Pro Bike Check // Legendary Pro rides of Yesteryear!
An epic look back through some of the iconic ‘retro’ DH bikes Aussie pilots rode to victory on the world stage.
We sat down with some icons of the golden age in Australian DH; Nathan Rennie, Scott Sharples, Chris Kovarik, Mick Hannah and Michael Ronning to takes us through the bikes they took to podiums across the globe.
Nathan Rennie // 2003 // Iron Horse SGS Team
[R]: Back around the turn of the millennium there were quite a few brands that would pluck frames out of an Asian parts catalogue, slap their brand stickers on them and that was their new bike. That Iron Horse SGS was a prime example of said practice. Would it be fair to say that frame you guys raced that season lacked a little on the design front and looked, well, pretty shitty?
Rennie: Ha, yeah those frames were not the nicest things that’s for sure. Put it this way, the year that we rode that thing you could literally buy the exact same frame Kmart. KMART!
[R]: And you ended up winning the god damn World Cup Series aboard it that season! How did it ride?
Rennie: Well it definitely had a few ‘quirks’ to put it nicely. It had some strength issues and some flexing issues… But yeah, we had to muck with those things a lot. I definitely broke quite a few of those frames throughout the year. Swing arms, main frames, chainstays… yeah we went through a lot of ‘em!
Actually I remember another thing about those frames, they literally came with bottle cage mounts!
[R]: A DH bike with a bottle cage? That is brilliant. You know, for when you need to stop halfway through your 3 minute race run for a quick drink.
[R]: Do you remember much about the 5th element shock you had on your bike that year? Those shocks were all the range back then. The concept being that they ramped up nice and progressively through their travel. How did they feel to ride?
Rennie: To be honest, those shocks didn’t really do anything really. The theory behind them was cool, and they certainly looked cool, but how they worked and the way they made the bike ride was no different to what the other brands were doing. I guess if anything though bolting that shock into our frames at least made a bike from Kmart look semi decent…
[R]: Man I would have been so convenient to pop down to the supermarket to grab a 64-roll pack of toilet paper and brand new downhill frame! How much travel that thing put out at the rear?
Rennie: I think it was eight inches. We actually chopped the frame up a bit and just re-positioned the top eyelet of the rear shock to lower the bottom bracket again. So we were trying to just lower that center of gravity as much as I could. Obviously, I’m a bigger guy, so I had to have the big frame and honestly that thing was so damn tall it was pretty ridiculous.
Every time I broke a frame, we’d have to chop another one and drill another few holes.
[R]: Isn’t it crazy to think that back then the sport was so big and there was so much money in it, riders were getting paid tons on factory contracts, but you guys were riding a bike that you had to chop and drill to make it work. Imagine taking a drill to a modern frame to play around with where the carbon link goes!?
Rennie: Ha yeah. I assure you, back then a grinder and a drill press were a mechanics best friend back in those days. You would chop and change everything.
[R]: One of the things I remember about sitting on your bikes in the pits back in those years was how incredibly firm and slow you’d set your suspension. Was that just your personal preference or is that pretty much the only way you have to have your suspension set-up when you’re traveling at World Cup pace?
Rennie: Yeah, you just answered it really. It’s a difference between a Corvette and Cadillac. A Cadillac, you can cruise down the street and be all cushy, and nice, and smooth straight over. When a Corvette passes you, it’s the roughest ride ever, but it’s going twice as fast.
[R]: Haha good point.
Rennie: You’ll find all of the fast DH guys will set their bike’s up like that. When you’re traveling as fast as a bike can go down a track you can’t have the bike diving or bottoming out off the lip of a jump. It needs to be really firm so that you’re always getting immediate feedback from the trail. For instance, say when you’re gapping a section, a jump or a rise, a rock or a root or something that you can launch off, when you’re going quick you don’t necessarily have to even jump it by pulling up on the bars as you usually would, rather you can preload the bike and then as it’s decompressing you just skip across the top. And so the idea with having the rebound slow would be the fact that it doesn’t retract all the way before you hit the next bump, and then the next one, and the next. So essentially, you’re skipping across the top of the bumps instead of diving into the bumps. If your suspension is nice and soft and the rebound is set fast, none of that is possible, you just get swallowed up by the terrain.
