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  1. Much like creeping taxation, quinoa everything in restaurants and mobile data pricing, the ebike draws our collective ire. Judgement is absolute and crushing. ‘It’s not a bike. It’s a motorbike… If you can’t ride, go spin on a Wattbike at Virgin Active. Get fitter… They’ll ruin trail access for all of us’. A year on, from the first proper e-mountain bikes (e-MTBs) becoming available in South Africa, has sufficient time passed for reflection, and perhaps, appraisal? Well, before Pravin’s next budget, where ebikes could quite possibly become another tax revenue item, instead of an incentive - as they are in Europe, my feelings toward them have altered. I should be the prototypical ebike hater. My mountain bike is a South African brand single-speed 26. Crisis. Could I be more fundamental in my traditionalism? Yet I’m conflicted about these battery mountain bikes. They’re not motorbikes Obvious for some. Less so for others. If you use the most sophisticated e-MTB available in South Africa, which is Specialized’s Levo, it’s categorically obvious that they’re not motorbikes. Mopeds would be a more plausible correlation, but without a throttle, and cranks which turn, the motorbike/motorped association is plainly false. And facetious. The Specialized Turbo Levo. Photo credit: Ewald Sadie.These are mountain bikes with pedal assist battery motors. They’re not off-road motorbikes with single-crown forks. Components are sourced from the bicycle industry, instead of motorcycle supply chain. The hate, though, is real. Online polls register disapproval numbers in excess of 80%, damning the e-MTB’s existence. But we all know the internet, with its self-appointed crusaders, is rarely within a margin of reflecting reality. In Europe, where cycling sources its history and hosts its most credible events (road/XCO/DH), e-MTB sales are near surpassing those of non-assisted – dare I say ‘conventional’ - mountain bikes. I’d always table sales statistics as the truest representation of acceptance and trend. With e-MTBs, there’s no invalidating the numbers: in parts of Europe, e-MTB sales are 50% up year-on-year. Are they moral? The primary salvo of criticism against e-MTBs has been ethical: if you work less, how dare you have access to my realm of adventure. Earn your turns.In racing, certainly, there’s no argument that as e-MTBs become more sophisticated, there’s a risk of BB-battery motor solutions becoming sufficiently compact, to be near undetectable. Especially at races where organisers don’t have the sophisticated X-ray equipment. E-MTBs don’t belong anywhere near a mountain bike race. Not even in a separate category. And if you analyse Specialized’s Levo, that’s hardly its purpose. This is a trail-bike: dropper seatpost, Pike fork. It’s not meant for stage racing. At all. It’s meant to enable those who have perhaps past their peak or are burdened by schedule or health issues, to recapture the thrill of trail exploration and riding. It’s why I struggle with the enclave argument of having to earn your turns. There are riders in their 60s who are in great shape, examples of life-long discipline and training commitment. Age is a real keeper of ability, though, and why shouldn’t they have the privilege of participation on those fantastic five-hour Sunday trail rides? They’re the founders, with great stories, still chasing the thrill. Why deny them? Perhaps more meaningfully: why deny the unqualified excitement of a 60-year old refamiliarizing themselves with off-road cycling after four decades away from bikes? Kids. Partners. It’s a similar logic. If your partner or offspring wish to join on a weekend ride, yet are petrified of the discrepancy in endurance between yourselves, why isn’t the e-MTB a great solution? It enables a thoroughly testing training ride for you, without risking the frustration of waiting at the top of each gradient for ten minutes. They’re interested in this world unfamiliar to them, yet so beguiling to you, with its tremendous gatekeeping function of fitness. Is allowing family or a non-biking friend this glimpse of access, to aid understanding of your training commitment, really an unethical sacrifice before the mountain bike Gods? I struggle to think it could be the case. BMC's concept electornic mountain bike. Do they destroy trails? Beyond the issues of ethical pedal assistance, trail destruction is the e-MTB-hater’s most vocal objection. The belief being that e-MTBs will enable riders so many runs, on a heavy bike, they’ll accelerate trail wear beyond all reasonable expectations.It’s an absolutely rubbish claim, revealing an issue around trail wear and maintenance that’s conveniently ignored in South Africa: mass and bike set-up. Heavier riders, will harm a trail more. Heavier riders on relatively narrow, stage-race width tyres (at high pressures), will do this even more so. Granted, The Levo is far heavier (22-and-a-bit-kg) than an aggregate South African rider’s bike, but the diversity in rider physiology rebalances this. How many rides have you been on where there are both 70- and 90kg riders? Exactly. The combined mass is what matters and most Levos, with rider, would equal the weight on many larger, fit, South African riders on their carbon marathon bikes. On a Levo, that mass contacts the trail through a much wider 27.5 plus tyre, which means less damage and potential brake lock-up. Seeing the wood for the trees: e-benefits As a purist, the concept of pedal assistance grates me. But I don’t live in an isolated Karoo valley all on my own. The momentum of trail access is empowered by participant numbers and people of influence – and they’re mostly mature stakeholders, unlikely to threaten Nino in a VO2 max test. If there are bikes that make these influential stakeholders ride more frequently and further, they’ll chair the negotiations for greater, lasting, trail access.The burden of time, distance, and family are real. If your sanity and balance of zen depends on that specific singletrack descent, which is just too far from home within the time constraints of your scheduling, an e-MTB is not a tool for the lazy. It’s salvation for the committed. Of all the unconsidered benefits of e-MTBs, safety is the outlier. Imagine a member of your riding group has an off in technical terrain, and you’re at the bottom of a valley, with the nearest mobile phone signal at the drop-in point you’ve just descended from. You have a problem. The ability of an e-MTB to get back up faster than anything else, and make that emergency call for help, might gain those crucial few minutes between a manageable evacuation and the delirium of an emergency evacuation. Family. Kids. Dogs. Businesses which operate on weekends. I have none of these things in my life, but some of my friends do, and I’d like for them to have fewer excuses not to ride. It’s the reason I can’t bring myself to hate ebikes. Except when a 60-year old on a Levo is chatting away, whilst I’m close to exhaustion near the crest of a climb. Guess I need to train harder. eBikes make me a better rider. And I don’t even have one.
  2. It’s been a year. Since their arrival. These most unprincipled battery bikes, with on-board power aiding their propulsion. Click here to view the article
  3. When you look at kids riding their first proper bike, you probably remember your own. And the one distinguishing feature is that we all start with a single blade mounted to that drive side crankarm. The desire for gears are real and eventually you get a cassette at the back, then an additional blade up front. When drivetrains evolved to a configuration with gears in the double-figures, very fit people started wondering if they really needed two blades up front, if they already had ten gears at the rear. Logically, if you dropped one blade and a front-mech, that saved weight, and you had some real-estate available on the handlebar to fit all manner of other functional things, such as lock-out controls, a dropper post remote – or perhaps that most underrated South African rider etiquette feature: a bell. In 2010, if you walked into a bike shop, nearly all the demo bikes were running 2x drivetrains. Today, it’s a world 1x11 and if you wish for the calming spread of ratios of your fondly remembered 2x10, a new 1x12 drivetrain can do that. Those who have ridden both will confirm that 1x systems are superior. Less complexity, cleaner handlebar, better side-profile bike aesthetics (yes, that is a thing for many people) and perhaps most importantly: silence and an absence of chain suck risk. It’s possible to descend technical trails at speed on a 1x system with rim strain and damper action being your only accompanying acoustics. Ride a 2x system down the same trail and you keep glancing down to confirm that the drivetrain is still all of one piece, considering all the noise it generates. It’s a simple ‘1x for-the-win’, right? Well, that’s the contentious issue. If you are a descending biased rider, undoubtedly, but could there remain specific benefits to the 2x system for stage racers? I’d observed that riders from European Alpine countries have no contrition about running 2-by and after requesting somebody much cleverer than I to test the theory in some engineering software, the results have been interesting. Although a current 1x12 drivetrain has the potential to equal a 2x11 system’s spread of ratios, the inevitability is that in a climbing scenario, you’ll still be using a much larger front chainring. On a dual-suspension bike, the influence of that larger chainring induces a potentially greater energy loss by not optimising the anti-squat characteristics engineered into dual-suspension bikes. The difference is small, but on a few long, gradual climbs, it is sure to compound. True, the 2x system is slightly heavier overall but on a long climb, the compound effect of its slightly greater rotational mass could be argued as less of a fatigue inducement than having a 34- or 36-tooth chainring. How? Much like an economist, I’d advise you to look at the graphs. You’ll notice that similar climbing gear ratios deliver vastly different anti-squat percentages. Neutral anti-squat registers as 100%. The 2x system has a number greater than 100%, meaning that the influence of a rider pedalling, has a notably reduced effect on suspension movement. With the 1x12 your anti-squat number is below 100% (worse), which means you’ll suffer incremental effort losses through factional suspension movement over the duration of a long climb. The reason is that a smaller ring front ring is superior during climbing, is that it operates the chainline on rotation below the chainstay pivot point, which you can see in the accompanying drawing. “But wait, I have a remote lock-out switch.” Indeed, remote lockouts are the Blackmagic which theoretically convert dual-suspension bikes to default hardtails when required, but a meticulously designed and executed suspension system should operate without much bother in the open setting. The advent of 1x drivetrains have been a blessing for most. Quieter bikes, with less handlebar clutter, and incredible chain-on-ring security when descending technical terrain at speed. They don’t suck chains in muddy conditions either. For most applications, the 1x drivetrain deserves all the acolytes we bestow upon it. Yet the continued presence of 2x systems shouldn’t be that surprising in a country where paradoxically, we have very large riders, who love competing in long-distance stage races. That 1x12 system might have a theoretically amazing spread of ratios, but for some, having a smaller secondary ring up front, to boost anti-squat way beyond that neutral 100% value during an ascent, will be of greater value than the weight penalty it implies, when the long climb start escalating in gradient percentages. And when the bunch starts edging up in speed, it’s a lot less fatiguing to keep up the cadence, when you have smaller incremental steps between the gears. It’s why the 2x simply refuses to die.
