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Mountain Gear

The Caveman Cometh (and he's on a 29er)

If you think Xterra riding isn't "real" mountain biking, just ask Conrad Stoltz and Ned Overend. Oh, and they'll also tell you all about the benefits of riding 29ers while they're at it.

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While he isn't racing Xterra — yet — on a 29er, Conrad Stoltz rides his Specialized Epic 29er the rest of the time.<br /> CHECK OUT MORE PHOTOS IN THE SLIDESHOW BELOW Photo by Seth Lightcap
While he isn't racing Xterra — yet — on a 29er, Conrad Stoltz rides his Specialized Epic 29er the rest of the time. CHECK OUT MORE PHOTOS IN THE SLIDESHOW BELOW Photo by Seth Lightcap

So, you are a trail-mashing mofo; gnarliest of the gnar. Yes, you are a fit machine and can ride. You have skills.

Skills, eh? How about swimming, mountain biking and running — as in consecutively… in one day… at race pace?

Whaddya say? That off-road triathlon stuff — Xterra — isn’t for true mountain bikers? It’s so easy even a caveman could do it?

Straight-up fact: The Caveman does make it look easy. And the Caveman will make it look easy as he smokes you out on some technical singletrack — on a big-wheeled bike, no less.

The Caveman Cometh

Ned Overend was the ageless vet in 2001, while Conrad Stoltz was the young phenom. Photo by Rich Cruse courtesy Conrad Stoltz

At 6′ 3″ and 180 pounds, Conrad Stoltz is known as the Caveman for the crushing power he metes out on the bike. For those of you not up on your Xterra factoids, Stoltz is a three-time Xterra world champion and two-time South African Olympian. In September Stoltz won his seventh Xterra U.S. Pro Series.

Oh, and at Sea Otter this last spring, the “tri-guy” decided to hop into the fray with the lords of the pro cross-country realm — on a 29er. The Caveman finished eighth in pretty much a dead-even sprint with Jeremiah Bishop.

In other words, the Caveman is a trail-mashing mofo of a machine. He has skills.

He also holds some firmly held bike beliefs: When on technical terrain, Stoltz modifies the old adage to, “He who hesitates falls.” And that leads directly to the next point: 29ers rule.

Ouch! It was a borrowed bike and the outfit was circa 2001. Photo courtesy Conrad Stoltz
Ouch! It was a borrowed bike and the outfit was circa 2001. Photo courtesy Conrad Stoltz

“I prefer the way the 29er handles,” says Stoltz, a Specialized Factory Team rider. “I feel a lot safer on a 29er. The steering is more predictable; less twitchy.”

Sure, Stoltz is a big guy, which some people will chalk up as his reason for being an advocate of 29ers. But the qualities of the big wheels have grown on him since his first ride. However, he’s the first to say that for racing, each course will dictate the set-up.

“Initially it was the quirkiness of [the 29er] that attracted me. But now I do fun races and training rides, especially if it is gnarly, on a 29er,” Stoltz says. “But if I do serious Xterra races, I’m still on a 26-inch, carbon full suspension.”

In 2008, Stoltz raced Xterra Snow Valley on a 29er Stumpjumper, but because of an accident and surgery on his foot in 2009, he’s remained on his tried-and-true 26-inch platform.

“I haven’t had any ‘fun Xterras’ where I could experiment with equipment,” Stoltz says of 2009. “Every race was a battle for points.”

And due to his point-and-shoot riding style, flats have been a problem for Stoltz, according to an expert on pretty much all things cycling — Ned Overend.

“His descending is super fast, so fast that it has hurt him in a few races because he was having durability issues with his tires,” says Overend, who still races as well as works on research and development for Specialized.

But prototype Specialized Caveman-proof tires have cut down on flats. The catch is they’ve only been available for 26ers. That rubber will soon be available for 29ers, Stoltz says, and “would allow me to race the 29er with more confidence.”

