Stretching Bikes & Winning World Cups
It's unusual these days for a new bike to slip through the net and do so relatively unnoticed. But that's what happened last year when a prominent brand significantly reconfigured one of its mainstay bikes, adding vital millimeters from one end to the other. With little fanfare and pomp surrounding its debut, this revised machine was left to do the talking. On the mountain and between the tape, this longer than average bike didn't just talk, it shouted at the top of its voice, catapulting one rider in particular to two World Cup victories in its inaugural season. While two wins in one year is a significant achievement enough on its own, it was all the more amazing for this particular rider, who had not stood on the top step of a podium for three years.
We are of course talking about Greg Minnaar, who last year became the winningest male World Cup downhill racer in history, with 18-wins to his credit. Having not won a major race since winning the 2013 world championships in Pietermaritzburg, South Africa, 2015 would see Greg miss only two World Cup podiums (Lourdes and Val di Sole) out of seven and score the silver medal at the world championships. So what happened between 2013 and 2015? A lot no doubt, but one thing was drastically different about the 2015 season: Greg’s bike. But was this newly revised V10 really that much of a catalyst to Greg's amazing season? If so, what made it so special? To get to the bottom of this we caught up with a man who knows the story from all angles, and someone who knows the Santa Cruz V10 intimately - Greg's personal mechanic, World Cup stalwart, Kiwi expat, Morzine local and creator of the MarshGuard, Jason Marsh...
Go Big or Go Home
So why make a bigger bike? After all, Santa Cruz already had four sizes in their range, which is one more than most. The short answer is that the riders on the Syndicate wanted more. Well, Steve Peat and Greg Minnaar, that is. The story starts back in 2009 and with the taste of champagne still fresh in their mouths, the Syndicate team were reflecting on the bikes they'd raced upon at the 2009 World Championships - a race that was of course won by Steve on a custom one-of-a-kind alloy V10. Now, this was back before the carbon V10, and using alloy allowed the team to fine tune geometry specifically for the riders' individual tastes and needs. After all, a frame jig is an easy thing to incrementally adjust compared to a $100k dollar one-hit carbon frame mold. That bike is now in Steve's loft, but it certainly left its mark. "Steve said for a long time that every V10 that followed never quite felt as good as that one," says Marshy.
A mechanic's work is never done... Marshy in his natural habitat. A V10. A work stand and lots of tools.
Making one-off custom bikes for pro riders used to be commonplace, and something the shift to carbon frames stopped nearly dead in its tracks. With brands investing huge sums of money into carbon frame molds, their focus had to be on the end user first and foremost and not the pros with their unique requirements. Whether or not this transition in materials hampered the advancement in dynamic bike geometry, at least in the short term, is a question we'll leave open for another article, but it was the arrival of 27.5" wheels that really gave the engineers at many bike companies the blank canvas they'd been craving. Incrementally and year-on-year, bikes began to grow in length, especially for Santa Cruz, who added an XL V10 in 2014, but for Greg, things weren't growing fast enough.
A quick fix to this problem came in the shape of reach adjust headsets, which soon became an increasingly common sight on World Cup race bikes, with Greg being one of the earliest to adopt one on his XL V10. Yet an extra 8mm in reach was not going to satisfy either Greg and Steve's desire for a roomier V10. So the scene was set to build the exact bike that a 6'3" Greg and a 6'4" Steve had been asking for. And with the marketplace looking increasingly towards longer bikes, especially within the gravity racing sector, the engineers at Santa Cruz hit the green light on creating their largest DH bike to date: the XXL V10.
Add 10mm to the chainstays and another 10mm to the wheelbase, to the numbers in the chart above and you're getting close to this weapon. Will Santa Cruz go longer for production bikes? Only time will tell...
"Greg always felt like his bike was too short," confesses Marshy, and after a long drive from Punt Ala to Finale with Peaty back in 2014, the imaginary blueprint of a bike that two of the most successful downhill racers in history wanted began to formulate. It didn't take long for Marshy to make the necessary phone call to Santa Cruz headquarters to explain the situation to engineer, Nick Anderson...
|We'd had quite a lot of success with the 26" V10 and we knew we wanted to go longer with the 27.5" version, but it was hard to know how far to go. You can't necessarily jump on a bike that is 30mm longer and feels at home straight away. We tested a number of prototypes in 2013 and settled on a reach that seemed right. In hindsight, it was only right at that particular moment in time.|
After the carbon production bike was tooled in 2014 we did some testing to prepare the team for a switch in wheel size mid-way through the season. Pretty quickly into this we started talking about reach again and it seemed clear that Greg and Steve would benefit from something bigger (Josh prefers a smaller bike). One of the main concerns with this was front wheel traction in loose conditions.
