that force is being absorbed by the damper whilst another percentage is transferring to the front end which in turn acts to compress the front forks. Now that is obviously not a good place to be as one end of the bike will be having an effect on the other, making things more unstable than they might otherwise be and also making suspension setup more of a black art than it needs to be. There are obviously going to be limits with how far you can go with this but the idea is that the lighter you can make the back (unsprung) in relation to the front (sprung) then the more stable the chassis will be as the swing arm will have a greater mass against which to push every time the bike rolls over a hit. This is the same reason that some manufacturers produce USD forks.
Feature wise, both the Sunday and the Empire come with 1.5” head tubes, allowing the fitment of zero stack headsets for a lower front without resorting to tiny bearings. The V10 still runs with a 1.125” and so needs to make do with a traditional external unit and with its accompanying shortfalls. Both the Sunday and the V10 use the standard 150mm spaced rear end but the Empire is slightly different in that it takes a 135mm back wheel. Some may see this as a downside but the reasoning is that, spaced between 150mm dropouts, the wheel can be virtually dish-less (the 15mm gap is taken up on the left hand side by the adjustable brake mount). All three come with 83mm BB shells as are now expected and the Empire incorporates an isolating roller into a custom chain device to which an E-13 Taco can also be fitted. This starts off a little noisy but the lower roller soon beds in and quietens down noticeably after just a few rides. As we mentioned in part one, all three bikes were built up with the Fox DHX5 shock which meant a 9.5” x 3.0” on both the Sunday and the Empire and an 8.75” x 2.75” on the V10 although recently there have been prototypes emerging with the larger shocks in an attempt to improve performance.
The final installment will be up soon with our conclusions whilst for those who missed it, the first part can be read HERE