[R]: Let’s talk about tyres, then. That was the first year you jumped on to Maxxis, and Maxxis was starting to make some sort of quality tyres. Up to that point, they were seen as probably not the best brand in the world, but they came out with some really good rubbers that year and good tread patterns as well. Was that another one of the sort of little recipes of your success in 2003?
Rennie: Yeah, it definitely was actually. Well spotted! I mean, up until that point throughout my career I had always run IRC tyres. They were all I knew, and really, they were pretty damn average. I lost a lot of races because of tyre issues. A lot! But then as soon as I got on the Maxxis, I was podium and winning like every weekend.
[R]: Ha jeez! Did you ever run tubeless back then or had that phase not begun yet?
Rennie: Nope just tubes. And in fact it still is for me. I prefer tubes in my tyres even to this day. You can call me old school, but ultimately if you’re going to hit something so hard that it’s going to pierce the tube, it’s going to pierce the tire as well or either smash the rim. The best way to avoid that happening isn’t to take the tube out of the equation, it’s to avoid hitting the object in the first place.
[R]: I want to ask you about one of the other notable changes that happened that season. Throughout your early career every time we’d see you on a bike you’d be wearing a full body ‘Dainese’ armour suit. And even at the first couple of races that year you were still rocking the full suit, but then all of a sudden you stripped your armour back to just a set of knees and elbows. What kind of brought on that change and how come you all of a sudden just had the confidence to wear majority less body armour?
Rennie: Yeah I think it was a combination of a few different things. I mean, you look at motocross guys for example and they very rarely wear body armour. Certainty never big bulky shoulder pads and stuff. And those guys are going twice as fast as what we’re going and yet we used to wrap ourselves in cotton wool. Those big body suits were actually pretty restricting and you wanted to just feel free on the bike, so that season I started wearing less and less. The reality is, if you’re going to break a bone or something it rarely happens from the direct impact of hitting an object which the armour might help lessen the blow, most often breaks occur because of the movement at the time of impact where your body is twisting and whatnot, which amour can’t help. Armour is great for preventing scratches and stuff, but yeah, the big crashes and big injuries are going to happen regardless, and I found when I have more movement, as in being less restricted with my movement, I was actually able to avoid crashing quite a bit as I’d be able to ‘save’ situations as I was riding.
Ironhorse SGS Team
Fork: RockShox BoXXer
Rear shock: 5th Element
Handlebar width: 780mm
Rear Derailleur: SRAM XO
Pedals: Flats – always
Tyres: Maxxis Minion
Grips: ODI lockons
Scott Sharples // 1998 // Trek Factory DH
[R]: Scotty there were all kinds of crazy looking frame designs popping up in the sport throughout the era that you were racing pro, but surely the most outrageous of all was the Trek that you rode with those massive ‘swiss cheese’ holes in the downtube! What was the story with that bike?
SS: That bike was super heavy but what was even more detrimental was it was so, so, so stiff. It had literally zero compliance! The bike would ricochet off every rock, stump, root, literally anything, it was pretty much impossible to ride in a straight line. So I called the team at Trek, with a drill running in the background, promising [threatening] to cut holes in it myself if they didn’t do it for me. They used their computer analysis tools to work out the ideal shapes and locations to cut away alloy and set the CNC into action. It made a huge difference in weight and compliance. Sadly they didn’t take much out of the back end of that frame.
That swing arm alone on that thing weighed as much as an entire current DH frame!
[R]: Were those frames strong? Did you go through a bunch of them that season or was the one with the holes just a ‘one off’?
SS: I only ever had one of those ‘Swiss Cheese’ frames. It lasted me a season, there were signs of ‘movement’, but no cracks or failures. Unlike pretty much every other frame design I rode I actually didn’t ever break one of those frames. Maybe I wasn’t going hard enough!?
[R]: It seemed like most World Cups back then were mud-fests, what happen to that bike when the holes filled with mud?
SS: On the muddy days I used clear tape to cover the holes, I even did that on fast open tracks for aerodynamics… Keeping in mind that we’re talking about back in the days where everyone wore skin suits and ran cannonballs (removing the peak from your full face)!
[R]: I remember lifting up your race bike at National Champs back here in Oz that year, not the swiss cheese frame but the solid down tube bike, and it was honestly the heaviest bike I’d ever attempted to pick up. What did that they weigh do you remember and how the hell did you manage to ride it?