As a result of feedback from the back half of 2014 we tooled up an XXL size but made the chain stay longer to maintain the same front/back weight distribution as the XL. Midway through 2015 we continued this progression of thought and made custom lower links to make the chainstays longer still for certain tracks that were loose where front wheel traction was going to be an issue.
One of the best things about being involved in bike design is using feedback to make a bike better. It's rewarding to get help somebody get their bike completely dialed whether it's a racer or a regular rider. If you can do this for a living and play some small part in supporting a team then you're a lucky man.
- Nick Anderson
Nick Anderson, the Santa Cruz engineer responsible for the XXL V10.
Raising the Bar
But the starting point to creating the XXL V10 wasn't simply to stretch out the existing XL, but to make it bigger everywhere, including the head tube length - an element of a bike's geometry, which is often overlooked. For years, Greg had been running a number of spacers under his direct mount stem to raise the bars. Initially, this was done to help take the edge of steep tracks. "Greg would often comment on riders on the track when we'd be going up the hill on the gondola," says Marshy. "He would always spot riders running low front ends and comment that it would look like they were going down a 45-degree slope instead of a 20-degree slope that the track was on." Lifting the bars would help alleviate this sensation, but as the bars get closer to the rider, especially on a bike with a slack head angle, the reach number decreases as a result - about 4mm with every 10mm of rise which is not something you want when you're trying to develop a larger bike.
Greg's bike from Lourdes, France, 2016 featured a Chris King Buzz Works headset. Too long perhaps?
Raising the bars in this way also aids positioning for riders with longer arms, but as they experimented with increasing the bar height with an increasing volley of spacers, Greg noticed that the bike was getting harder to turn. "The front wheel started washing out," says Marshy, so a solution to balance over steer and under steer began in earnest." We found that anything under 63-degrees, the bike just doesn't want to turn, it just wants to go in a straight line," but more on that later. Adding a shorter stem would help, at least in the short term, but at the speeds encountered on the World Cup circuit, it also made the front feel 'nervous,' and Marshy and Greg determined that a slacker head angle detrimentally affected suspension performance. "Past 63-degrees, forks flex more than they compress," says Marshy.
The team didn't like the characteristics of using a sub-50mm stem either, with the whole team opting instead to run, long by today's standards, 60mm stems from UK brand Burgtec, throughout 2014. But after extensive testing during his years on the old Honda G-Cross team, Greg intimately understood the relationship between fork offset and stem length, "Greg convinced me that you don't want a stem any longer than the offset of your fork," says Marshy. Greg didn’t want a stem length too different to the offset of his fork,” says Marshy. He said he didn’t like the nervous steering when running a stem shorter than 45mm. With the team all on Fox 40s, which have a 51mm offset, they knew early on that the rest of the new XXL V10 would be built around a 50mm stem in play and that the head angle would be optimised between 63 and 64-degrees to maintain optimum suspension performance. "The slacker the head angle, the larger the turning circle you need," says Marshy, so figuring out how to boost stability without compromising the head angle and bar height became the next challenge.
Lenzerheide, 2015; Greg on his way to win number two.
"You can't just make a bigger and more stable bike by simply making the front end longer or the head angle slacker," jokes Marshy, poking at what some manufacturers have done to their DH bikes. After experimenting with increasingly slacker head angles, "the guys felt that their weight was still on the back wheel and they didn't have enough on the front wheel causing the bikes to understeer. The bikes felt stable, but they couldn't turn them quickly enough as a greater turning circle is the by-product of a slacker head angle." Having already determined that a head angle of around 63.5-degrees was the best option - also, the stock head angle of the production bike in the 'low' setting - the scales soon came out to figure out how weight was being distributed between the front and rear wheels.
Is Greg the most 'particular' rider on the circuit? You'll have to go to a World Cup and ask Marshy...