  4. This Easter long weekend, friends and family inevitably enquired about how your ‘mountain biking’ is going. And bless them, they attempted to appear genuinely interested, by asking the one question all non-riders believe mountain bikers obsess about more than any other: “how much does it weigh?” We might count, calculate, and curse grams but the true obsession should be tyres. No single component has a greater influence upon your riding, and tyre failure is the most prevalent mechanical to end a ride. Tyres are our true fixation and with a variety of diameters and widths, confusion – instead of solution – reigns. Two-six returns. Sort of. To add even greater complexity to the issue of tyre choice, and its influence upon rider feedback, is the potential resurgence of two-six. Yes, indeed: two-six tyres are possibly going to be your trail riding solution in the future. True, it’s a cryptic description, 26-inch diameter tyres are not being reborn, but the 2.6-inch width tyre is our dear MTB-industry’s latest sachet of product marketing Kool-Aid. Although 3.0 was once the preserve of DH racers, conventional wisdom – and product planning bias – meant you couldn’t ride anything wider than 2.4, aside from a few nearly impossible to find 2.5 or 2.7 mouldings, with crushingly heavy wire beads. Maxxis's Minion DHR and DHF in 2.6 widths. There is a 7% difference in volume between a 2.5 and 2.6 Maxxis tyre. Despite the collective knowledge that wider tyres cope with lower pressures, enabling a volume coefficient benefitting traction, you couldn’t really blame tyre manufacturers for not offering anything wider than 2.4 in the market. Why? Rims.Since the very first Californian rigid mountain bikes of the late 1970s, riding ambitions have been limited by rim choice: in width, weight, and strength. Large volume tyres on proportionally narrow rims, reward riders with cornering and terrain feedback similar to stirring a pot of Taystee Wheat porridge with your fork. Hardly ideal. As rim manufacturers have edged towards – and surpassed – the 30mm internal width measurement, tyre manufactures have recognised the opportunity to go wider too. Fat lite? Why would you be interested in 2.6 width tyres? Well, because the world’s most influential tyre brands have committed to them. Maxxis and Schwalbe have both shown their 27.5 2.6 tyres options, with the Germans having 29 2.6 moulds too. Specialized? They’ve also got 27.5 2.6 tyres available. Remain sceptical? It’s understandable. Why would you want to ride a tyre that is only marginally wider than a 2.4, and that margin narrower than a 2.8, which is the entry-point to 27.5+ riding? There is no question that the sheer size of most 27.5+ tyres make them a deeply confidence-inspiring platform for riders rolling blind, down natural trails, with extensive root channels and rock gardens. The issue is their greater sidewall protrusion – due to width – making them more vulnerable to sniper roots and rock edges. To keep the rolling mass to a tolerable endurance point, many 27.5+ tyres, even in 2.8, aren’t particularly heavy, but they are not the best platform for high-speed cornering either, as the sidewalls are where most material has been thinned-out for weight reduction. Schwalbe refer to their 2.6" Nobby Nic as a second generation plus-size tyre. The logic of 2.6 is to give a greater volume benefit than 2.4, optimising the current trend of internal rim widths of 30mm and beyond, without edging too wide, necessitating weight savings and the inevitable sidewall strength compromise. That said, mass savings with 2.6 over a comparable 2.8 aren’t enormous, averaging around 50g. Maxxis and Schwalbe have 27.5 2.6 options encouragingly shy of 800g, which is a comfortable margin away from the dreaded four-figure tyre weight range most people consider unsuitable for anything but shuttling. Something we actually want? Far too often, with all manner of mountain bike componentry, we wish there was an ‘option between’ the ones we have. The desire for that silver bullet the industry, for reasons unfathomable, can’t – or worse: won’t – supply. The addition of another tyre width is a moment of consumer happiness and one which non-plus platform riders can credit the fat bike ‘lite’ crew for. If the desire to own and ride a truly wide set of rims (30-38mm internal) has been great, yet the logic of sealing a 2.4 tyre to those rims appeared a waste of their inherent design advantage, then 2.6 is your singletrack salvation. Moulded at an ideal width to profit from the newly available ultra-wide rims, 2.6 retaining superior sidewall integrity for high-speed cornering and terrain bite into loam by being inherently less ‘squirmy’ than tyres 2.8 and wider. The sidewall cut risk mitigation, by being that bit narrower than 27.5+ tyres, helps make 2.6 an unintended consequence of all things plus: the perfect wide-rim Enduro/trail tyre. We spend a lot of time complaining about trends and ‘evolving’ standards, but 2.6 is a gift delivered unto us by the proliferation of plus-bikes as a platform. As with financial markets, in times of confusion, there is always value to be discovered… 27.5 2.6. For all those who yearn for a return to two-six mountain biking. Your opportunity is now. Never thought that would happen again, did you?
