With all the hysteria over big wheels in Lourdes last weekend, it is easy to miss the truth of DH racing: that it's the rider, not the bike. Always. So before anybody gets carried away with Loris Vergier's quali time, we need to remember that it is Loris that put the time in, not the bike. You could fire me down Lourdes on the best bicycle ever invented, but I still won't make the cut for qualifying at a World Cup…
The question is whether the bike helped him gain that advantage over Loic? It is less than 1%—0.244%, to be precise. The change in wheel size is about fighting over those final fractions of a percent that make the difference between victory and defeat. So if you're currently sitting there looking at your current 24/26/27.5 bike and wondering whether it's still relevant, the answer is simple: If you were not there in Lourdes, or unless you were supposed to be there but are sitting out injured, then it doesn't matter. The value of your bike is supposed to be how much fun you can have riding it. What happens at the World Cup shouldn't change that.
So, with that out of the way, let's take a look at those margins. To get an idea of what it takes to fight at the front of a World Cup let's take a look at the history between Greg Minnaar and Aaron Gwin at World level since 2008:
If we take the percentage time difference from those 61 races, eliminate Pietermaritzburg 2013, Leogang 2014 and Vallnord 2015 where Gwin had mechanicals leading to a time difference of 19% or more you get a median time difference over those 8 years of 2.62%. There are probably a couple more results that could get trimmed out, so the real number is probably slightly lower, but for here this rough math will do. That is to say that over 58 races the average difference between Gwin and Minnaar in their finals times is just over 2.5% of the total race time. That covers Gwin switching from Yeti, to Trek, to Specialized, and to YT. It also includes the switch to 26 to 27.5 wheels.
When you start to look at racing from that perspective, looking for a marginal gain from something like wheelsize surely becomes the logical conclusion?
Both Nico Vouilloz and Fabien Barel put the rider/bike percentage in DH at 70% rider, 30% bike, so a radical improvement in the bike is certainly something worth chasing. With the teams reluctant to talk precise numbers, we must look elsewhere for a frame of reference. Dirt's Steve Jones has probably done more on-the-clock bike testing between different bikes than anyone else in the sport and he puts the difference at around one second per minute. Going back through those eight years of races between Minnaar and Gwin, a one second per minute advantage could have changed the result in 25 of those races.
There is one time that was not discussed on the live feed during the race, and that is Greg Minnaar's race time:Greg Minnaar // 3:09.986
Bernard Kerr // 3:12.158
Brook Macdonald // 3:12.508
Troy Brosnan // 3:20.638
Remi Thirion // 3:24.339
Loic Bruni // 3:26.278
Loris Vergier // 3:29.993
Luca Shaw // 3:41.751
Danny Hart // 3:57.590
Aaron Gwin // DSQ
This needs to be taken with a pinch of salt as the conditions were changing, so unless you were there on the track, it is hard to be sure whether Brook Macdonald had the same condition track as Loris Vergier. The times and common sense would suggest not. What is clear is that Minnaar was faster than Macdonald and Kerr, who would have had a better track than him. If you saw his run on the livefeed, it was clearly a mighty effort in the conditions and a reminder of why you shouldn't count Minnaar out on any track, in any conditions. Did the big wheels help? Hard to say, but another Santa Cruz rider at the head of a group of riders is starting to look like a pattern.
What Lourdes didn't offer is any certainty. There, certainly is circumstantial evidence from both qualifying and the race that makes a compelling case that a 29er might be faster. While for most of us who are spending our hard-earned on our bikes, we want more than a possibility to switch bikes, to not expect World Cup racers to start scrabbling for 29ers is to fail to understand the circuit. Racing is won and lost in the mind as much as it is on track. While the possibility of speed is surely enticing for the racers, the possibility that someone else has an advantage they don't have is at least as powerful. It would be foolish to expect them not to chase that.
One myth that does need to be popped is one that was repeated on the live broadcast a few times this weekend—that a 29er won't work on a tight, twisty track. If we cast our eyes over to the EWS, it is fair to say that this idea can be dispelled quite easily. Tracy Moseley dominated on a 29er from day one of the EWS. Justin Leov won in Scotland, Greg Callaghan in Ireland—two of the tightest courses on the circuit. At the end of the day, anyone who has spent time on the latest generation of 29-inch trail bikes will tell you, with the right geometry and suspension, they can at the very least hold their own on any terrain, and be significantly faster in a lot of situations. What has happened in the last few years is that 29ers have polished their positives and worked hard to reduce, and maybe even eliminate, those negative traits many of the early bikes showed.
It is clear that Trek have a 29er en-route. If they are confident enough to show it off to the media, they surely have made certain their riders have been putting the laps in on board the bike. The smart money says they won't be the only ones upping the wheelsize before the season is done, with Mondraker at the head of that list. Maybe the other teams were saving it up their sleeve for Fort William—a track that would appear to suit a bike that can roll faster and through bigger holes, or maybe they were still working to get the bike or components right. If that plan had worked out, then maybe 29ers were planned as special track bikes, another weapon in the arsenal. What Santa Cruz did was beat everyone to the punch, on a track where maybe the conventional wisdom stated that a 29er was not so much of an advantage. The fact that they put down the times they did there has only upped the stakes and the path to 29-inch wheels becoming a regular sight at World Cup DH has been started. The only real question left is how far will it all go? If 29 becomes the norm in DH, surely that is a step towards a single wheelsize in mountain biking once more? Something maybe the sport needs with the ongoing proliferation of sizes and standards.
But, for anyone pulling their hair out in frustration, just remember that Richie Rude has won the EWS on a 27.5 for the last two seasons running, even as larger wheels have proliferated in the field. It all comes back to that one, crucial point: It's all about the rider, not the bike.