We hit the Peak District's trails less travelled with chief designer Mike Sanderson
Calibre Bikes and the Bossnut redefined the entry-level full-susser category and now they hope to have the same impact with its Calibre Sentry enduro bike.
Mountain bikers are magpies. We are drawn to shiny stuff and the bike industry is more than happy to oblige us with ever more eye catching offerings. As bikes incorporate ever more exotic materials and clever technology prices have crept up and, while bikes are still better value and better performing than they have ever been, the price tags on the range topping models are enough to make even the most well-heeled rider wince.
Look past the high-end bling though and it’s the bikes much further down the price list that have to put the hard work in. Entry level mountain bikes are the unsung heroes of the sport. They provide the gateway into mountain biking that the industry depends upon to turn an occasional bike rider into a cycling enthusiast. To achieve that these bikes need to provoke a smile in the showroom and on the trails and be able to do that reliably, ride after ride.
For bike brands this means tough decisions have to be made on where to spend money when building the bike – looks, performance and reliability all making demands of the budget. There’s a good reason why many bike designers and product managers spend more time looking at spreadsheets than actually getting to ride bikes.
One man who understands this better than most is Mike Sanderson. Mike was designing bikes for Diamondback when he approached retailer GO Outdoors with a pitch to design a range of bikes for them. He didn’t have a name for the range he hoped to launch but he did have an ethos, “I wanted a brand that would bring people into the sport and keep them there” he says, “I’d go to trail centres and see people finishing rides on these entry level bikes and they didn’t look happy. I knew they’d go home park the bike in the garage and never get it out again. Low end bikes from some of the big brands look good, with team colour paintjobs borrowed from further up the range, but the fundamentals are just wrong. They are putting people off riding.”
The bike industry depends on new riders coming into the sport, it’s simple economics as much as any kind of ideology. “The industry can’t continue if it’s elitist” says Mike. GO gave Mike the nod and he got to work, the result is Calibre Bikes.
Derbyshire and The Peak District in general has a reputation for being home to some classic mountain biking routes. Today we’re staying well clear of any of them. You won’t find many of these trails in a guide book and some might not even appear online, these are proper local knowledge trails, the kind that are referred to with obscure names and a nod and a wink. Mike’s showing me round one of his regular Thursday night rides, one of many he uses for back to back testing of new products. Steve Brown, whose role within Calibre ranges from warranty handling and staff training through to the vital job of keeping everyone adequately caffeinated, has tagged along for the ride under the vague excuse of product testing.
Late summer means tight trails and bloody forearms as the bracken and brambles make one last surge of growth before autumn sets in and they are forced to retreat for the year. After a brief road climb we are funneled into singletrack that keeps us under the cover of the trees that coat the valley sides, occasionally breaking into the open and giving us a brief sense of place before diving back into the dark of the woods.
While the Peak District is crammed with all kinds of trails for many of Calibre’s bikes venues like the Lady Cannings trail centre outside Sheffield, which GO Outdoors sponsored, are used extensively for testing. It’s the perfect place to test bikes that will likely see a lot of time spent on man made trails. The short, easily repeatable loops make back-to-back testing possible and there are plenty of spicier options just a short distance away if needed.
Calibre launched in 2013 with two hardtails; the Two.Two and the Point.50. Both were well received by the press and riders alike but Calibre’s big breakthrough was the Calibre Bossnut in 2015. While a full suspension bike for £1000 was the headline the real news was that it was a really good bike, regardless of how much it cost. When MBR reviewed it we said ‘From local lunchtime loops, to bike park blasting, the Bossnut proved time and time again that it’s a trail bike without compromise. It’s not just about going fast, however, it’s also guaranteed to put a massive smile on your face every time you take it for a blast.’
The key to this, and all the other bikes in the range, has been Mike’s determination to make sure all their models get geometry that inspires confidence, something other brands seem to reserve for their more expensive models. A longer wheelbase, lower bottom bracket height and a slacker headangle work equally well at improving confidence, comfort and speed regardless of ability.
The success of the Bossnut took Go Outdoors a little off guard. They sold their first shipment in less than two weeks and had to air freight over a second batch to try and meet demand. For a fledgling brand this was a surprise and it didn’t take long for the Bossnut to become GO Outdoors number one selling product – no small matter for a major retailer with over 70 stores nationwide and a large online presence. Six years from launching the brand Calibre is about to expand to a 32 model line up, Mike’s initial ethos is definitely working and it’s keeping him very busy.