  5. There exists an unusual correlation between architecture and bicycles: both adhering to principles of geometry and flow. The way a cleverly considered building guides unfamiliar visitors along, is mirrored by the way in which your bike links the discoverable features of a tidily built trail. Architects and trail builders share a similar objective: shaping the built environment to optimise quality of life. For Hakahana owner and trail builder, Johan Vorster, it’s been a lifelong devotion. Born into a renowned architectural family (his grandfather studied at the legendary Bauhaus in Germany), Johan’s spent the last five years converting the family farm into Gauteng’s enduro trail riding venue. Originally established as a residence in the 1950s, and revered for its line of Hanoverian horses, Hakahana boasts 70km of trails, with plenty of gradient spread across its 3500 hectares, in and around the Witwatersberg. It’s a testament to Johan’s ethos as a sustainable architecture and energy consultant that the trail network he has pioneered, which loops way beyond the 20-hectare border of his farm, now encompasses no less than 50 other properties – without a single owner ever having objected when he’s requested approval to extend the riding zone. Starting and Stopping “There was a flirtation with mountain biking as a student, in the late 1980s, when it was a fringe sport and I was studying architecture in Cape Town. I rode Rhodes memorial and stuff like that. But a climbing accident ruined my ankle and I didn’t ride again until 2008.”Johan’s reintroduction to mountain biking coincided with the sport’s tide of popularity in South Africa, delivering him into the burgeoning single- and multi-day racing scene. “I was between A and B batch, but after a while, the appeal waned. I never considered the farm as a riding venue, it had always been this happy place of my youth, anchored by my grandfather’s amazing Bauhaus home.” After an unsatisfactory racing experience, Johan proposed that he could do better and hosted a Trailseeker event in 2013. He prepared the farm thoroughly, perhaps a bit too thoroughly. “I think it was too extreme at the time. People struggled. We had a huge field, 3000 riders, but nobody returned the next weekend to come ride the trails again. I was absolutely demoralised.” Despite being disheartened that his first major event had generated no return ride curiosity, the trail building addiction had germinated and with cooperative neighbours Johan merely required the appropriate riding concept for his venue. Then, a fortuitous post happened. “I put something on Bike Hub about how I thought an Enduro at Hakahana could work. Soon, I had eight volunteers at my front door to help with digging and cutting.” Embracing Endruo In 2014 Hakahana hosted its first Enduro, with a field of 60 riders timed over three stages. Today there are ten ‘enduro’ lines amongst rocks and bushveld, with Johan’s vision being a venue which offers excellent opportunities for progression. “I thought I knew what I was doing, then broke my collarbone a week before the event – at my own venue. Can you imagine the embarrassment? After administrating that first enduro in a sling, I vowed to make a commitment towards unlearning what I assumed about riding mountain bikes, and upskilling.” Although Hakahana is only open on weekends – a concession to the multitude of land owners who allow access – Johan’s reward is witnessing the rider journeys on a Saturday or Sunday. “When I see people progress from one trail to another, attempting a new feature, it makes all the hours of hand-cutting and shaping worthwhile.” Hakahana’s renowned for its natural rockiness. “We don’t have much soil up here and my build window is determined by fire. When the burn cycle finishes, I can access areas to assess terrain and the potential for a new line.” Johan’s architectural intuition grounds each build, with multiple practice runs to test jumps, berms and drop-offs, before declaring a line ‘open’. As Johan’s riding skill and trail building expertise have progressed, he’s incubated the upcountry enduro scene, hosting regular events, in addition to downhill races. This summer will see a culmination to his promotion of enduro at altitude, Hakahana hosting the SA Enduro champs on 21 October. Strategically the desire is to make Hakahana a multi-disciplinary mountain bike venue. “I want to get the cross-country crew back here. I believe we have the diversity of lines now, that whether you are a gradient-up or gradient-down kind of rider, you’re going to find your reward. My next project is crafting some ‘enduro-light’ lines.” Like any trail builder and venue owner, Johan is generous in acknowledging his inability to do it solo. Master bush cutters and trail shapers, Elvis and Obed, make much of the singletrack magic happen, whilst Johan’s scouting efforts are assisted by a personal entourage of three resolute trail dogs: Moya, Tipex and Gypsy. Whether you’re keen on developing gradient climbing ability or desire to ride slammed-down seatpost (instead of slammed-stem) singletrack, Hakahana is the venue where you’ll discover a meaningful concentration of technical trail in South Africa’s most densely populated province. Or you could just be a fool for mid-century modernist architecture (like me) and go there to look at the farmhouse. There’s a great connotation regarding Hakahana’s etymology too, considering the nature of those trails which now traverse it. “My family has Namibian roots and in Herero, Hakahana means: quick-quick. My grandfather built the house in a very efficient, non-wasteful, typically Bauhaus fashion, hence the name.” And today Hakahana authentically is the best test of who is truly the ‘quickest’ enduro pilot north of the Vaal, hence the naming aptness of this venue for its newfound mountain biking purpose. For Johan, as a trail builder and third-generation custodian of the family farm, it’s been a happy evolution of function. “In my grandparents’ time, we were celebrated as horse breeders. My dream is for Hakahana to become a place of progression and coaching excellence. A trail venue enabling skills transfer. Where kids and corporate types come to challenge themselves to the flow and fun of singletrack, instead of merely making that single chainring sing, cranking along a gravel road." One suspects Johan’s legacy will be the repurposing of Hakahana as a choice place for riding iron horses, and maybe some plastic ones too…
  6. The son of a Kruger game ranger, Patrick qualified as a quantity surveyor and spent years being meticulous about the built environment. In 2011, he decided all the construction he would ever want to do, had been done. After working on the One&Only Cape Town resort project, Patrick decided to retire his QS materials ledger and laser pointer, and left for Spain. What was supposed to be a European solution to never building anything again, serendipitously became an evolution: from QS to trail-builder. It was during his Valencia sabbatical that Patrick started riding mountain bikes seriously, on those amazingly raw trails that Spain’s Mediterranean mountains are renowned for. Riding flamed an obsession which soon rekindled his building skills too, as Patrick started to work the trails with locals in southern Spain. After returning to South Africa, he applied for the vacant position of Tygerberg Mountain Bike Club (TMB) trail manager. Without a portfolio of work or any notable experience Patrick was appointed and a few years later, he serves the largest mountain bike club in South Africa with 120 kilometres of trails. “I didn’t think they’d appoint me, but it’s been the best job ever since. Although having 7000 bosses can be challenging. But I love being out in nature, creating something sustainable and enjoyable within the ecosystem.” The man in the middle Today Patrick lives amid the trail network he built, at Hoogekraal farm – ironically, the first trail project he salvaged. “I remember coming here during the initial project scoping and it was merely going to be a gravel grinder route. Bennett Nel was involved and I could see he was both a gifted rider and builder. He also recognised that my Spanish riding experience has given me a broader understanding of what could be done than was prevalent in the South African thinking framework at that time regarding trails.” Patrick resolved to make Hoogekraal a proper project and even today it remains a signature trail, evolving – and offering an engaging riding experience for everyone. “I apply the 10% rule with my trail-building: ignore the top 10% of technical riders and the bottom 10% of people who possess marginal bike skills. I want to keep the 80% in the middle happy – I have to, that’s where the bulk of membership money sources from and ultimately they’re subsidising everyone else.” His success in servicing the demands of South Africa’s largest club have been anchored in the synergy of two skills, ordinarily not found in those who craft singletrack for a living: an acute ecological conscience and innate quantitative ability. “If you build, you are disturbing nature. And I love nature, it’s the consequence of growing up on the border of Kruger Park. We’re building on private land – yes – but I still want to keep it as ecologically sustainable as I can. And with that, are the latent building industry principles I refined in my professional career before: quality, time, money.” Despite constructing trails littered with features signifying progression, it’s impossible to keep everyone happy, but the cost of doing that would defeat the object of trail-building in itself. An issue unrecognised by most. “Fundamentally, I know that most of the trails we are building are for what you’d class as blue riders. Bikes are getting better, people are upskilling a bit each year – and I’m trying to add features, but to keep many of the trails sustainable, instead of them eroding into ruin, they require smoothing out in winter.” Patrick does not want to leave a legacy of unrehabilitable trails. “People complain that I’m making trails a highway, but I need to at times – or they’ll erode to a point where you’re ruining the surrounding ecology too – and that’s just unacceptable; I don’t care how much you value perceived gnar.” Hard work – with an intangible reward It’s evident Patrick loves the mindfulness of mountain biking, that focus of purpose it brings to people descending trails – and how it can banish the dark thoughts that cloud us after a testing day, when we’re cranking out a climb, away from everyone and everything else.For him, the rewards are not financial or even acknowledgement from riders. “When I see a skilled rider descending one of my builds, and he’s interpreting it in a way I never could, and loving it. That is my stoke. Similarly, when I see an average rider, having an immersive experience – being out in nature, facilitated by our trail network – it’s as rewarding to me.” The job of trail-building remains a testing pursuit. Nature is not easily altered and shaped to our design and Patrick cuts most of Tygerberg’s trails by hand. “It’s not glamorous. At all. The work is physical and progress incremental, you need a vision and the commitment to execute. It’s why I plan my winter build maintenance as I did projects in the building trade, I have everything entered into project management software, enabling me to move assets and spot discrepancies as our rainy season progresses.“ And the future? “I’m 56 now and loving what I do. With 7000 people to please, I’m kept plenty busy and I enjoy working with my team. We’re up at 06:30, in the dark, labouring together.” The success of Patrick’s Tygerberg network leverages heavily on the benevolence of land owners. “We’re in a good place now, with the farmers – and truth be told: without them, there’s no mountain biking. I think the risk from entitled riders, trespassing, was more of an issue a few years ago – people understand what is at stake now.” Considering Patrick spends most of his time cutting and clearing a way through the immense backyard that is Tygerberg’s trail network, you’d expect a forestry tool to be his most valued piece of equipment. But it isn’t. It’s a bike. An eBike of all things. “The eBike is my most important bit of kit. Absolutely. On Tuesdays, I ride the entire network, all 120km. It would kill me on a normal bike, and my purpose is to document what needs to be done, it’s maintenance reconnaissance. On an eBike I can do that, getting everywhere that I cannot with the club’s build bakkie or a motorcycle.” For Patrick Roberts, it has been a case of ‘once a builder, always a builder’. But where is this trail-builder’s choice destination to ride? Well, it’s a place far away from his home at Hoogekraal. A raw, natural, challenging trail – much like the ones in Valencia, where his introduction to mountain biking really started. “Sanddrif in the Cederberg, that’s my favourite place to ride. It’s natural, relatively untouched and pure - built by the elements.”