SS: You are right, it was one of the heaviest bikes, the frame alone, with coil spring forks, and moto tubes… I’m not 100% sure, but it was well over 20kgs… Or in other words, roughly double the weight of my current trail bike! I still have that bike from ‘98, and I warn people before they attempt to pick it up, it may cause a back injury….
[R]: In ’98 a set of RockShox BoXXers were ‘the fork’ to have, but yours were extra special that season weren’t they? Did you run prototype air springs in your forks where most other riders had regular metal springs?
SS: Yep. In that time of racing, there were so many major developments in equipment, not just little incremental gains. Big changes were happening to bikes, I mean things like, changing from rim brakes to disc brakes. And yes, in suspension lots of brands were trying to make the switch from using heavy steel coils over to much lighter air systems. Back then RockShox had their BlackBox Program which was their performance race proto department. I was lucky to be a part of the program and during that period they came out with some really cool stuff. Heaps of big performance gains. For instance, my bike went from 100mm of travel all the way up to 180mm!
[R]: Your rear shock was pretty special back then as it featured a massive remote reservoir which was positioned up in the frame’s seat mast – how did it work?
SS: It functioned like most piggy-back shocks, it just had to have a longer tube between the shock unit and the reservoir in order to find somewhere on the frame that it could be mounted – space was tight. The remote reservoir was mounted via a flex hose instead of fixed to the shock, it was easier to develop this concept without needing to CNC every little change. I also got them to build me the first trunnion style shock back then, for easier ride height adjustment.
[R]: There’s no denying that a lot bikes and parts used to break back in those days as the envelope of design and durability was being pushed to see how far it could go… on the bikes that you raced back then what type of stuff did you go through (break) most often?
SS: Aside of endless flat tyres and chain derailment, which were soooo common… [We were forced to develop our own ‘ghetto’ systems back then, without the aid of properly manufactured extrusions and compounds…], my biggest issue was with brakes… As with pretty much everything else we ran back then in the mid to late nineties our brakes were all prototype units which were in heavy development. The problem was we were the only ones that could test them and most often they’d fail. Again and again. I remember over at the Nevegal (Italy) World Cup one year I was all out of brake lever bodies, spares didn’t exist, and they weren’t things that you could buy in a shop, back then, none of the top 20 riders were on equipment that could be bought in a shop. Almost everything was proto. In the end, I had to borrow a Formula lever from Missy Giove, to fit to my Hayes Brakes. And that wasn’t an ideal setup. Back then, she ran a lever on the top of the lever housing to adjust the brakes mid-run as they heated up…
I also went through countless bottom brackets back then, mostly due to twisting or snapping them clean in half.
[R]: How much have the bikes progressed and also just the sport of DH on the whole from the late ‘90’s to the modern era of right now?
SS: It’s too much to list, seriously, 2 major factors that often get forgotten, over and above the weight, travel, and adjustability, was the consistency and reliability. Suspension and brakes were different at the bottom of the run compared to the top. And you had to allow for that, you really had to preserve your equipment.
Aside from reliability, weight, travel, geo changes, the biggest advancements to make for more enjoyable downhilling come from good tubeless systems with amazing sticky rubber compounds, and chain guides combined with clutched derailleurs.
Trek Factory DH
Fork: RockShox BoXXer
Rear shock: RockShox proto
Brakes: Rim to Proto disc that would sometimes fail 100%
Crankset: Square taper drive, super wide to allow for straight cranks, to square taper with offset cranks. [no direct mount, oversize hollow tubes…]
[R]: You signed your first pro deal at age 17 with one of the biggest professional team’s on the World Cup circuit and the bike you raced DH on that year was the Orange 222. Up to that point you’d been riding a pretty wild looking SantaCruz Super-8 which you’d customised to suit the abuse that tracks up in your hometown of Cairns used to dish out. You had 24” wheels front and rear with super beefy tyres and a massive rear shield to protect the rear derailleur, etc. Thinking back to those 2 bikes, do you remember much about how different they rode and what the learning curve was like getting used to the Orange?
