Another in our new Best of British series
Whyte’s bikes have been honed to perfection on some of mbr’s very own trails; we head to the Surrey Hills to pick the brains of designer Ian Alexander.
Words & photos: Sim Mainey
Full suspension bikes are exciting, especially if it’s your job to design one. I always imagined that the majority of a bike designer’s time is taken up calculating suspension pivot points, looking at graphs plotting shock curves and pondering the whys and wherefores of chain idlers and instant centres. And while that’s all probably true Ian Alexander, Whyte’s chief designer, reckons he spends just as much time working out how to improve their hardtails as he does their full suspension bikes. As Whyte’s hardtails consistently come out on top of MBR hardtail grouptests it’s clearly time well spent. Changes to component standards, trails and the way we ride have all played a part in the evolution of Whyte’s designs, keeping Ian busy and their bikes at the cutting edge – rear suspension or not.
Whyte HQ is based in Hastings with an R&D centre in Cheltenham. Peaslake in Surrey is roughly halfway between the two making it an ideal place for meetings. Of more importance is the fact that the hills around Peaslake are veined with trails, making it the ideal place for product testing.
Even if you’ve never ridden here you’ll likely be familiar with the trails, their quality, variety and proximity to MBR towers means they are the go-to backdrop for magazine photoshoots and bike tests.
As a northern contributor based in Yorkshire I’m less familiar with the trails. I’d heard that the Surrey Hills were the centre of all loam production for the UK, that there were so many trails it’d take a lifetime to ride them all and that a Trailpixie kept the singletrack in prime condition year round. As with most hearsay, myth and rumour there’s a shred of truth to all of that.
You’d be forgiven for thinking Peaslake was a trail centre with the number of riders filling the car park on a Wednesday morning. In a way it is. While there is no official trail waymarking, café or bike shop all those things are to hand. Peaslake Village Stores does a mean cup of tea and Pedal And Spoke sell bikes from what looks like a garden shed over the road. A centre of trails more than a trail centre then.
These trails are a magnet for riders in the south east and have also been instrumental in the design of Whyte’s 900 series hardtails. Ian believes that bike design is a response to trails and trail building, charting the story of one can’t help but tell the story of the other. One trail in the Surrey Hills that has helped shape the evolution of the 900 series more than any other is Evian. Ian reckons he’s tested every generation of Whyte’s flagship trail hardtail on this particular trail, using it to benchmark performance and analyse prototypes.
The 900 series is the culmination of 17 years of development. Tracing the range’s history shows just how much has changed, both with Whyte and with mountain biking in general.
The latest iteration that we’re riding today most notably sports 2.8inch tyres on 35mm wide rims, but this isn’t a bike that’s defined by just its wheels. Increased length and a slacker headangle combined with a short stem and wide bars might be standard fare these days but Whyte have always been ahead of the curve with progressive design and component speccing.
Fundamentally a hardtail frame is nine lengths of tubing. Attempts to reinvent it come and go but nothing has come close to beating the clean simplicity of the double triangle frame design. While the general design might not have changed much since the invention of the Safety Bicycle in the 1880s the shape of that design has changed a lot. British brands in particular have seen the value in breaking away from the traditional XC race geometry of the ‘90s that seemed to paralyse hardtail development, allowing hardtails to become more capable and rounded bikes. The hardcore hardtail might be a bit of a cliché but it’s a very British invention, thanks mostly to the trails we choose to ride.
Fewer of us are looking for a 50km slog at the weekend, instead we’re looking for 25km of really fun stuff and we’re willing to travel to get to it. We now choose to go to a destination to ride, trail centres being the obvious example. That changes what we want out of a bike and in turn how the bike should be designed and specced.
Midweek and with an hour or two to ride we head to the woods to play and dig trails. Ian describes these trails as natural but augmented, built in woodland by trail builders who have adapted something that was already there, a deer track or a natural crinkle in the hillside – after all when building a trail the path of least resistance is usually the one that’s already there.
Natural but augmented perfectly describes the trails at Peaslake, designing a trail hardtail that works well here means designing a bike that will work in your local woods.
Baby head sized rocks are scattered over the fireroad climb up to the start of Evian. On a full suspension bike you’d likely not notice them but on a hardtail they are the kind of surface that makes for awkward progress, particularly on flat pedals. Ian tests hardtails with flat pedals as they give greater feedback about how the bike is responding to the trail – essential when testing changes back to back. “You’ve got to listen to the bike, in all kinds of ways. Sometimes by actually listening to the rip of the tyres or clatter of the chain, but you’ve got to listen in other ways too.” Listening through your feet, for example.
Designing a hardtail is also about economics, they represent a good chunk of Whyte’s business and with plenty of competition out there there’s a commercial pressure, as much as pride, to keep on innovating.
Ian is keen to point out that they’ve never stood still with improving the 900 series, even when they’ve won test after test they know that complacency isn’t an option. For one thing with a hardtail it’s easy for the competition to clone the geometry and catch up quickly, but Ian reckons you can tell when they’ve done that as there are a few key tells. Despite a bit of probing he won’t let on what these tells are.
