bikeState of the sport: Snow Mountain Biking

December 1999

The explosive growth of the mountain bike industry slowed some in 1999, as expected. Bike manufacturers were forced to re-evaluate expenditures and rethink the value of supporting mountain bike racing programs. The stongest and best financed mountain bike teams have continued the ongoing process of acquiring out of the bike industry sponsorship. For some teams it is big business with support from large companies such as Mountain Dew and Chevy Trucks. It seems to be a thing of the past for a bike company to solely support a professional racing program. Without major co-sponsors, some companies are left to stop or reduce funding to their professional teams. Many cannot justify the team operating costs. As a result, teams such as Volvo/Cannondale are run by management groups. Others, such as Schwinn/Toyota, are left to segregate into specific mountain bike disciplines, either downhill or cross-country. As usual, finding or keeping a sponsor in 1999 was a challenge for many downhill riders. Top riders are successfully finding sponsorship, but typically, the remainder of the field must be resourceful to survive as professionals.

Industry News
The volatility of the mountain bike market was evident in the changing face of the industry over the past year. While downsizing was the story of early 1999, a major corporate deal between Specialized and Sun Microsystems tops the industry headlines. Sun Microsystems is a leading maker of UNIX-based, number crunching workstation computers, storage devices, and servers for powering corporate computer networks. Sun's most talked-about product is Java, a programming language intended to create software that can run unchanged on any kind of computer. Specialized and Sun Microsystems, Inc. announced a co-branding agreement in October. "Specialized attributes a large part of its success to the competitive advantage gained through the implementation of Sun's technology throughout our operation," remarked Mike Sinyard, Chairman and founder of Specialized. "From designing our top-of-the-line road and mountain bikes and helmets, to running the company's financial and business operations in the back office, to our emerging presence as the cycling industry's e-commerce leader, you could say Sun powers our company." The Sun-Specialized co-branding relationship will include a "Designed by Sun logo on all Specialized bicycle and helmet packaging, as well as the sponsorship of the Specialized Mountain Bike Team.

Other corporate mergers made news in 1999. Schwinn recently sold its smaller brand Yeti Bicycles to Colorado-based ski manufacturer Volant. Volant will produce high-end Yeti titanium frames. Also, GT Bicycles purchased aftermarket component company Syncros in September '99. Syncros moved headquarters to the Santa Ana, CA,. GT factory, but will retain the Syncros name. The component company will supply GT with high-end components, while continuing to produce its renowned aftermarket products for the public.

In 1999, the majority of mountain bike downhill courses became steeper, more technical and dangerously difficult. The downhill mountain bike has evolved to meet the challenge. These machines include rear suspension with up to eight inches of active travel, and front fork/shock suspension to match. Aluminum is the frame material of choice for most descenders because of its fabrication properties and light weight. Downhill mountain bikes are commonly equipped with nine speeds and very touchy hydraulic disc brakes. Shifting technology is also changing. Component giant Shimano, has introduced their "Shimano Airlines" technology. This compressed air (pneumatic) shifting technology creates the most precise shifting Shimano has ever developed. Shimano's press release states, "Designed for downhill, the new system runs off a canister that mounts on the frame. It can be filled with regular air from a bike pump, or with compressed ozone-safe liquid gas (HFC's). Lightning fast shifts with pinpoint precision are executed with very little effort."

The most common mechanical problem encountered on a downhill bike is a flat tire. The trend has shifted to enormously thick inner tubes and virtually indestructible tires, still this doesn't seem to have solved the problem. Recently, companies such as Hutchinson, IRC, and Michelin have introduced a tubeless tire system. Tubeless tires require a special rim, allow less air pressure, and most importantly, flat less. Downhill rigs now mimic the look of an off road motorcycle, minus the engine.

Riders constantly adjust and tune their bikes, brakes, and suspension system to meet the extreme course requirements. A few of the top racers, most notably the French, are using high-tech equipment, similar to that used in Formula 1 and Indy cars, to help them get that perfect bike tune. American downhill racer, Marla Streb is using this computerized data acquisition system. The "black box' that is attached to the front of her bike stores data from sensors in the bikes front and rear suspensions, the brakes, and the bike angles, as well as various physical data about the rider. The data collected is downloaded into a software program to be analyzed on a computer at the finish of the course. This software allows the race team to determine what adjustments must be made to the various parts of the bike, or rider position, to improve speed and efficiency. Any changes to the bike can be tested in the computer to determine their effectiveness. The guess work is taken out of the tuning process. This data logging system reduces equipment testing time from days to hours. Having a perfectly tuned bike allows the rider more time to concentrate on the course during practice runs. Streb, who will appear in the 2000 Biker X, credits the data acquisition system with a large part of her success in the 1999 season.

Off to the Races
During their 1999 summer season, American professional downhill mountain bikers tackled the five race NORBA National Championship Series. The race courses are typically three to five minutes long and covered with steep, technical terrain from start to finish. This U.S. series has more recently risen to an international level, with top riders appearing from Australia, Europe, and Canada.

