Interview: Chris Porter, on his custom Nicolai Ion 16

The full lowdown on the Mojo main man's slack, long and low machine

If you've read our Super Bike feature on Chris Porter's custom Nicolai, either in the pages of Mountain Biking UK or here on BikeRadar, you'll know this is no ordinary machine. If not, you can refresh your memory here. Want to know why Chris settled on such an extreme set-up? read on for the full lowdown...

MBUK: You’re well known for having strong opinions when it comes to bike geometry. When did this all start, and do you think the bike industry is taking too long to catch up?

Chris: I used to work at a motorcycle magazine back in the early 90s. It was a time when there were a lot of geese and not many people saying boo to them! Superbike motorcycle geometry has pretty much settled now, but back then even wheel size wasn't settled (sound familiar?). A group test of 750cc superbikes would range from the super-long, slack and stable Suzuki GSXR 750, where you could scrub the front tyre edge going into corners without upsetting the bike, to the super-twitchy Yamaha YZF750, which was short and tall. That thing would change direction from left to right fantastically but needed a skilled rider to be happy on the edge of the tyre and would wheelie like a demon because the weight was so high!

I got into racing DH in the early 90s and found you could make massive differences to the dynamic ride angles of the bikes with fairly small adjustments to the (very basic at the time) suspension. Ever since then I’ve been trying to understand what makes a two-wheeled singletrack vehicle behave like it does. The bike industry is (mostly) too scared to do anything new or even different in case it doesn’t sell, so they tend to make things that look exactly like last year's bikes but with that ‘magic’ quarter of a degree here and a few millimetres there.

Mondraker made a massive move with their Forward Geometry, but it’s still not enough for big guys! It’s way better because it’s longer than anything else around, but it’s only what people of 5ft 6in have been able to achieve for years.

Have you been unhappy with the bikes you’ve had over the years?

On the contrary – I’m always happy with my latest bike because I always have the best I can find at any given point. I love to mess with the bikes and make head angle, BB height, suspension and other changes, so I haven’t been running stock angles since about 94/95. There was a point in the late 90s/early 2000s where I’d use DH bikes as trail bikes with light wheels and tyres – pretty much what we call ‘enduro’ now, but with a crappy seat angle.

This is a long bike – how tall are you?

Not so tall – 6ft 1in. Not many people are on bikes big enough!   

Is this the first custom frame you’ve had made?

Well… there was the bike we dubbed ‘the Death Bike!’ A bike ahead of its time.

Seriously, Orange were really good about supplying our DH team with what they wanted. The closest they ever got with me was sending a Steve Peat frame from the last year he rode with them. It had a 63-degree head angle, which was pretty slack for the time, and a 49in wheelbase, which was massive at the time too. It was genius in the tight turns, honestly superb. 

From then, I wanted more of that good stuff. If long, slack and low was good, it followed that longer, slacker and lower would be even better! We sponsored Fabien "58-degree head angle at Les Gets” Barel, and it went downhill from there. At my worst I had a 61.5-degree head angle for what I call XC and what we now call ‘enduro’.

This is your second custom frame from Nicolai. How is it different to the first?

I was still doing lots of experimentation with my Mondraker Dune at the time the first Ion turned up, so it sat there not being used. Tim Williams, our ops manager here at Mojo, had gone through the laborious process of going back and forward with Nicolai until we had the design sorted and it was eating him up seeing it sat there clean! So he rode it and the first time out he was faster than on the Lapierre Spicy he’d been working on most of the winter. The second time out, he beat his best climb times too! If it worked for Tim at 5ft 11in, I knew I was going to need to try something even bigger.

What are the main differences between your frame and a regular Ion 16?

It’s longer, slacker and lower. Simple.

Could you give us some geometry numbers?

The BB height is 330mm. I’d been running as low as 315-325mm on the Dune. I can build custom length shocks so I can try a huge range of BB heights. I reckon 325-330mm will be the final number. The chainstays are 450mm but I have 455mm and 460mm versions on order too. The head angle is 63 degrees with a minus-one-degree adjuster headset in. It was designed to be 63 degrees but I've dropped the BB enough to effect a one degree change. 

Reach is a nonsense number, unless you look like a T-square. The standard top tube measurement is also a bit lame, because the seat isn't at one end of the measurement and the handlebar isn't at the other. The 700mm top tube measurement I use is from the centre of the handlebar to the centre of the seat clamp.

 The measurement from the centre of the BB to the centre of the outside of the handlebar is 910mm – the same as on my KTM enduro MXer, as is the outside diameter of the front wheel, which is incidentally about the same as the old Michelin Comp 32 2.8in tyre I used to use at Fort Bill.

