Ever wondered what a perfect bike set-up for a mountain bike stage race looks like? With the first round of the UCI Mountain Bike XC World Cup over and the legendary Cape Epic stage race coming up, SCOTT-SRAM’s Yanick-the-Mechanic goes through Nino Schurter’s brand new 2018 SCOTT Spark RC 900 bikes and explains what the difference is between a Cross-Country World Cup set-up and a set-up for marathon stage race. But wait, let’s first find out what separates the two race formats and what challenges riders face in the respective disciplines.
MTB Cross Country, also called XCO, is an individual athlete race made up of laps between 4km and 10km in length. XCO is the format for Olympic, World, World Cup, Continental and National Championships. It’s been in the Olympic Games since Atlanta in 1996. XCO, with its shorter laps, makes it spectator and TV friendly.
It’s similar to Formula 1 with technical/feed zones where mechanics and helpers can assist with repairs also passing drink bottles or gels. The most common support would be a wheel change after a puncture, fitting a new chain, rear mech or a seat post switch from a broken saddle from a crash. The only thing you can’t change is the frame.
An XC course is made up of no more than 15% asphalt, the remainder is made up of, forest, grass, and rocky technical climbs and descents. The highlight of many XC races is the super technical rock gardens with multiple line choices. This is where TV Channels like Red Bull TV can capture the amazing ability of the riders’ fitness, strength and athletic prowess as the bike and its technologies come together. Cross Country Races should aim to be 1 hour 30 minutes in duration for Elite Men and Elite Women.
Multi-day stage races last between 3 to 9 days. The Cape Epic has stages between 40km and 110km- the longest permitted would be a 160km XCM stage, but in Africa that would be too much and possibly dangerous with very high temperatures. They can be individual, comprised of teams of 2 to 6 riders, same sex, mixed or age category. The Cape Epic, which SCOTT-Sram’s Nino Schurter and Matthias Stirnemann won in 2017, is a team race made up of pairs. It has tech/feed zones but mechanics and helpers can’t actually do the work, the riders have to fix their own bikes when in trouble.
From the majestic slopes of Table Mountain to the magnificence of the Grand Finale at Val de Vie Estate in the Western Cape region with the addition of a manic time trial in between – the 2018 Absa Cape Epic route is balanced and bold and untamed.
Starting with the Prologue on the iconic Table Mountain, the 2018 Absa Cape Epic will visit Robertson, Worcester and Wellington, and finish at the Val de Vie Estate in the Paarl-Franschoek Valley. Riders will spend three nights in Robertson for the first three stages, with a transition stage to Worcester, where they will stay for one night before settling down in Wellington until heading to the Grand Finale at Val de Vie.
The total distance of 658km with 13 530m of climbing will include four consecutive days of over 100km, again featuring the Land Rover Technical Terrain sections on each of the eight days. The final stage is far from an easy roll to the finish-line and a race of truth with the re-introduction of a time trial on Stage 5 that could shake up the race amongst the elites.
In a break with tradition, the final stage of the Epic will not be the easy day it has been in the past, taking riders from Wellington to Val de Vie over a testing 70km with 2000m of climbing that will make riders earn that precious finishers medal.
Triple Crown Champion Nino Schurter rides one of the lightest, stiffest and fastest bikes out there, the Spark RC 900 World Cup. It is a 100% race-dedicated full-suspension weapon, bred to win. Its light and stiff race proven frame design has always appealed to a broad spectrum of riders, from elite Cross-Country to amateur marathon racers. Yet despite the Spark’s visual simplicity, the bike is loaded with technical features and details.
The frame: The benchmark weight of 1779g (incl. shock and hardware) of Nino’s Spark RC 900 was not only achieved by utilizing the lightest and most exclusive HMX carbon fibers but also thanks to our sophisticated carbon lay-up process. The frame is made of 752 single carbon layers, all put together by hand. The heart of the frame is the Trunnion mount: the shock body extends between the two lower mounting bolts which results in more stroke for the same eye to eye length. The shorter shock enables a very compact frame and shock package, which integrates tightly to the seat tube.
The Fork: Keeping the ride smooth, a 100mm Rock Shox SID World Cup Carbon RL3 Charger Black Box fork is paired with a custom 3-mode rear shock via our proprietary TwinLoc Suspension System.
The drive train: The SRAM XX1 Eagle 12-speed drivetrain moves Nino up the trail. Sram Level Ultimate disc brakes slow him down when it’s time to step onto the podium. Nino uses 160mm rotors on the front and rear brakes. He normally runs a massive 38-tooth chainring.
The Specs: The Spark’s saddle, seatpost, headset, bar stem, handlebar and grips are all from the Syncros stables. Nino runs a 90mm stem with a negative rise to keep the handlebars really low. The negative stem and relatively narrow 680mm handlebars are perfect for starts, which are renowned for being ridden at very close quarters, while the stem maximizes the advantages of Nino’s aggressive riding position. The pedals are Ritchey’s WCS V6.
The Wheels & tires: DT Swiss provides the team’s wheels. The super-lightweight XMC 1200 Spline Carbon 29” is Nino’s choice for XC World Cups. Maxxis provide the best rolling tires, Nino runs the Aspen 2.1 for minimal rolling resistance.
