So what makes a bike fast? The rider...? The suspension...? The tyres…?
We embarked on a bit of a test to find out how two of the best bikes currently available matched up against the British designed Empire AP-1.Read on to find out more
Alasdair MacLennan Pics:
You know how it is; your plans were looking solid, with parts turning up at least a day in advance of them actually being needed, and everyone being available when they should. The forks and miscellaneous bits had turned up on the Thursday, the shocks from Mojo on the Friday and everything was building up neatly. Then on Friday evening, having successfully managed to build several working bikes from a box of bits in the corner, the weather forecaster seems to be advising that it may not be a great weekend for riding. In fact, you’d probably be best hibernating, or at best stay in bed for the next few days. Deep snow isn’t a problem if you live in certain parts of the world, and if you like a couple of skis bolted to your feet then it’s positively brilliant. However, in the UK, when you get anything more than a light dusting, things grind to a halt and drivers generally seek out the nearest tree to crash into. So with 6” dumping overnight in many places on top of what was already there, things were going to be interesting. Still, what’s the worst that could happen?
As it happened, quite a lot. With our intended choice of test track being knee deep in snow by the time we had all slid our way to the rendezvous, any chance of meaningful testing being done had already gone out the window. So a day of playing with snow berms it was, with another date needing to be found for the real riding.
That aside, what is this all about? Well, firstly, it’s about testing some downhill bikes to see what they’re capable of. Secondly, it’s an opportunity to draw some comparisons across what are arguably two of the best bikes currently on the market; the Iron Horse Sunday (World Championship winner), and the Santa Cruz V10 mk3 (World Cup series winner). Also there in the fold is the prime focus of the test, the innovative Empire AP-1
. As with anything new and so different to what has gone before in the sport, the Empire has been subjected to Chinese whispers and many questions, in most cases leading to some very wrong answers and rumors aplenty. All go about their business in very different ways but with the same ultimate goal; to be the best performing, fastest bike on the hill. By comparing these bikes, the prime focus is to use objective measures rather than the more usual subjection & conjecture, and therefore allow you to better understand the relative performance of each.
Obviously the technical side of things is important as that is what makes a bike what it is, from its ride to its longevity and its aesthetics, all of which are important considerations. However, what is at the forefront of most riders minds, and certainly racers, when looking for a new bike is a simple question of ‘will it be fast?’, ‘will it help my riding?’ and ‘will I enjoy riding it?’. As an object of desire, the Empire is certainly an interesting bike, and based on past experience, a fun bike to ride. But that is not enough to be able to recommend it over another, other than perhaps to say that it inspires you to hit something bigger than you would with another bike. No, we need something more concrete and that is where the aforementioned Santa Cruz and Iron Horse came in as benchmarks. Having been proven at the highest level, they are at the top of many riders wish lists and it was because of this that we felt it important to use them against which to test the upstart. On a sub level, that they happened to incorporate two massively hyped technologies of the moment in the shape of VPP & DW linkages made things even more interesting. More so when they were being used to judge what some would consider a ‘lowly single pivot’ as one observer was keen to point out.
So what was the plan
? The original intention was to take one test track (1m30s), two riders, three bikes with similar setups and two sets of Freelap timing gear to give four sector times on that short track. However, with that original track under so much snow, our backup was put into place and we’ll describe that later. Key for us was fairness and so it was that all three bikes were built as close to a standard spec as possible. That amounted to Boxxers fitted up front on all three bikes; Team spec on the Empire & V10, World Cup on the Sunday. DHX5’s all round and High rollers front and rear across the three bikes. Boxxers were chosen as the stock fork for a couple of reasons, firstly because they were easy for us to lay our hands on (two of the bikes were already built up with them) and secondly, they are a common fork that many riders have experience of and continue to use. Yes, they are about to be replaced but that doesn’t come into it here. Consistency does, and on that front, they fitted the bill perfectly. The High Rollers were chosen as the control tyre so that any element of one tyre being better suited to the conditions was removed. The High Roller isn’t high on either of our list of likes but they are a good all rounder, common and so it was that six were duly fitted to wheels.
