With a reputation built on high-end mountain bikes, Whyte's decision to launch a range of commuting machines last year came as a bit of a surprise. However, this diversification proved a success, and the company have now unveiled another departure from their normal brief – their first drop-bar bikes.
These new prototype cyclo-cross bikes are so new that they haven't been named yet. They're part of the new breed of 'cross bikes intended for mere mortals rather than rulebook-bound pro racers, with disc brakes, bottle bosses, relaxed geometry and room for fat tyres. First impressions suggest they have the potential to be great all-rounders.
Whyte are a UK brand, run by the importers and frequent design instigators of California-based Marin Bikes. Designer Ian Alexander, who took the helm when Jon Whyte moved to Canada a few years ago, comes principally from a mountain bike background, but his fresh approach to design is clearly starting to reap rewards as the brand moves into new areas. We joined him for a ride around Bristol's woodland lanes and trail network aboard prototypes of the new bikes, which won't be officially available until later in the year.
First impressions of the Whyte cyclo-cross bikes' geometry is that it's unusual to the point of initially being disconcerting – at least if you're used to road-bike-like geometry on a 'cross bike. The first thing you notice is that you can see more of the front wheel out front than usual. This is for three reasons – a very short stem, a slacker than usual 69-degree head angle and a long front centre (the measurement from the bottom bracket axle to the front wheel axle).
Off road, these three factors work well together if you stay sitting in the centre of the bike instead of instantly hanging off the back of the saddle when the terrain drops away. But if you're used to dropping off the back of the saddle to avoid the possibility of taking a dive over the bars on a more conventional 'cross bike it takes quite a while to gain confidence to do the opposite. Mountain bikers will adapt more quickly than road/'cross riders.
At slow speeds, on technical terrain, you have to consciously fight the feeling that you need to shift your weight back, because if you do the steering starts to feel a bit wishy-washy, especially under hard braking. But as speeds increase, especially over typical non-technical cyclo-cross terrain, you start to gain confidence to stay sitting (or hovering) over the middle of the bike and let the bike's steering find its own way.
Basically, relax and it trundles along like a well balanced mountain bike wearing skinny tyres. The easy pull (with centre bar interrupter levers), well modulated power of the disc brakes is a massive boost compared to the cantilevers more usually found on 'cross bikes. No more brake judder, scarily inefficient slowing power in the wet and fast wearing rims.
Construction-wise, the frame boasts an interesting assortment of manipulated shaped aluminium tubes, chosen to achieve the right combination of stiffness, strength and comfort. There's loads of mud drop-through room and space for a very big tyre up front and up to 38mm out back. Stays on production models will feature more manipulation for tyre clearance without losing the compact (and noticeably good for climbing) back end.
The steerer is 1.5-1.125in tapered, the straight blade fork is carbon composite and there are rack and bottle eyelets. Fine detail, including paint and componentry choices at several different price points, is still subject to change. But expect to see two models below the £1,000 mark.
We had a quick chat with Alexander about the new bikes. Here's what he had to say:
BikeRadar: What's the frame and fork material of the cyclo-cross bikes?
Ian Alexander: A Whyte designed hydroformed tubeset in 6061 T6 aluminium. We've concentrated on developing a stiff oversize down tube linking together with large asymmetric chainstays, but then using our slimline signature Whyte designed seatstays with a 27.2mm seatpost for as much comfort as possible.
Will the frame and fork be the same throughout the range?
There are two design briefs. One is a commuter orientated concept and the other is a more competition focused frame with extra performance features. Both, however, will have the Whyte developed CX geometry to allow really serious off-road capability.
Roughly what pricepoints are you aiming at?
Obviously, being Bike to Work scheme friendly is important in the UK. At this stage we're not confirmed but expect the range to follow on from Whyte's tremendously successful R-7 flat-bar range.
What sort of rider do you expect to buy one of these bikes?
The cyclo-cross bike is the eponymous crossover category. I think mountain bikers – cross-country and trail riders – who want a road option that lets them commute, but with a change of tyres can do proper off-road events like the 3 Peaks and Hell of the North Cotswolds, will love the Whyte geometry on these bikes. Then you have road riders who also commute but perhaps want to change to CX tyres in the 'cross season and do their local league events as well as CX events.
Could you sum up your approach to cyclo-cross geometry, and explain it...
It's been an interesting concept to develop. I've come at the CX bike from perhaps more of a mountain bike design perspective rather than taking a road bike and adding canti brakes and more clearances. Things like the continuous outer cables and other UK mountain bike design details are key defining points.
The decision to go disc-specific means the bikes have vastly better braking performance off-road [than non-disc cyclo-cross bikes], and this means, as with mountain bikes before, the ability to descend fast and tackle steep and technical off-road sections. This means the geometry has to cope.
I believe that the more stable and surefooted the bike can be, the faster off-road, so the geometry is based around a longer frame length with correspondingly short stems, but in conjunction with a slacker head angle and as wide as possible bar widths to get the cockpit and steering geometry optimised.
Using the top mounted brakes gives a great position on the bike when off-road. I've been impressed with its neutral feel on the road too, we have CX and road setups on test and we're pretty happy.
Where next? Any ideas for the next Whyte level of 'cross or road bikes?
Personally I'd love to see how a titanium version would ride, purely for research purposes of course...