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Whyte’s new cyclo-cross bikes

| Blog, Features, Fuel, What Mountain Bike | 21/02/2011 10:22am

Steve Worland takes a look at the new generation all-rounders with MTB-influenced geometry set to take the Whyte brand into new territories.

Long before the UCI decided that it was fine to run disc brakes on cyclo-cross bikes, but still not fine to run tyres wider than 33mm, the majority of riders and bike designers had already stopped listening to the rules and started to revel in the all-rounder efficiency of ’cross bikes intended for mere mortals, rather than for the rule-book-bound pro racers.

A few years back, designs started to move in a new direction, away from pure race geometry towards something encompassing the have-a-go-at-anything potential that ’cross bikes had always hinted at but never quite achieved. Disc brakes appeared, replacing cantilever judder, scarily inefficient slowing power in the wet and fast wearing rims with smooth, powerful well-modulated control in even the worst conditions. Bottle bosses, rack mounts and room for bigger profile tyres released maximum all-terrain cruising potential. Geometry started to become more relaxed. In short, cyclo-cross bikes were finally being built to appeal to anyone who wasn’t quite sure what sort of bike they wanted. They had the potential to encompass aspects of the best of everything.

Whyte is a UK brand, run by the importers and frequent design instigators of California-based Marin Bikes. Designer Ian Alexander is Cotswolds based. He took the design helm when Jon Whyte moved to Canada a few years ago. Ian comes principally from a mountain bike background, but his fresh approach to design is starting to reap rewards as the brand moves into new areas. We joined him for a ride around Bristol’s woodland lanes and trail network aboard prototypes of Whyte’s new cyclo-cross bikes, not officially available until later in the year.

First impressions of the Whyte CX geometry is that it’s unusual to the point of initially disconcerting… at least if you’re used to expecting near road-bike-like geometry on a ‘cross bike. The first thing you notice is that you can see more of the front wheel out front than usual. This is for three reasons: a very short stem, a slacker than usual (69-degree) head angle and a long front centre on the frame (the ‘front centre’ is the measurement from the bottom bracket axle to the front wheel axle). Off road, these three factors work well together if you stay sitting in the centre of the bike instead of instantly hanging off the back of the saddle when the terrain drops away. But if you’re used to dropping off the back of the saddle to avoid the possibility of taking a dive over the bars on a more conventional ‘cross bike it takes a while to gain confidence to do the opposite. Mountain bikers will adapt more quickly than road/cross riders.

At slow speeds, on technical terrain, you have to consciously fight the feeling that you need to shift your weight back, because if you do the steering starts to feel a bit wishy-washy, especially under hard braking. But as your speeds increase, especially over typical non-technical cyclo-cross terrain, you start to gain confidence to stay sitting (or hovering) over the middle of the bike and let the bike’s steering find its own way. Basically, relax and it trundles along like a well-balanced mountain bike wearing skinny tyres. The easy pull (with centre bar interrupter levers) well modulated power of the disc brakes are a massive boost compared to the cantilevers more usually found on ‘cross bikes.

Construction-wise, the frame boasts an interesting assortment of manipulated shaped aluminium tubes, chosen to achieve the right combination of stiffness, strength and comfort. There’s loads of mud drop-through room and space for a very big tyre up front and up to 38mm out back: Alexander says the stays on final production models will feature more manipulation for tyre clearance without losing the compact (and noticeably good for climbing) back end. The steerer is 1.5/1.125in tapered, the straight blade fork is carbon composite and there are rack and bottle eyelets. Fine detail, including paint and componentry choices at several different price points, is still subject to change, but expect to see two models at below the £1000 mark.

Interview with Whyte’s Ian Alexander

BikeRadar: What is the frame and fork material of the bikes?
Ian Alexander: A Whyte-designed hydroformed tubeset in 6061T6 aluminium. We’ve concentrated on developing a stiff oversize down tube linking together with large asymmetric chainstays, but then using our slimline signature Whyte-designed seatstays with a 27.2mm seat post for as much comfort as possible.

BR: Will the frames and fork be the same throughout the range?
IA: There are two design briefs, one is a commuter-orientated concept and the other is a more competition-focused frame with extra performance features. Both will have the Whyte-developed CX geometry to allow really serious off-road capability.

BR: Roughly what price points are you aiming at?
IA: Obviously ‘Bike-to-Work’ scheme friendly is important in the UK. But at this stage we’re not confirmed but expect the range to follow on from Whyte’s tremendously successful R-7 flat bar range.

BR: What sort of rider do you expect to buy?
IA: The CX bike is the eponymous crossover category. I think MTB XC (cross-country) and Trail riders who want a road option that lets them commute, but with a change of tyres can do proper off-road events like the 3Peaks and Hell of the North Cotswolds will love the Whyte geometry on these bikes. Then you have road riders who also commute but perhaps want to change to CX tyres in the ‘cross season and do their local league events as well as CX events like the CX Sportif recently….

BR: Could you sum up your approach to cyclo cross-geometry, and explain why?
IA: It’s been an interesting concept to develop. I’ve come at the CX bike from perhaps more of an MTB design perspective rather than taking a road bike and adding canti-brakes and more clearances. Things like the continuous outer cables and other UK MTB design details are key defining points, but the decision to go disc specific means the bikes have vastly better braking performance off-road, and this means as with MTBs before, the ability to really descend fast and tackle steep and technical off-road sections means the geometry has to cope. I believe that the more stable and sure-footed the bike can be, the faster off-road, so the geometry is based around a longer frame length with correspondingly short stems but in conjunction with slacker head angle and as wide as possible bar widths to get the cockpit and steering geometry really optimised. Using the top mounted brakes gives a great position on the bike when off road. I’ve been impressed with its neutral feel on the road too, we have CX and road set-ups on test and we’re pretty happy.

BR: Where next? Any ideas for the next Whyte level of CX or road bikes?
IA: Personally I’d love to see how a titanium version would ride, purely for research purposes of course…

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