“We worked out a way we could determine the weight distribution of both wheels as a percentage,” confirms Marshy, but how this was achieved remains a closely guarded secret... “Initially, we were aiming for around 40% on the front and 50% on the rear. This was an approximate ratio derived from the understanding that a wheeled vehicle that races on flat-ground wants an even 50/50 split, yet DH tracks vary considerably from flat to very steep. So we designed the weight distribution of the XXL V10 around Fort William,” says Marshy. “If you take the course drop and divide it by the length you get the average gradient. This works out at very close to 5% so we thought we would try a weight distribution ratio of 45% on the front and 55% on the rear”.
|Yeah, it definitely played a huge role. I felt comfortable and more centered on the bike, the combination you need to get a little loose and push things. |
- Greg Minnaar on his 2015 season.
The next step was to figure out how to achieve this in the real world. Options on the table ranged from, "dropping the forks in the crown, going up a spring rate in the rear shock or just steepening the head angle, none of which Greg wanted to do,"
says Marshy. "The only thing we could do was to grow the grow the back end to match the front."
During the 2014 offseason, Marshy headed to California to work with Nick on the XXL project at Santa Cruz. "We actually came up with the initial numbers while at a burger restaurant one night in Santa Cruz and came to the conclusion that we needed to increase the length of the rear by 10mm."
Thanks to numbers obtained from the scales test, they knew that they had to grow the rear by 45% of how much they grew the front, and with a reach number of 470mm, 24mm longer than the XL, 10mm more in the rear was bang on.The Clock Doesn't Lie
Rolling into Lourdes for round one of the 2015 season and after some pre-season testing, Greg was on a prototype XXL mainframe, sporting an additional 24mm in the reach than the last V10 he raced on. The new bike also had the prototype swingarm sporting an extra 10mm on top of that. Greg was nursing a hand injury sustained at Crankworx Rotorua, but in true DH racer fashion, Greg still competed using a velcro strap and homemade brace to keep his hand physically strapped to the bars. Greg would finish the race within the top-25. It wasn't until round two at Fort William, Scotland, on the track that helped Nick and Marshy choose the geometry for the new XXL V10, and with Greg healthy and ready to open up what this new bike could do, that the smiles began to appear. "Greg could really feel the difference,"
confirms Marshy, so much so that Greg smashed the field and won his first major race in three years. With cause for celebration, the Syndicate was naturally on a high, but for Greg, the cogs were still turning on what was possible going even further... After Fort William, Greg said to me, "Well, we've gone 10mm bigger in the rear, how much more can we go?"
Greg's momentum and results in 2015 will go down in history.
"I was driving across Europe in the team van and I called Nick back in Santa Cruz for three hours - on speaker phone of course - and we talked about how we could make the back end even longer. Nick said we could make a longer linkage for the XXL to and add another 10mm," says Marshy. With the V10 link being machined from a solid piece of billet alloy, containing three connection points - one to the shock, one to the swingarm via the chainstays and the other to the mainframe - moving things outwards to increase the wheelbase was easily achieved and wouldn't affect the handling or kinematics of the VPP suspension system. While Nick began designing and prototyping the new link for Greg back in SC, the team were already in Leogang, Austria, for round three of the World Cup. Greg would follow up his win in Fort William with another podium, rounding things off nicely in fifth. Greg's confidence was peaking and the season was beginning to get interesting for Greg, Marshy and Nick.
With a three week gap between round three in Leogang and round four in Lenzerheide, Switzerland, Greg decided to stay in Europe and continue testing the XXL V10, choosing Marshy's local trails as the perfect location, "I think Le Pleney in Morzine is one of the most special places to ride," says Marshy. "We've had guys here testing, doing 38 runs in a day - that was Chris Kovarik," reminisces Marshy. "The guys used to call them 'pleny-a-thons' - you'd struggle to find anywhere else where you can smash out the runs and adjust things incrementally and on some serious and varied terrain."
RAD is an acronym for Fox's Racing Application Development program.
For Greg, this was a trip down memory lane, having not ridden these slopes since 2001. With Marshy reluctantly on point and showing off his local trails - imagine riding with a multiple world champ behind you - they hit the trails and took in some epic 80km rides on the DH bikes. Yes, this is a thing in this part of the world, using the extensive lift network to access nearby Les Gets, Avoriaz, and Chatel to name but three resorts with bike parks and rad trails only a few gondolas away. After a few weeks of testing and learning the tracks, and with Greg loving life on his new race bike, the team was back on the road and trucking to Lenzerheide - a new track for 2016 and a fresh challenge for the whole World Cup field.