The international scene is really where downhill mountain biking is its strongest. The top cyclists traditionally have not been Americans and this generally holds true today in the World Cup downhill. Five out of the top ten male downhill mountain bikers are from France. Only two American men are ranked among the top ten in downhill. The top female downhiller on the World Cup circuit is also from France. Americans fare better in the fast action, head-to-head competition of the World Cup dual slalom. Four American men and three women are ranked in the top ten Slalom World Cup standings. The best dual slalom rider (Brian Lopes) is an American, and the best female dual slalom rider is Australian (Katrina Miller).

Course design stands out as the main reason for the European domination. European downhill courses are considered the best in the world and are the standard by which most American courses are compared.. The downhill courses in Europe have always been very demanding. Several years ago, American downhill courses tended to be very fast with a lot of pedaling. While European riders were beginning to take charge in the sport, American riders competing on the World Cup circuit complained that they could not be competitive because their home courses were not challenging enough. Over the past couple of years practically all U.S. downhill courses have been redesigned to mimic the steeper, rockier, dangerously technical European courses.

Shaums March will be the course designer for the 2000 Biker X course.

Mount Snow has been the destination for racing on the east coast for 12 years. The East Coast should favor the type of hardpack snow conditions that the riders prefer. In June of 2000, Mount Snow will host its 12th consecutive NORBA National Championship Series stop.

Past Snow Mountain Biking results
  1999 1998 1997
Biker X
G: Steve Peat
S: Eric Carter
B: Jurgen Beneke
Biker X
G: Tara Llanes
S: April Lawyer
B: Elke Brutsaert
Dual Downhill
NA G: Andrew Shandro
S: Kirt Voreis
B: John Tomac
G: Shaun Palmer
S: John Kirkcaldie
B: Lee Jones
Dual Downhill
NA G: Marla Streb
S: Cheri Elliott
B: Elke Brutsaert
G: Missy Giove
S: Mikki Douglass
B: Tara Llanes
NA G: Jurgen Beneke
S: Joe Lawwill
B: Derin Stockton
G: Philip Tinstman
S: Jeremy Purdy
B: Toby Henderson
NA G: Elke Brutsaert
S: Cheri Elliott
B: Katrina Miller
G: Cheri Elliott
S: Marla Streb
B: Tara Llanes

Time for Snow
Fueled by the success of the Winter X Games, snow biking is turning into quite a spectacle. In Colorado, the Alpine Snow Bike Association (ASBA) is planning to create up to 20 mountain bike races on snow. The ASBA has promoted snow bike clubs and events for over 5 years, and is excited to see their sport gain world-wide attention. The ASBA recognizes snow bike events nationally, and works closely with NORBA and USA Cycling to promote and unify the sport.

Snow mountain bike racing will also appear in January 2000 at the Winter Gravity Games (Mammoth). This event will feature snow competition on mountain bikes, snowboards, skiboarding, etc.

The 1999 Medalists
When the top American and European downhillers hit the snow to race six at a time down a BMX style course, things get interesting. Top downhill dirt riders know how to let it go on the snow.

Gold medalist Steve Peat found plenty of success throughout the 1999 regular season. The British rider held the World Cup leader's jersey though the first two World Cup events, but the lead was taken over by Frenchman Nicolas Vouilloz in the third race in Nevegal, Italy. The two riders traded the leader's jersey throughout the season. Peat was forced to sit out the World Championships in Are, Sweden, due to a broken left arm and leg, suffered at the Mount Snow NORBA National event held several weeks prior. He has since recovered and is back on his bike training for Winter X and the 2000 season. Despite his injury, Peat finished the World Cup series ranked fourth overall, and finished tenth in the NORBA National Championship Series. He is again one of the top rider picks to take the gold in the 2000 Biker X event.

Silver medalist Eric Carter proved in 1999 that he is a contender. American rider Eric Carter is the NORBA National downhill champion. (Carter finished the series ranked third and is the highest ranked American). With his incredible bike handling skills, Carter managed to win the overall Dual Slalom World Cup Series. Even more impressive, Carter slid into the last spot on the podium at the '99 World Championships in Are, Sweden. This was the first American downhill medal at a World Championship since John Tomac in 1997.

Bronze medalist Jnrgen Beneke had an on/off season in 1999. Several minor injuries took their toll on Beneke leaving the German rider ranked a surprising 23rd at season end. His misfortune came mainly at World Cup events. However, he was able to heal enough to compete at the NORBA National Championship Series events. Beneke remained consistent throughout this series and was able to capture the downhill title. Beneke is still recovering from a nasty spill at a Canadian World Cup event, but expects to be 100% for Winter X 2000.

Success at the Winter X games often carries into the regular season. This definitely holds true for three American women medalists.

