After months of speculating we finally saw the latest Intense prototype break cover at the Tennessee National DH a few weeks ago, but with details thin on the ground we reached out to its creator Jeff Steber to find out more.
The new bike is really interesting, can you tell us how you got to the new bike's design?
We actually made a conscious decision probably mid World Cup season, last season 2021, that we wanted to shift direction on the bike that we were developing with the team. In true Intense style, the style that put us on the map in the first place, it's like 'hey we have really got to use this race program to develop new products and technologies at the highest level'. It's what we used to do and it's been a long journey in between there. In recent years I have kind of had to switch my focus to getting the business in order, now we have a solid foundation for that I'm able to turn my focus a little bit back onto racing and the future of Intense and everything that goes along with it.
So I was able to wipe the slate clean and take on a kind of 'learn it all' attitude versus a 'know it all' attitude, which I like to say these days. Part of this whole designing the next Intense downhill bike project has been a learning experience in so many ways.
So about midseason, we decided that we would do some benchmarking and at least get Aaron and Neko on the latest crop of World Cup calibre winning bikes, you can pretty easily in your mind decipher what those bikes were. In tune with how the tracks have changed,, and the new crop of young riders, how people attack racing these days, race craft, from the rider's perspective, taking all of those factors and just having a clean slate. So from that, and that started with a lot of overlap between racing where we started doing that and, I'm going to be honest, you really open up the riders' minds too. Trying different bikes out that had different characteristics, we had been kind of locked into this convention for years that we had as a brand stuck to this certain suspension platform and my philosophy had always been optimise not compromise when it comes to suspension.
Our current JS tune system works incredibly well on a shorter travel xc or trail bike but maybe a very segmented or specific bike that's designed for a World Cup caliber professional racing has very different needs. That was kind of one of the driving ideas that allowed us to expand and open our minds to 'hey let's try and experiment and do different things'.
At the same time we have never really in any focused effort brought in telemetry, for data acquisition. So that was a big part of the program now. We acquired several telemetry systems and part of the learning process was how to accurately learn to use that to analyse real-world analytical data along with the analogue approach. You really need to rely on the feedback from your riders but you need to have some real data and it has to be a balance of both. Again it's really steering us in different directions as we thought that this would condense into a much tighter timeline and it has been a much bigger project to do it right. Yeah, it is involving a lot of time and people's efforts but we are super excited about it.
That said, as part of the project we narrowed it down to two designs that we would produce and race this season. One is the first prototype that you have seen Aaron, Dak and some of the boys on, that is the simpler of the two and allowed us to really start from a function aspect where we really designed up the kinematic profile we were looking at would be ideal and then we morphed it into a prototype bike. So function probably before form even, but it's been a key part of that journey to learn. Obviously it's a high pivot idler design, it incorporates a Horst link, so right away in your mind you are saying well we are trying to optimise each of the key factors in the kinematic profile of the bike that are important for downhill racing. We're working on how you can optimise those without affecting any other of those key factors in a negative way. Mainly axle path, leverage ratio, anti rise and anti-squat, you know if you were to boil it down to key factors there are other ones but those are the ones people talk about the most, geometry and sizing and things like that aside.
So there is also another prototype and we had hoped to have had them be more parallel but just the timeline has been stretched out, that's a more complicated six-bar design. At some point during the season we will be doing side by side comparisons. We have a lot of test data now to compare and at some point one of those prototypes will be stronger and that is what we will move forward with. Granted that's not set in stone, we are open-minded enough that it could go in a different direction along the way. It's a bit of an adventure and at the same time we are learning a ton. Aaron has really opened his mind also and has kind of found new confidence in his riding style so I think we are going to see some good results with these bikes. Having Dakotah, Joe Breeden and of course Seth the riders are really responding positively to the new bike design and really getting along well with it.
Now we are on the right path but we have a ways to go.
How did you decide on the two final prototypes that you would move forward with? Does the second bike we haven't seen also run with the high pivot and idler or is it completely different?
