The phrase "win on Sunday, sell on Monday" is a cliché for a reason. It's tempting to think that if a bike is good enough to perform at the top level, it must be a good bike. If it's winning races, it must be really
But there are a few problems with that line of argument.
For one thing, professional racers are, by definition, paid to ride a particular bike or product. When I've asked racers about the bike and setup they're riding, I think they're remarkably honest - they don't tend to repeat the marketing material or try to sell the bike they're riding - but I think it's harder to be honest with yourself if riding at the absolute limit depends on having absolute faith in your equipment. You'll occasionally hear racers talk about testing things "just to confirm" it's the best it can be, or wanting to stick with what's worked in the past rather than testing different setups with open-minded curiosity about which works best. They have a huge incentive to convince themselves
that their setup is giving them every possible advantage.
For this reason, pro racers can be quite conservative with bike choice and setup, and those who are at the top of their game are probably the most conservative - why change if it's working?
Jack Moir raced last year's bike at the first round of the 2022 EWS, then rode the new bike in a size small at round two.
A case in point would be Jack Moir. The 2021 Enduro World Series champ chose to ride his 2021 race bike for the first round this year, saying he hadn't done enough testing on the 2022 Canyon Strive
by the first round. In his vlog
, he said that he wanted to make the new bike "as close as I can to the bike I rode last year...to get a comfortable feeling on this bike for the first round," so chose to ride a size small, which has a similar wheelbase and reach to the 2021 size large. That makes sense, given he was riding so well on the old one and he didn't have long to adjust to something radically different before the season started.
But Moir's decision to ride a size small, at 185 cm or 6'1", has a lot of commenters convinced that shorter bikes are better, the trend towards longer bikes is an industry conspiracy, and we'll all be back riding smaller bikes as soon as riders stop being brainwashed and wake up to the #truth.
Well, there are a couple of problems with that. For one thing, there's no way of knowing if Jack Moir, or any other top racer, could have ridden even faster on a different bike, frame size, or setup. That's because, unlike in a scientific experiment, in racing there's no control, no way to test what would have happened if one of those variables were different. Even if someone wins a race by ten seconds, that doesn't tell you if the bike they were riding is any good; for all we know, they might have won by twenty seconds on another bike. Put another way, the race result doesn't tell you anything about the bike because different bikes are ridden by different riders.
Besides, it's not as if every racer is going toward shorter bikes. In downhill, world champ Greg Minnaar is running his V10 about as long as it will go, and even in enduro where a shorter bike is more appropriate given the tight trails and minimal practice, Moir is an outlier.
Greg Minnaar's got his V10 set up pretty lengthy, with a custom headset that adds 5.2mm in reach and slackens the head angle by half a degree, forks fully extended and chainstay in the long setting.
Of course, some professional racers arrange test sessions in the off-season to try out different frame sizes or geometries, swapping back and forth and comparing times. But mountain biking isn't like Formula 1: there are so many variables that can change from one run to the next that it's very hard to determine if one setup is "faster" than another. Besides, a new setup can take a while to get used to - Greg Minnaar
said he tried a prototype longer DH bike in the early 2000's (which was significantly shorter than modern bikes) and didn't like it at first, so went back to the even smaller bike. Similarly, it took a surprisingly long time for EWS and downhill racers to embrace 29" wheels after they became viable, considering that now they seem like the obvious choice, at least for tall riders. Or in road cycling, for decades it was taken as read that the narrowest tyres were the fastest, yet we now know that's simply false.
But even if pro racers are able to ride faster on a shorter bike, that doesn't necessarily mean the same's true for the rest of us.
For one thing, most of the top racers have been riding bikes very fast for a very long time. That means their skills and riding style have been honed, at least in part, on bikes which these days would be considered small (any bike built more than five years ago was small by today's standards). This reminds me of an episode of Mythbusters
where they were testing the theory that it was possible to swim through syrup as quickly as through water. They initially wanted to use a professional swimmer to test this but found he wasn't able to adapt his technique (which was perfectly optimised for swimming in water) to the unfamiliar fluid. Instead, they recruited an amateur swimmer who was able to swim almost as fast in the thicker liquid by adapting his technique to take advantage of having more to push against. In case you can't see where I'm going with this, I suspect that pro racers, particularly those who have been competing at a high level for a long time, are less able to adjust to a new style of geometry than those of us learning these skills from a relatively blank slate.
Also, pro riders are able to ride stiffer suspension without getting fatigued. Stiffer suspension makes the bike chassis more stable (there's less pitching and diving during braking or weight transfers) and this may reduce the benefit of a longer wheelbase. I once had the pleasure of riding Gee Atherton's enduro bike, which I believe had around a 480 mm reach and 1,280 mm wheelbase (roughly). I was able to ride it okay, but with his suspension settings it was too firm and harsh for me to do multiple laps, and with softer suspension, it felt a little unstable for my liking. Not terrible, but noticeably more prone to pitching than bikes with 1,300 mm+ wheelbase.
Not all pros are running firm suspension, as this interview with Innes Graham
illustrated, but pro riders are also far more skilled at keeping their body weight at just the right point between the wheels than the average Joe or Jill. Watching the Tweed Valley EWS from the sidelines, it was interesting to see how the fastest riders' bikes remained incredibly level through sections of intense braking or changes of gradient, while the merely "fast" riders bikes were pitching and moving more erratically. Ben Cathro discusses the skills needed to keep the bike level and settled while getting on and off the brakes in the below video. I'm not for a second saying that a longer bike is a substitute for these skills, but that a very experienced rider may be able to get away with a shorter wheelbase without feeling like the bike is pitching and unstable, while a less skilled rider may benefit more from extra stability. What's the bottom line?
To be clear, I'm not trying to convince you that you need a longer bike. I'm only arguing against the reasoning which goes: "rider X has downsized, therefore smaller bikes are better." It's just fundamentally impossible to separate the effect of the bike from that of the rider when it comes to race results - some racers may be conservative with new trends, and what works for a top athlete may be quite different to what's ideal for you or me. So try out as many different bike geometries as you can and ride whatever works best for you, or just be happy with whatever bike you've got. But don't try to justify your geometry theories or bike choices based on what your favourite racer is using.