Aaron Gwin – Chainless – How did he do it?
Instinct rather than theory enabled Gwin to win Leogang, but as Steve Jones finds out ‘feeling’ can often be an unreliable creature.
The world cup downhill finish arena is no stranger to excuse, a graveyard for dead and buried runs, a breeding ground for cases of the defence. 2015 is proving every bit as exciting as last season with a clutch of new riders getting first time podiums, whilst for others small mistakes are wreaking havoc on confidences and points. Ambitions of accuracy some way off, even with a chain.
Gwin was in a cut-throat mood, and would have won by even more with chain, yet as soon as one of his key methods of drive was removed maybe fear gripped him for about a hundredth of a second before fight or flight kicked in. In truth Gwin probably engaged both into this astonishing run. Except you cannot power pedal your way out of problem, this required something more refined, something more sophisticated that a stand up pedal act into a head on wind. But what factors contributed to his win?
Let’s begin by taking a look at the Specialized Demo and how it actually performs with and without a chain.
There have been many comments that the Specialized Demo is quicker without a chain. We gathered some field observations and timed runs on the bike chained and unchained to get an idea of what he was dealing with.
Gwin’s history with the Demo is mixed but he certainly seems to have adapted well to the shape and timing of the bike this season after a shaky start with the older bike. It appears that Gwin is running pretty firm settings on the Fox dampers looking at slo-mo from different tracks which will certainly enable him to milk the terrain for all its speed without having to engage in too much pedalling. Gwin certainly seems to be more of a ground pumper than a pedaller. But more than this he is a clever, calculated racer, one of the best there has ever been, and knows exactly how to apply a race strategy.
How do the characteristics of the Demo change without a chain?
There’s a ton of theory around this subject and the basis for a huge number of suspension designs. In simplistic form chain growth will have an affect on the amount of feedback a rider will feel through the crankset, the amount of which varies from bike to bike. Chain tension is actually factored in as an integral part of some bikes so it depends on each particular bike. Ultimately what it leads to is a tug of war between the suspension and drivetrain which in turn can have an unsettling effect on the ride dynamic, and possibly the fatigue a rider might feel due to pedal feedback. Chain or chainless will affect different bikes to different degrees. In theory the Demo doesn’t get affected by chain growth too much but it will be interesting to see how chain tension, chain ring and sprocket sizes affect the ride characteristics.
The Specialized Demo Tested – Chained vs Unchained Report
We took one production Specialized Demo and conducted timed runs on different tracks with several riders. Times were our primary interest but so to were the feelings that were recorded on different set ups.
– One of the first noticeable effects of riding the Demo chainless was the amount of free body movement of offer when switching from one side to another on the bike. Weight shifts certainly feel lighter and simpler without the chain and its not only side to side changes which are affected but forward and rearward weight shifting appears to be more sensitive. This can be put primarily down to the weightless/tension free drivetrain.
– Secondly, and something consistently felt amongst all the testers was that the Demo definitely feels faster with the chain mounted. This could be down to increased body movement through pedalling, leading to a more hectic ride and one where braking-pedalling becomes the instinctive rider characteristic. Muscle memory will have an effect here but what was noticeable was that some riders pedalled too hard in some sections leading to poor or unnecessary braking habits. Another possibility is there is more feedback through the feet and legs with the chain mounted giving a heightened sense of movement. Feeling faster yet having slower or similar times was something we got used to when testing different wheel sizes hence the need to be absolutely sure with the clock before making conclusions.
– Different gradients will effect different needs on the system as you move down the hill. On flatter, slower ground having some degree of tension in the suspension/drivetrain system does seem to offer more drive when pumping the terrain and on some occasions we found exit speeds slightly quicker on flatter tracks (yet not pedalling) with the chain mounted. Its totally dependent on the shape of the terrain however. On steeper terrain the suspension certainly works differently, and arguably better. There is improved sensitivity and damper performance which in turn leads to better grip. On faster steeper ground chainless seemed to offer the better suspension characteristics yet needed a change in settings.
– Damper settings needed changing because of the lack of chain and so a stronger compression setting was applied. We also compared and contrasted the Demo in different damper settings chained/unchained and it appeared that the firmer chained/unchained settings to be closer in time than the weaker set up comparisons. We’d like to investigate this further.
– Flow. Chainless seems to encourage a more considered and calculated corner entry speed. There seems to be more entry and mid corner control which must be a result of the aforementioned ease of body movement and also possibly traction and stability of the bike without the chain. There appears to be more control not only entering corners but through the turn too. Corners become softer and less grabby.
Of course all the above observations count for very little if a rider makes a mistake as there is no drive to get back to speed. Getting from A – B without a chain is very much a ball ache. And there is less room for making mistakes without a chain. But what did the times tell us?
Track One – Forty seconds technical, five seconds transfer, fifteen seconds jumps/berms pedalling.
Rider 1. After several test runs Rider 1 clocked in a 1.04 chained run only to be bettered by a second without the chain. Overall feelings were more poise chainless and considerably less fatigue.
Rider 2 was convinced that his chained runs were five seconds quicker than chainless only to be proved wrong by the clock which flashed the same time.
Rider 3 murdered himself on the lower pedalling sections to go a second and a half quicker with a chain. He couldn’t talk for a while.
