Are we seeing a true reflection of the fastest riders?
On the 29" wheel Santa Cruz V10, Greg Minnaar reaches a milestone not only in his own career but in the evolution of the downhill mountain bike. But as much as many are making a meal of the performance gains on such wheel size on which teams including the Syndicate, Trek, Commencal and Intense have taken advantage of, Fort William proved emphatically that it was in a dirty, technical root section that the race was largely won and lost.
From this we learn that the bitching might be better aimed at track technicality than wheel size, an arms race in which many have been caught napping. Bikes are evolving but not the tracks it seems. Loic Bruni has been very vocal that his dislike of 29" wheels is that it makes things easier and not loose and cool to watch, and also that it is largely because we are not providing the challenge for the wheel size. Loic and many riders say "the tracks are getting easier, it's not the direction I want the sport to go in." It's true if tracks had more of that middle section Fort than the ‘cross country’ and ‘motorway’ lower sections then the discussions would be about pure riding rather than equipment. Technical steep terrain would bring strategy into racing where teams would have decide on wheel size rather than get psyched out by the current state of affairs where the bigger wheels are at a clear advantage.
Now it's highly likely 29" wheels will win on a steep technical track like Val Di Sole too but there seems to be a movement at World Cup level towards straighter tracks in the open as opposed to steep, technical terrain simply to make easier tv coverage and to set up closer race times. The arse over the back conclusion to Andorra will be interesting nonetheless.
Still, the fact that some brands have made a break to the faster wheels has led to the question of whether we are actually seeing the fastest racers on the podium or the advantage of the wheel coming through?
The answer to this question is incredibly complex and one that has raised its head many times in downhill’s very short history. From the progression from hardtails to full suspension, from four inches to six, from six to eight there has always been technological advantage for the chosen few. The only logical conclusion to the “unfair advantage" claims would be to standardise all bikes, and seeing as we don’t have that if you really want to know who the fastest rider on the hill is then we’d all have to run the same equipment.
Remember what we are seeing is simply a replica of what happened in 2014 when we swapped from 26" to 27.5". It could well be that we have had three years of wasted opportunity. And if we’re really being critical then downhill brands have been missing a trick for almost a decade. That Trek and Intense, the pioneers of downhill did not bring 29 to racing sooner was probably more down to peer pressure than anything else.
Loic Bruni is one certainly not bowing to peer pressure and is of the opinion that by moving to 29" wheels the skill level doesn’t improve simply the speed. He holds tight to a romantic idea that we can keep 27.5 for just a bit longer but ultimately he needs to deliver. Gwin is clearly eager to get rolling on bigger wheels but has proved he can compete with what he has, whilst Brosnan is living in hope he’ll get one someday soon. What is not known is what the pace of these three riders will be on bigger wheels.
“Unfair advantage" is a gigantically complicated charge. It could be argued that Bruni has an advantage in that he runs Ohlins, or the fact that Gwin runs a flat tyre defender system and lives in a dry climate that enable him to train all year. On the flip side you could argue that Minnaar has actually been at a disadvantage for many years of his career. That Greg now rides on a bike that fits him (something he vehemently disagreed with only five years ago) could well enable him to put the icing on an incredible career.
Advantage? Without doubt. Certainly on the current race circuit. The bottom line is some brands should simply have been more forward thinking. But we’ve been here before as recently as 2014. Back in the 1990’s it was widely regarded that the Sunn team had a huge technological advantage. The iconic Intense M1 was a machine that was widely recognised as having more travel and therefore improved performance. There was huge talk around the Honda RN01 and the Showa damping. Indeed Greg made a winning debut on that bike on this same hill in 2004. Thirteen years later Greg continues to dominate. There’s no argument. More than this, the best will still be at the top regardless.
There are many, including Ben Reid who believe that big wheels suit bigger riders, and it is those who will benefit most. I guess the counter to that is that taller riders have undoubtedly been at a disadvantage for many years. He also thinks that the image of 26" wheels getting rowdy in tight, steep terrain is better. However 29" wheels will, if the organisers decide, be able to go through much more technical terrain at higher speeds.
From my own experience of riding 29" wheel downhill bikes I can only say I was scared. And by that I mean scared at the potential of the bikes in rocks, roots, cambers. I think we are possibly seeing day one of a new era here but it will take the vision of track builders to take progression to the next level. I certainly felt more comfortable on the smaller 27.5" wheels knowing full well the level of rider needed to push a 29" bike to its limit. Im not entirely sure the riders know the capabilities yet.
Are we seeing a true representation of the worlds fastest racers? It will be more clear if/when Bruni, Brosnan and Gwin adopt but even then there will never be equality. Never has been, and unlikely there ever will be. What we are seeing here is simply the development of a very young sport. More than this some bikes are simply faster than others regardless of wheel size. It makes for a compelling year.
Related article from 2011