Think of Thomas Vanderham and you'll more than likely conjure up a freezeframe from the likes of Roam and Seasons, or an image of him soaring through the Utah skyline or deep in the dark and misty woods of British Columbia. While we might not see Thomas at the likes of Rampage anymore, his time is spent involved in a range of media projects throughout the year and a little closer to home he works alongside the engineers and designers at Rocky Mountain to help develop their lineup, ensuring the Rocky athletes are getting what they need from the bikes.
Thomas has been part of the Rocky Mountain family for over 15 years now and has been able to experience their bike development first hand, pushing each iteration of bike to its limit and sometimes over it, especially in the early days when the bikes weren't holding up to the abuse they were being dished out. Thomas describes his style of riding these days as "aggressive trail riding" spending more time behind the bars of long-travel trail bikes rather than burly downhill rigs. Anyone who has seen him ride knows how effortlessly he pops and plays with terrain, and as we found out his bikes are set up with this in mind.
After a day deep in Ecuador's backcountry earlier this year with H+I Adventures
we decided to see what Thomas looks for in his bike setup, specifically the Rocky Mountain Altitude BC Edition he'd opted for from this quiver:
Weight 185 lbs
Hometown North Vancouver, BC
Model Instinct BC Edition
Frame Size Large
Wheel Size 29"
Suspension Fox 36 and Fox X2 Shock
Drivetrain & Brakes Shimano XTR
Cockpit OneUp Components
Wheels & Rubber Shimano & Stans / Maxxis High Roller II
So you've been with Rocky for a good 15 years or so now, having spent that much time on one brand it must be cool to follow the bike development and advancements within one single brand instead of jumping between companies like most other riders?
Oh certainly. It's been awesome to maintain the relationship for that long and, in terms of the bikes, I've definitely been through a lot with them. I was even keen on giving feedback back on my first Rocky, which was an RM6, as a 15 or 16 year old kid because really at that time the bikes were not holding up to the abuse that we were putting them through. It's been a really cool process to work with Rocky on helping them to improve their bikes.
Are you more involved in the development side of the bikes than a lot of their other athletes?
I've become more involved on the R&D side of things with Rocky over the last 3-4 years. That just means a lot of testing prototypes and a lot of communication with the R&D department and other athletes on the team.
Have you been able to notice a big difference over the years in the bikes standing up to the abuse you've been dishing them out?
For sure. It's been massive. I think the first real big step forward was the RMX, I remember at the very first Rampage I was riding an RM7 and I broke my frame in one of my runs and really came back to the drawing board with them. That was a long time ago, 2003 or 2004 I think, the RMX was the very first major steps forward, I never broke one of those. Now technology has come so far, the bikes we are riding these days are so amazing, what they're capable of, how light they are, the places you can go with them... They are so versatile, it's incredible.
In terms of your riding style now would you say it's gone more towards the more adventure / all-mountain / enduro sort of stuff, or do you still find yourself on the big bike hucking off stuff?
Yeah, there's a little less hucking going on these days! I still spend a lot of time filming and working with photographers. The main difference is that I do the majority of it on my trail bike instead of DH bike. These new long-travel trail bikes are what I’m having the most fun riding these days. I love trying to play around on the trail and look for creative lines. That said, it’s great to get out on the DH bike, I try to attend the odd FEST event to make sure the big bike gets some love.
Does your bike setup follow that same trait in being set up to be playful?
I would say so, I grew up racing and I don’t think my setup would differ much if I were racing still. I try to set my bikes up to be very balanced in a variety of terrain. I’m always trying to accomplish stability at speed while maintaining the ability to get off the ground and change directions quickly.
And you're on a size large? Does that hold true through the whole Rocky Mountain range?
I am on a size large yeah. Currently, all of our bikes except the Maiden I run a large, with the Maiden I run an XL. Obviously bikes are getting longer and the bikes we have in development are following that trend but so far I’m still running a large.
Have you tried the Instinct in an XL frame size?
