I’m always nervous the night before interviewing a big name. Strangely though, as I sat in the car park at Bristol’s Leigh Woods, I got that tingly feeling waiting for a bike. A bike – an inanimate object that couldn’t throw a strop, launch a drink in my face, storm out and get me sacked…
This wasn’t ‘just’ a bike, though – it was Nico Vouilloz’ personal Lapierre XR Team. I grew up pawing through MBUK during the Nineties, a period dominated by Nico. Ten world championships between 1992 and 2002 only tells a fraction of his incredible story, though. What drove Nico were the details – he carried a suspension dyno with him to every race, and every run was a stepping stone to the next tiny fettle that would chip a fraction of a second off of the clock.
The details: Professional touches
Nico’s XR Team, one of only two full builds of the bike in the world, now sat in front of me. Swinging a leg over, I realised that it’s smaller than it looks. The 29in wheels and lengthy wheelbase let my gangly frame get away with it though, and once I’d swapped the brakes over and squeezed some additional pressure into the rear shock (sorry, Nico) we set off.
The chunky foam Ritchey grips aren’t for me but set the tone of the bike – weight and function are paramount. The Formula brake levers were mismatched too – one alloy, one carbon. But the man himself later reassured me that this was just a temporary measure after a crash.
The one-piece (including folded rails) saddle weighs in at a staggering 60g. And, elsewhere, the chunky Fox Racing Shox CTD remote is a definite highlight. It was the first time I’d got hands-on with the system that allows riders to select three separate modes for front and rear shocks (Climb, Trail and Descent).
The small 30t chainring is an unusual personal touch from Nico
Also notable from the off is this dinky 30t chainring and custom carbon fibre chainguide. Nico had apparently raced the bike in a local XC event with some steep sections that required the smaller cog. But he admits to using smaller rings on 29ers, to mimic his preferred 38t on a 26in.
The guide was handcrafted by Nico to accommodate the smaller ring, but he’s since received an e*thirteen number he’s planning on fitting.
The ride: Confident but playful
On the trail, the XR Team’s ride was a bit like getting trouser-loosening levels of fullness after eating a salad. Despite the ingredients all looking as though they’d add up to a twitchy, cross-country race whippet, the feel was of a far more planted trail machine.
Carving through the numerous berms of Leigh Woods and Ashton Court, it oozed confidence. When I loaded the inside of the tyre, the bike audibly bit into the turns and shot out the other side ready for more. Using the Fox CTD system was like nudging on a favourite track in the car just before a familiar fast section of road – even with little fettling I instantly ‘got’ it.
The back end, complete with carefully tuned compliance courtesy of the seatstays, felt controlled and never out of its depth. The bike’s minimal 21lb weight was most noticeable when getting back on the pedals out of turns and pushing hard into climbs.
No expense has been spared with the back end of the bike
Returning to the vans after an hour on the XR Team, I was grinning like a French socialist after this year’s election. There aren’t many people who can say that they’ve ridden Nico’s bike, and I just had. It was an intoxicating combination of being in the presence of a personal bike belonging to one of the greatest racers of all time while being swept along with a capable and accessible suspension platform.
This wasn’t like climbing aboard Rossi’s Ducati, which I’d feared it might be. There were no cutting-edge tricks or settings thrown in to baffle mere mortals. It was probably the easiest hour’s ride the XR Team had ever dealt with, and I doubt I troubled its true capabilities. That said, I was doing my best. I was rewarded with a hard-charging keenness and, dare I say it, playfulness that I wasn’t expecting from the sum of the parts or the illustrious pedigree.
The XR will be available in 529 (£2,699.99), 729 (£3,499.99) and Team (£5,199) models that will all use the same carbon fibre frame (Nico trialled an alloy version but deemed it too heavy). UK importers Hotlines Europe are expecting stock in the next few weeks.