A few years ago, downhill bike design was converging on a cut and paste blueprint and it's no surprise the 'looks like a Session' meme was born. Now, with the advent of 29 inch wheels and resurgence of high pivot designs, that no longer feels like a fair criticism. Downhill is a hotbed of fresh ideas.
What the big guys are doing, the little guys often are too. We thought we'd take this opportunity to shine some light on a couple of European, under-the-radar bike designers pumping out some fresh and unique downhill bike ideas.
One of Maciej's early designs, constructed at Kajak Customs.
Dark Owl - Polish Steel
Maciej Trojnar is the son of an engineer and a pretty much self-taught bike designer. He remembers first sneaking into his father's room to admire technical drawings and later teaching himself 3D software and FEA methods without the help of the internet or videos. He knew from his days as an engineering student that he wanted to design bikes. His first single-pivot frame was made with Kajak Customs. Since then, he's been refining the design, aiming for lighter and faster each time.
Dark Owl came about in 2017 and the team undertook two years of prototyping and testing on a new downhill design. They only work with companies from the either United States or Europe, and their long-term goal is to make everything in-house and to support small businesses and local vendors. The production bike is made from high quality 4130 steel that is sourced from the US and Germany. Dark Owl believe steel is, "a great balance between stiffness, strength and durability," but they also say they prefer using a material that will bend, not break, and claim that a dent will be less likely to morph into a break-point on a steel bike, which will seriously help if you're not a new bike per season kind of customer.
The 205mm metal machine has a reach of 455mm in large and a 63° head angle. It uses Maciej's own suspension design that he claims combines all the benefits of a high pivot design and virtual pivot suspension - you get the descending capabilities of high pivots without the wallowy pedaling.
It has been a tumultuous few months for Dark Owl, who went from opening up to pre-orders, back to design and development when a few creative differences split the team in two. As original designer and creator of the brand, Maciej will be ploughing on regardless and building up from his original prototypes to create a new bike plus an enduro bike.
The bike pictured cost €2,399 with custom reach and stack, a CCDB air or coil shock, and a Mozartt Presto chainguide. Future models are expected to cost less as they will have fewer CNC-machined parts.
Nino Dusak, a former pro downhill racer, is the man responsible for Hardcore Industry. He leads a five man team that includes World Cup racer Jan Ciperman, as well as, two carbon and composite specialists. He's decided to go his own way and produce carbon frames in Croatia, rather than shipping the work out to Taiwan like most others. I first clocked his bike at the Losinj bike last year and it looked super-smooth through the bottom woods. Now, as he continues into 2019, he's looking for some investors and preparing to bring Hardcore Industry to the masses.
The bike is made using carbon simply because his team know more about it than aluminium. They are apparently bringing over carbon techniques from shipbuilding and stress analysis procedures from aircraft technology, then combining them all together for mountain bikes in Croatia.
The front triangle is made from just three pieces of carbon, which apparently makes it stiffer. Hardcore have also designed their own '50/50' linkage system that is claimed to be a floating suspension with no pedal kickback, making the bike ride smoother and more manageable. They wouldn't give us too much info on the geometry front except for a 62° head angle and 1276mm wheelbase in size large.
After two years of development, Hardcore are ready to put the bikes on sale and take on the World Cup circuit - starting in Maribor. They have a new frame designed, which is expected to be available for pre-orders soon, and an enduro frame is also in the pipeline for 2020. They are now looking for an investor to help bring their dream to life.
The frame will cost €4,600 but the first 15 can be to pre-ordered for €4,000.
The next step: a production ready model for Hardcore Industries.
Vulcain bikes first started late in 2017 and they brought their first realised prototype to the Brioude DH Cup in February this year. It's another steel framed DH bike, but this time made from good old Reynolds 853 tubes with a machined aluminum rocker. The bike is the brainchild of Julien Verbicaro, a former World Cup junior racer who went off to study Mechanical Design and is now starting his own bike company at the age of 25.
Julien has spent the past two years designing the frame and building a workshop in Auvergne to launch his vision. He says: "For the kinematics, the frame becomes super sensitive on small bumps and gives speed, thanks to the rear wheel moving back during the first 100 millimeters of the stroke. After that, the rear wheel comes back to stabilize the bike on big jumps. For geek stats, the ratio is progressive, as it starts at 3.45 and finishes at 2.24. Anti-squat is 120 percent at sag and anti-rise stays between 55 and 65 percent throughout the travel."
The bike fits 27.5" wheels and has 200mm of travel. Some other key numbers are a 63.5° head angle and 438mm chainstays. This steel frame weighs in at 4.15kg (9lbs) or 17.7kg (39lb) built up.
Next on Julien's list are a few tweaks before sending it off to a test lab to meet standards. By the end of the summer, he is hoping to offer made to measure, boutique bikes for all, then he will start working on an enduro bike and is even looking to launch a race team.
Prices aren't confirmed yet, but are expected to be between €3,200 and €3,500.