What do you want from a bike, as this is a radical frame in many ways?

I want a bike to handle as well as possible! No more or less. 

I don’t believe this is radical. It has similar handling numbers to a normal DH bike. It’s nothing like a traditional XC bike but they've been turned into dirt-road bikes better suited to Tarmac than our steep, wet tracks! The only thing that's usable from XC bike geometry is the steep seat tube angle for an efficient pedalling position. Once you have that you can make the chainstays longer and sit down when going up even steeper climbs than an XC bike can handle! If the front wheel is far enough away you can lean on it without feeling as if you'll go over the bars. If you have to push yourself back because the bike is too short and steep, you'll not be able to weight the front tyre and it will push wide. It's not rocket science!

Describe the kind of trails this bike was intended to excel on...

Everywhere! it has a great combination of attributes so it should excel everywhere. Although it's about me looking for a particular type of ride, it's a type of ride everyone is after!

What does it weigh? 

I don't normally weigh bikes, but I'll do it for you! 32lb. It weighs as much or as little as I can make it weigh without compromise. I could run a lighter bar but it wouldn't be the right width. I could run lighter tyres, but the carcasses wouldn't have enough support. Etc, etc. Every single item on the bike has been thought about and modded to the max, I assure you!

What do you think about the usual formula of three to four frame sizes for a bike?

The number of sizes isn't the problem – the problem is that those sizes are mostly wrong. The frames are too short, and that's corrected by using ridiculous stem lengths, like on a road bicycle. In order to get a bike that's long enough, most people have to go to a frame that's too tall in the seat tube. 

Our legs are half the height of our body and we get a full 25mm or more between sizes in extra seat tube height. When you look at the difference in the length of the frame from the cranks to the head tube (the full length of the human machine!) you're lucky to get 15mm. Try running a dropper post at the minimum insertion mark in an XL frame and imagine what that person would look like and whether he'd be banging his knees on the stem. Bike design is geared towards humans that look like a T-Rex, with massive legs and short arms!

With brands like Mondraker, Kona and GT increasing the overall length of their bikes, do you think this shift will be more widely adopted?

You'll get what you're given unless you want to start your own bike company! They'll all do the same thing as each other to lengthen, lower and slacken their bikes, which is great. Don't knock it, encourage it! You can always put an Angleset in the other way (like I did) and steepen it if it's too much fun!

Do you think the average rider is put off by new designs that challenge preconceived notions?

The riders have to buy what the manufacturers make. The haters on the forums might have some clear ideas about what a bicycle should look like aesthetically and technically, but few of them could tell you the angles and measurements on the bikes in question. That's normally not the main concern, it's a fashion industry so most people buy the bike that looks nice. I love the Bauhaus (German design school from the 30s) idea that ‘form follows function’ – if it works, it looks right.

Are bikes homogenised? Of course – they're mostly made in the same factories! I love the fact that the 'designers' are currently desperately trying to make the chainstays on their 29ers shorter. By shoving in the bigger wheels, they accidentally made 29ers handle quite well by giving them long chainstays. Now they're working to make them work less well! Five to 10 years ago a quick walk around Eurobike would have been the 'black, white and red, carbon road bike walk of doom', with thousands of road bikes that all looked the same except for a slightly different arrangement of elements in the decals. MTBs are fast becoming the same.

Give us a quick rundown on the spec...

Quick? I’m afraid not!

My front wheel is a Mavic Crossmax SLR – I can run a light front wheel becauses I have a clamped axle for stiffness on the Fox 36 fork. I'd prefer a slightly wider rim, but with the EXO carcass, the 2.4in Maxxis High Roller II tyre is sturdy enough at 24-26psi. I've removed the central axle and I run the 20mm axle directly on the bearings, with seals removed for faster rolling but more maintenance, using Hope Pro II 20mm spacers.

I run a POWA Products DFender mudguard because Paul Walton and I run the company, and once you have tried one in the mud you won't ride without one again. I actually love riding in the mud now.

My rear wheel is a stock Mavic Crossmax Enduro with the freewheel seal replaced by a cut-down Fox 36 foam ring. It means the freewheel has no drag whatsoever, but does mean I have to do more maintenance.

I'm going to try a Hope 40T-REX range extender sprocket on the cassette, which will mean I can run a 34t chainring at the front. I'll get a slightly easier gear but I'll gain a little top speed gear too. It may screw up the shifting though, because the B limit screw pulls the derailleur a mile away from the 11t cog now. We'll see – I'll go 32/36t again if it doesn't work.