On Swiss soil, there was something different about Greg's bike. The new 10mm longer link had arrived from California. On the bike and after some adjustments on the Fox X2 Coil from Fox technician, Jordi, Greg was on the mountain and punching in the runs. As we all know, this race was a special one for Greg. Not only did he win his second World Cup of the year, but superseded his teammate and legend of the sport, Steve Peat, to become the winningest male downhill racer in history with 18 wins to his name. The GOAT (Greatest Of All Time) was now on a roll...
With the second win under his belt, Greg was showing the latest batch of young upstarts how to own the podium.
From Lenzerheide, the remainder of the season certainly became a memorable one for Greg and Marshy with only Val di Sole's podium passing them by making all but two podiums all year. Greg went on to take a silver medal at the World Championships later that year proving that the adjustments made gave Greg the necessary confidence to become a serious podium threat at every round of the 2015 series. "Yeah, it definitely played a huge role," says Greg. "I felt comfortable and more centered on the bike, the combination you need to get a little loose and push things."
Who doesn't love a Syndicate world champs bike?
How Long is Too Long?
That's the golden question with bike engineers right now and a deciding factor is how much can you push things and how quickly? But then professional athletes have such unique needs; take Greg's teammate, for example, and not Steve, the other one; the inimitable Josh Bryceland. At an inch shorter than Greg, he too could be more than comfortable on the XXL, yet he prefers a stock size large with a straight headset, a 60mm stem, and randomly for today's bikes, a ten-speed cassette. He's won a fair few World Cups on this setup, so what works for one, might not work for another.
"Josh did really well on that bike in 2014 and just wanted to keep things the way they were, especially after his injury," says Marshy. Josh went on to win Mont Saint Anne on that same bike setup in 2015 so he's still able to win on what could be considered a dated set up, "I rode his 2014 bike in Spain and I just couldn't get on with it", says Marshy, who is also an experienced DH racer, "I kept hitting my knees on the bars and my weight was in the wrong place and I just couldn't figure out how Josh rode it like he does?"
Josh loves a smaller than average bike, and it doesn't seem to hold him back.
But perhaps Josh is at the extreme end of the personal and highly unique set up spectrum for a World Cup racer and with more and more riders now opting for increasingly larger bikes, it looks to be the way things are going. "It's what people are asking for," says Marshy, "it's about having a bike that you can feel comfortable on because it's stable and doesn't feel nervous. Too many people think it's the head angle that makes the bike stable. I don't agree with that and neither does Greg. It's all about finding your center and controlling your weight distribution."
And Peaty, who runs a reach adjust headset in his XXL, but backwards... personal preference rules supreme.
With regards to the burning question, can we go even bigger? Marshy had this to say: "We talked about that and the market for bigger bikes is there and growing year on year - I liken it to skis... When you start skiing, you ride shorter skis and as you get faster and more confident, you start to use longer skis for stability and increasingly more savage piste you're on. I would recommend anyone on a medium bike to try a large or go up a size from what they're currently on." While one set up works well for some, something clearly illustrated by the Syndicate - three riders, all similarly sized and all on vastly different bikes and setups. But Marshy has a point, and that is keeping an open mind and when the opportunity arises to ride a bike that's different to the one you know, embrace it and add some weight to those opinions.
Greg's start to the 2016 season hasn't mirrored that of last season so far, but with rumors of some radical changes to his suspension setup... Who knows, but then after all, you have to crack a few eggs to make an omelette.
So where do we go from here? Hopefully, we'll keep on riding our bikes and let the bike industry figure things out in their own time and without upsetting the apple cart too much. Is that too much to ask for? Perhaps, but the fact that bikes are getting longer only supports the notion raised in the article above. The point here is that there are a growing number of riders out there, weekend warriors and seasoned pros alike, all on bikes that reside above the manufacturers recommended sizing range for their height.
Upsizing is not new and thankfully for those who like a roomier ride or those who are simply too tall for most bikes, the bigger bike revolution is coming and for some, it's here already. And Santa Cruz, do they have plans to introduce the longer linkage or swingarm championed by Greg and Steve into their range or offer it to customers looking to gain a few millimeters? They had this to say, "There are no plans right now to change the current swingarm length or introducing longer links at the moment. We want to let things settle a bit longer first." Watch this space, but in the meantime, let us know your thoughts in the comments below...
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/ @davetrump / @natedh9