Tuesday, December 16, 2008

"Race" bikes

Interesting discussion (well, parts of it anyway, once you sort through the usual MTBR gibberish) on the FB forum on MTBR over the last week or so. Click here if you want to read through it all instead of just hearing what I have to say.

What stands out for me is that one poster posits that a "race" bike can, and should, be built lighter (and can be less durable) than a "trail" bike. I think this is a bit of a false dichotomy in mountain biking - we're not racing Indycars here, after all. Comparing a hardtail XC bike to a 6" travel "trail" bike isn't the point, because the long travel bike is intended for a totally different type of terrain. Assuming you're riding the same kind of trails both while racing and while just riding (which is what 95% of us do) I would argue that race bikes need to be burlier, not lighter, than their standard non-racing brothers.

Here's what I know - I've raced as a pro here in Colorado (a really crappy one, but then again I don't do any training) for almost a decade. In that time I've had an awful lot of bikes, some of them advertised as "race specific geometry" high-speed podium finishers, others as just regular old mountain bikes, and everything in between. For a good portion of that time, I've built my own bikes and raced them. Here's what I've learned:

-Race bikes take WAY, way more abuse than bikes that aren't raced. Don't believe me? Go scroll through some Craigslist ads for used dirtbikes sometime and see how many times you see the phrase "never raced" (as an aside, you'll also see "woman owned", which is a neat phrase meaning "Despite her objections, I purchased a low-end dirtbike for my wife/girlfriend and she refuses to ride it.") When _I_ race, I tend to take stupid lines, go faster than I should, take blind corners at high speeds, and generally behave as if my cerebrospinal fluid has been replaced with a cocktail of mephamphetamines and Red Bull. Of course, this doesn't mean that I actually do well in the aforementioned races, but I certainly put my bike through the wringer. Hence I submit that "race" bikes have far harder lives than those which are never raced. I submit a photo of the start of a Boulder short track race (grand prize: PBR) as proof of my theory:

-Race _geometry_ is actually the opposite of what most people think. You do not want a bike with a low trail number for racing, at least in the Rockies, because by the time you get to the downhill (and the bike handling) you are way too tired to be fighting to keep the bike going in a straight line at speed. Predictability and stability are key for race bikes, even if that means sacrificing some low-speed nimbleness. You're always faster if you don't crash and aren't afraid to let her rip on the straight stuff. This goes double for enduro racing, where you're going to be completely wasted both mentally and physically by the end of the race. Of course, every course and local area is different, but my point is that super-twitchy geometry does not always a race bike make.

-Frame weight is virtually unnoticeable. Sure, an extra pound of weight won't make you faster, but it also isn't going to change where you finish unless you're within a few seconds of the next guy or gal. A pound of frame, for an average guy, is 1/2 of 1% of the total weight of bike/rider/gear. Do you want to ride a heavy bike? No, not really. But a frame that handles predictably and fits well is WAY more important than a few hundred grams of weight. The frame is the last place to try to save weight, IMO. Most other components merely need to be durable - as long as your seatpost doesn't break, it doesn't matter, so get the lightest one you can. But if you have a frame that fits or handles poorly, you're not going to be fast no matter how light it is.

-Unless you're getting your frames for free, or you're independently wealthy, a durable frame is a better choice than an ultralight one. I think I broke 2 different Homegrown frames when I rode for Schwinn - and I never could have afforded replacements if they weren't free. There's a reason the really fancy bikes you see at a race are mostly ridden by Sport 45-49 guys who are tax attorneys by day. Look at the pro field and you'll see some fancy bikes ridden by the top guys (who are increasingly rare these days) and then a whole bunch of *random crap* ridden by the rest, most of whom are really, really fast. These guys are well aware that they could buy a "nicer" bike, but they also know that it won't make them any faster, so they save their money for entering races and/or not working as much so that they'll have more time to train. If you aren't rich, and you're buying a new bike every year you're being penny wise and pound foolish, as far as race results go. Less bike and more training will make a huge difference, so save your $5k (assuming you like your current bike), take some unpaid vacation days to train, and hire a coach while you're at it.