While I’m sure there are plenty of steep death-plummets to be found in these woods the trails we’re riding make great use of the hill’s modest height to make the downhills last longer than they have a right to, without stuffing them with filler. Sandy with a golden brown loam edge they almost seem manicured. Today the trails are powder dry and grippy and it’s in conditions like this that Ian had a eureka moment when testing the 2.8inch tyres in 2016. Despite having an award winning hardtail at the time after trying a prototype frame with new 2.8inch tyres and finding sizeable increases in comfort, traction and speed Ian knew that the next incarnation of the 900 series had to have these bigger tyres on it. The advantages, like the tyres, were too big to ignore even if it meant having to completely redesign the whole bike to make them fit.
Frame design does not happen in isolation, in fact it’s more of a collaboration with various frame and component manufacturers coming together to help put together a package.
Whyte enjoy good relationships with component suppliers and are given access to products way in advance of their release, giving them foresight and ideas for new bikes. Ian says the most frustrating thing can be finding something that you know is the future but not being able to roll it out onto every bike immediately. 2.8inch tyres being a case in point, as when Whyte debuted them on the 900 series they couldn’t fit them to the entry level 901 model and hit the price point they needed to. Thankfully technology trickle down happens quickly these days and the next year the all 900 series models came shod with 2.8s. It’s creating this package we call a bike that is the real challenge and why Ian credits Whyte’s product managers who are charged with speccing the bikes with as much of an influence on the finished article as himself. When it comes to geometry no such compromise is needed, good and bad geometry costs the same so you might as well choose the good stuff.
Changes in technology can open up new ways of thinking. A classic case in point is the seatpost QR. After spending ages designing a QR clamp that was easy to operate even when covered in mud dropper posts came along and made them obsolete. Whyte now use an elegant clamp system integrated into the frame that keeps mud out, doesn’t snag on your shorts and looks neat too.
These hills are full of turns – you’re constantly changing direction and rarely riding in a straight line for long. Flat turns, bermed turns, rooty turns, rutted turns, if you want to get a handle on fine tuning your handling then this is the place to come. Bottom bracket height, crank length, fork travel and offset all come into play and it’s these elements Ian experiments with to tune the bike to the trail.
“This is a new bit.” says Ian pointing to a trail that appears to be a continuation of the one we’ve just ridden. The Trailpixie has obviously been busy. While some old favourites can be relied on for comparison testing the addition of new sections of trail can’t help but have an influence on the next iteration of bikes – trail building doesn’t stay still and therefore neither does bike development.
The new section of trail has been neatly sliced out of the ground, it weaves around the trees with hints of banking added to corners where needed to help keep the flow going – that natural but augmented feeling in full effect. The grip that the larger tyres gives is a real eye opener here, allowing you to hang further and further over the front and to push earlier and harder into corners knowing you won’t slide out. The grip and micro-suspension feel at the point where rubber hits dirt and the direct feeling of a hardtail frame is incredibly addictive.
Charging from corner to corner I can’t think of much better tool for the job of extracting as much fun out of these trails than this bike. Which isn’t a surprised given how interrelated the two are. But would the bike work as well elsewhere I wonder. As Ian says, a square edged bump or slippy root is the same wherever you ride, what works here works everywhere.
As the trail goes on confidence in the bike and in the trail building leads to a feeling of invincibility, which is usually a sign to back things off before the inevitable happens. Thankfully the trail drops us back into the carpark before unmanaged bravado gets the better of me.
It seems funny that some (mostly) unknown trail builders will have such an influence on Whyte’s bike design. The shaping of trails will shape the future of bikes, so maybe it’s the job of designers like Ian to be interpreters – to read the trails, old and new, explore the new directions people are taking their riding and respond with a bike that makes the most of these new trails.
A hardtail frame may be ‘just’ nine bits of tubing, but it’s also the backbone to British mountain biking. We’ve never been afraid to push just how far we can make the format work and, talking to Ian, there’s still plenty of room for improvement. How? Well, for now that’s a secret but if you go and ride in the Surrey Hills the answer is probably there.
About this Best of British series
The UK is a world leader in mountain bike design. We have a proud engineering heritage and a stoic pragmatism that has given us a reputation for timeless, practical design. At the same time we are open minded and innovative, unafraid of pushing boundaries and not resting on our laurels. From men tinkering in sheds to large scale engineering companies we are a nation of thinkers and doers, evidenced by the number of bike brands that call the UK home.
We’ve more than just curiosity and engineering know-how to thank for this though, the geography of the British Isles has played an equally important role in influencing the design our bikes. In this series we are going to talk to UK bike brands and explore the trails that have influenced their design decisions. We want to find out if there was one trail that informed a bike’s design, a particular section of a ride that gave a eureka moment, how has Britain’s landscape shaped the bikes we ride today?