Mick: I loved that Super 8! It sure did get pretty heavy though with all we of the mods that we had to make in order to keep that bike running. Back then I was young rider coming up through the ranks and I knew the most important thing for me was to ride as much as possible, to do as many downhill runs as possible. And so we pretty much customised that bike so that it would hold up to a huge amount of training, rather than making it the fastest or lightest to race. And it paid off in the end I’d say. To be honest moving across to the 222 on the new team was pretty easy as it was a similar bike really. The biggest difference was the Orange was lighter and I had Adam Bonney wrenching for me and Jeremiah Boobar and John Dawson from RockShox setting up and customising my suspension.
Having a light bike with fresh parts made me feel like I could do anything. It was a huge year in my career.
One of the signature features of the Orange 222 was its huge monocoque downtube, but even though it had a really chunky appearance it was actually one of the lightest DH bikes around at the time, eh?
Yes that was a great design. As I mentioned earlier the reduced weight was amazing at the time. Our bikes we actually custom, not off the shelf, which meant they had an even thinner walled material than the stock bikes as well – they were super, super light that season!
[R]: Your SantaCruz used to run a set of massive Mazocchi monster forks as well didn’t it? Did it take you long to get used to the RockShox BoXXer’s and larger 26” wheels on your new bike?
Mick: Those Monsters were incredibly reliable and they worked pretty well. It sounds oversimplified maybe, but they were consistent and had low friction. My Boxxer was great as well but required a lot of maintenance. Again, it was the reduced weight that was the big difference and I had access to spares so I could keep training.
[R]: The Global Racing team seemed to only run the best of the best parts that season. The best suspension, the best groupsets, the best wheels and tyres… did you have any custom gear on your bike that year?
Mick: Yes the team was mostly funded by Arai which allowed us to pick and choose the brands and products to go on the bikes in order to make them perform as well as possible. Martin Whitely did an amazing job putting that team together and focusing on the important fundamentals.
[R]: Downhill bike set-ups have obviously changed a great deal over the past 2 decades – what are some of the most notice differences from your current set-up compared to back in 2001?
Mick: Ha I would say geometry has been the biggest thing. My current bike wouldn’t be able to get around the turns we had back then I don’t think! haha. Bikes nowadays are so much longer and slacker. Also reliability.
It’s surprising if something goes wrong these days where back then I had to ride to preserve the bike. I had one loose spoke yesterday after about 80 runs on that wheel. That kind of reliability was a fantasy back then.
Orange Bikes @ Global Racing Pits Fort William
Orange Bikes 222
Fork: RockShox BoXXer
Rear shock: RockShox custom
Brakes: Shimano XT 4-piston
Crankset: Shimano XTR
Rear Derailleur: Shimano XTR
Chainring size: 38-42 from memory.
Pedals: Shimano DX clipless
Chris Kovarik // 2002 // Intense M1
[R]: 2002 was the first time a World Cup was held at Fort William in Scotland, and you won that race by a massive 14 seconds which is one of the largest winning margins in the history of DH. The bike you were riding was of course you’re trusty Intense M1. Tell us a bit about your relationship with that bike up to that point – clearly you 2 got along pretty well?
CK: Yeah I had some good results on those bikes! I signed with Intense Cycles in early 2000 and I still remember the day that my first M1 arrived at my home up in QLD. I pretty much rode that bike everywhere and at every chance I got. Coming off the GT Lobo the previous 2 years, the M1 felt like a lounge chair! It worked so well I was just buzzing the whole time on it thinking how much faster this thing is going to make me.
Back then the M1 was so good in fact that a lot of other teams would buy them and put their sponsors stickers over the top.
[R]: Were your frames custom back then or stock standard off the shelf models?
CK: My M1’s were stock off the shelf frames until 2003, then Jeff Steber (owner/ welder) started to make prototypes from the M1 base frame. This allowed us to fit a longer shock under the now detachable seat tower to allow for more travel and clear the advanced 5 way adjustable 5th Element shock reservoir.
[R]: You were one of the first riders that got to race a set of those big upside-down carbon Manitou Dorado forks – how did those things perform back in the day?
CK: The Manitou Dorado’s were another game changer to add to the M1. I remember Michael Ronning and I were some of the first riders to test these in Big Bear MTN California as the Manitou factory was just a couple hours away. Those Dorado’s were really confidence inspiring when you looked down and saw those thick diameter legs and the upside down design, they were really cool at the time. I remember you could pretty much point those forks at anything and they’d eat it up. That said, the negative thing about them was that they were a little flexy as the lower legs would tend to twist and wander at times.
