This is the first instalment in a series of articles where we go in-depth into the what, how and why of the bike setup and preparation of some of the top riders competing in the Enduro World Series. And, not wanting to save the best for last, we head to the Southern Hemisphere and the jungles of New Zealand to catch up with a legend who's perhaps the undisputed king of trying, testing and rehearsal, Nicolas Vouilloz.
Nico's factory Lapierre Spicy has been modified in a number of ways and he runs suspension items that ordinary riders can't have. So, to form a basis for comparison, I borrowed a stock 150mm-travel Spicy from Lapierre's New Zealand distributor, Bikes International, and then raced the EWS on it to establish a base line from which to evaluate Nico's race bike, and also to help understand his reasoning in regards to his personal setup. Without further ado, let's take a look at a very special bike:Nico's Standard Setup
Nico had worked his usual magic on his Lapierre Spicy race bike after a full winter of testing in Southern France, and there were a handful of critical details worth pointing out, mostly revolving around weight-saving and suspension performance. His wheel and tire choices are easiest to spot, with a SRAM Rise carbon front wheel teamed up with an aluminum Roam rear wheel, and a very special set of prototype Michelin tires installed onto both. And while the 2015 Spicy now comes with an alloy seat stay, Nico was using an carbon version taken from last years bike. The bike's cables are routed externally to make the mechanic's life easier, and axles from Novyparts replace the stock Maxles front and rear to help save some weight. And speaking of weight, a smaller E:i battery and full compliment of titanium bolts helps to get the bike down to a very respectable 27lb in race trim.
At 5'10", Nico rides a large-sized Spicy, which gives him the top tube length to feel good using a short, 40mm stem and 770mm wide handlebar that sits at 1,065mm off the ground from its center. He also uses slightly shorter than stock 170mm cranks, and a 36 tooth chain ring. I thought I was being clever by asking whether he chose the soft, sponge-like Lizard Skin ESP grips for vibration absorption or comfort on long days, but he replied simply, "No, just because they are light. I can save nearly 100 grams over some lock-ons!"
There's plenty to talk about suspension-wise, and we'll get to that later on, but the gist is that his bike is using both a custom tuned RockShox DebonAir shock and a custom linkage. Total rear wheel travel sits at 164mm, which is 14mm more than what the stock bike offers, and it's also more progressive. "The enduro stages now are just like downhill, so we need more travel and progression,"
explained Nico on why he's up-sized his race bike. The shock was pumped up to 220 PSI to provide 28% sag for Nico's 67kg weight, and he's gone with six clicks of rebound from it being fully closed.
His Pike was running between 60 and 65 PSI, had two volume spacers installed, and low-speed compression sat at four clicks out. Nico runs the Pike's rebound between eight and ten clicks out from closed depending on the spring rate, with more air pressure requiring heavier rebound damping.
Curious as to how Nico transforms a bike from stock to race-ready machine, I asked him to give a basic breakdown of the process. Things like the positioning of controls is obviously done, but it's interesting to hear him talking about balancing handlebar height and the fork's spring rate:
|Normally I just adjust the cockpit, the height and handlebar angle, and have the levers 30mm in from the grips. Next I set the saddle height and the rear sag to 30%. Then I just put an average pressure in the fork and go ride. I also adjust the shifter so both levers are close together and I don't have to move my thumb too far to change gears. I just ride and play with things, and I know when the front is too high because my steering starts to feel light, so I adjust the height with air in the fork. I try to find the highest bar height, with the lowest possible fork pressure for sensitivity. It's not easy in enduro, when you have steep parts and flat parts, to find a compromise, really not so easy.|
Nico's New Zealand EWS Setup
The New Zealand Enduro World Series course was nothing like Nico's stomping grounds in the South of France, so while his Spicy was obviously a pretty dialed bike when he arrived, he's also the kind of racer who wants to maximize his potential by leaving nothing on the table when it comes to bike setup. Nico doesn't leave any stone unturned, so everything from suspension to drivetrain to wheels and tires was taken into consideration, and I was there for all of it. Below is a breakdown of how his bike changed from when he arrived to the end of the race. Suspension
Nico said he was happy with the bike when he left France, but quickly felt that he needed to make some changes after his initial practice runs in New Zealand. The timed stages of the Rotorua course were a mixture of low speed, tight, greasy turns littered with roots, but at the opposite end of the spectrum were the high speed sections that had some huge compressions, flat landings and drops. A tough mix, for sure. After arriving with what he described as more "linear enduro
" settings, he wanted more downhill capability. On the second day he tried a Vivid Air R2C shock without assistance from the E:i system, but felt that it was harsh and over-damped on the small, repetitive roots, although great on the big stuff. ''Maybe with more time we could have made the Vivid more supple and responsive, but we don't have time to do everything here,
'' he said of having a go on the Vivid.
