Mon. Sep 26th, 2022

Apex speed is a key metric in the sport of Formula 1. As the term suggests, it measures velocity at the exact point when you cross the apex of a turn. Why is this important? Because it really determines your overall pace and skill as a driver. The speed you carry at the apex of a turn is a function of precise braking and turn-in. When you nail both of these, you hit the apex going as fast as possible, which maximizes your exit speed and ultimately how fast you’ll go through the next section of track.

These same principles apply in mountain biking. It’s about getting your braking right and turning in at the right point in order to carry maximum speed through the apex and out of the turn. Ideally, crossing the apex means you’re off the brakes entirely, yet it’s too soon to pedal. So you’re coasting. If it’s a downhill turn, gravity takes over. And if you’ve braked just right, the tires will be at their limit—gripping the dirt but not sliding—and you’ll accelerate out of the turn, ready to pick up the pedals as the bike straightens out.

This is what occurred to me after a few rides on this custom-built “The Following” by Evil Bikes. My apex speeds increased compared to other bikes I’d been riding. Why? Because that’s what it’s built for.

The sport of mountain biking has evolved yet another bike category. It may be highly nuanced, and I’m sure many scoff at this new dirt-riding designation. However, after more than 30 years of mountain biking, the evolution of the sport and its innovations in technology have naturally led to this point: the downcountry mountain bike.

This is a hybrid that combines downhilling (DH) and cross-country (XC) into a singular machine. Yes, these are at opposite ends of the mountain biking spectrum. DH bikes have 200mm of suspension. They are heavy and feature super slack geometries with dual-crown forks, coil-over shocks, aggressive tires and a tight gear range for what little pedaling you have to do. Contrarily, XC bikes typically have about 100mm of suspension. They are light and feature flat bars with fast-rolling tires and the maximum gear range. The Holy Grail, as it were, is to get the best of both worlds: a bike that climbs quickly enough and also encourages very aggressive (and confident) descending.

Some might be thinking, “Isn’t that what a trail bike does?” To which I’d reply, “Not really.” I’ve come to realize there’s a no-man’s land in the mountain bike spectrum. I like riding super-light 100mm XC bikes. I like riding super-plush 160/170mm enduro bikes. And, as a result of this review, I like riding 120mm downcountry bikes. Everything else in-between is underwhelming. These 130-150mm bikes don’t do anything particularly well. They only excel at mediocrity. If this strikes you as a classic dumbbell curve, you’re spot on. Like so many other things in business and life, all of the fun in mountain biking can be found at the extremes.

So how do you actually buy a downcountry bike? As this is a new-ish category, you won’t necessarily find bikes that are pre-spec’d with this component balance. More likely, you’ll have to piece one together, either as a custom build or with some select upgrades. As such, this is my downcountry dream build.

Frame: The Following by Evil Bikes ($3,750)

This now-iconic frame is the heart and soul of the bike. You may recall that I nominated The Following as mountain bike of the decade in 2018 because it pioneered modern 29er geometry i.e. long, slack and fast descending. Though we didn’t describe it as such, this bike also pioneered the downcountry category. If you go back and read the reviews, they universally celebrated how well this short-travel (120mm) frame descends while extolling its climbing ability. The emphasis, though, was consistently on its descending prowess. How can a 120mm bike descend this well? That was the collective head-scratcher.

But that was the first-generation Following, and now we’re on the third generation. The big evolutions are found in a steeper 77-degree seat tube, which improves one’s climbing position; beefier suspension pivots for added stability and durability; internal cable routing for a cleaner look; and the somewhat controversial Super Boost spacing (157mm) for the rear dropouts.

This latter design choice is worth exploring, as it threw a wrench into this dream build plan. This new standard (if you can call it that) has so far only been embraced by Evil and Pivot Bikes to my knowledge. It’s about six percent wider than the more common 148mm Boost spacing, and the rationale is all about making 29-inch wheels perform better. By widening the base of the wheel’s triangle (the hub), you can lace up a much stiffer wheel. Per my earlier point about apex speed, this allows you put more load into the wheel before it flexes and goes offline. It effectively pushes the bike’s physical limits, enabling higher apex speeds and overall pace. It also pushes the rear derailleur out further, which can expose it to rock strikes, though that has not been an issue for me so far.