Yes, I've experimented with some of our other bikes in bigger sizes and I guess I kind of found my limit from a size perspective. I rode an XL Altitude for quite awhile and I liked aspects of it but ultimately I found it a bit slow to react in certain trail situations, specifically when I needed to get it off the ground quickly. I'm a little more comfortable on the large at the moment.
You're running the Ride9 flip-chip in the linkage, what setup have you gone for in that respect?
Yes, that's one of the features we’re really proud of at Rocky Mountain. The Ride-9 chip has opened up a lot of possibilities for me to experiment with different shock setups.
The Instinct BC comes stock with a fixed link for clearance reasons, but I’ve swapped that out for the Ride-9 link that comes on the traditional Instinct. When combined with an offset bushing in the forward shock mount, I can access a few more of the Ride-9 positions. With this set up I’ve found my perfect balance of geometry and shock performance in position #3.
It also allows me to run the shorter, 210x55mm shock, if I’m looking for a little less travel (140mm) and more pedal efficiency for a particular trip or project. Most recently it made doing some mix wheeled testing really easy with the ability to bump the bottom bracket back up after putting a smaller rear wheel on.
I love to tinker with different setups and I’ve found Ride-9 to be a very useful feature, it’s really cool to have the ability to customize my bike to fit my personal preferences.
Tucked away in the linkage is Rocky's Ride9 chip which Thomas plays around with a lot, allowing him to change not only the geometry and suspension curves, but the travel too when paired with a different sized shock. The Instinct BC doesn't normally feature the Ride9 linkage although Thomas has decided to run it in his. The fork has 80 PSI and a single volume reducer in it.
Are you pretty set on air, you'd never go to a coil shock on that bike?
Yes, I’m absolutely loving the performance of the Float X2. Air shocks have come a very long way in the last 5 years and are so tunable and reliable now. I might experiment with a coil on this bike or my Slayer but I’m really happy with the performance of the air shock.
In terms of suspension setup would you be able to run us through some of the figures?
With the Float X2 I'm running 200 PSI, so that's body weight plus 15, which is a good ballpark. Then I'll micro tune from there with compression and spacers if you need them. Currently I'm not running any spacers, I find the bike and the shock combination has enough progression as it is, and I can sort of tune the bottom out pretty well with the compression adjustments. Overall I run my bikes a little slower I think than typical, just a bit. I believe the highspeed rebound is 8 clicks out from closed, and low speed is 10. In terms of compression, I'm about 12 clicks out from closed on low speed, and about 14 out on high speed. I’m running 80 PSI in my Float 36 with the Grip 2 damper and 1 bottom out spacer.
Is the suspension setup pretty neutral front to rear?
I feel like it's pretty balanced front to rear. I'm running about 30% sag on the rear.
And do you pay much attention to sag, maybe more so initially?
Initially, yeah. More so when I'm setting it up for the first time, I’ll measure sag to get a sense of where I’m at. I wouldn't say it's my end all be all though, I’m happy to run a little more or less sag to achieve the exact ride characteristics I’m looking for.
A 50mm OneUp stem with the EDC tool stashed away inside. Thomas had been testing the stem for a while prior to its release with OneUp Components located fairly close to where Thomas lives.
Moving onto the cockpit, could you just run us through widths, heights, etc...?
On the Instinct BC I run a 50mm stem, the new stem from OneUp which is really cool. It's a headset tightening stem so it allows you to run their tool without threading the steerer tube at all. Basically you put the stem on straight and you clamp it down in a fixed position, then you turn the third screw, it's a conical mechanism which extends and tightens your headset for you, then there's a locking ring on the other side. I've been running it for a couple of months now and it's been awesome. It hasn't come loose on me. The bars are an interesting take on the 35mm bars with basically a bit of vibration dampening built into the shape of it, with some people complain that 35mm bars can get a little bit too stiff. Mine are cut to 790mm.
Do your contact points stay the same throughout your bikes?
As I look at my different bikes and start to compare them it is actually really, really similar. In terms of stack height, bar height might change bike to bike depending on what fork and how much height I have in the front, also 27.5 wheels versus 29 wheels. Basically I try to set my bikes up so that they are as versatile as possible. I really want to be able to get my bike off of the ground quickly so I try to set it up to feel as balanced as possible for those situations, I don't want it to be really sluggish when it comes to getting it off the ground.