Looking at both Spark setups, the bikes do not look very different. But there are quite a few tweaks here and there. For the Cape Epic set-up, Nino prefers to run less air in the suspension, giving him more small bump sensitivity, the only compromise to this would be the possibility of blowing through the travel so he corrects this at the far end of the travel with tokens that increase the progression at the end of the suspension stroke.
He runs tires with maximum protection on the side walls and extra sealant to make sure thorn punctures will seal. Nino usually runs smaller gears, so a 34T or 36T max chainring with SRAM Eagle giving him the best and biggest range. This is always with respect to terrain and weather conditions.
As the riders are mostly self-supported they must carry the tools and parts that could make the difference between making the finish or not. In a stage race it’s not possible to start the next day if you don’t complete the previous day’s stage.
A great thing for the team has been Sahmurai S.W.O.R.D. Tubeless kit plugs. They fit neatly inside the handle bars; they are a pre-loaded worm that you push through a hole in your tire twist and they immediately repair small rips that the sealant couldn’t manage to fix. Alternatively to World Cup races, Nino rides a Maxxis Aspen 29"x2.25 120TPI EXO TR 80ml sealant tire for improved protection.
The riders like to run power cranks connected to their Garmins, this does add a little weight but allows them to know their watts and how hard they are riding allowing them to judge their effort over the long, back to back days. Nino’s choice is a Sram XX1 Eagle Powermeter 175mm Q-168mm 36T.
The SCOTT-Sram team carries a Sram power link in case of a chain break; they mount this under the Garmin mount or tape it in the void on the brake lever. The Rock Shox Maxle Ultimate is the best axle in case a rider needs to quickly remove the front wheel. On the rear wheel, the team uses the Syncros Thru Axle Removal with an integrated T25 Tool.
The spare inner tube is placed in a plastic bag or saddle bag. A strap of waterproof Duct Tape is wrapped around the seatpost, always useful for a temporary fix or repair.
Topeak, who sponsor the entire SCOTT-Sram team, supplies the Shuttle carbon cage, Topeak Weather Proof DynaWedge saddlebag with tube. We have a Topeak Race Rocket MT pump mounted, this also has a valve tool.
A 0.7l bottle instead of a 0.5l aids in preventing riders from getting thirsty before reaching the next water points. A special Downtube protection Tape Layer protects the frames from the harsh soil in South Africa.
The team riders carry a light flat multi tool, so not to injure themselves in a crash. It needs to include a chain breaker allowing the power link to be fitted. They also carry a torx bit T25 and even a T30 if a pivot bolt comes loose. A Co2 cartridge for fast inflation, and zip ties are really useful if a shoe strap breaks or even if they suffer a big rip in a tire, a piece of plastic from a tooth paste tube as a patch then zip ties looped over the tire and around the rim would stop the inner tube bursting out.
The most likely technical issue at the Cape Epic would be a flat tire, but we have seen many issues from other teams with broken wheels even broken frames. Our riders learn not to panic but look at the situation then decide the best option be able to continue, it might mean riding slower to make the stage finish. It’s not unusual for a rider to have to fit new brake pads during a stage. This actually happened to Nino once before at the Cape Epic when the rain came and the dirt ate the pads.
We prepare a plastic box of spares to be at the technical zones, this contains spare wheels and all the parts needed to get the bike rolling again. What’s great here, the riders have to be able to make the repairs, this is one of the reasons the SCOTT-SRAM racing team love the Cape Epic, it challenges all of our team members in different ways. At the end we are all bonded through our experiences in this tough environment. We learn from each other, we gain friendship, trust and a team ethos we take on to our world tour. There are no shortcuts. We prepare every detail for every situation. There’s no luck in winning at this level.
Every day’s tracks at the Cape Epic are different and that is what makes this particular stage race so exciting (and hard to predict). Racers ride into the unknown, anything can happen on any day. That being said, the courses are not available to practice like in XCO so the riders have to be very switched on to course markings and knowledgeable about the expected terrain and conditions. The race manual can be one of the most important tools to help you win a stage race.
The riders that perform well together will have the best communication skills and the ability to help, encourage and understand how the other rider is feeling. It could be simply the way they say something, body language on the bike or general mood. These things make stage races very special, although not an Olympic discipline they can be so rewarding and make the team (the whole team from riders to support) super strong mentally and physically for the up and coming season.
Finally, winning the Cape Epic, known as the Tour de France of Mountain Biking, obviously takes much more: the perfect preparation and shape, a strong mentality, the perfect material and last but not least: both patience and luck.
Thomas Frischknecht, SCOTT-SRAM’s Team Manager says: “Last year we experienced a week of passionate and authentic SCOTT spirit. Our lead team managed to ride eight tough race days without a single mechanical- that is almost unbelievable. To have the strongest Back-Up-Team is maybe the most important key for winning a race like this.”
Words : Yanick Gyger & Nick CraigPhotos : Jochen Haar, Michal Cerveny, Greg BeadleVideo : shaperideshoot / Gaetan Rey