The Black Earth Convention

Mountain Biking Magazine



The Black Earth Convention

Bike designer, travel agent, track builder and event organiser assemble for a couple of days of wisdom and mockery


Words by Steve Jones. Photos by Steve Jones

Having spent the best part of Sunday morning nursing two dozen Kronenbourg through a precipitous canyon north of Nice, we spilled out into the high plains of Digne Les Bains curiously out of shape. Wrestling a ‘c–t of bags’ from the remote platform it soon became very clear that the town (population of about 20,000) had decided to go out for the day.

Afternoon slipped into evening, which through natural selection, skidded into calculated confusion. There was no way it could have possibly ended any other way without some kind of sin binning. Red or yellow cards would be the order of the evening…the week.

By the time ‘Messrs’ Richards, Oxley and Smith arrived in the village, which is one of the layovers at Transprovence (the ultimate multi–stage enduro race/event), at lord knows what time, we’d started experimenting with the local reds, a model stupidly assumed by the latecomers to be of cheap variety. I can but recollect only brief moments of what exactly happened past nightfall, but a UN delegate being marched out springs to mind.

At a 1m gauge the railway between Nice and Digne is a 151km, four–hour journey. On the outward leg of our trip we’d slipped into a six an hour tempo with our incumbent crate (like I said, calculated), with local cheeses and saucisson to line the gut. By way of countless mini stops along the Var river, the ride is an adventure, the stops small, personal and ancient. It takes you to places inaccessible by car, a savage valley – Puget Theniers, Entrevaux to name a few villages.

The aim of the trip had been to sample some Transprovence delights, section a few tracks, take in some missing beads that cannot be included in TP due to them being directionally back to front (so to speak). Hitting Digne black earth sections early doors we proceeded to Sospel, a date with the great Nico Vouilloz (10 time DH World Champion), another night out. But that was after the team had discovered…well…each other for starters. Four self–made mountainbike businessmen all with tales to tell of the varied angles and places to where two wheels have taken them.


Bike designer Hebden Bridge, UK

I think maybe my mum has had the most influence on my career. Certainly starting out, as when I was about 13, she worked in a church charity shop and brought me home a load of bike magazines, which I read from cover to cover, and learnt lots of technical stuff. She then rang up the bike shop I used to go to a lot and got me a job there – something she only came clean about quite recently.

Working in magazines was an amazing way to get into the industry. I worked on MBUK, launched MBR magazine, BikeMagic, and the lad’s mag Front. The expenses accounts were amazing – I used to ship my washing home by FedEx and get a taxi home from the station for my dog, so I could go to the pub.

Working customer direct with On–One, Titus and Planet X is a great way to stay in close contact with the customers. I really enjoy the pace of development, the less links in the chain, the way we can get our message across clearly and also offer crazy value because of less people taking a slice.

Taiwan and China are amazing places when you meet the right people. There are some infuriating meetings, where culturally you just can’t click and things don’t work right. Then some meetings just flow, with them having an expertise that we can’t match, but us complementing them perfectly. Those are the best.

I can’t use Solidworks, or Pro–E, or any 3D CAD package. I work on a very basic 2D CAD drafting package, then wave my arms about and point at things, and get factory drafts–people to do the drawings. We then test, test and test on machines, on the trail. It’s worked for revisions; it’s worked for ‘ground up’ stuff. I would love to learn 3D but fear it would be a complete time–suck.

I don’t think I’ve ever asked for feedback on a future design, a “would you like this?” There’s a Henry Ford quote, “if we asked people what they wanted, they would have said a faster horse”. We go off what we ride, what we think. Clearly other brands do influence stuff, but it’s seeing little trends and then thinking about them that shapes the direction we’re going.

I really want to hate 650B more than I do right now, but it’s sort of growing on me. What’s really holding things back are forks. I keep hearing how it makes sense in the trail bike class, but still the only RockShox fork you can get is a Revelation. It needs either a Lyrik, or a mid–platform Fox 34mm model. But then 29” will get the same, and frankly I’m not sure what the point is then. For the same standover height, I’d rather take the bigger wheels and a bit less travel.

I’ve got a bronze medal from the Kamikaze at Mammoth Mountain. But it was in the 25–29 Beginners Class. I ended up there on a trip with MBR magazine and as I wasn’t downhill racing in the UK they said I was in the beginners class. I raced with no gloves (left them at the bottom), on a Proflex Animal with a 42t chainring. I talked to JMC in my head all the way down.>>



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