You’ve been riding for Shimano for a very long time, what do you think about the new XTR group compared to previous versions?
I do have the new XTR on my bike for this trip. Shimano has taken a lot of measures to make the new group as quiet as possible and it’s definitely noticeable. The shifting is so quiet and effortless, even under load or dropping gears quickly feels smooth. For a trip like this where we're pedalling a lot larger gear range is really nice, having the 51 tooth has also allowed me to go up to a 34T chainring up front where previously I was running a 32T which is great to have a little more gear range at the bottom too. I was actually able to do a little testing with Shimano down in California on the new brakes while they were still in the prototype phase so that was particularly interesting. I got to ride them back to back against the old XTR trails and the Saint brakes and really hone in on what they were trying to achieve on the brakes.
A Fox Transfer dropper post is paired with a Shimano lever, mounting directly onto the XTR brake lever.
There's nothing weird and whacky going on in terms of brake bite point and lever angle.
Did you feel major differences between them?
Absolutely. They managed to make the new XTR brakes extremely powerful and engineer in a bit of a softer initial bite. The Saints, by comparison, have a harder initial bite and the same power on the back end. They really wanted to incorporate a little more modulation with the XTR trail brakes as well as continue to manage heat better. Every generation of the brakes that they put out has a little more resistance to fading under heat. It was a cool experience to be a part of their development process.
From those early brakes you tested in California to the production brakes, were there any significant changes?
What we tested down there was a couple of different pot sizes for the pistons. They were looking at what combination created the best modulation and power. I believe the one that was the consensus pick amongst the testers was what the production brake turned out to be.
Thomas was involved in the development of the new Shimano XTR brakes and tested various pot sizes of the 4 piston callipers to find the best modulation.
With the new 12 speed XTR drivetrain Thomas has moved up to a 34T chainring which he says he likes as it's given him more range at the bottom of the cassette too. Things are kept safe and secure with a OneUp bashguide.
Have you had much experience with carbon rims?
I've had a bit of experience with carbon rims, I used a number of different models last season. Ultimately I’ve decided to stick with aluminum for now. I'm not ruling out running carbon rims in the future by any means, I will continue to grow my knowledge and experience with them but right now I'm really happy with the wheels I've got on my bike.
I'm running the Flows on this bike but most of my other bikes will have the Sentry rim on them this year. They’ve got a 32mm inner diameter, I just love the profile with the Maxxis wide trail tires and I’ve found them less prone to burping. I get a little bit of extra stiffness out of that slightly wider rim too, the weight penalty is pretty minor in my opinion and well worth it. That's been my choice for rims this year.
Do you pay much attention to bike weight?
I'm not super fussy about weight. I think bikes these days are pretty light overall. We are doing a fair amount of climbing on a trip like this but I'm not racing up the hills. I'm always pretty willing to sacrifice a bit of weight for additional stiffness, or control, or confidence on the way down. I prioritize the down over the up, I guess you could say.
In terms of tire choice, what's your go-to setup?
I'm running the High Rollers IIs here which is actually somewhat new for me, I haven't ridden them a lot. The tire availability continues to grow in the 29” tire and I got these tires just before this trip. I thought they would offer a good combination of traction, rolling speed and puncture resistance. These have the Double Down casings, so I get a good bit of support and stability from the sidewall. The tread pattern is quite versatile- sheds mud well, good in the dust, I thought we might be riding on a lot of different soil and terrain here which turned out to be the case. At home on the Shore, I usually opt for the Maxx Grip compound because it's often wet but I think the Maxx Terra was the right choice for this trip.
Finally, are there any customizations or things you're super particular about?
I’m quite particular about a lot of things. Especially my cockpit setup, things like the angle of my bars and brakes, and my overall bar height. I’m also pretty picky about my suspension and tires. The main customization on this bike is the offset bushing in the shock with opened up some options for me with the Ride9 chip, other than that it’s pretty much stock.