Racing a mountain bike down some of the toughest tracks in the world takes a lot of skill, mental strength and a dialed-in bike setup. Over a World Cup weekend, racers and their mechanics tweak their bike’s setup multiple times to make it work in harmony with the track and each rider's unique style.
With the 2nd round of the UCI MTB Downhill World Cup in Fort William, Scotland, coming up this weekend as well as the bike park season about to kick off, we caught up with one of Sweden’s fastest downhill racers Ben Zwar and his World Cup mechanic Jim Bland about bike setup. Get the down-low on how they work with Ben’s bike over a World Cup week and keep reading for tips and tricks on how to set your own bike up for some good ol’ bike park smashing.
Ben Zwar’s World Cup Setup
Every World Cup track is different. Long, short, rough, smooth, corners, big booters, steep roots, dry or wet… the combinations are pretty much endless and every track demands its own focus and finess in order to make man and machine work in perfect harmony.
Ben and Jim start every world cup track from a base setting that they’ve worked on over the off-season during testing sessions.
Ben explains: “If you start with the basics, I run my Deity Brendog bars at 780 mm wide. As for my brakes, my lever angle is around 28 degrees. I like a higher angle as it feels more natural to me. Suspension-wise, Jim and I first set the sag at about 30 mm on the forks and 21 mm on the shock, and then we go from there. I like a softer shock so I run a lower spring rate with more compression and in my forks I like a supple beginning for it to then ramp up and hold through the big hits”.
From there, the duo sets off to find the subtle but important details to make it perfect for the track. Fort William is one of, if not the, longest track on the World Cup circuit and it varies from fast and rocky at the top, to tighter and slower in the middle woods and finishes off with some huge jumps, the so-called “motorway section”, before the finish line.
How do you even start to set up a bike for that kind of track?
“As the track is so long and demanding, I think the key for Fort William is to make the bike as efficient and as comfortable as possible”, Jim the mechanic says and continues: “the average speed at Fort William is pretty high so we’ll be looking at ways to make the bike roll faster with less effort. We’ll also focus on getting the suspension dialed in for the relentless rough sections and continuous big hits."
"I think for Fort William we may also experiment with reach adjust headset cups to try to make a fraction more stability through the high-speed sections. Benny is pretty tall too so it wouldn’t surprise me if we end up sticking with this setup for the rest of the season anyway.
Overall, I think the key will be to try keep Benny as fresh as possible, and the bike as predictable as possible for the close to 5min run", Jim says.
Being able to change things up and try multiple settings is still a pretty new thing for Ben, who in past years has left his setup somewhat similar all through the season. However, this year, riding for The Union, he has support from both Jim and Öhlins Suspension. It gives him the chance to change things up more than usual:
“It’s been cool to try more things and settings on the bike, but I still want to keep it pretty simple and not get lost in everything. When it comes to a track like Fort William, rolling speed is crucial so tire choice is key. The same goes for suspension as the track is very rough on the hands. I don’t think the perfect setup exists but it’s about getting it to feel as comfortable as you can in the sections that feel the most important on a track”, Ben says and adds that a lot of the World Cup tracks are still pretty new to him so he’s still learnings new things from them all the time.
How to setup your MTB for a bike park
Okay, so World Cup tracks require some serious fine-tuning. But most of us never ride, or race, on World Cup tracks, and might feel like all these adjustments are out of our league. However, if you enjoy smashing out laps in your local bike park having specific settings and setups certainly helps with both stoke levels as well as keeping your bike and its parts running smoothly and safely for as long as possible.
As a mechanic and frequent bike riders himself, Jim has few tricks up his sleeve when it comes to setting up a bike for bike park season.
- Stay on top of maintenance
- Check brake pads, brake hoses and tyres
- Invest in tyres with thicker casing
- Do your suspension servicing
“Bike park riding can be relentless so I think keeping maintenance simple and often is key. The amount of riding you can do in one day alone at a bike park is pretty impressive, so it’s good to get into the habit of checking your bike after each session. Brake pads can wear down super fast, especially if the weather isn’t great, and it’s always worth checking the brake hoses for cuts and\or tears as they can easily get snagged on the uplift. The same goes for tyres, they can easily get ripped,so just having a quick scan of the wheels at the end of each day can save heaps of faff in the future”.
Tyres are vital when it comes to bike park shredding. Thicker casings will make wheels last longer:
“As a rule, switching to some thicker casing downhill tyres is a must for sure - it’ll add control, save your wheels and drastically reduce the chance of getting a flat. After all, it’s the only part of the bike that touches the ground!”
The same goes for suspension. Keeping on top of servicing your suspension will save you money in the long run. “If the bike park features loads of jumps it can help to add some compression to your suspension and slow down the rebound a tad to help the bike stay predictable and calm as you hit the lip”.
There are also smaller, less expensive, parts you can invest in that make a big difference. Jim again: “a pair of well-damped grips will help save your hands on longer days and running a small front fender will stop your fork stanchions from being pepper-sprayed by dusty dirt coming off the front tyre.”
I do small changes like air pressure and stay on top of bike maintenance like cleaning the headset and having new inner and outer cables, but overall I try to keep it similar as it helps me get comfortable on the bike for upcoming races