  7. Life is expectation tempered by reality. Marriage forces a trade of the GTi for CrossPolo. You bought Capco instead of Capitec shares with your bonus five years ago. And then there’s the worst paradox of choice facing us all: aluminium frame with carbon wheels. Or carbon frame with aluminium hoops? In an ideal world of the six-hour work day, year-round autumn weather and decipherable Discovery Vitality rewards, we’d all be riding mountain bikes where both frame and wheels are a matching unity of string and glue tension material. It would be a universal income outcome of carbon. Unfortunately, we live in a country of 12-hour traffic commuting weeks, increasingly unpredictable weather and sickening data prices. Our only escape from all these travails are our mountain bikes, which have to conform to budget, implying a sacrifice in available carbon: you can have it as either frame or wheels. The consensus reasoning implies that wheels have a disproportional influence on performance, so you’d be better off with carbon rims, rolling an aluminium chassis. Right? To me, it’s a very real question, because I’ve just built an aluminium mountain bike with carbon wheels, to replace a carbon frame rolling aluminium hoops. Initial trail testing has yielded unusual results. On my carbon dual-suspension frame, the bike felt notably more forgiving over technical terrain or during high-speed riding over low-to-medium frequency trail chatter. The aluminium bike, with its carbon wheels, has required me to reduce fork and shock pressures - below the recommended minimums - in an attempt to quell the harshness. In my mind, a carbon wheelset, of similar dimensions, with matching tyres, would be superior in every way to aluminium rims, but there are very definite opportunity costs to be calculated – and I’m not merely referring to price. Pretty is Performance. Not comfort. Mountain bikers are peculiar about aesthetics. They might dress badly in their lives beyond cycling and have awful installations of fake rock cladding on their property, but hours will be spent agonising about matching grip and seat colours, sock choice and decal kit upgrades. With its intricate shapes and range of finishes, carbon is a magical material offering the promise of unrivalled performance and elegant aesthetics. It’s not often that engineering components happened to both look good and work well – as is the case with carbon. Requiring fewer spokes – due to the inherent rim strength – and with a clever layup, carbon wheels can be a percentage of grams lighter, equalling a tremendous performance gain, due to the energy sapping of effect of rotation mass. The gains in acceleration and unflinching tracking and steering accuracy with carbon wheels, must come at a cost. And this cost is not only a loss of compliance and the debit in comfort, but perhaps something we rarely stop to consider… Stiffness and stopping An attribute of the stiffness inherent to carbon wheels, possibly affects an element of mountain biking performance that is misunderstood and underappreciated: braking.‘What does my carbon rim stiffness have to do with braking?’ It’s a fair question, but the causality isn’t that complicated. Unlike ordering pizza toppings or being like-minded on the merits of a specific energy gel, we can all agree that carbon wheels are notably stronger and stiffer than aluminium rims. The simplest test, if you have a set of old aluminium rims, is to remove the tyres and try to do a calisthenic dip between them, using the rims as a set of parallel bars. You’ll feel the buckling deformation. It’s this malleability of the aluminium rim which gifts it superior ride comfort, but also absorbs power transfer, robbing riders of a true conversion from their energy-to-torque output. Aluminium’s flexibility might also have an odd benefit regarding braking. The idea is postulated by British veteran downhill racer, Enduro champion and master wheelbuilder, Robert Cooksley. His theory is that an aluminium rim deforms slightly under braking load (‘squashing’ – if you will), elongating the tyre by an admittedly tiny margin, to provide a greater area of contact with the trail through which to apply braking force. ‘But I run low tyre pressures already, my tread is elongated at the contact patch too, so what’s the point?’ Well, if you are riding carbon, perhaps not. I’ve found that slightly higher tyre pressures are the norm on my carbon rims, for fear of suffering a catastrophic rock strike. It’s a counterintuitive action – true – but I’d wager many carbon wheel riders do the same, aware that their rims are stronger than aluminium, but also impossible to dent remedy if something goes very awry. Under Pressure If we consider Cooksley’s theory, the compound effect of a stiffer carbon wheel, shielded by higher tyre pressure, could possibly cede braking superiority to the softer aluminium rim rolling a tyre with less air volume in it. Even with both wheelsets running similar tyre inflation pressures, the vertical compliance of an aluminium rim should – theoretically – provide superior braking, as it deforms slightly in support of the elongated tyre contact patch its carrying.Carbon wheels are magnificent in their combination of strength and lightness. A set of carbon mountain bike wheels are immensely accurate in their behaviour on the trail and the power transfer is terrific, but they can be harsh and potentially too accurate for the inexperienced or less committed. If you’re a dedicated amateur racer or someone sufficiently confident to manage potential high-speed deflections in technical terrain, the potential performance value of a set of carbon wheels are indisputable. For weekend warriors, traditional ‘soft’ metal rims, with axles turning in a carbon frame – might be the better combination of chemistry and metallurgy. To mitigate against catastrophe, I run the tyres on my carbon rims at slightly greater pressure, with less air in the suspension bits, to compensate. The consequence of it all is incredibly precise steering (leaning) response and matchless acceleration, with a noticeably reduced margin of error. Carbon wheels have been an even greater influence of my riding, requiring more tinkering with the pressure gauge and pump, than a composite frame with alloy rims ever was. With carbon rims, the tyre pressures are up and suspension pressures down. The most peculiar consequence of rolling carbon hoops are that the raft of contemporary fork upgrades from MRP and Luftkappe, are now starting to make a lot more sense to me.