Lastly we have the shock. The DHX is a common beast too. Not necessarily the ultimate performer, it has the advantage of simple adjusters that make it quick and easy to optimize its performance and is something that the majority of riders can relate to. That it comes as the stock unit on both the V10 and the Sunday whilst the Empire has the option of this as well as a number of higher end units kept things level. The Sunday obviously has its own tune from the Iron Horse factory, as does the V10 from Santa Cruz, whilst the Empire has a shock which has been tuned by the highly regarded UK based Mojo. What we actually tested here was the heavier damped shock of two which had been provided but more of that later. The general theory here was to remove as many variables as possible, leaving just the interaction between the chassis and the rider with the trail on the day to be considered (in theory). As we each had our preferred style of flat pedal, we swapped these between bikes and also altered the brakes to suit; something easily achieved with the new Hope Tech levers and Avid Juicy Carbons fitted with both their bite and reach adjusters.
As for the track, with the original full test track being out of action, we settled on a shorter section cut from another existing trail. Whilst not quite as wide ranging as what we had originally planned, we marked it to encompass as broad a scope of terrain as possible and ended up with what’s described below. We both walked the track and marked out the preferred lines which we felt would test each bike well. In the main, we kept quite a specific and narrow trail so that we were comparing bikes and not our evolving line choices. The object of this was to create consistency between riders and runs and therefore allow a valid comparison between run times for each bike. The course itself had a mixture of tight lines, off camber, greasy turns, rocks and roots as well as some straights to test the bikes ability to sprint and snap out of tight corners.
The start itself was a good test of traction off the line by being pretty flat, soft and with slippery pine roots crossing the track between this and the first corner, a right handed bus stop. That took you up to the right across more roots before a hard left around a fallen tree with a fast, drifty right handed exit which dropped you back onto the greasy link trail. Limiting how far you could hold a drift on this for was a rather large and certainly rather immovable tree which seemed to be almost baiting you into making a mistake. A quick sprint to the next corner tested how quickly you could be back on the gas, and how well the bike responded to this. Corner two was a hard left hander. Either stay low and hit corner at approx 90 degrees or go high over roots and use the Pro line which opens up the corner and allows more speed to be carried although this gives rise to more risk of blowing the exit. A compromise is to hit the roots at mid height which still opens out the corner massively whilst reducing the risk of losing the speed you’ve gained by slipping out on the roots over the exit.
Corner three was a greasy right hander which had a fair bit of gradient to it and 2ft drop mid run in. On this, the bike drifts wide on exit over embedded rocks before dropping you down onto a bridleway with a small catch berm on the far side of the track. From here you then hauled the bike across the braking bumps littering the track before corner 4; a fast and banked 135 degree left hander. Get it right and you could hold the bike into a deep rut which carries the bike through like it’s on rails but if the bike wasn’t performing, getting the rut in the first place was a challenge as the rocks and roots fought to unsettle the bike. However, with a smooth exit, you could get back on the gas quickly to maximize the sling that the bank allowed. A 25m straight follows with only mild gradient so the speed out of this corner was crucial. Corners five and six were a fast sequence over greasy rocks and roots with a mild compression into the first left hander which threw you at speed over the rocks, stumps and roots before you hit the brakes and tipped the bike hard into the tight right hander and over a small drop. This would prove a challenge with its greasy, off camber landing which led you neatly into the next sequence if you were to get it right. The final section comprised what we labeled corners seven and eight; an off camber left hand turn, which took you over a small slab of rock and into a right hander where, if the bike was working well, you could take the corner tight and get a straighter line through some rocks to the finish or, if it wasn’t, go a little wider and drift round the rocks. All in we assumed it would be approximately 40 seconds or so and times which started at 39 seconds and dropped to 35 or so after some practice hinted that we were reasonably accurate with this.
We decided for fairness that we would do two shake down runs on each bike to get used to the feel and get the setup dialed, with a further five runs in which to set our best times. So twenty one runs for each rider and ten times set for each bike; there was plenty of scope for generating some interesting results and conclusions. Keep your eyes peeled for the next installment...