Need for speed
Mike is a racer at heart, he likes going fast. Coming from a DH background he’s fully embraced Enduro life but with the Bossnut focussed more on general trail riding than smashing out stages (although it’s been known to happen) Mike was left riding other brand’s bikes for race duties. “I’d turn up for races and my mates would look at whatever I was riding and say, what is it you do for a job again? Oh yeah, you’re a bike designer.” Frustrating as it must have been it did give Mike the chance to try a lot of different bikes and work out what his ideal Enduro bike would be. The result is the Sentry. As you’d expect the geometry is bang up to date and with 29inch wheels, 150mm of travel at the rear and a stout 160mm fork it’s intentions are pretty clear. Speed. And lots of it.
From the start the Sentry had to be a proper race capable bike. The guiding mantra was the Sentry had to be Enduro World Series ready right out of the box. A tough task for a bike costing £5,000 but the Sentry was going to come in at £2,000 with a better specced Pro version at £2,800. This was new territory and a bigger pricetag than Calibre was used to, to some extents it was a bit of a gamble. The proof has been in the riding though and Calibre team rider Chloe Taylor has put an EWS season’s worth of racing into her Sentry without issue, including notching up a second place at the British National DH Champs. It’s safe to say the bike is more than up to the task.
The trails we’re riding today are like mini Enduro stages, each has a few signature features whether that be off-camber roots, switchback corners or high speed straights. There’s enough to keep you on your toes before the trail ends and the next one starts, usually with a completely different character. As a loop for testing different aspects of a bike’s handling and suspension it’s ideal.
The climb up to Black Rocks is a test of technique. The gradient isn’t fierce but the multiple lines, ruts and rocks make it a full body workout. Pedal strokes have to be well timed, the right amount of momentum carried forward, the front wheel managed. Prior knowledge and line choice is key – leaving me to just use brute force and a lot of ignorance to get myself over the abrasive rocks scored and scarred by multiple failed attempts. “It’s a good test for bottom bracket height!” I wheeze. Overhead two Typhoon fighter jets scalp the top of the trees reminding us that as good as our day out of the office is someone is having an even better one.
It used to be that a UK designed bike had a few key characteristics that marked it out from a bike designed elsewhere in the world, mostly centered around coping with mud. Designers and riders alike were mildly obsessed with having enough clearance around the stays for goop to pass through, forward facing seatclamp slots were mandatory and downtube mounts for a mudguard were the height of pragmatic fashion. Advances such as 1x drivetrains, BOOST hub spacing and the wide spread adoption of 2.5” and 2.6” tyres have meant that mud and tyre clearance is less of an issue than ever and components have become better at all price points. “We used to struggle with tyres but thanks to the popularity of Enduro racing most brands have a big knobbly tyre with a decent carcass that works well in the mud, which makes them perfect for the UK. That makes speccing the bike with as little compromise as possible much easier. Just add tubeless and go.”
Mud clearance is still a consideration but Mike reckons the defining character of a UK designed bike now is it’s geometry – we are leading the world with frame design. Despite this, Mike says that due to Calibre’s size and their target market they can’t chase trends, they need to wait until something is established before pursuing it. This seems like a strange thing for him to say as one of the things that has come to define Calibre is their early adoption of properly progressive geometry and components – long, low and slack with wide rims and reduced offset forks. There are plenty of more established brands who still struggling with these ideas. Maybe it’s because he doesn’t see them as trends, they are the way a bike should be built, but maybe in Mike’s mind there’s scope to push things even further.
Hitting the right notes
We top out at the trig point and have an extended breather before the descent back down to the valley bottom. The trail is similar to the one we’ve ridden up with rocks and ruts drawing you in and grinding you out. I follow Mike’s lead hoping for a bit of inside knowledge on the best lines. After a slow speed start the trail widens and the pace picks up until we are flat out, using the backsides of rocks as jumps to send us way down the track. It’s here the benefits of big wheels, a lot of suspension and relaxed geometry come into their own, this is the Sentry’s natural habitat. No sooner have we got into the rhythm of the trail than it changes tune. A freshly carved tunnel of green with a brown and black loam carpet twists its way down the hill before ending abruptly in the dark coniferous woods, leaving us at the top of Triple Drop – a trail feature that needs little explanation.
From the bottom of the valley it’s a short spin back up to where we started the ride, giving some perspective on how much riding is jammed into such a small area.
Producing bikes that are primarily designed to appeal to entry level customers it’s hard not to get too focused on price. I wonder if it annoys Mike that Calibre is often defined by price, bikes like the Calibre Bossnut EVO being described as good bikes for the money, rather than just a good bike. “Not really, as long as people think they are good bikes I don’t mind.”
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?