Motocross is a favorite past time and training tool for many of the top downhill mountain bike racers and freeriders.
This past weekend I attended a two-wheeled freeride contest put on by Red Bull
in the Zion Desert of Utah. The strange thing was there weren’t any mechanical sounds of internal combustion engines spinning near redline. But there were high-tech, long-travel, all-aluminum masterpieces that made me drool uncontrollably, only these bikes were missing engines.
The event was Red Bull Rampage, a truly insane mountain bike freeride contest situated on the ridgeline of a remote Utah mesa. Twenty one of the top downhill and slope-style mountain bike athletes were about to throw themselves down some of the burliest lines I have ever seen.
So why is MotoUSA at a mountain bike competition? Well, these gravity-fueled bicycles have more in common with modern motocross bikes than the standard bicycles from which they evolved. Purpose built for big air and stability in the roughest terrain, modern downhill bicycles have suspension systems that would make some Supercross teams jealous. Most downhill rigs have over eight inches of suspension travel with fully tunable high and low-speed compression and rebound settings. Linkage rates and steering head angles are also adjustable to fine tune for different conditions and track styles. Although the frames and suspension are built for abuse, the bikes weigh-in just below 40 pounds.
With hydraulic disc brakes and long travel suspension, downhill mountain bikes have more in common with motocross bikes than conventional bicycles.
Still what does mountain biking and motocross have to do with each other besides aluminum frames and stout suspension? They compliment each other as training aids for each respective sport. It’s common knowledge that many pro motocross racers use mountain bikes as a training tool for their assault on the championship, but would you be surprised to learn that pro downhillers use motocross to cross-train for downhill racing?
One of the top riders in the ICU World Cup, Aaron Gwin, actually was an intermediate-level MX'er until he took a spin on a friend’s downhill bike in 2007. Gwin gave pedal bike racing a shot in Fontana, California soon after and 9 months later was signed to the Yeti Factory team to race in the premier class. This year he finished fourth overall in the UCI World Championships.
This year’s UCI World Champ is the United Kingdom’s Gee Atherton. Atherton is competing in the Red Bull Rampage and expected to podium even though he is a racer and not a freerider. His speed and airtime should make up for his lack of flips and spins on the ridges of Virgin, Utah. To make sure he’s prepared, Atherton rides a Honda CR250F to cross-train for the rigors of downhill racing.
Gee Atherton transfered from a 25-foot-tall cliff to a dirt quarter-pipe that was a solid 35 to 40 feet away.
“A lot if guys who race downhill ride moto; it’s probably the closest thing you can get to the physical impact you get whilst you’re riding,” Atherton said about the similarities between riding motocross bikes and downhill racing. “You can’t simulate that in a gym; you need to be out there on a bike getting thrown around, working your arms and upper body as well as the rest of you. You know, having that speed and cornering and throwing the bike around, it’s obviously a lot more intense on a motocross bike. So it crosses over very closely.”
Watching these guys launch off the drops and man-made features at the Rampage was insane! Some of the stuff they went down was so steep, that there is no way I would want to give it a go on any sort of bike with or without engine. The step down jumps were so massive every time some on sent it, I was sure they would buckle on the landing. Of course they didn’t unless someone misjudged the distance or under or over-rotated their trick.
After the first round, Atherton sat on the top of the board with a fast, flowing line that ended with a massive drop off a 20-foot cliff onto a dirt quarter-pipe that was maybe 35 feet out. Two other riders attempted the same drop but both ended up with a face full of dirt. In the end, Atherton finished second after Oakley’s Cameron Zink pulled a massive 360 on the Oakley Icon Sender.
Engine or not this is a huge jump! Kurt Sorge was one of five riders to include the famous "Canyon Gap" in their run.
Several times I pondered the question whether a dirt bike or mountain bike would be faster down a single-track downhill course. Atherton revealed that he and hardcore European enduro ace, David Knight will answer my question in the near future. The two will race the downhill course of Fort William, Scotland to see who is the fastest. Atherton will be putting his legs and gravity against Knight’s gasoline-fed KTM for the ultimate two-wheel bragging rights.
“No one is really sure who is going to get it,” admitted Atherton. “I can’t really decide. It will be interesting to see.”