Horse for the Course: Cape to Cape MTB race

Shimano 11-speed XTR and some remote trails

At the end of October I was invited as a guest of Shimano to a very remote area of the world – Margaret River – 277km south of Perth, Australia. The invite was to attend the Cape to Cape mountain bike race and put the new 11-speed Shimano XTR to the test.


The brief from Shimano was a simple one: “Provide your choice of frame, fork and tyres, and we’ll provide the rest.” Deal.

  • The course: 57km of Margaret River’s finest singletrack (and much pedalling to follow after)
  • The equipment goal: A marathon superbike to play host to long-term testing of Shimano 11-speed M9000 groupset
  • The horse: A Niner Jet 9 RDO with a Fox Float Factory fork, Specialized Fast Trak Command rubber and Shimano/PRO everything else

Given the cross-country marathon nature of the event, I wanted a frame that was going to be efficient, but still with enough trail attitude to put the Shimano components to the test. There were many suitable options on the market, but it was the recently updated Niner Jet 9 RDO that caught my eye.

I was in no doubt that this top-tier full carbon frame was deserving of Shimano’s best gear and while a 2380g frame weight (medium frame) wasn’t winning any awards, the solid reputation, versatility and distinctive aesthetic decided it.

In Australia, Niner is distributed by Rowney Sports, the owner being former pro-mountain biker Paul Rowney. If this name rings a bell, it’s because Rowney is a former Olympian and rode for the Cannondale/Sobe team among others. Rowney recommended putting a 120mm fork on the front, something that slackens the head angle and gives a little more trail confidence. Despite it not being an exact match for the 100mm rear, I took the advice.

xx: xx
David Rome / Immediate Media

A 120mm fork on a 29er marathon bike makes for a comparatively tall front end

With the frame sorted, I went about finding a suitable cross-country orientated fork with 120mm of travel. Given the Fox shock on the back, a 2015 Float 29 120mm Factory with Kashima coat was the natural match.

For 2015, the fork received updates in the form of refined Kashima coating, different oil and improvements to the seal head and damper cartridge tune – all changes to seek reduced friction and improve small bump compliance and plushness. As with the frame, the 1.8kg weight (including thru-axle) isn’t amazingly light, but I was optimistic about its ability to deliver the goods reliably. 

xx: xx
David Rome / Immediate Media

Lastly, rubber was needed. Of course when it comes to a cross-country tread there are a plethora of options from nearly every brand. Specifying tubeless, 29in, lightweight and fast rolling didn’t reduce these options either. In the end, I went with a pair of 2015 Specialized Fast Trak Controls. It had been a few years since I last used these, and I wanted to see how far they had come.

Having handed over our part-kitted steed to Shimano’s people, they finished off the build with a complete XTR M9000 XC race group (including wheels) and new Tharsis XC components from in-house component brand PRO. The result – a respectable, but not superlight 10.83kg total build before pedals.

The race

Although the Cape to Cape race is a four stage event that covers some 220km, our invite was for the 57km third stage, one that includes much of the event’s singletrack and has the reputation as being the day with the most fun. In addition to this, the invitational ‘elite only’ RedBull Showdown would take place the evening before, offering time bonuses for those competing – as well as great potential for embarrassment among the rarely participating media types.

There were certainly a few nerves leading into the weekend and, mainly because a hip injury had kept me from doing any form of distance training for a frustrating length of time, to say I was prepared for this event would be an outright lie.

That wasn’t the only factor preying on the mind either. Speak to any experienced rider about doing an event, and the advice will always be the same – ride what you know. Wear your favourite shorts, be confident in your equipment, and never use anything brand new. Well, I had none of those luxuries. 

Having received the bike just hours before the RedBull showdown, there was plenty to go through in terms of setup. Unfortunately the brand new, unseen nature of everything meant that things were far from ideal – and I quickly became a painful sight to the Shimano employees.