  8. When you are young and don’t know the price of anything, there are projects you just cannot believe are unfeasible for the family backyard. My personal department of private works project was to convince my dad to build a wave pool in the backyard of our ludicrously oversized suburban garden. I could see no purpose for a lawn that was illogically fed, watered and then mowed. As a child, I was rather keen on wave riding and just could not fathom why a smaller scale Lost City wave pool wasn’t practicable in the back of our suburban abode. It is a misunderstanding that thousands of South African parents are presented with. Questioning that swiftly turns to cross-examination, by their five-year-olds, as to why they can’t have a wave pool, karting circuit, skate bowl or pump track in the backyard. Explaining the cost and sacrifice required in time and money, not to mention garden, is futile. It’s what happened on Friday the 24th of February this year. Stephen Wiggill’s son Dylan asked him a question which made the Ybike sales, marketing, and operations man do what some of us imagine we could, but never would. Build an actual mini riding track in the garden. Dylan’s a desperately keen rider but with the Wiggill’s living in suburban Parklands, it has always been just too far away from the nearest quality track at Bloemendal, for the frequency of rides to be sufficient. That Friday evening, Stephen asked a simple question of his son: “If I build you a track in the garden, will you ride it?” The answer was obvious, and it was a 2017 suburban mountain bike moment from the original Field of Dreams script.With some experience having built Ybike balance tracks, Stephen assumed he had a fair idea of what would be required. Cape Town’s crippling drought meant sacrificing the garden and lawn wasn’t much of an issue and after a bit more than a month of working every weekend and until dark each day after work, D-Spot was ready. It is an amazing feat of suburban landscaping for the purpose of 16’ wheel and balance bike riding. Stephen has used every bit of what was once his garden to build Dylan a track with jumps, a proper wall ride, berms, rollers, rock garden and a little bridge. There is even a tidy roll-in platform with step-blocks, enabling Dylan to get himself and bike up to D-Spot’s momentum start point, safely and independently. Don’t imagine the six-week project having been a leisurely pursuit. Stephen lost 6 kg building and wore through 5 pairs of gloves. Soon after starting, he realised this was not going to be quite as easy as laying a Scalextric track through the house on a rainy long weekend. “I think after getting two guys in on the first Saturday to help me lift the grass for the 60m long track which took all day and having 5 dumper loads of clay dropped over the wall that I had to move by hand and sift that I realized the task I had taken on. I made a sieve and it took me a week every night to sift five digger loads of clay. I then had to separate the bigger rocks that I could use for the track and the rest had to be dumped. I think I made a total of 28 trips to the dump in an SUV.” Unsurprisingly, Dylan absolutely loves the track that carries his name. It’s the culmination of an ambition in the five-year old that started when he was a mere 9 months, on a Ybike Pewi. At the experienced age of two, Dylan was exploring the hallowed trails of Jonkershoek on his Ybike Balance, with dad Stephen running behind him. By four he upgraded to the current quiver of a 16-inch mountain bike (full rigid, the kid’s a traditionalist, you know) and a Ybike Session. He has even made a promise to mom and dad, that there will be a reward for their investment in his riding and willingness to sacrifice the garden. “Dylan just wants to wear a full-face helmet and chest protector and go fast and do jumps! He loves downhill and dirt jumping. He has told us that when he's ten he'll do a backflip. He has 4.5 years to go.” For Stephen, the issue is how to evolve D-Spot to accommodate Dylan’s growth spurts. As a dad who always appears to have a plan, there’s a contingency on the horizon. “We’ve actually spoken about an inflatable landing and progressive dirt jumps so that he can learn and perfect tricks. We have pumptracks all around us at the wine farms and we are always out on weekends so he'll get plenty of pumptrack time on them.” If you love riding, and have a pre-schooler who does too, but the very real demands of South African working hours and city traffic preclude you from taking junior to a proper venue sufficiency often, do what Stephen Wiggill did – and build your own. Be warned, though, it’s never going to be a simple weekend project. Stephen’s suffered through it, so best benefit from his experience. “If you decide to do this, know that it’s going to be tough! Have an idea of what you want to do and what you will need to do it. If you are lucky enough to have a budget and get clay delivered, which is already sifted, that’s a big win. Wood cut to size too, and you can do this before you start, will save you a lot of time.” Stephen estimates the entire D-Spot build was less than R1000, excluding his extensive investment in labour hours. “A lot of the suffering depends on your budget. If you are like me and decide to use old materials and scavenge (which is rather fun and rewarding when you find the perfect rock or you make a deal for some clay) then prepare to suffer a bit more. The biggest thing for me was doing all the manual labour on my own. If I could change anything I would have paid the guys who took the grass out on the first day to come back during the week and sieve and move dirt. That was back breaking and the worst part of the whole project.”Dylan’s favourite rider? Well. That’s a rather an embarrassingly simple question to answer, isn’t it? The greatest ever. Greg. Minnaar. I think GM would most definitely approve of D-Spot’s design – and the principle behind it. All told, though, Stephen did what many fathers wish they could. When his son asked for a home activity venue, he built one. D-Spot has become a rallying point for young riders in the area, who join to session Dylan’s track. Crucially, it enables five-year old kids to have an experience matchlessly more rewarding than any screen time.
  9. Marcelo Gutierrez, Jack Moir, Greg Minnaar, Aaron Gwin, and Remi Thirion stand on the podium at UCI DH World Cup in Fort William, Scotland on June 4th, 2017. Photo credit: Bartek Wolinski/Red Bull Content Pool. It is not so much an internet of things, as an internet of everything. Education. Transaction. Community. Entertainment. Our lives are mostly lived in view of a luminescent screen and despite having the opportunity to access nearly anything about everything, we remain starkly unaware of important things. In mountain biking, that thing is a tall chap from Pietermaritzburg. Greg Minnaar. Where many impossibly talented riders, with years of excruciating dedication, are unable to ever achieve but one UCI downhill racing victory, Greg has 20 and more podiums than South Africa has quality Super Rugby players. His performance at the weekend’s Fort William event, a venue known for its brutality of weather and shattering fatigue features, was stupefying. As the winds gathered and rain pelted, Minnaar rolled onto a course which is steeped in downhill racing legend, at the worst possible time of the afternoon. Four minutes and forty seconds later, he had done the impossible. Of course, for Minnaar, achieving the impossible is always probable. Commencing a run in the vilest of deteriorating track conditions, Minnaar managed to best his closest rival by three seconds – which in Downhill racing, as it is in F1, calculates to a crushing margin of superiority. Greg Minnaar performs at UCI DH World Cup in Fort William, Scotland on June 4th, 2017. Photo credit: Bartek Wolinski/Red Bull Content Pool. Charming. Affable. Outrageously talented. Minnaar the impeccably presented race winner and champion might be all these things, but his has also been a career dogged by career threatening injuries and immense sacrifice, yet never contaminated by self-pity. The only blight on Minnaar’s incomparable palmarès has been its lack of local recognition. Sure. There would have been a few South African lounges where the local faithful gathered on Sunday, in anticipation, to witness the umpteenth mission impossible of this mountain biking colossus. Those loyal few unquestionably had pets and family members spectacularly entertained with their antics when Minnaar delivered the latest of his almost uncannily regular ‘against-all-odds’ victories. His longevity and strike rate make a mockery of the intensity and risk profile of downhill racing, yet for most South African mountain bikers, Minnaar is just that, a legend in its truest sense: more myth than man. No Santa Cruz pun intended, but for nearly two decades Minnaar has been a nomad, shaping his schedule to the demands of being the world’s best downhill mountain biker, which has meant mere weeks, instead of months, in South Africa each year. Greg Minnaar celebrates at UCI DH World Cup in Fort William, Scotland on June 4th, 2017. Photo credit: Bartek Wolinski/Red Bull Content Pool. That he retires to his hometown, the capital of KZN, has furthered the myth. Living his limited South African schedule away from the cycling epicentres of Johannesburg and Cape Town, mean encounters with Minnaar have been fleeting for a few, unlikely for most. He is both ghost and greatness, all at the same time. A champion of lesser maturity would have been embittered by the lack of official recognition from South African authorities and the cycling public at large. Yet despite having left South Africa as a teenager, with precious little local support, Minnaar has been one of the very best sports ambassadors South Africa has ever had. Presentable. Untainted. Minnaar has carried an agency of credibility to all things South African cycling in a racing career which has been more global than any other. Greg Minnaar performs at UCI DH World Cup in Fort William, Scotland on June 4th, 2017. Photo credit: Bartek Wolinski/Red Bull Content Pool. Minnaar remains, almost embarrassingly, the greatest investment South African mountain biking has ever had, without having made any real investment. He is a national treasure. Victories on all three wheel sizes, on bikes with gearboxes… The quality and quantity of his wins are beyond reproach. When Minnaar does officially retire, quantifying the value of what he has done for the image of South African cycling will be incalculable. One does hope, perhaps, for a statue in bronze, nestled in Cascades forest. But if they don’t do that, renaming Pietermaritzburg airport after him would be great, although the greatest mountain biker of all time prefers to do his own flying, piloting a handlebar instead of a yoke. Greg Minnaar’s 7th win at UCI DH World Cup in Fort William, Scotland on June 4th, 2017. Photo caption: Bartek Wolinski/Red Bull Content Pool.
