In the first of our new series of interviews with British mountain bike designers this month, we chatted to Whyte’s Ian Alexander, the man behind such bikes as the 146 and the new 29C.
Whyte first launched way back in 2000 (seems a distant memory to us) and came about with the collaboration of ex-Formula One suspension engineer Jon Whyte and ATB Sales, the UK distributor for Marin. Bikes, including the first PRST-1 (affectionately called the ‘Preston’) were groundbreaking and challenged conventional mountain bike design.
As a consequence, and through many bike models and unique designs throughout the years, the brand has been a favourite of UK riders, with UK-specific touches and geometry leaning towards trail, rather than race-ready. Jon also designed the FRS range for Marin, a bike that almost single-handedly did more than most to convince people of the value and benefits of full suspension for cross-country trail riding.
When Jon stepped down from the brand in 2006 for a quieter life, Ian Alexander, who worked alongside Jon for several years, stepped up to take over at the reins. He’s done a sterling job of keeping the Whyte brand aligned with its original values, and has produced some really well thought out bikes that are designed right here in the UK for UK riders.
On a bright and chilly morning a few weeks ago, after a morning riding the new 29c, Whyte’s new carbon fibre 29er hardtail, around the excellent Forest of Dean trails, we sat down with Ian the trail centre café, bustling with half term traffic, and asked the following questions:
Bikemagic: Do you think 29ers are the future of mountain bikes?
Ian Alexander: Well, I think it’s too broad a statement really, because I think now, certainly in the last year, certainly what we’ve been looking at, making prototypes and riding different ideas, it’s very quickly becoming apparent there are good bikes and bad bikes. Just as in 26in format, there are bikes that you would class as contemporary and cutting edge, and there are bikes you would like at and think they’re old school. I think the same applies already to 29ers.
The stuff that we’ve tried with prototypes is pretty cutting edge, and they’re riding really well. So I think to say are 29ers are the future, I think in some areas and applications absolutely, but in other areas, I think we’ve still got to look very carefully at very good 26in bikes.
It’s difficult you know. I’ve got an office full of bikes; they’re perhaps targeted at very different things. When you look at someone who perhaps has one or two bikes, they’re more needing of something which is a good all-round bike and does most things well, that’s probably a different consideration as well.
Bikemagic: you’ve been developing 29ers for a while. What have been the biggest hurdles or obstacles you’ve come across?
Ian Alexander: Well, we came at it very much with a perspective of UK riding and UK development, because we develop all our stuff and we obviously have focus on riding here. And certainly when you look at the big brands behind 29ers, generally speaking they tend to be US, 29er is a US originated thing and when you look at the sort of bikes developed in the UK, a lot of those 29er brands don’t actually produce them, the longer travel hardtails, trail hardtails, are very much a UK phenomenon.
So we’ve come at 29ers not from a pure XC racing perspective but from a trail centre trail bike perspective. And that’s actually had some very interesting effects on the direction of the development of our 29er. Our main concept with Whyte has been to focus on the absolute requirement to carry over the geometry, the fundamental geometry that works. We’ve really focused very carefully on getting the balance of the bike from a geometry point of view: making the bike as short as possible, as short as a 26in bike in the chainstays and the front centre.
That’s been very difficult, we’ve had to do a lot of work, and the short chainstays has been a very challenging exercise. It’s very interesting, when you walk around with a tape measure and measure people’s bikes, virtually no bikes out there are matching 26in bikes in the chainstay length.
29ers, perhaps certainly 29ers that have been around for a while, are very long in the back and short in the front, and steep in the head angle. We’ve basically taken an approach that is much more from a trail perspective than the existing philosophy of 29ers, which has been around for the past four or five years.
Bikemagic: So do you feel you’ve managed to retain the appeal and ride quality that Whyte’s are famous for?
Ian Alexander: Yes, exactly. Certainly for the last two or four years, perhaps longer, we’ve been trying to focus on making the bikes ride really well, and the biggest factor is geometry, when you look at what makes the bike ride really well.
And it doesn’t cost any more to have a bike with good geometry than bad geometry; it just takes a lot of research and development, a lot of riding, a lot of thinking time to develop that. Certainly with our trail hardtail, and the XC focused bikes, we try to make sure all the work goes into developing the geometry. And it’s been exactly the same with 29ers that we have now, and the bikes we’re working on for 2013 and beyond. That’s the focus.
Bikemagic: Are there plans for a Whyte 29er full suspension bike in the future?
Ian Alexander: Might be. There might well be…
Bikemagic: If we move away from our 29er focus for a moment, and talk bike design, what are your predictions for future trends? What can we expect?
Ian Alexander: I would certainly, if people are interested in what’s happening I would keep any eye on the Olympics this year, because I think there will be some interesting bikes turning up from what we’re hearing.
The wheel size thing, I think it will continue to be argued about. It’s hard for small manufacturers because it’s very difficult to really develop something from scratch. In terms of making a new wheel, or a new fork, or a new tyre, it tends to be the really big manufacturers who have the leverage with the big component manufacturers.
We’re starting to see things develop, getting more specific to 29ers and 26in bikes, and there will be, I’m sure, some 650b development in the future. So I think for a brand like Whyte, it’s a question of seeing what’s coming along. Big transmission developments coming along for 2013, there’s a whole host of component parts and forks and tyres that will come along, and it’s really a question of putting together the best package for each category.
Bikemagic: You mentioned 650b. Yes or no?
Ian Alexander: I would say yes. I would say it’ll happen, but the question is going to be when not if. Because literally as it stands now, the availably of parts is the issue at the moment. If it is going to happen, it’s so early, it’s hard to say whether it will actually catch on or not.
If you know the extent to which, if you have the understanding of how difficult it is to package a 29er wheel, then when you look at a 650b wheel, you can see that clearly there are going to be advantages of packaging a 650b wheel. And it has similar advantages to a 29er, and then clearly, obviously, it sits in-between the two. So it’s going to be better than at one but not as good as the other, but we’ll see how it goes. It’s very hard to say at this time.
Bikemagic: For the average mountain biker, is this whole wheel size debate a good thing?
Ian Alexander: I think it masks good bikes and bad bikes really. I read a review the other day on a 29er and it didn’t even mention the geometry once, it just had a passing note, and that’s really disappointing. Just because it has 29in wheels, isn’t necessarily a comment on the bike, it has to be analysed much more. As I said already, even in the last two years, we’ve produced 29ers for really differing functions, and when you analyse what’s on the market, you can see good bikes and you can see bad bikes. So it’s slightly frustrating that you see 29ers taken as a while, rather than specifically why that’s a good 29er, why that’s a bad 29er, just like you would on a 26in platform.
So I think whilst it’s clearly here to stay, I think it needs to be considered much more with discrimination about good 29ers and bad 29ers rather than if 29ers are good or bad.
Thanks to Ian for taking the time to talk to us and Keith @ Max Bikes PR Ltd for the coffee and cake!