Taken to the level
of professional sport, it costs a lot of money to go racing - especially so if your chosen sport happens to require wheels, gears, brakes and suspension. Cubic dollars alone, however, are no guarantee of success. Unless you can score a factory ride, chances are almost certain that you will be racing against riders who have access to one-off prototypes and technology that will not be available to you.
SRAM's second-gen Black Box Program DH rear derailleur was spotted by Fraser Britton in the Specialized pits.
"Factory" support is the Holy Grail for motorsport racing and increasingly so for mountain bike competition, because those lucky enough to score a ride can exploit technical advantages that are still in the development stages, and that are not yet scheduled for, or may never reach production. The oft-quoted statement that technology developed by factory race teams trickles down to the common man is only partially true. Race development is all about secrecy. Many innovations used to win races will never see the bike shop because they are either are deemed impractical or too costly to produce - but they did win races.
The one-off DH racing bike, manufactured by hand in Devinci's Chicoutimi, Quebec, factory for Steve Smith. It was designed to use 650B wheels and a prototype 650B-compatible RockShox BoXXer fork. The geometry and suspension was tuned specifically for one event: the pedally 2013 World Cup track at Pietermaritzburg, South Africa.
The period when all mountain bike racers competed on a level playing field upon bikes that were more or less the same items that could be purchased at their local bike shops is a stretch now. Scott's Team Swisspower has dominated the XC World Cup for a half a decade using hand-made tubular tires and it is no secret that two carbon frames that came from the same mold could have been built to virtually any weight and strength combination and look like twins. The suspension game has been heavily manipulated by factory teams with RockShox and Fox both fielding no-can-have forks and shocks. Bike makers' chassis improvements can be obvious, like a new linkage configuration - or invisible, like special-offset fork crowns and geometry changes. Less dramatic perhaps, but arguably important, are the not-quite-ready-for-sale drivetrains that the anointed ones get to use on race day. While podiums and championships are still being won by racers using stock equipment that is available to privateers, the fact remains that the exclusive availability of one-off bikes and hardware to factory-sponsored teams is an unfair advantage.
Fox technician Justin Frey working over Aaron Gwin's new RAD 40 fork prototype during his dominant 2012 season. The revolutionary air-sprung system would remain a guarded secret that year.
|Who cares if privateer and corporate teams get stuck with last year's technology if it the practice ultimately results in better bikes and parts for the rest of us?|
Deep inside, the unfairness of factory support is something that most of us actually relish. Feature articles and secret sightings of one-off prototypes seen at the races, or in race testing, score huge numbers on Pinkbike. The fact that many innovations that evolve from race shops actually do trickle down to production gives us hope that some day we will have a chance to lay down our credit cards and experience their performance first hand. The argument in favor of cutting bike makers and component companies loose to develop anything they want for racing purposes is compelling, not just for the promise of better bikes for the common rider, but also for the raw excitement that it injects into the sport. Who cares if privateer and corporate teams get stuck with last year's technology if it the practice ultimately results in better bikes and parts for the rest of us?
- Suspended Productions photo
|The cliche' that racing improves the breed may be true, but it could be strongly argued that the production rule has done a much better job of bringing race technology to motorsports.|
I would, if I were a handful of seconds off the podium on the World Cup circuit and being routinely crushed by racers who had access to better equipment - which begs the question: Could a few changes in the sporting regulations provide a more fair arena for all competitors? Many forms of motor racing enforce a "production rule" that requires competitors to use vehicles and engines that are in serial production. To qualify, the engine and the vehicle can be a prototype or a pre-production item, but it must be produced and sold in specific numbers of units before those items are legally allowed in competition. Some forms of racing require the vehicle to be based upon a showroom stock model. Motocross has been using that model since the early 1980s. World Rally competitors must run production based engines and cars. The reasoning is to keep the playing field as even as practical and more importantly, to enable racing teams to compete directly with those who are sponsored by manufactures. The direct results of production regulations is that non-factory teams can and do win races and championships. The benefits to rank and file racers, however, may be far more reaching.
Nico Lau piloting his prototype Fox Factory 34 RAD fork to third place in the Lake Garda enduro. Major bike brands and suspension makers are preparing teams for an assault on enduro for the 2014 season. With an emphasis on light weight, pedaling efficiency and downhill descending skills, we expect to see a lot of one-off designs and factory-only innovations.
Compare a motocross bike with a DH bike and it should be obvious that the motorcycle racer gets a lot more for the same money. It's embarrassing to me that the motorcycle manufactures can somehow manage to stuff a five valve, fuel-injected engine into the deal. Production rules force manufacturers to fast-track technology into their production race bikes. The evidence is beyond compelling. If suspension makers had to make 200 prototype forks or shocks and make them available to privateers before they could use them in competition, it could be a game changer. Same goes for tire makers and bike companies who plan to release a different chassis. The model could definitely benefit DH racing, but enduro is where the production rule could be most beneficial, as those events are becoming more widely attended by privateer racers who will soon be facing a hotly contested battle between factory teams. The cliche' that racing improves the breed may be true, but it could be strongly argued that the production rule has done a much better job of bringing race technology to motorsports. Perhaps the bike industry could learn a lesson here.