  10. 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. Yolanda Neff has embraced the dropper seatpost this season. 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. Even more experienced campaigners like Florian Vogel are looking to droppers posts to improve their performances. The dropper might be an enabler of greater safety, fluidity and speed when descending technical terrain, but the absence of it in the pit area at UCI World Cup and Championship racing has been entirely understandable. DH courses require no climbing, hence competitors’ seatposts are fixed in a slammed-down position by default and for XCO riders, who’ll lace riding shoes with fishing line to save weight, the idea of running seatposts with twice the collective gram count is unconscionable.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. Fall-Line are making dropper seatpost with the weight conscious in mind. Their lightest offering weighs 385 grams including cabling and remote. 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. The Specialized Diverge Carbon Di2 adventure bike offered a 35 mm travel adjustable seatpost. 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…
  11. Two weeks ago, one of our own did the unconscionable. After much teasing of bits and pieces on social media, the greatest mountain biker South Africa has – and likely ever will – produce did what many considered impossible. He introduced 29-inch wheels to the discipline most resistant to it. That category of our cycle sport where you need a full-face helmet. Downhill racing remains the truest test of material quality and design survivability in all of cycling. If it works on the impossibly steep, near-apocalyptically technical courses of UCI Downhill World Cup racing, there can be no argument of a trend being mere ‘fashion’. Downhill has remained the last vestige of smaller diameter wheels and an environment forbidden to the 29er. Until now. Of all downhill racing teams who could, it was always most obvious who would. Santa Cruz’s Syndicate has captured the imagination of mountain biking over the last decade and if fans were going to gift anyone the generosity of judgement to debut a 29er downhill rig, it was them. The Bus that Greg built Campaigning the winningest bike in downhill racing history (the ever-evolving V10), the 2017 World Cup opening round in Lourdes, France, saw Greg Minnaar and his teammates on a 29ers. Neutral observers noted it as an inevitability of evolution. A triumph of scientific method and mechanical engineering principles: bigger wheels roll faster, calming trail chaos – and in the category of mountain biking where winning requires wheels to calm outrageously technical trails, 29 downhill bikes were predictable.Component scarcity and frame packaging were the historical issues preventing 29ers on the chairlift. Fox’s appropriately sized dual-crown 29er fork and committed component reengineering from suppliers enabled Greg’s titanic V10. A massive downhill sled with no less than 1300mm between the axles. For Minnaar, the V10 29er is a unicorn of his youth turned to reality. Greg’s career is a staggering palmarès of achievement, but for the first time, after nearly two decades of downhill racing, 2017 is the year he’s riding a bike which finally fits him properly. An unusually tall rider (1.9m), Minnaar has quested after longer, larger bikes for years, forcing Santa Cruz to engineer custom frames to his requirements. Finally, he can now bolt-through wheels which are proportional to his skill and size. Tall downhill riders have yearned for 29er frames, but none had the power of persuasion to influence an industry into supplying the required components and framesets. Minnaar’s power of persuasion is simple: he wins. When he requires something, it’s not for fashion, it’s for function. There is a tremendous clarity of purpose about his limousine wheelbase V10. After the first downhill World Cup of 2017, we do know that these 29er downhill bikes from Santa Cruz are plenty fast. And they’re not only fast when being piloted by someone of Minnaar’s size and leverage strength. His two young teammates, Loris Vergier and Luca Shaw, resemble the physiology of Tour de France climbing specialists, yet they were even quicker than Greg during qualifying. Vergier first, Shaw third and the great man timed through in sixth. Of course, we all know the inclement weather in Lourdes ruined any closure concerning the actual race pace of these 29er downhill bikes, but there were no rim failures in qualifying. Or the race. The worst fail being a flat for Greg during qualifying. What 29 downhill bikes mean for the rest of us? The market for 29er downhill bikes will remain very small. A true example of that marketing phrase we often use without consideration: niche.What these 29-inch downhill bikes will mean for the greater mountain bike community, is quite a bit more significant. Nothing validates product strength and design integrity quite like downhill. If Greg can’t break it, you surely won’t even trouble the warranty department - ever. And whilst Fox 40 forks are hardly going on your next 29er trail bike, the real benefit for tall (and heavy) stage racers and Enduro riders alike, will be immensely improved wheels and tyres. Larger diameter wheels flex more. They have greater susceptibility to buckling. In World Cup downhill racing those characteristics are intolerable. Rim suppliers, and the tyre brands who collaborate with them, are now poised to produce products capable of withstanding a calibre of rider abuse you could never replicate – in the diameter you ride. For those larger riders who compete at South African stage races, courageously training with great intensity but destined to remain 100kg+ riders no matter how diligently they Bant, the promise of 29er rims capable of withstanding Greg at full gas will be tremendously heartening. What Minnaar subjects a wheel to during a weekend of downhill racing, is certainly equal to years of regular use. If you are a former competitive rugby player, with the knee problems to prove it, and have discovered the allure of mountain biking, 29er DH bikes are going to make your trail riding and stage racing experience greatly more enjoyable. How? By providing wheels and tyres which won’t prejudice their performance or longevity due to your size or weight. It’s all courtesy of that great man we never quite sufficiently credit for being so effortlessly calculated, technically astute and ridiculously fast. The greatest of all time. Greg. The boy who was born to race 29ers. And has had to wait a very long time to.
  12. It’s deeply embarrassing when one is required to unclip, and push one’s single-speed. Especially in Stellenbosch, where you are more likely to be passed by a pro mountain biker than almost anywhere else in South Africa. For someone who’s life revolves more around cars than bikes (though I am biased towards the latter of late), it’s even worse when you’re questioned why you are pushing, in a Boland accent, by a man who drives better than any of us do. Giniel de Villiers, South African motorsport ambassador without compare and absolute cycling fanatic. Gentleman that he is, Giniel slowed down his pace and waited for me to remount, and as we traversed a link trail, sedately, the conversation turned to weather. Or rather, the extreme nature of it. I knew Giniel had been in KZN for an off-road motorsport event around the same time many people were discovering just how much mud clearance wasn’t enough, on their chainstays or pedals, during the sani2c. Giniel spoke of bitter cold and terrain turned near impossible by water. This is a man who’s reference for what is rideable (or driveable) is beyond anything you or I could imagine. Before we parted ways, he made an observation of where we were riding. Stellenbosch. The border of Boland and Cape Town and currently a place starkly drought stricken. It highlighted the massive diversity of weather affected terrain South African mountain bikers can experience, and how often the variety of conditions can defeat the assumed awareness of our preparations for a race or Sunday ride. Mud and mountain bikes don’t get along When snow started to blanket Sani pass, most knew this year’s eponymously named race to the sea was going to become an extreme weather event. The rain was unrelenting too, converting some of South Africa’s most renowned trails to flowing tributaries of mud, instead of navigable singletrack.I followed friends’ social media feeds, who were competing, and completely surrendered myself to trusting in the tagging discipline of those involved – for there was no way of recognising anyone, faces caked in midlands mud. Bikes took a beating at this year's sani2c. Photo credit: Anthony Churchyard. Bikes? Crisis. The punishment suffered by the bikes appeared to be nothing less than frightfully expensive. You can lube all you like, but a drivetrain will become a grinding paste conduit in conditions like sani2c 2017 and brakes, down there at the hub-line and in a mud-projectile path of that back wheel you’re following, suffer badly. Suspension stanchions collect a terrifying coat of contaminants too. As pity welled within for the mechanical wear and admiration built for those riders who had endured (and dare I say: enjoyed) the race, I couldn’t help but wonder if a rather cheap component could not have made a substantial difference to most sani2c competitors. Something really cheap. We’re talking R100. Or even a quarter of that if you have the time and mindfulness to make it yourself. Borrowing some off-road motorcycling wisdom The mystery component? Fenders. You can call them mud-guards, but I prefer fenders and if you’ve ever ridden with one in muddy or wintery conditions – well, you’d never go without one again. South African mountain bikers are masters of heat and dust. We speak with indisputable authority on hydration and correct cadence when temperatures are close to melting grips. Our group riding tactics in dust, and methods of coping with it, are proven. Wet weather and mud? Not so much. Northern Hemisphere riders deal with mud and rain as a default. And from their commuter to mountain bikes, you’ll see fenders on a great many things in the Alps and British countryside. Because they work, keeping you safe and your bike’s suspension in better condition. Safe? Yes, safe. That fender over your front wheel does a great job preventing projectiles of mud hitting you in the eye, avoiding that momentary flinching and potentially catastrophic steering reaction that can ensue. Some might mock this as an impossibility due to the angle required, but with the appropriate speed and trail surface you’ll be amazed at the reach of mud and small stones, capable of a target zone way beyond the forearms and chest, and into the face. Fenders moderate your maintenance costs too. You’re not going to keep all the gunk off those fork stanchions, but a fender increases shielding and if you consider how crucial your front suspension is on a bike, that’s an investment worth protecting. Mud also adds weight, especially if it is being sprayed onto the downtube over the course of 100km, a fender will protect your downtube from some residual mud build-up. Better yet, with its angle, shape, and flexibility, you’ll shed most of the mud build-up on a fender every few kilometres, as it vibrates - thereby shedding mud at speed over trail undulations. Despite all of these benefits, we remain an anti-fender nation. Inexplicably. Quite possibly because of fashion and an undesirable association with MX bikes. Both are rather shallow instances of ignorance. I’ve ridden with fenders in the dry, and they catch a fair number of small trail projectiles too, which I’m very grateful for – having been clipped in the eye often enough by debris in the past. There’s a notion that they’re not particularly aero, but then again: most of a mountain bike, even a negative stem carbon stage racer, is not remotely aero either. If I was packing my kit bag for this year’s Sani2C – or any stage race - there’d always be a fender in there: it’s only 30 grams and worth that weight in gold in when you need it.