My first thought after riding this new build was, “How did I wait so long to get another Following?” It’s been a good three years. And this time, I went with a size large instead of medium. I’m 5’10”, which puts me in-between sizes, but I have longer legs so I end up with a lot of post out of the bike. This is definitely right, as it feels more stable at high speeds. And you can fit a large water bottle in the single bottle cage.

The Following’s handling is intuitive and confidence inspiring. It pushes you to find its limits, but it’s also very accommodating when you exceed them. When bombing fast, rocky singletrack like you’ll find on Park City’s iconic CMG trail, you drop your weight into your feet and let the rear suspension do its thing—sucking up the rapid-fire bumps and staying right on line. It’s not the lightest frame in its category, but that’s a small tradeoff for how solidly it corners and descends.

Suspension: Fox Factory 34 Step-Cast Fork and Float DPS Shock with lockout remote

My component spec choices for this dream build often involved some simple questions: Should this component lean DH or XC? Is this going to make me go faster uphill or downhill? When it came to suspension, it’s all about descending, which led me to Fox…in particular, the Fox Factory 34 SC fork with 120mm of travel. This has downcountry written all over it. The standard 34 is a bit heavy, and the 32 is under-gunned. This strikes a perfect balance.

Indeed, there have been times when it feels like I’m riding a 150mm Fox 36. Though this only has 20mm more travel than my XC bike, it takes big hits like an enduro fork—hits that might otherwise cause a pinch flat. A lot of this has to do with new lower leg bypass channels, which mitigate air pressure buildup and make for a more plush feel throughout the travel. Along with an ultra-stiff lower leg arch. Combined with the thru-axle, this keeps keeps the stanchions from binding under load. Like the Following frame, the Factory 34 SC punches well above its weight class.

One of my XC-leaning choices with both the fork and Float DPS shock was to opt for the FIT4 Remote versions of each. This features a bar-mounted remote lever that allows you to click through the Open, Medium and Firm positions on the fly for the fork and shock simultaneously. You click once for Medium and a second click for Firm. And then click once to release back to Open (descending) mode. Personally, I prefer to climb with the suspension all-but locked out. I like to get out of the saddle and feel a solid platform below me. That’s why I praised the RockShox Flight Attendant system last year for enduro bikes. This Fox version is manual, but it gets the job done with minimal weight penalty. It just requires some creative cockpit setup with the dropper post lever.

In terms of suspension setup, The Following has a sag guide built into the frame, and Fox includes instructions for how to dial the Float DPS for rider weight. But I’ve come to a new method that I call “pedal strike plus five.” I progressively drop the sag (PSI) to a point where I start to get unavoidable pedal strikes and then add five PSI. This gives the rear shock maximum range while minimizing the dangerous consequences of pedal strikes, which can be severe e.g. going over the bars.

Wheels & Hubs: Industry Nine Ultralight 280 Carbon ($2,350)

Carbon wheel technology has come so far in the past few years that I was always going to choose an XC wheel set for this build. This is an area where I wanted to save weight, and I knew from my XC bike that I wouldn’t be sacrificing performance. I quickly realized, though, that Evil’s Super Boost spacing limited my options. Thankfully, the only one available (that I found) was Industry Nine, most known for its hubs but making a lot of progress on carbon hoops and full system wheel sets.

In fact, the guys at Evil Bikes recommended the Ultralight 280 Carbon wheels for this build, and their endorsement carries a lot of weight. This is also where I decided on a black/red aesthetic. Industry Nine has a slick online wheel builder, where you can choose a range of colors for the hubs and spokes. At which point your custom wheels will be hand built and shipped directly to you.

As previously mentioned, the combination of Super Boost spacing with these wheels makes this bike an absolute berm slayer. I’ve had zero flats in more than 200 miles of aggressive riding. The one downside is that the Hydra 24-hole SB57 hubs are only available for 6-bolt rotor mounting. I’m partial to CenterLock, though it’s more of a convenience/aesthetic thing vs performance.

Drivetrain & Brakes: Shimano XTR M9100

One of the key considerations on the drivetrain was finding high-performance cranks with proper spacing for the Super Boost rear end. One of the best (and safest) options I found was Shimano’s XTR FC-M9130-1 cranks. Yes, precisely these cranks. They feature enough offset (Q-factor) to dial a proper chain line, given that the cassette is pushed out so much. And they are pretty much as light and strong as you can get for an XC crank. I also run a 170mm crank for mountain biking to minimize pedal strikes.

