Norway's Gunn-Rita Dahle Flesjå, probably the most successful female mountain bike racer ever, has a new weapon for 2008 – her first dual suspension race bike.
The seven-time mountain bike world champion has raced on a hardtail throughout her career but will finally add a full-suspension model to her arsenal this season, Merida's brand-new Ninety-Six. Previously debuted as the 'Beijing', the new Ninety-Six offers (surprise) 96mm of rear wheel travel in a svelte carbon fiber package that is claimed to weigh under 1.9kg (4.2lb), complete with its DT Swiss XR Carbon rear shock and remote lockout lever.
Merida was careful to mimic the geometry of its carbon hardtail when designing the Ninety-Six, but Dahle Flesjå still must put in some valuable time in getting used to her new rig. Surprisingly, the seasoned veteran has never raced on a full-suspension machine, and admits that she's barely even ridden one for any appreciable length of time.
"I don't think I'm going to switch [completely]," she said. "I probably have the chance now to choose, depending on the course, and that's a great benefit in my opinion. I just have to get used to the riding style. And if I feel comfortable on that, then of course, I can probably ride faster on the really technical courses than if I only had the hardtail to choose."
Frame: nano resin & low weight
The carbon main frame and rear triangle employ a mix of monocoque and tube-to-tube construction techniques using pre-compressed prepreg sheets and Merida's own 'Nano-Matrix' resin, which the company says improves impact resistance by 40 percent over standard resins. The rear suspension uses a simple single-pivot architecture for stiffness and durability and includes a short top tube-mounted rocker link to drive the shock. That link was still made from CNC-machined aluminium on Dahle Flesjå's bike when we caught up with her during a training camp in Boulder, Colorado, but Merida ultimately plans on using a carbon piece.
In spite of the frame's relatively short travel, Merida saw fit to equip the Ninety-Six with a low leverage ratio (said to be in the neighborhood of sub-2:1) that keeps operating pressures low and improves the suspension's ability to react to terrain changes. In this particular case, Dahle Flesjå's machine was fitted with a slightly shorter-stroke shock (but with the same eye-to-eye length) that maintained the frame geometry but decreases travel slightly to a more race-appropriate 88mm.
According to Merida research and development head Juergen Falke, however, light weight was but one of several prime objectives. Bottom bracket and front triangle stiffness were of paramount importance as well, and Merida claims a substantial 25 percent advantage in stiffness-to-weight ratio over its next best competitor in the lightweight cross-country segment.
Carefully engineered fiber layup schedules and tube shapes obviously play their usual role here, but the Ninety-Six top and down tubes also house a now-patented surprise. Much like FSA does with its top-end K-Force Light carbon crankarms, the Ninety-Six sports a vertically oriented rib in those spans that bisects both tubes from wall to wall, thus forming two separate chambers.
Both of those additional hidden frame members serve to greatly increase the overall frame stiffness. Falke says that the top tube rib also serves to distribute transmitted shock loads over a larger area. "At the down tube, the vertical rib improves the bending strength of the chassis against forces initiated through the fork, [especially] during hard front wheel braking and causes as well higher head tube stiffness," he said. "As additional benefit, the hit resistance of the down tube's bottom side [from objects thrown up by the front wheel] is still quite reasonable, even [though] the carbon wall thickness of the down tube bottom is very small."
Components: FSW, DT-Swiss, SRAM & more
Just as in years past, Dahle Flesjå's bike continues to wear a healthy dose of FSA componentry, including the carbon fiber seatpost, crankset, ceramic bearing bottom bracket, handlebars, and aluminum stem. In addition to the rear shock, the DT Swiss label is also found on the 190 Ceramic Center Lock disc brake hubs and Aerolite spokes (the Norwegian star's bike was also equipped with DT Swiss aluminum rims as well, although they wore the decals of Taiwanese rim manufacturer Alex). The rest of the build was filled out with SRAM's X.0 twist shifters, X.0 and X-9 derailleurs, PC-991 chain, and PG-990 cassette, Avid Juicy Ultimate disc brakes, Maxxis rubber, and a Selle Italia saddle.
Manitou continues on as Dahle Flesjå's fork sponsor and equips her with its new 80mm-travel R-Seven MRD model that is reportedly fully stock with the exception of some additional crown machining.
Interesting, Dahle Flesjå continues to champion Shimano SPD pedals, in this case from the latest generation XTR group. According to her husband and coach, Kenneth Flesjå, "Gunn-Rita has been getting a lot of [sponsorship] offers, but she feels that Shimano gives her a safer feel and they are bigger. She doesn't want to mess around with other pedals."
Chiming in from across the room, Dahle Flesjå added, "I feel my feet going over like that [makes a 'c' shape with her hand] and I get so cramped!"
With a new rig under her and the health problems that plagued her in 2007 behind her, Dahle- Flesjå shows no signs of slowing down. "I hope I will race even when I am seventy!" she continued. "But as a professional, I will look towards the Olympics in London. So that means at least five more seasons. And I hope my body can handle it!”
We hope her competition can handle it. Watch out, 2008!
What Mountain Bike's Steve Worland will be at the 2008 team launch this week where the Merida Ninety Six bikes will be launched. Read an exclusive First Ride feature in issue 82 of the magazine.
For a longer version of this article with more on Gunn-Rita Dahle's training and preparation, pop over to Cyclingnews.com.