It's a bit different but probably a little more refined and actually offers another level in isolation of the key factors in optimisation. That being said, I'm excited about both of them, the first one was the biggest learning experience and even prior to that just to get a quick jump on the whole process I had actually produced what I call a frankenbike for the guys but it really was just the bike I pieced together out of pieces and parts from the past that I had here. iIt was a very quick kind of roughly made prototype just to get the guys up and running and really to decide if this was going to be a high pivot bike or low. Then we started gathering the telemetry information we needed to make those more rational decisions.
Granted, I wish that had happened even a little sooner but you know that aside from just running a company, being a CEO of a brand and also being the main hands-on guy we have quite a team of people working on this project behind us so it's kind of a sum of the parts makes the whole. Even team IFR and the riders who are willing to be part of a program were a big part of its testing and trying things and for them to be willing to be part of that and possibly risk race results and anything like that, hats off to them.
Once upon a time, people were very comfortable with, especially downhill programs, being based around a prototype and developing a bike. You were used to seeing raw bikes and things like that. Well, you are going to see a lot of that from this program. Like I said, we are exposing ourselves in a lot of ways but that's what we do and it was a pretty tough decision to say 'hey we have been working on this bike and while it works well it is not achieving what we need to' and that's taking a lot of feedback from riders that they feel like we could do better and being open-minded enough to compare to what is working these days and the demands of what a modern-day World Cup downhill bike is and putting our minds to that. It is kind of putting yourself out there. I'm super excited about it myself and I read a lot of negative comments and things about it but you know, keep them coming, it puts more fuel on the fire. We are fired up and we want to get it back. We know it's a journey and we are not there yet but we have been there and we want to get it back and we will work hard to do that.
You said this is your first time properly using telemetry data, is that what led you to the suspension design, or did you have a design in mind that the data backed up?
Yeah, I think it started with just test riding but then just really trying to understand what is really going on in some sort of analytical approach to it. As I said analogue digital is the way I work. I'm still pretty old school in the way I do stuff. We are fortunate enough to have a lot of our management team from motorsports building top race brands in the past and they have a pretty charted history of doing that and the process is down really well. It takes a while sometimes, it's not going to happen necessarily overnight so that track record is really helped a lot and it's actually the influence from that that helped a lot with striding in this new approach and direction.
Back to the high pivot and idler setup, what were your reason for choosing this as we are seeing a lot of brands at least trying this out?
The technology has been around for a while and hats off to the French for sticking with it and proving it and really optimising it in a racing aspect. You know you are seeing some enduro bikes and maybe even some trail bikes using the technology and you know there are a lot of pros and cons. Probably in some ways more cons when you take it out of the downhill aspect. For downhill, axle path and some of these factors are so critical when racing as it is all about maintaining momentum and having a really well-balanced bike in all conditions. You can take the high pivot idler bike too far in one direction and it makes it unsettled and not actually a balanced bike. The axle path is a big part of it but it's not the only part, you know isolating brake forces and things like that are super important in downhill. There are a lot of other factors that really I think the idler then solves another issue with pedal efficiency and anti-squat and being able to have the best of all of those and optimise those.
If you look at the prototype the initial HP1 prototype that we are running, it's a pretty simple four-bar design but there is a lot of adjustability on it where the idler attachment point is there is a bracket that allows you to change the position and run different size idler wheels and alter shock progression so it is a true testbed of being able to play around with the parameters a bit.
Is the adjustability something that you have played around with a lot already?
We have baseline settings that the guys are getting started on and you know if I could do anything to the team it would be to apologise that we are a little late getting them the actual prototype race bikes. I would have loved for them to have six months on that instead of six weeks before the first World Cup. That said we are starting with baseline numbers that we feel are pretty much dialed.
Now when we have a little more time Aaron and Dak for example have been in Portugal before Lourdes and we are trying lots of things. John Hall ,who has been Aaron Gwin's long time mechanic, has also stepped up to an internal position at Intense and he is like the liaison tech director of the program and kind of communicating between IFR and our engineering/product development team at Intense. We also hired an engineer, long time industry guy, that worked as a shop designer at a lot of the top suspension brands as a ride dynamics specialist and he is working very closely with the team using telemetry, gathering information and again the goal of this is a lot of trickle-down effects too.
Are you going to see idlers on other intense models? Not necessarily, but we are learning a lot because right now it applies really well to the downhill bike but maybe not in the other segments.
