Scott bike engineer Joe Higgins has a job many technically-minded young mountain bikers would give their left gonad for. Originally from the Isle of Wight, the 29-year-old is based in Scott head office in Givisiez, Switzerland where he spends his days dreaming up the bikes you’ll be able to buy in two or three years’ time.
The most recent of joe’s projects to see the light of day is the 2013 Scott Genius suspension bike line, two frame designs with 29-inch and 650B/27.5-inch wheels respectively.
He’s worked at Scott for four years, in which time he also developed the Genius LT and was involved in the Spark project, but he says it’s all a collaborative effort. “I was lead engineer on the new Genius, with support from our team of engineers. We all support each other’s projects,” Joe told Bikemagic.
Before Scott, Joe worked with original Whyte designer Jon Whyte and Marin, at On-One/Planet X, as an engineer on composite wind turbine blades, built his own frames, wrenched at bike shops, and got an engineering degree. If you aspire to be a bike designer, there’s your career path, right there.
It probably also helps to be broad-minded about your riding too. Joe says he likes “riding all bikes, road to downhill, but I’m happiest on all day rides exploring technical, rocky singletracks in the Alps on my Spark 29-inch. I like to do a couple of Bivvy weekends each year.”
The bike design process is a long one. It can take five years for a bike to go from the germ of an idea to something we can buy. Joe explains how it works at Scott:
“Our bike development team consists of engineers, product managers and industrial designers. We’re all sat within earshot of each other. As engineers we each take responsibility for a frame project, but support each other’s projects where necessary.
“Projects normally start with the project managers defining us targets with the usual metrics: weight, category, stiffness, travel, strength, geometry. Then us engineers work with the designers who develop concept sketches.
“Once we’re happy with the direction of a new bike we normally produce some alloy test frames, especially for suspension bikes, lots of big CNC parts.
“At the same time as these are being ridden, the engineer can start the final 3D model, paying attention to strength and production constraints.
“This can take some months of 3D design work for a carbon suspension frame.
“We’ll then verify the 3d form of a frame with a full size plastic rapid prototype. It’s amazing how proportions can change between your screen and reality.
“Once we’re 100% happy with the 3D design we’ll confirm opening of the first mould, normally a Medium size.
“We must then pass our own in-house frame strength tests, while controlling frame weight, and stiffness targets. For a carbon frame this can easily take 10 cycles of revision and test.
“Finally we must pass German test house EFBE’s most stringent tests. We can then produce sample riding bikes where any small production issues can be ironed out, before confirming the start of full production.”
For the Genius, that whole process took a couple of years. “It’s really a constant process of development,” says Joe. “I was working full time on the Genius project for two years before it saw the light of day. We’ve used some design details from the Spark, so these were already in-work 3-4 years ago. Small ideas scribbled down today might appear on a bike in five years’ time.”
The wheel size argument
The most common accusation aimed at the mountain bike industry in the last couple of years is that new wheel sizes, 29 inch and 650B/27.5 inch are just about marketing; the industry just wants to sell us new bikes.
“I am almost sure that the 29er explosion is just a marketing manoeuvre,” and “it’s just another way to separate you from your cash for little benefit to the average joe” are two typical comments.
Joe believes there are genuine advantages to the bigger sizes, but still thinks people should “ride a bigger wheeled bike and make up their own mind, preferably after a couple of rides. It’s not until people recalibrate for how much harder they can push the bigger wheels that things ‘click’.”
“Improved rollover is the key benefit of moving to bigger wheels, and there are several combined effects that create this benefit: impacts are spread over a greater distance; BB drop is increased; the wheel does not sink so far into holes; tyre volume is increased.”
Scott and other companies like Norco have all but dropped 26-inch wheels for some applications, choosing 29ers for shorter-travel bikes and 650B/27.5inch for longer. Is this the wave of the future?
“It makes sense to us,” says Joe. “Moving forwards, I think we’ll tend to use the biggest wheel we can in each travel category without compromising on geometry. Having said that, we want to always offer riders a choice.”
Saying that the 26-inch wheel is dead, “is maybe a bit dramatic, just yet, but it’s headed that way,” he says.
“29ers are finally becoming mainstream after more than a decade on the market. For sure, the market is much more open to wheel size now, so we expect the acceptance of 27.5 inch to be a lot faster. The current lack of lower end 27.5-inch fork and tyre options will keep 26-inch alive for a few years to come. I think they’ll always be place for 26-inch in some categories, but for cross-country and trail, I think they’ll slowly disappear.”
One thing that’s limited the spread of 29-inch wheels, and opened the door for 650B/27.5inch is the problem of increasing the travel of a 29er. There are quite a few problems, says Joe.
“You start making too many compromises on geometry with a 29-inch suspension bike if you go much past 130mm travel,” he explains.
“Bar height, or stack, is the first place you meet a problem. Put simply, your handlebars are on top of a tower of wheel radius + wheel travel + head tube length and your bottom bracket height is defined by wheel travel alone. So if you go too big on wheel travel and wheel size in combination, your hands are too high relative to your feet and you can’t find a good riding position without running a really negative stem.
“Head tubes can’t get much shorter because of tapered fork steerers, and frame strength. Chainstay length and wheelbase also become unwieldy, I’ve roughed out a 29-inch 150mm kinematic and the wheelbase is similar to a Gambler.” [With a shade over eight inches travel, a Medium Gambler has a wheelbase of 46.5 inches.]
Joe and Scott haven’t yet figured out the boundaries of how much travel can be had from a 650B/27.5 inch wheel. . The limit, says Joe, “may be quite high, that’s something we’re figuring out now… always testing.”
However, if you’re thinking Joe gets to do all that testing, think again. It sounds like being a bike engineer is, after all, more about the engineering. His typical working say, he says “depends on what time stage of the year or project I’m on. A ‘standard’ day starts with emails from Asia, then the majority of my time is spent on 3d CAD, designing frames. Then there’s plenty of weeks in Asia getting projects through our factories.”
Nevertheless, there’s some riding as part of the job. “There’s certainly a lot of time spent riding the desk,” says joe, “but we do get out on the bike as part of the job. We’re pretty lucky to have scraped together some decent woodsy trails direct from the office, so there’s always a lunch ride heading out for an hour. It’s perfect for putting some test miles into our cross-country bikes.
“Then there’s some fun days at work, riding with journalists and customers at launches, and dedicated test days for example to test shock tunes.”
One of the most satisfying parts of the job is seeing people out on the bike he’s designed.
“Of course it’s great to see riders out on our bikes, especially on the trails back home. Rider feedback makes it back to us through the company from all around the world, but first hand is even better. We see a big range of feedback due to different riding conditions and styles around the world.”