[R]: Weight wise, compared to DH bikes of the modern era, were the bike’s you used to race a much heavier back in the day?
CK: Haha yeah the bikes were pretty heavy back then! We didn’t know any different though, so the weight wasn’t actually a concern. I have an old M1, almost a replica of what I rode back in the day, and it actually weighs 20kg, My M16 last year weighed 14kg, My current M29 weighs 15.5 kg and has a wheelbase 150mm longer than my old M1.
[R]: Before you joined the Intense Factory Team you rode a GT Lobo for Qranc and it looks like your bike set-up changed quite a bit between those seasons. Your bars got wider, what else did you change in terms of the way you set your bike up?
CK: My bike set up did change a little but not too much, wider bars for sure but I think it was more so dialling in a whole new set up and working out how to adjust all the new parts to fit my riding style. The slacker head angle and shape of the M1 put me back further over the seat and helped my riding technique better over the Lobo.
[R]: Brands were still pushing the envelope of development pretty hard around the turn of the millennium, which often meant a fair bit of trial and error as parts would break. Did you used to go through a fair bit of gear during a race weekend during those early seasons?
CK: Yeah it was a cool era to be involved in the sport back then and to see how the bikes and parts have developed. For sure we broke a fair amount of gear. During a season we’d go through a couple rear ends, shock bolts, handlebars, and a tonne of rims! Breaking rims literally cost me 4 big race wins, and also the NORBA title one season which was a massive blow. To this day I’m still pissed I never got my name on those titles… Although, I do hold the record for the biggest winning margin at NORBA, over 10 seconds, so I can be stoked on that at least.
[R]: Back then Intense made their own tyres as well, which you were racing. Did they feature the same sticky stealth rubber that your shoes had?
CK: Yeah so Jeff being the mad scientist and thinker he is first went to Five Ten and had the Intense shoes made with the Rock Climbing shoe rubber. Those shoes were amazing. They were night and day advantage over any other flat pedal shoe at the time and even by today’s standards. Later he put 2 and 2 together and got thinking about making a sticky rubber tyre. I remember he would fly to Taiwan every so often to get these sticky rubber tyres made, we got the first batch and were blown away with how soft the compound was to what we were using. Jeff had them make an extra sticky set of tyres so we could test and figure out what was going to work best, the extra sticky set was far too heavy but they were that sticky you could basically drag a bar on flat ground without the tyres letting go. Jeffs ideas back then were innovating to the sport which he really doesn’t get credit for…
I can’t say that I would have done as well as I did back then and won all those races if it weren’t for the Intense M1’s I rode and also the sticky rubber shoes and tires that I got to use.
2002 Intense M1
Fork: Manitou Dorado
Rear shock: 5th Element
Travel: 8.5 inches
Brakes: Shimano XT with metal pads.
Crankset: Shimano XTR
Rear Derailleur: Shimano XTR
Chainring size: 40 tooth
Pedals: Easton Cullys Dave Cullinans.
Rims: Mavic/ Easton’s
Tyres: Intense 2.7 and 2.4 rear.
Stem: Easton 50mm
Grips: Intense with Moto flange
Handlebar: Easton Havcocs
Nathan Rennie // 2001 // Yeti Lawwill Straight-8
[R]: When you first joined Yeti back in ’01 this was the first DH bike you raced for them, the Straight-8 and of course the standout about its design was that it featured a pull shock. How did that thing ride?
Rennie: It actually rode pretty much the same as if there were a regular shock in there, the only thing was that the shock couldn’t hold much oil and so they used to heat up quite quickly which meant they would blow up a lot. Another downside to that design was that the shock put so much load on the small amount of thread that held the body of the shock to the mount, and so yeah that was a real weak spot which caused quite a lot of failures too. It was a bit of a bummer really because those bikes were really cool and when they worked they rode pretty well.
[R]: Being just a large human yourself did you end up pushing bikes to their breaking points a lot sooner than other riders would back then?
