When I first started mountain biking we didn’t have disc brakes and dual suspension. The development of the mountain bike for XTERRA racing has come along way in the past 10 years, which has made the sport more popular and easier to learn.
Since 2004, I have seen many of the North American courses, including the Xterra World Championship in Maui. Here’s my advice on mountain bike selection if you’re looking for a bike to do your next Xterra event on..
At my first three World XTERRA Championships (2004-2006) I rode a hardtail mountain bike with front suspension only. I chose this bike because it was extremely light and had great power transfer to the rear wheel. Maui has over four thousand vertical feet of climbing and I was looking for a climbing machine. In all three races, I had flats, but luckily had tire sealant to minimize lost time. Back then I did not use bomb proof tubeless tires, but most would agree that hardtail mountain bikes are more prone to rear flatting. Some courses will still be favourable for hardtail bikes, particularly if there is a ton of climbing and smooth descents. Our Canadian National Xterra Championship course in Whistler would be a good course for a hardtail because of the amount of climbing and relatively smooth descents. If you do choose a hardtail bike, make sure you use tubeless tires and even sealant to reduce the risk of a puncture.
Dual suspension bikes are now mainstream for Xterra. In the past they were very heavy and were a disadvantage on most courses. But much has changed, and the duallys are now light and fast. The rear suspension allows the rider to pedal over rocks, roots and other bumps without losing the ability to maintain power output. Smooth is fast, and dual suspension allows you to be smooth. In Maui, I used a dually for the next three years (2007-2010) of racing and was flat free with faster bike results (I also used tubeless tires to help avoid flats). With rear suspension, you can also run lower tire pressure without risking flats. Lower tire pressure is great for climbing on loose ground. These bikes are also very forgiving if you make a mistake. 100mm travel on both the font and back for Xterra is perfect. Also, duallys tend to be a better choice for the countless hours of training on rough terrain. Be prepared to spend a little more money than a hardtail, though.
The future of XTERRA mountain bike selection may be the 29er. The term 29er (or two-niner) indicates it has an outside diameter of about 29 inches while all other mountain bikes have an outside diameter of 26 inches. Basically these bikes have larger wheels, which comes with some advantages and disadvantages.
This season, 29ers are now built with shorter wheel bases and lighter total bike mass. Weight was a real disadvantage in the past, particularly the rotational wheel weight. But now, in addition to lighter bike building, some companies offer 29 inch race wheels that are very light (NoTubes.com, 1,370 g for front and rear wheels) completing the ultimate package. With a total bike weight reduced to nearly the same as elite 26 inch bikes, the 29er looks to be the next fastest trend for Xterra racing. Again, most Xterra courses are not overwhelmingly technical, but rather a mix of different terrain. Large travel on the front and back suspension is not critical, which is one criticism of 29ers over the purest mountain bike courses. The 29ers tend to roll super fast, handle well because of the shorter wheel base adjustment and climb amazingly well because of the larger tire ground contact area. 29ers also tend to float better on sand and loose ground. The ride is smoother with the larger wheels, but the acceleration is a little sluggish. The new TREK Gary Fisher Superfly Elite (HardTail), and the Superfly Elite 100 (Dually) are two examples of the perfect blend of light weight and amazing comfort. You can even choose between a hardtail or dually. With these larger wheels, the ground clearance is higher so all you need to do it point the wheel forward and just let it run. Rolling over roots, rocks, stumps, and fallen trees is no challenge for these 29ers. Even smaller riders under 6 feet tall can fit a 29er. Shonny Vanlandingham (5′ 6″), leader of the 2010 American Xterra Circuit and Luna Team pro mountain biker, is convinced her Orbea 29er is the bike for any XTERRA course. Much taller (over 6′) and with more Xterra experience, Conrad Stoltz also swears by his Specialized 29er Epic. Now that we’re seeing so many Xterra pros switching to 29ers, many others will follow suit. I know I am.
Calvin Zaryski was North American’s top Amateur at the 2009 XTERRA World Championships. He is a professional coach and certified exercise physiologist. For more information on the Canadian XTERRA Championships, go to www.xterracanada.ca