Martin Maes has had one hell of a season. The Belgian powerhouse became the first racer to stand on the top step at both an Enduro World Series race (Whistler no less) and a World Cup downhill event (La Bresse) back-to-back, and on very different types of terrain. Talk about versatility. Pinkbike photographer Ross Bell caught up with Maes in Finale Ligure, Italy, at the final round of the EWS season to talk about his 150mm-travel Force, 29ers, and how racing World Cup DH compares to enduro.
On the left, Maes is standing with his GT Sanction in 2016 at the first stop of the EWS series in Chile. On the right, he's with his new Force in Finale Ligure, Italy. The two bikes are completely different machines, with the new Force featuring a more conventional suspension design.
Details of one of the fastest enduro cockpits around.
The six foot tall Maes is on a large-sized GT Force, but he's gone against the 'longer is better' trend with a reach that he says is about 10mm shorter than the Sanction he was racing on previously. ''You know, 10mm is not much, especially when you're switching bikes,'' he said about the change and running the same 55mm length stem. ''It's a whole different platform, it's carbon, and everything is so different, so I kind of adapt myself to the size. It feels pretty good.''
That Race Face stem is combo's with a 780mm wide handlebar from the Canadian brand, and it's a cockpit that Maes says is a ''Pretty casual setup.''
The Force delivers 150mm of travel, and Maes has had success with an air-sprung shock.
At just a hair under 160lb, Martin is on the relatively light and lanky side of the field compared to guys like Rude, and his suspension setup reflects this despite him being one of the most aggressive guys out there. Up front, he's got his Fox 36 pumped up to 77 PSI and has fitted just a single bottom-out token. ''I'm pretty in the middle; nothing extreme, but I couldn't tell you how many clicks,'' Maes replied when quizzed on his damper preferences.
''Coming from Whistler to Ainsa [the previous EWS stop], we adapted it a bit in terms of compression and rebound because, you know Whistler, it's so steep. So we had to change the low-speed compression, but that's pretty much the only change we've made since Whistler.'' So a relatively linear and normal setup for the fork, and 172.5 psi in the Float X2 shock.
Finale Ligure has all the rocks, so it's no surprise to see that Maes has gone with full-on Super Gravity tire casings again, and there's a CushCore insert in the rear that apparently kept him rolling last weekend in Ainsa: ''That CushCore actually saved my weekend. There was a pretty big dent on the back wheel, and without it, I think that would have been the end.'' Pressure sits at 23.9 PSI up front and 26.8 PSI in the rear.
The Belgian's wheel setup is all about reliability, with Super Gravity casing tires from Schwalbe, a CushCore out back, and pliable aluminum rims that can be worked back into shape if things go south.
And speaking of wheels, how does the Belgian feel about big hoops? ''I'm interested, for sure. We've had a chance to try a 29er, but I don't think, and I don't believe, that it makes me faster. There is obviously the positive and the negative but in the end I kind of feel like I'm an aggressive rider on track, almost to the point that when I was riding a 29er, it's like I had too much grip. It was harder to reach the limit, or if I was reaching the limit, it was too late and I was down.''
''So I don't think a 29er would make me faster overall after a weekend of racing, but maybe on some stages. But maybe I'd lose time on other stages and in the end. So I'm not convinced or 100-percent sure, and I'm sure that you don't need a 29er to win races.''
Maes poses with his GT Fury downhill sled that he raced to victory at a muddy La Bresse.
Okay, but what about in World Cup downhill, a place where Maes just won on small wheels? We've seen many show up with new 29er DH rigs this season, and some of them have gone back to 27.5'' wheels, too. Some never left. ''I don't think it makes any difference in downhill,'' he replied. ''It's all about how you adapt to the wheel size and, obviously, if you stick to it, you're going to adapt at some point to the bike and not even think about it. Not going back and forth, that's key to making you go faster.'' I guess he would know, eh?
Foot out in the mud on the big bikes in France. Dave Trumpore photo.
With his World Cup downhill win in La Bresse, it might come as a surprise to learn that Maes was actually quite nervous before racing the big bike at the highest level again. ''I was scared of the downhill races because I don't want to take that much risk, but actually, I realized afterward that you're not taking much more risk than in enduro because you know where you're going,'' he said of the two related but also very different niche gravity sports.
''In enduro, you go so fast for such a long time, and you don't actually know where you're going because you only have one practice run. I feel like you learn so much while riding and racing enduro because you constantly have to adapt your speed, to your bike, and to the conditions. It's been very interesting.''
GT stepped away from their novel but sometimes troublesome AOS suspension layout and its floating bottom bracket for a much more conventional design. It's looking like that was the right call, too.
Maes went on to take a second at the downhill World Champs in Lenzerheide, an agonizingly close +0.213 behind eventual winner Loic Bruni, thereby easily making him the most successful male part-time downhiller out there. Some of that success might come from his enduro history, he believes: ''I feel like you're learning from riding enduro and going to downhill because you actually ride for a long time over the weekend, and on all sorts of terrain. I don't feel like I learned so much doing those two downhill races. It's always the same track, and in the end, it's how far you're going to push your bike on race day, and how good you'll be able to hit the lines. So I was actually kind of struggling in Ainsa because I was like, 'Oh God, do I need to go faster to be on the pace again, or do I have to slow down? What should I do?' And I was a bit lost.''
A "lost" Martin Maes ended up just 7.9 seconds and one position behind eventual winner Richie Rude. Have you ever been so lost that you finish second at an EWS race? Me neither.