Xterra 101

After conquering cross-country mountain bike racing on the world stage, Ned Overend went on to dominate Xterra, winning two world championships.
When a young South African racer showed up on the scene it was hard not to notice — both in his results and his scatter-shot approach to gear.
The new kid on the block was Conrad Stoltz, and Overend knew a good racer when he saw him.
Stoltz recalls his first Xterra season in 2001, when he raced on borrowed bikes — like the Softride in the photo below. He travelled with second-hand shoes, “cheap” pedals and new yellow Python tires and tubes.
“I would just borrow a bike for the race,” Stoltz recalls. “Ned was hot stuff on the Xterra circuit then. He watched with amazement my assortment of borrowed bikes.”
Stoltz went on to win the 2001 USA Series, afterwhich Overend asked the unsponsored rider — save for Oakely — if he wanted to ride for Specialized.
“A week before the Xterra World Championship in Maui there was a brand new Specialized M5 with tubeless tires and a new helmet and new shoes on my doorstep,” Stoltz says. “It was like Christmas!”
The rest, they say, is history. Stoltz won the 2001 Worlds by 10 minutes.
“That new bike felt like a motor bike,” Stoltz says. “Obviously we wanted to ink a sponsorship deal. I had no idea what to ask for, so I asked Ned. He said, ‘Ask for X.’ I asked for X and that’s what I got.”

Yes, Overend has skills. And he knows of what he speaks when it comes to mountain biking, 29ers, Xterra and the Caveman.

“Conrad was the first Xterra athlete with true all-around swim-bike-run abilities,” Overend says. “I was doing well with a weak swim, strong cycling and a pretty good run leg. Conrad was the first guy who could go fast at all three, both on the flatter courses and in the mountains.”

And for those of you who fancy the notion that the riding in Xterra is something less than “real” mountain biking, let Overend disabuse you of that thought. First off, many of the Xterra courses are technical, and the 30k Xterra World Championship track on Maui is as demanding as many World Cup cross-county races, he says.

And that’s after you’ve swam 1.5k and are about to run 10k. So some thought has to go into your ride. If you are a slow swimmer, like Overend says he was, then passing skills are important.

“I didn’t have to pass too many girls at World Cups,” he says, “but there were always several ahead of me coming out of the water at the Xterras.”

If you have never hopped off a bike after pinning it for 30k and then tried to run, well then, you just might reassess your beliefs about Xterra. Allow Overend to explain: “The main difference is that in regular XC races the start is critical and you have to go anaerobic to fight for position,” Overend says. “Xterra is more steady state. It’s a very hard steady state and you have to think more about being efficient, fueled up and hydrated so you are ready for the run.”

That’s where Stoltz’s thoughts on full suspension come into play when he ponders bikes. While he’s considered riding a hardtail carbon 29er in a couple flat, mid-western races he hasn’t pulled the trigger.

“The reason I favor the dual suspension is the fact that I can ride a ‘relaxed,’ steady, time-trail effort, which saves energy for the run, meaning I just stay seated and plow ahead,” Stoltz says. “Of course your body doesn’t get as banged up on the full suspension and you start the run fresher.”

If the bike fits, ride it

Stoltz says he got his hands on Overend’s book “Mountain Bike Like a Champion” four days before the 2001 Xterra worlds.
“Realizing it was full of gems, reading the book was a race against the clock. I had a lot to learn back then,” Stoltz says.
When the young phenom asked the old vet about how to become a better climber, Overend gave Stoltz two workouts.
• 3×10 minute technical hill climbs. Start number-1 at about race effort and build 2 and 3 even harder. Downhill as fast as you can back to the start.
• Find a gradual hill of 45 minutes and alternate between five minutes at anerobic threshold and seven minutes at medium pace to simulate the varying pitches at the Maui Xterra championship course.

Only a caveman would classify the Sea Otter pro XC as a “fun” race. So Stoltz rolled to the start line on his dually Specialized Epic 29er and finished in the top 10.

“First of all, I am a triathlete. I was completely out of my depth,” Stoltz says, recalling Sea Otter with a chuckle. “Whether it was a clown bike or a 29er, it didn’t make a difference.”

Stoltz points to the Xterra World Championships in Hawaii as an example of the right ride for a particular race. The championship course is essentially a long climb with a fast, rocky descent. The uphill terrain, Stoltz says, is best suited for a lighter bike, of which he rides a carbon full-suspension 26-inch Epic.

But with the hush-hush tire and frame development Stoltz is doing with Specialized, the day of racing a full-suspension 29er full-time sounds as though it may not be far off.

