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Olympic tech: Prototype and new tech we will see in London

  • By Ben Marchant
  • Published Aug. 10, 2012
  • Updated Oct. 11, 2012 at 4:51 PM EDT

This weekend, the Olympic mountain bike event takes place in the Essex hills, just outside of London. The venue, Hadleigh Farm, is not exactly renowned for its mountainous terrain; the course designers have not only added many artificial technical sections, but have been forced to utilize the hillside to its maximum potential as well.

The result is a series of short but steep climbs (only 172 meters of climbing per lap) and harrowing rocky descents with multiple route options. Racing is expected to be very fast, with riders rewarded for taking the toughest, steepest lines: features like the Triple Trouble rock garden and the Leap of Faith drop-off are shortcuts with potential big gains. Like Beijing before it, London’s is not a traditional mountain bike course in the style of Mont Sainte Anne or Windham, but it is sure to be a thriller for spectators. The questions is, what will the riders use come race day?

The field is expected to largely ride hardtail 29ers. The larger diameter wheels should cruise through the technical, rocky sections and be able to spin quickly up to speed on the short climbs. While sponsors will be looking for maximum exposure on the world stage, riders will likely opt for hardtails over the more glamorous and marketing friendly full-suspension bikes.

Given the big stage, bike sponsors will have to look for opportunities for maximum exposure while adhering to the strict policies set at the Olympics; the Specialized bikes with their vibrant red paint, visible in all disciplines, are a perfect example of how to get around this.

We are coming into 2013 preview season so expect to see some prototypes on course.

The men’s field may be the most open it has ever been, with multiple winners on the World Cup circuit this year competing in London. Just as at the World Championships, many teammates will be competing against each other in their national colors; with a field as small as 50 in the men’s race and only 30 in the female race, it should be tight racing. Still, many top riders will be missing, especially from big racing nations like Switzerland, which can only qualify a maximum of three riders.

American Todd Wells will be on his red Specialized 29er Stumpjumper (see earlier article) while Lea Davison will most likely start on board her Fate. Their Specialized teammate Jaroslav Kulhavy will possibly be one of the few riders on board a full suspension bike — it is rare to see him off it — but diminutive South African and recent World Cup winner, Burry Stander, will surely opt for the hardtail, too.

Sam Schultz and Canadian Emily Batty will be aboard their new superlight, 896-gram “Apollo” program Trek Superfly SL hardtails. In the design process, Trek selected their best engineers from across all disciplines (including road) to engineer the lightest bike while keeping the best ride. The team has been testing prototypes for some time and doing rather well on them, too.

Athens and Beijing Olympic champion Julian Absalon should ride his Orbea Alma 29er hardtail. He worked hand in hand with Hutchinson to develop a new tread that specifically for the London course. The Luna trio of American Georgia Gould, Canadian Catharine Pendrel, and Czech Katerina Nash will should be on the same bike. Because of the nature of the course, it isn’t likely Pendrel will be riding her prototype Orbea, but will opt for a hardtail.

There is little doubt that the 650B wheel size will also make an appearance. Men’s favorite and World Cup champion Nino Schurter has been riding and winning on his Scott this season and a few others should try the wheel size as well. Should he win aboard a 650B, then the wheel size should take off overnight. Scott will certainly be hoping so, although Canadian Scott rider Geoff Kabush would appear to be on a 29er according to his Twitter pics.

In terms of components, clutch-style rear mechanisms appear to be en vogue. An ill-timed missed shift in Beijing cost Catherine Pendrel a bronze medal, so she won’t make the same mistake again. SRAM’s new XX1 drivetrain should be in hot demand with its huge 11-speed rear cassette, with a gear ratio from 10 to 42. Many racers may opt for a single chainring setup and this massive cassette. Shimano racers, too, will likely go for a single chainring up front and the XTR 11-36 rear cassette.

Gripshift should be a popular choice for SRAM riders who look to move around the cassette quickly and easily to cope with the varied terrain. Jaroslav Kulhavy rode his early version to World Championship success last year and it should make a welcome return to the Olympics.

As far as suspension is concerned, with many expected to ride hardtails, the front end is where we may see some new innovations. The new electric suspension forks that are beginning to emerge from the likes of FOX (iRD) could be on display. Watch Geoff Kabush’s bike, in particular, for this, as well as French road racer and Beijing mountain bike silver medallist, Jean-Christophe Peraud, fresh from the Tour de France, who should have it on board, too.

Tire choice will be hard to predict until the day itself. The last few days the weather has been decidedly unseasonal, with heavy rain and showers nearly a daily occurrence. The course is man-made with lots of pea-sized gravel, so low-profile tires should be the order of the day.

But with the amount of rain that England has seen, anything is possible. There are steep chutes which could turn into rivers should a downpour commence. However, things seem to be improving, with good weather forecast for the weekend and temperatures in the mid-70s. This is likely to result in warm and humid conditions for the racers. Should it rain though (quite possible for the men’s race), all bets are off.

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