Nico had an interesting response when I asked why he chose the Debonair Plus shock over the standard Monarch:
|It has slightly better performance, but really more consistency, especially with the sag. It only changes maybe one or two percent, but with a standard shock [a Monarch] it can change a lot, like you start at thirty percent but finish with it at twenty percent [sag] with the heat. With a standard shock I was starting at thirty five percent sag to finish a run with twenty five or twenty seven percent, so you have the feeling at the end of the stage like the bike is not working, just because the shock is overheating. But, with the piggyback there is no problem with that. Also, with the Debonair we found it works better at the beginning of the curve on our bike and it helps with sensitivity.|
So he went back to his custom Debonair, but with some internal adjustments to add more progression as there was too much trade-off in regards to grip with the Vivid and not enough beef for the big stuff in the original Debonair. He also upped his sag to 30% from the previous 28% at the rear to let the wheels move more easily over the small and very slippery roots. The same approach was applied to the front of the bike, with an extra volume spacer added (three in total
) and compression damping wound completely off for improved sensitivity. His Pike was also fitted with a different air spring system, although Nico wouldn't elaborate on that, and possibly a damper setup. Tire Choice
Nico experimented a lot with tires over the three days of practice, starting off with a prototype Michelin Grip'R on the front that uses a slightly harder, but slower rebounding rubber than the production version. He also tried an unnamed prototype on the rear, which had chunky side knobs and a low profile centre for rolling speed. After a couple of practice runs he swapped to a cut spike on the front and another prototype on the rear, this one with a Rock'R2 tread pattern. With this tire he cut a chunk out of every second side knob to give extra bite and clearance in the mud, and also shaved the side of the knobs slightly for added clearance in the frame so they didn't protrude any further than the side of the casing. The pink sidewalled tires use a lighter casing than Michelin's Advanced Reinforced units, saving around 200 grams per tire, which offered less reliability but Nico felt that it was a worthy trade-off with the rarity of rock in Rotorua. He also added extra pressure, up to 1.9 bar, to bring more stability to the prototype tire's flexible casing.
Race Day in New Zealand
There's a hell of a lot more to a race weekend than just bike prep, and I wanted to discover what else Nico does to try and find perfection on the big day:
|The first thing I consider is to try and save as much energy for the race. Even in practice, if you feel good, you must save. Sometimes I am going fast and have to think, I must save energy, even on the transfers. Sometimes you feel good and then bang, you're tired out! We check the maps and race times. I try to drink water and eat well, and go to sleep early and get a few massages when I can. We were here for a few weeks, so I had a few, not too hard though, just easy to relax and not make the muscles too sore. On race day I get up early to prepare, and I just take a few bars and gels.|
An all-day enduro race is an entirely different beast than a downhill event, and it requires a very different approach:
|It's not the same as in downhill, and I just try to think about certain points on the stage. I try and switch my mind on thirty seconds or one minute before the start. It's very different to downhill, and I do nothing special other than just staying a little focused and then flick like a switch thirty seconds before the stage. On the first stage today I was not able to corner or ride for the first few minutes and I lost a lot of time. It was strange because when I got my heart rate up, it was okay, and I think I should have attacked more earlier on.|
My problem is in the mornings, and it's quite a big problem - the first stage! I never wake up, and I don't know if it's my age but I'm always in trouble on the first stage. Here for example, I went and did one run on Skyline to get warmed up, some small sprints, too, because at this race we start late in the day. I need to do quick warm-up in downhill, pedalling up on the transfers for me is not the same, but even with doing a downhill run, I struggled to ride on the first stage. I try not to go too hard and let my heart rate go too high. If it goes too high I am dead and can't attack in downhill, then I might need two or three stages to recover! If I don't go too hard on the first stage I am normally okay for the rest of the day and I can go harder on each stage. Here, the first stage was really difficult and long, so I'm like shit! The race can turn here, but I don't want to give everything, and I also made some mistakes. A long first stage is not ideal for me.