  13. Seventy-five thousand Rand. It’s not a perfect, actuarially verified number, but one with the least disagreement when a price point is fixed to what a new South African mountain bike, with a stage racing number cable-tied to its handlebars, is valued at. Inflate that number with race entries, fuel (as in food), logistics (the fossil fuel to get you to an event and home), component wear and maintenance over a season, and I think R150 000 is a fair expression for the value of your mountain biking experience as a South African. That said, a South African who participates in one or two of the more noteworthy local stage races. That’s just shy of R13 000 a month, which is a not insignificant investment, preliminary long term health benefits notwithstanding. I say preliminary because there has never been a mass participation sport with such reach and popularity in South Africa, which has such severe medical consequences if you get it wrong. And we all do, some many times more over than others. Unless your boss is the other half of your 2017 stage racing team, sympathy for being absent, or less than efficient in your presence at work, due to a mountain biking injury between negligible and none at all. Pure mechanical failures are hardly ever to blame anymore. Most of the training or race crashing which inflate your medical aid premiums are self-inflicted. Andrew Savage taking to the air. Photo credit: Lance Branquinho. Have bikes become too good? In principle, two gatekeeping functions have always prevented riders from accessing features and terrain that could be well beyond their ability: fitness and bike failure.A decade ago rims folded, tubed tyres punctured at the merest hint of any square-edged terrain, stems were long enough to bridge rivers and fully extended seatposts were always keen to tip you over the bars. Those bikes capable of sending features were so heavy, only the truly committed had the fitness to pedal (or patience to push) them anywhere. In 2017, stage racing 29ers have dropper seatposts and impressively robust suspension platforms. The riding fitness of many South African weekend warriors is worryingly pro-am too. And that’s where the problem is: capable bikes, with unskilled riders, fit enough to pedal themselves into trouble – at speed. You see some brilliantly conditioned working – as opposed to riding – professionals suffer the most horrendous crashes at South African stages races. Joel Stranksky’s crash on the 2017 Epic prologue gruesomely revealed this reality: here is a man with focus (crisis, he won a Rugby World Cup for us), impeccable fitness and riding experience (7 Epics) who admitted that he simply found himself in a situation beyond his skill level. Skill level. We invest obscene amounts in power meters and endurance base-building riding camps, VO2 max tests, and supplements, but precious few people will admit their bike skills are poor. Even fewer will make any attempt to improve them. The risk of ending your race, in probability your season and in worst cases – your riding – with a skills deficiency crash is very real. Inexplicably, most choose to ignore this issue – despite excellent tutoring being available, at a fraction of the cost you are already investing in your mountain biking. Is pride the price to pay? What is the psychology at play? This notion which prevents people who are highly proficient in all other spheres of their life, to prioritise all training elements of their biking, besides the competency to ride said mountain bike safely across terrain that could pose risk?When you wish to fly a private plane, you go for exhaustive training. If you buy an expensive, high-performance car, you attend an advanced driving course for the day. Nice boat? Skippers license. Mountain bike capable of speeds across broken terrain that would cause most SUVs to fail? “There’s some lube for you, Sir, enjoy your bike…” Unless you have a background in BMX or riding off-road motorcycles, any ability at most non-wheeled outdoor sports (bar trail running, perhaps) will not transfer into intuitive bike riding skills. And if you are training and riding in a group of like-minded riders, as we all do – gravitating to people of similar interests and priorities - there’s no possibility of you improving skills. You can ride for years with deficient technique, or you can spend an afternoon with a proper coach, and revolutionise your mountain biking experience. There are skills coaches and there are skillz coaches. Suffice to say the best riders do not always have the manner to impart knowledge, for those who are gifted even the most elementary inputs could be intimidatingly advanced to a student. But South Africa does have some capable people offering skills clinics in most of the metropoles. Using the Golf analogy is cruelly ironic, but the probability of perfecting a golf swing, as a novice player starting in your 30s, is virtually impossible. A skilled technical rider, observing a fit student descending over some rocks and navigating a corner, will immediately analyse all discrepancies and be able to set about remedying them. No. You don’t require a desire to race DH or Enduro. But exchanging bad habits for superior technique will make you safer, love your inherently capable bike more and most importantly – also make you faster. Does all of this source in pride? A defiant sense of shielded inferiority, that if one has the income to buy a R75 000 bike and the budget to race, one is successful at most ventures in life – and as such should be entirely skilled at riding a mountain bike over technical terrain too? Could be. But it certainly does not have to. My advice? Suspend the pride, use a pseudonym when enquiring if you wish, pay with cash if you want to be truly untraceable, but ride around some cones and then some corners, with a skills (instead of conditioning) coach watching. It’s inarguably the best money you’ll ever spend on your mountain biking. Because skills work, all of the time. Could perhaps be the cryptic meaning behind S-Works…
  14. Announcing the obvious is insulting to one’s audience, so I am not here to tell you about the days which follow. I’m not going to risk a fantasy league prediction (which will inevitably be wrong), or raise concerns about the route, or nominate the queen’s stage or most out of category climb. If you ride mountain bikes, you’ve been served all the relevant content. I won’t be at Meerendal on Sunday. Nor will I be at any of the following days. I won’t watch the Epic’s daily broadcast highlights or obsessively follow the social media feeds. And neither will I be that possessed person late for every appointment this week, because I’m in the corridor or lobby, maddeningly attempting to refresh my device to show the latest rider tracking map. There is absolutely no interest for me to participate in the Cape Epic. Cost. Training hours. Trail grading. These are all prohibitive factors, but - I am not indifferent it to. Photo credit: Sam Clark. Cape Epic. SPORTZPICS. Aspiration is not a bad thing South Africa hosts stage races that are the envy of all. I’ve had Australian friends compete in the Epic, and they spoke for an entire week only in hyperbole when describing the event, especially its slick logistics.For all its scale, standing and international appeal we occasionally like to hate on the Epic a bit. I understand the resistance to its corporatism and the cost escalation, elements regarded in contrast to the ethos of mountain biking being an affordable, off-road, adventure activity. Targeting the Epic with ridicule is ridiculous. Like the retellings of high school or university memories, which grow greater in exaggeration and further from fact with time, criticism of the Epic has risen in parallel to the event’s popularity. It strikes me as sourcing from a sense that this eight-day stage race is not what mountain biking is supposed to be. But that’s an absurdly philosophical question: what is mountain biking supposed to be? Downhill. Endurance stage racing. Trail riding. Enduro. Freeriding. Self-supported off-road touring. Gravel grinding on CX bikes. XCO. Off-road cycling can surely be all these things, without being held captive by a single definition. Mountain biking is the participation sport and recreational activity of choice in South Africa 2017. It’s growth in the last decade has been immense, driven in no small part by the very active local racing calendar. Anchoring all of this, is our most prestigious race: the Epic. Photo credit: Sportzpics. Gary Perkin. Cape Epic. Perception and prejudice For years, I was anti-Epic. How I dreaded that 6am Monday morning redeye between Cape Town and Joburg, with the inevitable Cape Epic branded fellow flyers: wearing their t-shirts, week after week. How I judged people who still rode with their Epic race numbers on their bikes, in October. How one nearly recoiled with the embarrassment at social events, when an intermediary would attempt to introduce you to someone who had done the Epic, because, you know: “they are a really serious mounter biker, you’d get along”.During this period of indifference to the race, I would often mischievously mention the Cape Pioneer Trek in conversation, when the Epic was raised amongst new acquaintances. Or ask Epic riders why their Tallboys didn’t have dropper seatposts, as it was a mandatory requirement for all Santa Cruz bikes. And then a friend did it. Someone who had left South Africa many years ago. On the lawn at Oak Valley, we sat chatting, and he confessed the inevitable: “this place, you know, it’s still the most beautiful place in the world. The variety. I see it differently now, to when I left”. Photo credit: Sportzpics. Gary Perkin. Cape Epic. My mate’s participation was an epiphany. He was nearly disqualified at the Meerendal prologue for riding in a lycra wife-beater (I hate the term, but vest is too generous a description for what he was riding in). His partner tested the organisers resolve even more by following in a The Phantom outfit (die ‘Skim’ if you read Rapport comics in the 1980s). Virulently anti-establishment, they found the event to be rewarding. The benefit of influence The Cape Epic has prestige. It might not be your kind of riding (it certainly is not mine), but it provides a great adventure for participants, especially the foreigners. And the appeal of it has attracted an affluent and ambitious rider, the likes of which South African biking had not known before. You might not like the people who participate, and find the ease at which they afford entry fees and the compounding costs of training for the event upsetting, but you never have to ride with them.What the Cape Epic rider gifts all of us, is an ambition of agenda. Numbers will always turn the tide, yes, but your sport can always benefit from influential participants. South Africa has a formalised trail network the quality and breath in 2017 that was unimaginable in 2007. This despite many fires in the corresponding period, which destroyed riding resources. The driven, career-obsessed, type-A personalities who are drawn to the Epic, are the calibre of people to further our trail access and security agenda. Especially when private - or public - authorities are indifferent to what we perceive as reasonable demands. You don’t need to socialise with them, or ask them why they ride a negative stem, but the benefit of having them on our side is valuable. ‘But what of the cost? These events are making everything more expensive, I remember when tyres were R120’. Yes, when tyres flatted all the time too, and suspension only worked if ambient temperatures were warm enough. Photo credit: Sportzpics. Gary Perkin. Cape Epic. The desire for superior stage racing bikes, to place as best possible at the Epic, has ushered in the current market of motorcycle comparable mountain bike pricing. And the Epic as an event is not cheap, but it is certainly affordable to a sufficient number, with demand handsomely exceeding available entries, hence you can hardly question the pricing logic of those organising. Would the Pyga Stage exist if there was no Epic? Would we have local carbon-fibre wheel suppliers such as South Industries and cSixx? These are products to be proud of as a South African mountain biker, and most of their business case sources in the demands of riders who desperately want to compete at the Epic. And that’s why I’m down with it. The Epic makes people who have the disposal income to do so, buy a lot of new stuff, and the next year, you can buy that stuff, at quite a discount. South African mountain bike ownership is driven by stage racing, and the larger that bike park becomes, the greater its pre-owned tradability too, which is a great way of recycling value to those with less spending power, thanks to the gift of depreciation. The Cape Epic is not so much good for, as much as it is crucial, to South African mountain biking. There needs to be an event this calibre: the marketing, exclusivity – all those things I’m not drawn to, but appreciate. And it’s the one true endurance test Downhill riders take. 2011 World Champion, Tracey Mosely has done one and our very own legend beyond compare, Greg Minnaar, two. Not real mountain biking? You tell them that.