Nevertheless, since this is a dream build, I opted for an aftermarket bottom bracket and chainring. The former is from Enduro Bearings, which makes XTR alternatives like the XD-15 with cryogenically treated nitrogen steel races and buttery-smooth Silicon Nitride Grade 3 ceramic bearings. For the chainring, Wolf Tooth offers a huge selection of rings including those that are not only designed for direct-mount Shimano 12-speed drivetrains but also Super Boost spacing. They are fashioned from 7075-T6 aluminum and offered in 30t, 32t, and 34t versions. I initially went with the 32t but ended up with the 30t based on the cassette gearing.

Let’s talk about gearing. Shimano offers two XTR 12-speed cassettes and two rear derailleurs for 1X drivetrains. The tighter cassette (10-45t) is lighter with less of a jump between gears than the 10-51t. It allows for the medium-cage XTR rear derailleur, which is also lighter and less exposed to rock strikes. In a sense, this is more like a DH setup: compact and low-profile. Again, this left the 30t front ring as the best option to maximize the low-end range for downcountry riding. To be clear, though, this is not the right setup for long road sections. As a sweetener, I also swapped out the stock pulleys for Enduro Bearings ceramic pulleys to add some extra efficiency and performance.

One of the most essential components for downcountry riding is the brakes. Since the debut of XTR 9100, these have been my go-to disc brakes. The two-piston version is excellent for XC, but the downcountry application requires four pistons per caliper. Arguably, you could run four in front and two in the rear to save weight, but I went with four-by-four. As I’ve said many times, you have to slow down to go fast. These are paired with 180mm XT rotors (6-bolt) front and rear, which makes for highly powerful braking and minimal hand fatigue. Honestly, I might have put a 203mm rotor on the front if the Fox Factory 34 SC would take it. Alas, 180mm is the max.

Tires: Maxxis Minion DHR II 2.4WT (front) and WTB Ranger 2.4 (rear)

This is probably the area to which I gave the most thought and consideration. What are the ideal downcountry tires? What is the ideal width? How much is too much…or too little?

First conclusion: 2.4-inch tires are the downcountry sweet spot. They have enough volume and tread to hook up and provide extra cushion without weighing the bike down unnecessarily. Of course, there’s a wide range of tire in just this dimension. So it really comes down to tread patterns. They should be fast rolling while also aggressive enough to hold their own through turns. The front especially needs some burly side knobs for turn initiation, while you can forego some of that with the rear tire, which is more about climbing traction.

Fortunately, Maxxis has a perfect answer for the front tire. Despite being designed as a rear tire, the Minion DHR II is also a fast-rolling tire that has all the bite you need for railing berms and gripping off-camber side slopes. And the center knobs offer plenty of straight stopping power when setting up for a turn. This tire could easily be relaunched as the Minion DCF II.

Having ridden the WTB Ranger in previous builds, I was familiar with how it rode as both a front and rear tire. In particular, the black wall version is extra stout and flat resistant while only weighing 875 grams. There have been several times when I thought a pinch flat happened—you can feel and hear it—but the tire held up. And the rubber compound is extra grippy for holding traction on steep climbs.

Cockpit

The Following features a long top tube, which means you can run a shorter stem. And when it comes to the handlebar, this is an area where you want to lean DH vs XC. ENVE offers a perfect combination with the M6 Stem (50mm) and M6 Bar (full width) with a 25mm rise. It’s about as light as you’ll get while also providing superb durability and handling. I thought about the ENVE M7 counterparts for a moment, but they are much more of an enduro spec.

Finishing off the steering, I upgraded to a Wolf Tooth headset and thru-axle that also match the hubs. And though I tried the Wolf Tooth foam grips, I ended up going with Dynaplug’s Convert bar end grips, which are made by ODI Vans. If you’ve not fixed a flat using a Dynaplug, then you’ve never really fixed a flat. It’s nothing short of a miracle. Just plug the hole, re-inflate the tire and be on your merry way. These grips have up to four plugs (two on each side) that are stealthily screwed into the bar ends. Total game changer.

For the dropper post, I initially tried the new Fox Factory Transfer SL with 100mm of travel, which is 25-percent lighter than the standard Transfer. It’s a huge savings. However, it’s also binary. Which is to say, you’re either up or down. There are no hydraulics to support the post in between. After a couple rides, I realized that downcountry really needs those in-between positions—for short, technical climbs; for pedaling over rolling terrain; and for just getting saddle out of the way on steep drops.