Even after the initial struggles, Nico put in a solid sixth place showing on race day, with no stage wins but great consistency that paid off over the 60km event. I questioned him about his setup for the day:
|I used a mud tire on the front, and I was riding with lower pressures in the earlier stages on the roots and, because there were no rocks, as soft as I thought possible before the tire might fold. As soon as I went on to the last two stages I added pressure for stability up to 26/28 PSI. Before the last stage I took my backpack off and changed for the full face helmet. No other special changes, and the RockR2 on the rear was a safe choice in case of the rain. In the end it didn't rain, so maybe it was not the best choice, but it was okay. I wanted to use a faster rolling rear tire, like something Clementz used, but the season is long so I took the safe choice for the rain.|
And, is there anything Nico would have changed in hindsight?
Riding Nico's Race Bike
|The only thing I would have changed in hindsight was the rear tire. Even if it was slippery, the dirt was quite good and not too steep. Maybe I could have gained minimum five seconds, but up to a maximum of ten for the whole day's stages, but it's really hard to know. I really have to do some good testing to know exactly, but as soon as you put the fast tire on the rear you feel the difference. I tested a tire in the winter, and even on a slippery trail the faster rolling tire was four seconds faster on that certain stage, so it's not a lot really but when you play at the top, it can make a difference.|
Riding and racing a stock Lapierre Spicy over the previous four days gave me solid view on the characteristics of the bike, but how different is Nico's race machine? There were three things that stood out that were all clear from the start. The first being the suspension's rebound speed on Nico's bike - it was so fast that I thought maybe he had blown the shock on the final downhill stage of the event! But that wasn't the case, and he had even slowed it two clicks between the first five stages and the bigger hits found in six and seven. It felt strange to start, but heading into the trail the responsiveness was clear, and it also made the bike really playful, but with ample compression damping it never felt out of control. Here's Nico's take on the quick feeling rebound speeds:
|It was full of slippery roots, and I opened the rebound front and rear to get the grip on the roots, and I also needed to be able to react quickly, bunny-hop the bike and change direction. Normally I have it more closed. In fact, when you tried it I had even closed it a little bit for the last two stages, because it was faster before for the roots. It reads the terrain more and helps me to move the bike around.|
The second was the weight difference between the two, which is something that was instantly noticeable. And although a very similar machine, multiple marginal reductions added up to increased ease when pedalling up the hill on tired legs. Also, it was clear that Nico's mechanic, Mattieu, had been twiddling and tweaking pre-race, as even comparing against my brand-new bike, it felt more efficient and rolled easier. Maybe there was a seal or two missing from bearings, and just the bare minimum quantity of grease or oil to keep them spinning? Matthieu assured me it was normal, but it certainly felt faster.
Nico also decided to not use the carbon front wheel on race day, going with the heavier aluminum option instead:''Yeah, I didn't go with it as I have only tried at home a few times and wasn't confident in it. Also, sometimes if you have a really light front wheel the bike can become more unstable and not track so well, and I prefer a little heavier wheel for confidence and stability for holding my line. The carbon wheel had a 70 grams saving. But in the mud? I didn't think it was worth the risk for an EWS.
Thirdly, the big hit capability of the elongated travel and boosted compression settings from the Debonair Plus was a big change compared to the stock bike. Hitting the multiple big compressions and drops on stage seven on Nico's bike resulted in a more controlled exit than on my bike, despite the much faster rebound.
So there you have it. It was clear to see Nico's passion and commitment to his race machine, and his attention to detail that must have played no small part in his many race wins over the years.
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