In the beginning, there was no XCO or stage racing. It was all downhill, without helmets, on awfully unsophisticated rigid bikes. The Mount Tamalpais Repack race, held during the 1970s near San Francisco, was the first timed mountain bike race and it was all about negative gradient.
Over time mountain bikes evolved and the timed element of the sport diverged, into two categories: time trial downhill and XCO short-course lap racing. Originally, hardy competitors would race both DH and XCO on the same day, with the same bike, but today that is plainly impossible.
The modern courses are so specifically tailored to each category that you’d be mad to try and push a DH rig up the debilitating climbs of a contemporary UCI XCO course, just as much as it would be suicidal to venture off the start ramp of a current DH course on an XCO hardtail.
And therein the irony of that most indispensable mountain bike component upgrade: the dropper seatpost. Considered indispensable for trail riding and the pathway to true singletrack enlightenment, it’s never featured much in UCI mountain bike racing, at all. Downhill bikes don’t have them, and neither have XCO bikes. Well, until now.
When there is a need, racing improves the breed
It’s a curious detail, that the popularity of droppers during the 2010s has evolved with no foundation in UCI mountain bike racing – unlike almost all other component trends visited upon consumers in the quest to be faster. Video edits of riders in baggies and the rebel EWS series have been the marketing momentum for dropper posts, instead of ‘officially’ sanctioned UCI racing.
Ironically, the kingmaking descending discipline – DH – could never further the dropper post project, and the discipline which makes things lighter – XCO – wants very little to do with evolving the product. Conundrum? Just a bit.
The trend of more technically demanding UCI XCO courses have slowly seen gram obsessed XCO racers sacrifice some weight for the safety margin of a dropper. Although that most gifted technical rider and indisputable on-bike phenomenon, Nino Schurter, doesn’t have the dropper lever on his handlebar yet, a few competitors now do. And that’s particularly good news for all mortal mountain bikers.
Dropper posts on trail and Enduro bikes have enabled riders to narrow the discrepancy between skill and inherent bike capability. In principle, XCO racers would benefit greatly from the freedom of movement and superior balance when negotiating technical terrain, unimpeded by the barrier of a pedal-efficiency raised seat in the way. The crucial difference, is that XCO racers also demand the lightest possible everything, and whilst the trail and Enduro markets have tolerated what’s available, more interested in how many millimetres of drop is on offer than weight, having demand for both could deliver a very tidy median solution to market.
Canadian brand 9Point8 are the current dropper-post design and manufacturing specialists, and the longest one they make is a 200mm stroke Fall-Line, whilst the lightest is a 75mm ‘R-line’ version of their Fall-Line, at 335g in ‘cut’ trim. Add a cable and remote you’re all-in for 385g. Amazingly, that’s an all-alloy construction dropper; and there remains a margin for even greater mass reduction with carbon bits.
Even the lightest droppers are still nearly twice the weight of a fixed, carbon seatpost – but in absolute terms, about 200g of non-rotational mass isn’t a racer’s ruin. As acceptance of droppers in XCO racing grows, it will add scale to the demand curve and should deliver more choice, enabling riders to tailor their compromise between mass and stroke.
The result? Lighter, better, droppers for all of us. If 2017 is the year where dropper posts start proliferating in XCO racing, and racing improves the breed, there should be medium term benefits for us all.
Making us all fall, a lot less
I’m certain most of Bike Hub’s audience have ridden a mountain bike with a dropper and felt the profit in confidence it yields over technical terrain. But what of other applications, away from the singletrack rock gardens and gravel berms? Could dropper posts possibly have an unheralded sense of purpose on both leisure and competition road bikes?
There’s are few things with two wheels less obsessed with intensity and performance, and more biased toward leisurely efficiency, than a commuter bike. Why would one possibly want to run a dropper seatpost on one of those?
Adaptability. If family members are sharing one bike, the natural sample distribution of human height will certainly cause conflict due to that multi-user bike requiring constant adjustment. With a dropper, it’s hop-on and set to your preferred height. No mangled quick-release seatpost collars, no requirement for carrying a tool and less bickering.
Beyond the dropper post as an excellent bike sharing enabler, it’s a notable confidence boost for elderly or injured riders refamiliarizing themselves with bikes. South Africa is perhaps unique in having intersections which are tarred to a standard that permits speedy cadence through, but also harbours immense hazards from vehicle transport and hawkers, all competing for the same real estate. If you do not possess exemplary bike handling skills and get nervous about stalling and tipping over, having the security of being able to cautiously coast to an intersection, with a lowered centre of gravity for that emergency avoidance manoeuvre, is a significantly reassuring. It’s also a lot comfier sitting low, whilst waiting for that traffic light to change – or whilst chatting to a pedestrian acquaintance you’ve encountered.
Then there’s the dropper post benefit which concerns the competition element of road cycling, one which carries more speed and greater risk than perhaps any other cycling category: mountain pass descents. Having the ability to tuck low on your actual seat, instead of using the top tube or junction behind your steerer as an impromptu seat, is certainly a superior way of linking those apexes.
Seven years after Sram made the dropper post a viable option for most with the launch of Reverb in 2010, they’re finally being accepted into the inner sanctum of UCI mountain bike racing. Perhaps we won’t have to wait another seven before they’re part of the Peloton…