What I ended up doing was swapping the Transfer SL onto my XC bike and taking its RockShox Reverb AXS for the Following. A standard Transfer would have also been a great option, but this is what I had available. So I shaved a chunk of grams off my XC bike and got an ideal downcountry post for the Evil. The AXS lever also works great with the Fox remote on the left side. Finally, I went with the super light WTB Volt Carbon saddle to further minimize weight without sacrificing comfort.

Pedals: Garmin Rally XC200 ($1,200)

If you’re approaching this from an XC perspective, then you’ll want a way to measure power output. And since Shimano doesn’t yet offer an integrated MTB power meter, the best option is Garmin’s relatively new Rally XC200 pedals. When it comes to measuring and optimizing power, this two-sided model gives you more data than you’ll know what to do with. It’s measuring each leg independently along with how each leg performs throughout the entire pedal stroke; how much power you produce when seated and standing; whether your cleats are ideally positioned and much more.

One of the best features is that they are designed around the Shimano SPD standard, which maximizes compatibility for those who ride more than one Shimano-equipped mountain bike. As a pedaling platform, they are a bit more generous than Shimano’s XC pedals. However, there’s a slight weight penalty from the battery and electronics. I also found that they offer a bit more float than a Shimano pedal. Finally, the big benefit with pedal-based power meters is the ability to take them with you when traveling and renting other bikes. You’re never sans power.

Additional Components & Gear

The downcountry category naturally implies that you’ll be descending aggressively, taking chances and pushing the limit. Which should dictate a range of other gear choices. For my actual downhilling setup, I use a full-face helmet, back protector, pads and shorts from POC Sports. Naturally, I looked to the leader in high-performance protective gear for a downcountry system.

POC Sports Kortal Race MIPS Helmet ($250)

This is an enduro helmet with extended rear coverage and several key safety features including the MIPS systems, which protects against rotational impact; the RECCO beacon for search and rescue; and a “breakaway peak” for added neck protection. It’s also E-MTB certified for impacts at higher speeds. The design is deliberately goggle friendly, such that goggles can store under the visor for climbs, and the goggle strap won’t cover any of the vents. Given the amount of protection it offers, this is a well ventilated helmet. Though it’s far from what a lighter XC-style helmet offers. The low coverage around the ears also limits the type of glasses you can wear. It’s not very compatible with shades that have straight arms.

POC Sports Devour Shades ($250)

Hence, I’d suggest pairing this helmet with the POC Devour shield-style shades. They integrate perfectly with the helmet, such that the arms curve around the ears and don’t conflict with the helmet. Most importantly, they offer goggle-like eye and face protection in a more breathable form. Lastly, my teenage girls actually complemented the look. So they’ve been approved by the Gen-Z fashion police.

POC Sports OSEUS VPD Knee Pads ($140)

I’ve always used POC VPD knee pads for downhilling, but some models are a bit bulky for uphill riding applications. The Oseus strikes a perfect balance of protection, weight, breathability and freedom of movement. They feature the same VPD padding over the knee, which this extends down the shin slightly. They can be worn down to the ankle for long climbs and quickly pulled into position for descents. The top grip band is superbly designed to hold them in place, and it folds down to reduce the size of the pad in climbing mode. These are ideal for downcountry riding applications.

POC Sports Resistance Pro DH Glove ($70)

For downcountry glove choice, it makes sense to go full DH. The Resistance Pro DH features ample knuckle protection for errant tree strikes without being too stiff or restrictive. The palm has padding in some key areas for impacts and fatigue, but it doesn’t hinder grip feel and handling. They are breathable enough for hot XC riding, and the silicon finger prints offer excellent brake lever feel. There’s even a terrycloth nosewipe on the thumbs.

Shimano XC9 S-SPHYRE Shoes ($430)

When it comes to downcountry shoe choice, my personal opinion is to go full XC. I want the most efficient pedaling option, which means they have to be light and stiff with a glove-like fit and superb ventilation. The XC9 sets the benchmark in each of these areas. I also have the challenge of needing a wide last, which Shimano offers in most of its higher-end models. Finally, I’ve become entirely reliant on the BOA closure system for all of my cycling shoes. The ability to quickly tune the pressure on the fly with a couple clicks of the dials makes all the difference in both comfort and performance, especially on longer rides.

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