Track Two removed the pedalling lower sections but still had road crossing and transition pedalling sections that would at first sight appear to favour the crank approach.
Rider One tested on this at length and with different damper settings getting consistent and similar times chained and unchained
Rider Two was again convinced he was going faster with a chain but was proved wrong
Rider Three can be seen to be visibly messier in the attached video. His times were identical chained and unchained but his body language and breathing suggested a more tired rider.
The effect of chained and unchained on the Demo varied depending on gradients. Whilst it was certainly quieter and seemed to offer improved grip and damper performance on steeper terrain there were still situations where the chained runs were of benefit when it came to pumping the terrain for momentum. Corner set up and entry speed appeared to offer slightly more control and the rear damper certainly required different settings. Overall there was profit and loss occurring throughout our particular track with our particular set-up.
Chainless definitely encouraged a more focussed mindset on line choice, poise, braking and flow whereas with a crank engaged there is a danger to over pedal between sections leading to a rider snatching at the terrain rather than working with it. On the flip side its all very well having slightly better performance from chainless yet it still requires skill to generate drive out of the ground without pedals.
During testing it appeared that riders were sometimes killing themselves pedalling for little gain at all, when in fact on the steeper terrain there was no time gain at all. But within this you have to question the riders technique and braking methods. With chain appeared to deliver spikier and arguably scruffier run styles compared to chainless.
Obviously getting from A- B is largely fruitless without a chain and you’d be crazy to race without one. But it would be interesting to see the outcome on longer, steeper tracks where I believe fatigue might well be less on the unchained bike.
So what about Gwin’s run?
So did Gwin benefit from riding chainless? Overall probably not but he will certainly have gained speed in some sections because of the lack of chain. Whilst Gwin’s run would have been over if he’d made a mistake (or at least he’d have featured lower down the scoreboard) there is an argument to say that even with a chain he’d not have won had he made a similar mistake. In other words margins are so tight you simply cannot make any errors.
What does tell the man on the hill, the privateer racer or pro alike? Not much apart from the on-going argument of removing the derailleur from the rear wheel and that suspension is actually partly being held back for certain parts of the track.
Each of those Leogang corners will have been executed with what can only be imagined as almost faultless precision. Carrying speed? He was the fastest through the speed trap by a monster margin. His technique through each of Leogang’s corners must have been very impressive.
Maybe there is a lesson, maybe an insight into the technique that makes true geniuses of the sport, where the likes of only Minnaar, Hill, Peat Vouilloz and Gwin can go. They don’t snatch a race win by sheer luck or risk, Gwin’s run, even without a chain was application of timing, steely composure, and chilling precision. The lack of a piece of bicycle didn’t win Gwin the race, yes it possibly aided his run in small parts, but this was a run delivered in millimetres, one where drive was generated from the earth and its morphology. It wasn’t forced. But by hell the force was strong in this one.
Ultimately what won Gwin the race was the way in which he applied momentum to his run, executing an acute understanding of timing and of flow. Of course this is something that you cannot rationalise, the unknown world. At Leogang Aaron Gwin raised the whole idea of flow (or carrying speed) from a skill to an art form.
Gwin’s rivals – Who else could have won this event? Well, its been a scrappy start to the season for most of the top riders with many of the fancied riders from the season opener seemingly going backwards as the year progresses. Bruni, Jones and Hart dominated both Lourdes final and Fort William quali’s but have failed to capitalise on that early form. Thirion, Brosnan and Blenkinsop have also been inconsistent along with that most reliable of guys Gee Atherton. Minnaar has been the only rider that can close down a run, and surely will be Gwin’s closest rival this season. Yet even he appeared to make mistakes in Leogang. There is an argument to say Gwin had an easy time from his closest rivals in Leogang yet in reality Thirion, Fearon and Brosnan had good runs meaning the Specialized man didn’t have much time to play with on this Austrian slope. Their problem is consistency, the feeling and confidence that comes with winning. At Leogang there was simply nothing they could have done about it.
Weather – This is a big one and how much this affected Aaron’s run compared to the rest of the top runners is quite simply the big unknown. Maybe the wind died down for his run, maybe it didn’t. We will never know.
Belief – Once the chain had snapped, Gwin was instantly into hunting down points mode given his strong position at the top of the leader board, a similar place to where he was last season. Part of his mindset must surely have been processing the similar circumstances that happened to Neko Mulally at Hafjell World championships last season which will surely have given him belief that anything was still possible.
Relief – Well yes a bit of that of course but also its possible that some of the pressure might have been relieved when the chain snapped and that with nothing to lose he might have been energised with relief and fearlessness that drove him onwards. It’s a big maybe this one but it might have taken some pressure out of his run.
Form – Gwin is the man in form, he is the only rider to have podiumed every race so far this season. But he will be cautious of this factor as he was similarly the only rider to have podiumed every race after three rounds last year before disaster, and ultimately the season went away from him. His winning form certainly had the edge taken off it once he’d flatted at Leogang when the confidence of another rider, Bryceland, took a turn for the better. Having said that Gwin is flying and on current form looks set to continue into the remainder of the series, something he has done on two previous seasons. Its likely Gwin would have won by even more time.
Line choice – Was Gwin on different lines? Only he knows due to less than complete live coverage of only part of the track.