Gold medalist Tara Llanes is coming off her best season racing mountain bikes, despite a late season injury. Llanes cracked a collarbone when she fell and hit a tree at the seventh downhill World Cup held in Canmore, Alberta, Canada. Llanes had to sit out two World Cup events to nurse her collarbone. She shocked the racing world by coming back just weeks after the injury, to place tenth at the World Championships, and secure third place in the overall World Cup Slalom standings. She also finished the NORBA downhill series ranked fifth. She says she ended her season feeling very strong, and stoked on riding. She made an early season decision to take a laid back, less serious approach to her training throughout '99. The strategy seemed to pay off for Llanes. With her incredible bike handling skills, Tara is feeling confident about dominating at the 2000 Winter X. She claims "I am going to win (Biker X) again in 2000!" Llanes will be in Japan doing a video shoot for the Mud Cow II video prior to the Winter X Games.

Silver medalist April Lawyer had a respectable 1999 downhill mountain biking season. She had one top ten finish in the NORBA downhill series, and ended the series ranked 12th overall. April also finished 42nd in the women's World Cup downhill series. Though her mountain bike skills might not be up to the level of some of her Biker X competition, her experience on the snow more than makes up for it. She has snow prowess from snowboarding, and is one of the few riders who actually does some riding on snow in preparation for the Biker X event. April is fortunate enough to have the full support of the Snow Summit Resort (Big Bear, CA), which allows her rare access for snow bike training. Fellow riders think her snow skills definitely make her a favorite.

Elke Brutsaert endured another fantastic season following her 1999 Biker X bronze medal. She started the season off incredibly strong with several big wins and top five finishes. A crash in mid July at the Mammoth Lakes, CA, NORBA event left Brutsaert with a mild knee contusion that plagued her for the rest of the season. She continued to place consistently, and finished the NORBA National downhill series ranked second overall. In the World Cup equivalent, Brutsaert scored an impressive seventh overall. In early November she wrapped up filming for the video Crank III, with downhillers Lisa Sher, Daamiann Skelton, Marla Streb, and Elladee Brown. This spunky crowd spent three weeks doing extreme shots in Utah, then topped it off with a wild Halloween girls night out in Las Vegas on mountain bikes, in costumes of course. Brutsaert commented she is excited to show the world that women can get just as crazy as men on mountain bikes!

Who's hot in 2000?
The Biker X format is considered one of the most competitive, unpredictable events in mountain bike racing. Obviously the top riders in the world have to be considered the top contenders to medal in the 2000 Biker X. However, as Missy Giove pointed out after the inaugural Biker X event in 1999, "&.you can be the fastest rider out there, but you are not necessarily going to win. Speed is not the only factor in this style of racing. On any given run, anyone out there could win." Riders and team managers alike are hesitant to name favorites for 2000, but a few names do stand out among riders as having a likely chance of medaling.

Team GT riders Steve Peat and Eric Carter, as in 1999, are the ones to watch in 2000. Both are healthy, at the top of their game and their equipment has proven to be top notch. Given their BMX background and their current standing in the sport, all others will be gunning for these two.

In the women's Biker X, look for Missy Giove, who won the NORBA downhill series and finished second overall in the World Cup series. She is without a doubt the most dominant female American downhill racer. If she can stay on her bike, she will likely capture her first medal since 1997. Elke Brutsaert is another woman to watch. She finished the NORBA series just behind Giove, and has proven to be very consistent on the snow. The big surprise this year could be Australian Katrina Miller. Miller is the 1999 World Cup and NORBA dual slalom champion. She is the undisputed queen of head-to-head downhill mountain bike racing today. Miller knocks elbows and goes big every time. She is definitely considered a favorite to medal.

And Others to Watch
For the men, expect Mike King to have explosive starts and to pull the holeshot (first rider out of the gate). Mike has the skills to hold the lead on any course. Many may remember him from the 1995 X Games (formerly called the Extreme Games) where he took home a bronze medal in the dual slalom.
Gary Houseman will be a strong contender because of his incredible bike handling skills.
Pete Loncarevich should excel on the Biker X course because he is a powerful, very skilled and aggressive rider.
Big powerful guys like John Tomac, and Myles Rockwell can push their weight around. These guys can all handle their bikes with incredible finesse. Expect them to do well in contact situations.
For the women look at riders who race well in slalom events and BMX style riding. Cheri Elliott has an extensive BMX background and is not afraid to give 100% in the most extreme situations. After a finger injury in 1999 she'll be ready for another Biker X challenge.
Nicole Grant has proven herself to be a very skilled and technical rider lately, she could surprise everyone.
The six-up, head-to-head type of event will suit the hard-charging Leigh Donovan. She ranked second in the 1999 NORBA National Championship Series dual slalom (Katrina Miller was first). Because she was the highest ranking U.S. citizen, she was awarded the overall series title.

Bulletin sportif : VTT sur neige

Status Quo: Snow Mountain Biking

Estado del deporte: Mountain Bike sobre nieve

Xspeak: Snow Mountain Biking