“The 29er Epic is alu and still a bit on the porky side — 26 pounds compared to my 23.8-pound 26-inch carbon Epic,” Stoltz says. “However I’m not much of a weight weenie and I think those few pounds would only be a disadvantage on a seriously climbing course.”

As far as the future racing a 29er rig, Stoltz says he’d ride a light dually with strong tires at 90 percent of his races.

“If it’s available and it’s light,” he says, “I can’t wait to get on it.”

While Specialized has full-suspension aluminum and hardtail carbon fiber 29ers, Overend sounded somewhat nebulous when it comes to the company offering a carbon dually 29er like Fisher’s Superfly 100 and Santa Cruz’s Tallboy.

“Developing a new carbon frame platform is a complicated project, which if it happens will depend on several things such as market demand, engineering and testing timelines,” he says.

Two for 29ers

In asking legendary mountain biker Ned Overend questions about Conrad Stoltz, we squeezed in a few queries about Overend’s take on 29ers and 26ers. So here ya go, straight from the mind of “The Man.”
Ned on 29ers
• The bigger wheels smooth out the bumps and make a hardtail a more viable race bike on rough courses.
• The big wheels also provide better traction so you can carry a bit more momentum through the corners. With the full-suspension bikes the 29 can get a little heavy, so how you build it is important. It is especially important to keep the tire and wheel weight down.
Ned on 26ers
• For the 2009 MTB Nationals I rode a 26 Epic because there were a lot of sharp turns both climbing and descending and overall the course was very rough.
• The 26 can have an advantage when you have to constantly accelerate the wheel out of slow-speed turns because the 26 wheel will always be a little lighter.
• The 26 bike has a shorter wheelbase so it will negotiate tight turns a little easier.
Ned on SS 29ers
• 29ers work well for single-speeding because momentum is important when you only have one gear.
• The big wheels roll down hill faster and can keep their speed rolling into a
climb a little bit longer than a 26 wheel.
Ned on Xterra
• Maui is not the place for light tires — 26 or 29.
• Several courses would be suited to a 29 hardtail. The 29er I would have needed at Maui Worlds didn’t exsist when I was racing.
• Maui is so rough that I think it warrants a full-suspension bike.
• If I was racing it today I would use the 29 Epic, which is a four-inch, full-suspension bike.

To reiterate, Stoltz is not an obsessive weight-weenie. Hell, he can’t be, he’s the Caveman. That’s why he’ll talk about 29ers all day.

“I really enjoy the downhill and technical parts of riding. I’d rather forfeit some of the climbing for durability and ride quality,” Stoltz says. “Because I’m a big guy I have some wattage to play with. A pound or so doesn’t matter.”

Still stuck on the idea that Stoltz is a big guy who needs a big-wheeled bike? Well, cycling guru Overend says that a 29er has something to offer every rider of every size. He points to the 5’3″ Willow Koerber who rode her Fisher Superfly 29er to the podium at the 2009 World Championships as an example.

“29er wheels can be a benefit depending on the type of terrain and whether you are comparing them to a hardtail or full-suspension bike,” Overend says. “If you are comparing them to a 26 hardtail, I would say the 29 is superior in most circumstances.”

Overend, however, adds a caveat that mere mortals — unlike he and Stoltz — should take to the shop when sniffing out a new rig.

“What can I say? Obviously I am spoiled when it comes to equipment choices,” says the living legend. “Riders need to test ride some 29 bikes and compare them to the 26ers. Then they need to determine the most common racecourse terrain they will encounter and select a bike accordingly.”

If you can’t beat ‘em…

As for the former nemeses on the Xterra circuit, it was Overend who brought Stoltz into the Specialized fold, particularly when Overend saw the gear the young South African was racing on.

“It was a no-brainer to help him with equipment and then try and bring him on board long term,” Overend says. “And he  never lets up on pushing the product managers to improve the bikes.”

Stoltz, meanwhile, had a strategy when he went up against Overend back in the day, the latter part of the equation still holds true for anyone going up against “The Man” today: Make three minutes in the swim, (“It may not be enough”) and try to not give him more than two minutes off the run.

“Whatever you do,” says Stoltz, “don’t race Ned at altitude or in the high mountains.”

That’s because Deadly Nedly — and the Caveman, for that matter — have skills.

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