Bottom line, I guess, is that for me, a bike that is a good bike for riding trails with your friends is *also* a good bike for racing. There is no such thing as a "race" bike in my book. Most of us "race" our buddies up and down certain trail sections on pretty much every ride, and try to go as fast as we safely can all the time - hence the bike is really doing the same duty it would in a race. Ultralite disposable frames (how many Trek 9.9s are still around, only about 5 years after being the most popular race bike on the planet?) are a poor investment if speed is what you're after - invest your money and time in your fitness and skills, not fancier equipment.


Anonymous said...

Damn, you are passionate...
Good analysis thought.

Andrew Brautigam said...

you are right on, walt. My 29er isn't the lightest thing out there, but it handles predictably, and is built to last. I've broken bikes in races before, and that sucks. I'd way rather have a 26lb bike that won't break than a 22 lb bike that has to be handled like a glass slipper.

Big Dave said...

Spot on. I hate it when people ask me how much my bike weighs. I'm 6'5" 210 lbs and pretty flippin' fast for a big guy. A 28 pound bike that isn't going to break allows me to want to go faster instead of worrying about getting hurt if it were to break. It's only 13% of my body weight...the same as a 20 lb bike for a 150 lb rider.

Some people like riding all that plastic crap that's out there. And then they'll drive a hybrid to say they are being eco-friendly. But then they'll run paperlite tires on race day that need to hit the dumpster afterwards...then they'll buy some eco-recycled hemp jeans for $150. When does it freakin' end?

Gads! Amerika! F...yeah!

Anonymous said...

agreed on all counts.. but the deal is this: marketing works. seeing slick bikes in glossy bike mags is the key to turning off that high powered brain and helps to rationalize well, anything they tell us. It's why weight weenie-dom and even weight-sensitive types are kinda across the board. In the flats on a road bike, where, weight is much less relevant than on a hill climb or even a mtb ride. And yet... no matter, we are now being told that only bikes $10,0000 14 lb bikes are for "racing"... and then they go on to use words like "enthusiast" or "recreational" for their lower rung bikes as some kind of slam... what? are we in 3rd grade hell??

Excuse me i need... to... buy. something.

Brian said...

i raced 28 races in 08 on my 2006 WW w/05 reba, and i have learned the same lessons, some from Walt beating it into my thick skull, some from breaking things and DNF'ing - i think the places to save weight are in tires and wheels, they seem to wear out on my no matter how durable each year, and at 6'2 165 lbs, the whole machine takes a ton of abuse, thats the beauty of a steel bike that fits like a glove. walt you should post our race bikes and why we set them up the way we do!

Anonymous said...

I worked in a bike shop for 12 years while I was working on my mechanical engineering degree part time. What did I learn?
RACING bikes. Only sponsored racers ride these to their limits. anyone who can afford $8k for a mountain bike can't afford to ride it to its limits.
FIT. is priority #1. If you are someone who rides 3 or more times a week I recommend you go and find someone who does a systematic body measurement fit. Its worth the money to get all the mechanics perfectly dialed.
SPEED! Wheels are the single most important component of your bike when discussing racing/speed. The heavier they are the more momentum they store. So they require more energy input to accelerate. This matters most when you are trying to hammer it out in open sections. But think of how often you slow down and speed up. So worry about rotational weight but not about bike weight. And the old argument of Open bearings have less friction is such a minimal difference its not even measurable

COMPONENTS. As far as what else is important for your MTB, Your seat, your grips and your pedals are where you and your bike connect. So spend some extra money there.
Shimano Deore and LX is plenty durable . XT and XTR start giving up durability to get lighter weight. Your chain and cassette and chainrings are where you get your shifting smoothness from. derailleurs and shifters determines how crisp they are. And adjustment determines how much noise, and how fast they shift.
PS. don't mix shimano and Sram. If you have shimano stay with a shimano chain/cassette. Sram and shimano have never played well together. If you like Sram go full Sram