  15. German cars are the focus of our four-wheeled desires, but where are all the German mountain bikes? Click here to view the article
  16. It’s the great curiosity of contemporary mountain biking, an absence of German bikes despite the crushing excellence of German mechanical engineering in relation to all other things wheeled. And it’s not a case of Germans being averse to cycling. Europe’s most populous country has abundant cycling infrastructure and commuting by pedal-powered two-wheeler is robustly encouraged by all Germans. But riding off-road? Less so. Despite its tiny corner of amazing Alpine terrain in the extreme south-west, mountain biking is not embraced in Germany with equal opportunity - as is the case across the Rhine, in France. I’d table population density and a premium on land use as the reason. Munich, the closest of Germany’s large cities to Alpine terrain, doesn’t have nearly the trail network it should. In and around that very same Munich, and across the Bavarian state border in Stuttgart, is perhaps the most remarkable concentration of mechanical engineering expertise in the world. A heritage of cuckoo clock precision tinkering, evolved over centuries, to its current offering of absolute domination in global automotive technology. Nobody engineers and innovates for private transport, quite as Germans do. And not merely on a grand corporate scale, either. Nicolai frames are hand crafted in Lübbrechtsen, Germany. Much of Germany’s modern economic miracle is anchored in Mittelstand companies. Smaller enterprises, most family owned, with exceptional specialisation in technical fields and niche manufacturing. The Mittelstand companies have strategic vision provided by the world’s best technical universities and products built by some of the very best artisan system graduates. If you’ve ever seen the craftsmanship on a boutique German aluminium bike, you’d know. They build everything. But bikes? Why do German bike brands remain slumbering giants (pun, intended), if it’s such a wish list environment for engineering and industrial design? The domestic commuter market is immense and for most, demand has been sufficient to sustain a profitable business. But commuters are not our concern, nor are the custom bikes that German engineers have teased us with so often in the past – as vanity projects for the automotive industry.Signalling a looming revolution, are Canyon and YT. With their disruptive direct sales business model and bikes of distinctive style – Capras aren’t mistaken for anything else – and notable innovation (Canyon’s shape-shifter geometry), the German mountain bike Blitzkrieg could be imminent. The assembly line at Canyon's factory in Koblenz. German ingenuity in mountain biking is inarguable. SRAM’s drivetrain engineering R&D office isn’t in Schweinfurt because the beer and bacon is that much better than Colorado Springs. One by eleven. Eagle. These are examples of what SRAM’s German engineers deliver when challenged – and the justification for SRAM to have a crucial part of its business operating nine time zones away. With a virtually inexhaustible pool of talent schooled in the fields of conceptual design and prototyping, balanced by an absurd adherence to strict testing protocols and an obsession with flawless manufacturing, why would you want to have a bike design bureau anywhere else but Germany? Looking beyond the road Europe is biased towards road cycling but the e-bike phenomenon has enabled an entire new pool of off-road riders to explore gradient terrain without yellow or white lines.The demand for suspension e-bikes is enormous and that should redress some of the supply chain and strategic bias toward road bikes, which have dominated European cycling as a business ever since vélos became more sport than transport after the war. You wouldn’t principally bet against the Germans to build a pretty decent e-bike, now would you? ‘I hate e-bikes. What are you on about?’ European off-road e-bikes are stimulating demand for quality carbon fibre mountain bike frame design in a way unlike ever before. And in Germany, despite its lack of aviation production – ordinarily the gateway industry to downstream advanced material availability – composites have become big business. Kiwi enduro racer Justin Leov's Canyon Spectral. The automotive industry, in an obsessive drive to reduce vehicle mass, is partnering with composite manufacturers or simply establishing their own carbon fibre entities. And the benefit of this will be access to superior quality composites for the German mountain bike industry. Beyond Canyon and YT, Cube and Focus, there could be a tide of new German boutique manufacturers. Highly skilled mechanical engineers, most with a background at BMW, Mercedes-Benz or Porsche, and a love of mountain biking, able to start niche composite frame building businesses. The composite compound quality effect ‘Who cares about BMW carbon fibre bits, it’s not a tube, has nothing to do with bikes.’ The issue is not specific finishing, which will always be industry specific, but the supply chain of quality carbon source material. Global demand for quality source carbon is hierarchical: military, aviation, automotive. Your bicycle frame is not a first tier customer, unless it’s made by someone who weaves their own carbon, such as French brand Time.But if you are an aspiring bike brand operating in an environment where quality carbon is available, and there are ample skills servicing Airbus or BMW composites in proximity to your office, the leveraging possibilities are phenomenal. Utah has great trails and tax incentives for business, but don’t believe for a moment Enve’s head office and manufacturing is there for only those reasons. Utah also hosts most of the United States’ strategic aviation design and the depth of skills around Salt Lake City, in composites engineering, are prodigious. YT Industries are building up an impress portfolio of sponsored riders, including World Cup Downhill Champion Aaron Gwin. YT. From nowhere into desirable fringe brand. Their marketing is indisputably excellent and the current World Cup Downhill champ is on one. Beyond that, the business is run in a manner that is German in its retail cost recovery (South African exchange rate afflicted pricing notwithstanding). Canyon’s ambition in 2017 is the US market, one never to be underestimated with the distribution and customer service demands across a territory with multiple time zones. Considering the reach of its portfolio (from road to downhill) and the ability of German businesses to absorb errors and evolve them to improvement, Canyon will surely be anointed as the vanguard global German bike brand in future; though it’s been in business for three decades. Innovation. Precision. These are the anchors of German engineering. There isn’t a similar contamination of trends as often happens in the US industry. An upsurge of German boutique composite mountain bike brands could provide the necessary outliers we’ve been waiting for, to counter the (perceived) coercive agenda set by the current big three: Giant, Specialized and Trek. The very same brands who submarined European cycling in the 1980s with price, now have a return torpedo to deal with as YT and Canyon go Trans-Atlantic. Competition will equal greater innovation. The tyres you ride off-road are already German. Your next bike could probably be too.
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