Rennie: It’s hard to say. Yeah, in the early days on those factory teams I was going through quite a lot of frames and parts, most race weekends in fact. It was a bit of a funny time in the sport back then though, us ‘pro racers’ were pretty much the guinea pigs for brands to trial new ideas and tech. We were there trying to do a job, win races, and yet often we’d be handed stuff that was un-tested and off we pedalled to the start hut for our race runs… So yeah, for a decent part of my career I was like half racer half R&D guy. Obviously one of the biggest problems with that was that when I’d break something at a big race there’d be, you know, a thousand sets of eyes on me so it wasn’t a good look for the brands sometimes.
[R]: That must have been frustrating knowing that you were literally having to put your body on the line given how fast you rode and how dangerous the sport is?
Rennie: Ha, yeah, but it was all part of the job in the early days as brands were still figuring development out. Like, I’ll just tell a quick story if I can then.
[R]: Of course.
Rennie: So this one year we arrive at Sea Otter, the first race of the year, and it was really big that year. They were trialling a new 4-cross racing concept and they’d built this gigantic track. It was pretty cool, it had huge jumps, I was really into it. Anyways, Yeti had designed this pretty cool looking new frame which they were hoping would be this awesome 4X bike. At that point they’d only ever made one proper frame though and so they gave it to me and off I went to practice the course on it… Anyways the first few laps went well and there were tons of spectators, cameras, the day was going off. In the middle of the course there were these two big doubles, like really big. I came into the first one at warp speed and cleared it just fine, but I remember hearing a pretty crummy noise. I put it down to the fact that it could just be some chain snapped or something. So, I kept going as I couldn’t really back out anyways as the down ramp pretty much turned into the up ramp of the second huge jump, but all of a sudden when I went to take off the bike’s bottom bracket just smashed right into the ground… I didn’t realize it, but my bike had actually snapped clean in half just as I was getting airborne! Somehow I didn’t die, I managed to land and just cartwheel down the down ramp and was actually okay.
[R]: The bike didn’t fare so well though?
Rennie: Ha, well yeah no. So anyways I picked up the pieces of the frame and bear hugged it back to the pits hoping not too many people would spot me. Anyways when I go back there the team manager was like,
“Oh, oh, we forgot to tell you. We weren’t supposed to build that up. It was just for display. We never got a chance to heat treat that bike before we had to come to the race, so no one was meant to ride it!”
Haha, it was all good though. Yeti was a great team and I got along great with them. That one time was just an error of miscommunication which we can look back on now with a bit of a laugh. That story was just a bit of an example of some of the stuff that used to happen back then in the early days when brands developed new parts for us to ride!
[R]: That’s wild! You rode the Straight-8 until Yeti brought out that big monocoque DH9 the following season which went back to using a traditional push shock. Was the new bike a ton better?
Rennie: I actually really loved the Straight-8, that bike really suited my riding style. Or I just adapted to it really well. For some reason I could corner on that thing like nothing else! It was bloody fast. It had a really nice low centre of gravity. I tell you what though, back then I used to ride that downhill bike all day every day for everything. I had a ton of other bikes from Yeti which I could have ridden, but at the time I just always rode the DH bike. I rode it for XC rides, at the skatepark, the BMX track, everywhere. So maybe that’s why I adapted to it so well. When the nine came out, it was actually had a pretty similar linkage, just with the pull-shock, and the bike was longer too. And it rode well, but I was just so used to the Straight-8, to this day I was always more comfortable on it.
[R]: The Straight-8 produced 8” of rear travel, thus its name, but the fork you had up front, the Manitou Carbon Expert, only had 7”. Did it feel odd having kind of mismatched suspension numbers back then or it actually worked?
Rennie: It was what it was. There simply wasn’t an 8” fork for us that year so we just ran what we had. If you think about it though it didn’t really make a difference in terms of being mismatch because the back end of the bike had a lot more sag than the front with the way I set it up, and so really it levelled out to about the same. Plus you take into account that the suspension didn’t work super well so you never go the full travel, truth be told the thing probably only had 6” of working travel at each end anyways.
[R]: Then the following year you got the Manitou Dorado fork, the big upside down design, carbon 8” beefy monsters. How were they?
Rennie: Oh boy, yeah they had some quirks for sure.
Put it this way, I literally used to run 2 top crowns, one directly on top of the other, just to try and stiffen the fork up a little.
Rennie: Ha yep, those things had a mind of their own when it came to where wanted to steer you sometimes.
[R]: Okay let’s talk bar width. It was during those seasons on Yeti that we started to see your bars get wider. Before then literally every single rider on mountain was running super narrow, 600 and something mill wide bars. Tell us a bit about that?
