The hangover cappuccinos were still sliding down when the van rolled in. It was the morning after the UCI World Championships in Val di Sole and bleary-eyed riders were beginning to emerge from what slumber they’d managed.
The van, a rental, was manned by two engineers in civvies and was full of tyres from a large French manufacturer, complete with testing and fitting equipment on which the company’s logos were blacked out. The 2016 season was finished, yet already the wheels were about to start turning again thanks to the never-ending quest for the Next Big Thing and consumers’ unquenchable thirst to buy it.
The equation on display was a familiar and time-honoured one — race on Sunday, sell on Monday. This mountain bike manufacturer was seeking to develop a product alongside a suitably high-profile team in order to shift units to Joe Punter.
But does racing and the very extremes of bike handling actually benefit the average consumer? With the advances in computer-aided design, materials and manufacturing should we care whether or not our new tyres have got a contracted rider’s thumbs up?
Jordi Cortes is the head technician for Fox Racing Shox on the UCI World Cup and Enduro World Series circuits. It’s his responsibility to convert riders’ impressions and feedback into mechanical changes capable of cleaving seconds from the clock. Fox has long been involved with racing across many sports and sees it as an ideal arena for testing and development. It’s an integral part of its brand ethos.
“Racing offers a relatively controlled environment with easy access to product and pilot,” explains Cortes. “However, it’s also important to do everyday testing — that’s where you get real-world durability information.”
Cortes played a big part in the development of Fox’s latest rear shocks and credits the latest X2 with a two-position lever as being the shock that will bring coil ’n’ oil back to the trail. However, he’s quick to point out that racing shouldn’t be a standalone proving ground and that what the pros ride is quite far removed from what the average mountain biker needs.
“Racing is just one facet of a well sorted testing programme,” he says. “Not many people would have fun riding Richie (Rude) or Danny Hart’s set-ups, but the fact that you can buy an off-the-shelf product that’s won the EWS overall and World DH Champs is still pretty rad!”
A matter of degrees
Of course, not every racer is capable of summoning the necessary sensitivity and detailed feedback that can really benefit engineers. It’s a delicate skill and one that often takes time to mature. Perhaps the best person to speak to then is a racer who runs a team, helps to develop 100 percent of the products they use and boasts an engineering degree. Enter Frenchman Fabien ‘Couscous’ Cousinié of Polygon United Ride.
“We have a testing and R&D department internally in the team and we’re able to give feedback and also give engineering direction that’s used by all of our sponsors,” he explains.
“For me, I’m 100 percent sure that consumers benefit from products being developed in racing. There is some stuff that you can test on a bike park or on a testing machine but there is some stuff you’ll never be able to reproduce outside of racing because the intensity is so high and the risk that everyone takes is so high. Only racing can push the limits that hard. It pushes the limits in reliability but also pushes the limits for efficiency and performance on weight too, so it’s key.”
The Polygon UR team truck is among the biggest in the UCI World Cup pits and boasts a tantalisingly mysterious black-curtained area specifically for stowing prototype machinery away from prying lenses. Among the products that Polygon has been specifically involved with recently, Fabien mentions the soon-to-launch E*13 DH tyres and BOX Components drivetrain.
There can’t be any doubt that racing is still very much seen as the ultimate yardstick for product development by many manufacturers. German online giant YT Industries proved as much when it snapped up Aaron Gwin, the then (and still) reigning UCI World Cup champion, when he departed Specialized at the end of the 2015 season for an extremely lucrative contract.
It is, of course, a very effective top-down marketing tool too, which (after enough money has been spent) guarantees a high level of brand exposure direct to your target audience.
What’s important for consumers, however, is the reassurance offered by the likes of Fabien that pros are more than just figureheads and that more and more qualified inputs are getting fed into the early stages of a product’s life-cycle, which we can all benefit from on our local rides.
While the extreme rigours of racing undoubtedly push the envelope of new developments and increased performance on everything from suspension through to tyres, issues such as cost and durability need to be considered in order to make them suitable for amateur competition or just every day riding.
This article was originally published in What Mountain Bike magazine.