It sounds like it is a good option for downhill bikes then, do you think we will see most of the other teams switch to a high pivot with an idler?
I will tell you I think there is the 'everyone's jumping on the bandwagon' kind of mentality but you can't ignore the data sometimes, especially in something where you are chasing fractions of a second. In racing as we know the pilot itself plays such a key part and then also there are some downhill bikes with some real warts or an Achilles heel so to speak but the riders do a really good job of riding it for its strength and optimising on that and that's always the mentality you have to have on that.
Obviously, we are trying to eliminate as many of those as we can in the design but there is a lot to be said for racecraft and how a racer approaches and how they gain and pick up those little seconds here and there and Aaron has a very distinct style and I will be honest with you it took a little while to really translate how can we optimise on his riding style and in a design that will really work well with that. That's part of the big equation to and bringing bike forces and kinetic energy and how that applies to forward momentum, maintaining momentum is a big factor. Historically, Aaron has always done really well on certain types of bikes and we analysed that and looked at why those designs over others, and I think it applies to a lot of downhill riders the racing style. Again what makes a race bike fast, if it pumps well you can gain seconds on the downside of every jumps or through that turn that goes into forward momentum. A bike that handles the rough sections better and pedals well enough so that if there is a long stretch I mean we are talking of gathering those thousands of seconds add up along the way across the overall downhill course.
The past few years you have had quite a few different prototypes and the current bike is quite a big change. Would you say the past designs have been a failure or is it just a continual development?
No, they were all part of the learning process, we are trying to push the limits of what a particular platform could do within a segment or travel range and I think we have had bikes that work really well, I mean Kovarik absolutely shreds on the M279 and loves that bike. Chris isn't racing World Cup caliber downhills anymore either so it's a little bit different in wants and needs. The styles and tracks have evolved there is a new crop of young racers being really aggressive and taking chances. People are training differently, yeah there are a lot of factors involved.
Honestly in the end we had to really listen to the racers and involve them. For example, Aaron and Neko over the past years have been really forthright and really some of those riders who are really good at translating that information so we were really trying hard and in the end there had to be a point where you have to open your mind to try new things and the benchmarking really helped in that respect.
Is there then a difference then between designing a bike for the average rider and for racing at the highest level?
I think there is, where a weekend warrior you know sport level downhill rider they may never achieve the limits of a World Cup caliber bike. It may be more bike than they need but that is not going to be a detriment in any way. Obviously if they tune the suspension and things to their liking and the setup that may be very different to how a World Cup racer would set theirs up. That said if it's the other way around and you design a bike that works really well for the sport level racing and maybe like you would call a really good park bike it's not necessarily going to work for the elite level World Cup racer these days. When it comes to qualifying day and they step it up that extra ten or fifteen percent that's where it really makes a huge difference.
What is the next step for the project and how do you move forward from here?
Well, basically it is just kind of managing time in between World Cups and who's going to be on what as testing continues to go on. A certain amount of that is happening behind the scenes we have a pretty good team here now and I still build all those initial race bikes. I hand build all of those here at Intense, we have a pretty good prototype shop so I can be very prolific and I can turn bikes around very quickly and make changes. We have set these up so we are able to do them in a mini production style. It's a lot of weekends, working through weekends and evenings and the dedicated team behind us and there's even people behind the scenes.
We endorse the I-Track system with Hugh, a lot of the brands out there use the linkage software to design bikes and if they are designing a high pivot bike then that I-Track watermark is going to pop up because of the collaboration there. So props out to I-Track and you know because we could have worked around that but in our investigation of it it's something that we didn't want to compromise with and you will see on the race bikes a little I-Track sticker. We are taking the high road approach with that, Hugh took a lot of time putting his time and energy into developing his patents and the technology behind them and it's a very exciting time for him and some of the work he has done over the years and we are going to acknowledge that. So there's a lot to this and we want to try and do it right and we are not going to please everyone.
Anything else you would like to add?
It has been a journey over the years and intense does have that rich racing heritage that goes way back I mean I guess you have to be a little bit older to have lived through that and a lot of the younger crop of core riders have no idea of that. We are kind of constantly reinventing ourselves a little bit and this is part of that.