I always run a hard compound, fast rolling tyre on the rear – a 2.25in Maxxis Ardent EXO at 30-32psi. Unless your speed is governed solely by the brakes, a slickish rear tyre will be faster.

That brings us to the next item, and probably the most important – the stopwatch. It never lies and it is amazingly useful. People who never time anything will say conditions vary too much for timing to be of any use. Yada, yada, yada. Five seconds a minute is pretty much the average variance for the same tyres in any conditions. I know because I time every run! Strava is useful but it's not a stopwatch.

I run an 800mm bar. It would be from Renthal if they made one, but I'm happy with this one from PRO, even though it weighs as much as it does. I'm pretty big and a bar is no place to lose weight (hmm, I’ve never lost weight stood at the bar!). It's the same width as the one on my KTM and I tend to run the same shoulders between bikes. Ahem...

I'm using a Mondraker OnOff 10mm stem because they're the only people in the world who have the balls to make one that short! 

The brakes are from Hope. They're a company we at Mojo have always looked up to and tried to emulate – they're Northern Soul personified! I use the Race X2s because if they're bled properly and you use your brakes well, you don't need big DH brakes, and the feel on the X2s is superb.

I use a Shimano XTR transmission because it's still possible to buy it without a clutch much. All suspension systems have a certain amount of chain growth. The clutch mech resists this as the suspension moves through its travel, making the suspension feel s**t. Why would I want that? How can a thick/thin chainring and a clutch be anything other than the emperor's new clothes? I use a chain guide to hold the chain on and look at the wear on every second tooth on my chainring and know I'm suffering from half the drag that I would be on a thick/thin. It's a race down the hill, not a competition to see who can make the chain quietest – say no to clutches!

The Fox DOSS seatpost isn't the quietest either, but it's reliable and easy to set into position. I need no more for speed!

CrankBrothers pedals – they can creak too! They're also pretty soft and they take a beating from being as low as they are. But I use them because they're the only pedals that you can clip into backwards. As a long time flats rider I’m used to simply jammiing my foot back on the pedal somewhere in the middle. If you drop your heels from there the foot will vibrate on the bumps till it clicks in – backwards! 

My XTR cranks are 170mm for added ground clearance. Why don’t manufacturers spec 170s? Even track bikes use them, for goodness sake!

Is there anything interesting going on inside the dampers?

Lots! I use a Fox 36 Float RC2 fork. I've valved the cartridge slightly heavier on compression so I don’t have to hold the fork up on low-speed compression, which can get harsh. I use an older-style seal block in the damper, which has lower friction but requires more servicing. This is a theme you'll see a lot here! You can gain performance in many places but the pay-off is more maintenance – I'm prepared to do that! Most people don't like doing that.I use a different seal on the main piston – same thing again. I use modified main seals – same thing again. I service the fork lowers every five to 10 hours – I love my fork feeling just-serviced. Mint! I've made the air spring sit up slightly higher with a modified negative spring stop and run a VERY progressive spring curve that allows me to run a much lower pressure to get a nice, soft initial feel that doesn’t rely on the top-out spring. Ti bolts instead of QRs saves quite a few grams!

The Fox Float CTD rear shock is a bit of a special. I run a configurable negative spring, which allows me to set the BB height and to have a super-smooth initial movement to the shock stroke. It's even smoother than a coil shock, and verified quicker by the stopwatch at the expense of a few millimetres of travel. I run a very progressive rear air spring too, which means I can get a lively rebound feel from a deeper part of the stroke but stability from the sag zone.

What’s next? 

A bit more of everything? 

Why not a derailleur in the frame? That would dramatically improve the suspension. 

Tyres are the next thing – finding ways of using a light carcass under the tread and a decent sidewall, maybe pressurised like the MX Tubliss system but lighter.

Somewhere to put tools and tubes on the bike? Extra weight in the chassis (improved sprung to unsprung weight ratio) really makes the bike rip over the bumps.

It never stops!

This article was originally published in Mountain Biking UK magazine, available on Apple Newsstand and Zinio.

Olly Forster

Staff Writer, UK
Olly started riding in '94 after reading Mountain Biking UK as a teenager, and by '97 he'd done his first downhill race. Having worked in the bike industry since 2000 in a range of roles, he's still as hungry as ever to test new kit and explore fresh trails.
  • Discipline: Mountain
  • Preferred Terrain: Downhill and trail
  • Beer of Choice: Sierra Nevada IPA

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