Rennie: Yeah it was stupid. It never made sense to me. I used to just ride what we had and those were the widest bars any brand made, like 650mm or whatever, and even then most riders used to trim them down even narrower… For me it was a no brainer, I knew I needed wider bars. I think the bikes got faster and more travel and even just thinking of the solid fact that balance is the biggest part of downhilling. So, I just started to run wider bars.
[R]: How did you manage that?
Rennie: Not a lot of people know this but to begin with we just hung the grips right out over the ends of the bars, like a whole inch, even more. Those lock-on grips had just come out from ODI, we’d just reply on that single inside clamp to hold the grip in place and off we went down the mountain!
[R]: You’re kidding? There wasn’t even any metal on the inside of those grips, it was just plastic. You could have died a million times you know?
Rennie: Eh, we just rode what we had until the industry caught up and started making better stuff.
Yeti Lawwill DH8
Fork: Manitou X Vert DH
Fork travel: 7”
Rear travel: 8”
Headset: Chris King
Handlebar Width: 640mm
Rear Derailleur: Shimano XTR M952
Brakes: Hayes HFX Mag 8″
Crankset: Shimano XTR
Pedals: Flats, always.
Tires: IRC Kujo DH 2.35
Grips: ODI Yeti Lock-On
Chain: Shimano 9 Speed
Michael Ronning // 1997 // Gary Fisher
[R]: The brand Gary Fisher doesn’t exist anymore obviously, can you start by giving us an idea of what that brand was all about, how big it was, and how long you rode for them?
Ronning: Back in the day Fisher was a huge brand. Gary Fisher was one of the pioneers of the original MTBs, he was a very progressive thinker and had plenty of great ideas (and some crazy ones). I rode for them for 3 years (1996, ‘97 and ’98). The brand was owned by Trek and the race team was run alongside the Trek program.
[R]: Fisher’s often sported really cutting edge frame designs back in the day. Tell us about the DH bike that you’re riding here with it maaaasive downtube?
Ronning: Yeah it was a massive tube that added a lot of weight to the bike but also made it really stiff and stable. It became a production bike for Trek a year later. It had a high pivot which worked well it square edge bumps etc but had the downfall in pedalling you got a lot of feedback from the suspension.
[R]: That same frame was shared between Trek and Fisher wasn’t it or where they just similar?
Ronning: They were the same bike essentially. The bikes that Scott Sharples (Trek DH) and I rode were custom made to our dimensions but they were really the same bike with customized sizing.
[R]: Could you buy those frames back then or were they all prototypes?
Ronning: They were prototypes in ‘97 but then the following year they actually made the bike production but in a really limited edition.
[R]: How much travel did the rear end have?
Ronning: Just 150mm, so the same as a trail bike these days. Crazy!
[R]: Was your race bike super heavy that season?
Ronning: Yeah they were really heavy, but in saying that most of the race bikes were back then. I remember at the time that Canonndale’s team were on a bike that was so heavy it weighed the same as an e-bike nowadays!
[R]: Ultra narrow handlebars were all the rage back then. How come? Did you even experiment with wider bars or did you have to wait another 10 years for those things to arrive in the scene?
Ronning: I’m not sure why our bars started off so narrow, it was just one of those things, it was just the way it was. And eventually, the bars slowly got wider and wider.
[R]: Besides the narrow bars, looking back now what were some of the other ‘wacky’ trends that your race bikes used to feature?
Ronning: Gearing was definitely different back then, a 46T front ring was pretty standard. Brakes changed a lot. The bike in that pic was proto Hayes brakes and then Shimano came out with Hub Roller Brake before they made disc brakes.
[R]: Is it hard to believe how much DH bikes have evolved in the past 20+ years? Do you ever miss the ‘golden era’ in some ways though?
Ronning: Yeah its crazy how much things have changed. For me, I definitely saw it as the Golden Era, all the bikes were custom/handmade prototypes. Within a few years, DH bikes had gone from 3inch travel, cantilever brakes to 6-inch travel with disc brakes. Bikes were evolving and developing really fast and it was cool to be part of it.
Gary Fisher Factory DH
Fork: Prototype RockShox Boxxer
Rear shock: Prototype Rockshox shock with remote reservoir