A Unique Setup
While we saw him running the aluminum framed Fritzz earlier this season, Cube's Nico Lau raced the Whistler EWS event aboard his 160mm travel, carbon fiber Stereo that he spec'd with a 180mm FOX 36 fork and Float X shock. Both the fork and shock are a step up from the production bike's 34 and Float CTD suspension bits, although that's not really a surprise given that Lau spent the weekend racing down some pretty serious terrain (to finish second overall, by the way
). His race bike is full of interesting setup choices that show he's not afraid to think outside the box when it comes to how to run his personal bike.
The most obvious of those unorthodox personal touches has to be Lau's bar height, with his grips towering over the handlebars of his competitors. This is compounded by the skyscraper-like stack of spacers both above and below his short stem that allow him to make bar height adjustments as needed. It may look like he's one step away from running the adjustable stem that's on your grandma's town bike, but there's some method to the Frenchman's madness. First, take note of the bike's relatively stubby head tube that requires some extra stack from the conical top cap of the FSA headset that he's running. Second, Lau is aiming to create a cockpit that resembles a downhill bike, which isn't out of line given that he was basically racing five different and long downhill stages throughout the event. The 180mm travel fork, combined with the two tall headset spacers under his stem, accomplishes exactly that.
Nico is also one of the few top racers who often uses two chain rings and a front derailleur, and his Whistler race bike didn't even employ a chain guide. During a time when everyone out there, including yours truly, is going on and on about how great single ring drivetrains are, one of the fastest enduro races in the world is using a drivetrain that, while pricey, wouldn't be out of place on a weekend warrior's trail bike - how's that for a dose of irreverence? Nico has some sound reasons for going this route, though, as I suspect that it comes down to his Shimano XTR group not utilizing the massive large cog that you see on SRAM's single ring setup, meaning that he has to go with a smaller chain ring if he wants to be able to spin his legs and recover on the transfer stages. This necessitates two chain rings, of course, and his outer bash guard is actually the standard XTR big ring with the teeth removed. Simple, clean, and judging by his second place result, just over two seconds back of Jared Graves, trouble free.
Up front, Nico's handlebar arrangement had me wondering if I was coordinated enough to actually ride his bike. On the right, he has the rear shifter, rear brake lever, and the dual-lever FOX D.O.S.S. dropper post remote. On the left, he has his front shifter, front brake lever, and the CTD remote to control the FOX Float X shock. I'm not going to lie, I knew that it would take me a more than a few rides before I would have been used to where everything was enough to not fumble around like I was performing a rolling coordination test, so I decided to just leave the seat post down, the chain on the big ring, and the shock left in its open Descend setting for most of the ride. If anything, it proves that Nico has excellent dexterity.
The entire purpose of our time on Nico's bike was to get some insight into how his FOX suspension was set up for the technical Whistler EWS course, and my time on his machine certainly convinced me that it's worthwhile to be a bit more open minded when it comes to dialling in a bike for a specific type of terrain. Not only that, but also that an unconventional setup that feels awkward on normal trails might be just the ticket when you get the bike on worthy terrain. Out back, his FOX Float X shock was running what I would refer to as a very soft and undamped feel, enough so that the bike was even topping out slightly when giving it the 'ol seat push test. His work card in the FOX truck, which the techs use to keep track of his spring and damper settings, and if any changes are required, said that he was running just 145 PSI. This was soft enough that, at 170lb, I was sitting into roughly 40% of the stroke, and I'd say that Nico isn't a whole lot lighter than I am. Up front, his 180mm travel fork definitely felt more controlled, with heavier damping all around and a spring rate that was more in line with what it'd expect.
It was obvious upon first look that Nico's bike sports a very unique setup that is geared towards all-out speed on rowdy descents, which makes a lot of sense given that the timed portions of the Whistler enduro race included trail that most riders would have to convince themselves to even roll into, let alone race. That said, with an extra 20mm of travel up front, a relatively soft spring rate out back, and a handlebar height that looks like it would tower over where the grips sit on most downhill machines, Nico's bike is on the extreme end of the scale compared to what much of his competition uses. At the risk of offending the man from France, his race machine felt downright strange while pedalling around on flat ground. Then again, you don't win an EWS race on flat ground, do you?
On the Trail
When I set up my own bikes, one of the major points I consider is balance. This goes for both spring rate and damping, as an evenly tuned suspension system usually makes for more predictable handling in all regards. Things aren't so clear when you're racing down steep, rough chutes at Nico's pace, however, and his unbalanced suspension setup reflects a desire to have his Cube Stereo handle more like a downhill bike in such sections. This would explain the 180mm travel FOX 36 fork that sports an added 20mm of travel over not just what many other racers are using up front, but also the 160mm of rear suspension on the Cube Stereo. The bias towards front end height doesn't end there, though, as he's decided to run the shock quite soft. There are two reasons for this: a) it helps to keep the back of the bike a touch lower, and also the head angle a touch slacker as a result, for the steep bits of trail. And b) the soft spring rate won't feel so soft when his weight bias has shifted forward on said steep sections. The very unique setup leads to a very unique ride...
Nico's Cube feels a touch peculiar on downhill trails that aren't steep enough to have you leaning back a good amount, and while the back end of the bike is very, very forgiving, it also feels very open in regards to damping. This leads to an extremely active ride that, at least when under me, sees the shock going through a lot of its stroke in places that you might not expect it to do so. Looking at the o-ring on the shock's stanchion revealed that I was using full travel in a number of sections that I wasn't expecting it to do so - rough berms on nearly flat ground, for example - and there were even a handful of audible bottoming moments that had me surprised. The 180mm travel fork, on the other hand, felt relatively normal in its action, and I didn't find myself wanting for any changes up front. That said, Nico's pace makes me look like I've spent a grand total of twenty minutes on a mountain bike in my life, so I'm pretty sure that I was barely touching what the fork was actually capable of. Remember that this little experiment was put together for me to ride bikes of the top EWS racers without making any changes, so the last thing I wanted to do was tinker with his dials. I doubt he'd appreciate that, either.
I'd like to think that the words above are just calling it like it is rather than complaining about Nico's very distinct bike setup, and also highlighting what FOX is able to accomplish for their racers, even if it does feel a bit odd to someone who doesn't posses superhero-like riding skills. And while I might have been wondering if Nico was smoking some of B.C.'s finest when tinkering around with a shock pump and the shock and fork's dials, it turned out that his quirky preferences make for one hell of a quick machine when the trail gets steep and choppy. It almost felt like a downhill bike, and I could see how he'd feel comfortable, and therefore fast, on EWS tracks that are more Champéry than Pietermaritzburg in nature. It also felt like there was enough traction from the back end for me to literally slow to a stop if I was to roll down a vertical cliff, with the rear of the bike digging in like it had claws. Was this because of Nico's efforts to place some weight bias back further than it would be with a more conventional setup? I believe that's the case, and while time didn't permit, I found myself daydreaming about what his Cube would be like on some of the mega steep section up in the Garbanzo zone. www.ridefox.com