If you don’t know the name “Fabien Barel,” then you must not be paying attention. With three Downhill World Championship titles to his name, his racing career alone has made him an icon. But for the average rider, the role that he’s played in developing the modern mountain bike is even more important. All the while, he’s balanced a fiercely competitive spirit with a friendly demeanor. In other words, he embodies the very best of professional cycling. Fortunately for us, the French luminary was willing to answer a few questions about product development, his philosophy on riding, and his transition into the Enduro World Series. It’s my sincere pleasure to share some insight into one of the most brilliant minds to ever pilot a mountain bike.
PHOTOS: CHRISTOPHE MARGOT
GF: After earning three World Championships, and a handful of World Cup Downhill wins, your race craft has been proven to be clearly refined. What was the hardest part of the transition from World Cup DH to the Enduro World Series? Other than technical skills, what factors allowed you to be a competitive enduro racer with a minimal adjustment period?
FB: To be honest, I do not believe to be adapted so far. I have been performing, so far, based on my DH skills. Enduro is a completely different sport in and of itself. Physically, the sport is radically different — much longer and less intense. Technically, there is less of a commitment and more management needed due to long runs. The lucidity level and line choice is as much different as the riding pace. I found that even the bike setting is less radical in terms of geometry and suspension setting. There is still a lot to do, and I do enjoy having to rethink myself so much in a different discipline but in the same sport. It is the beauty of MTB.
GF: It’s no secret that you’re an avid skier. Do you have a background in racing, or has skiing always been a recreational pursuit for you? How has skiing helped you to hone your mountain biking?
FB: I do love skiing and wish to be better at it (which is hard living next to the sea;- ).
The flow of skiing and the body position is clearly close to MTB. The body masses and transfer have a huge parallel to MTB.
GF: Do you see any parallels between the current development of aggressive mountain bike geometry and modern rockered skis?
FB: I believe that in MTB, as much as in skiing, we are looking at a maximum of polyvalence in one product.
In MTB, you are looking at products that combine climbing and DH, and on skis, you want a product to perform in powder as much as carving on piste. We want product to handle easy, but stable at high speed. So yes, things are definitely going the same way!
GF: You were an early pioneer of modern downhill bike design; riding bikes with slack head angles, low bottom brackets, and wide handlebars in the early 2000s. Right now, a similar transformation is taking place in enduro, with longer wheel bases becoming commonplace. With the rise of the Enduro World Series, do you think that we’ll see bikes with 50-inch+ wheelbases, or is current geometry as aggressive as it needs to be?
FB: As always, it is a matter of compromises. In the past, MTB geometry came from road, and then DH geometry came from XC. Each discipline is now finding its own identity, and clearly, all parameters are getting adapted to its use.
At the moment, we are gaining stability through wheel sizes and chassis geometry.
At first, everyone is going to extreme, and I do believe that since the Mondraker’s forward geometry, or the Kona geometry at Worlds 2005, people have realized that stability was a sign of comfort and so on speed.
But dynamism and handling are key factors in enduro, even more than in DH. So things need to be well dialed to grow the quality of the bike without damaging it too much.
GF: You mentioned in a Dirt interview that 26-inch wheels generate speed more efficiently, while 29-inch wheels hold their speed more effectively. However, that interview came before most enduro racers made the jump to 27.5-inch wheels. Are 27.5-inch wheels a happy medium that have made the other wheel sizes obsolete, or will racers still have a reason to choose either 26- or 29-inch wheels for certain courses?
FB: I do believe that, for enduro, 650B will be the right compromise for the aforementioned.
It helps stability and is still easy to handle. I do not believe in 29ers for enduro racing, but more for long randoneer rides.
GF: Other than geometry and wheel size, what areas of the bike can still be significantly improved upon for enduro racing?
FB: There are many directions, as the sport is new, and because material and technology are growing. More news to come ;- ))))
GF: What advantages has your engineering background provided you with as a racer?
FB: I believe huge. Having the possibility to have the understanding, along with the feeling on the bike, clearly helps me to communicate with engineers. It’s key for me to develop product.
GF: Your training as an engineer must be an asset when it comes to product design. Historically, has your input in testing product been limited to subjective analysis, or have you been able to use the more technical aspects of your training?
FB: In DH, it’s always been part of the game. I quickly understood in my career how important it was, and some of the wins were done by commitment (sometimes too much ;- )), while others were by technical design and choices.
GF: What’s your favorite discipline of motorcycle racing? Do you prepare as seriously for moto’ as you do for mountain bike racing, or do you race purely for fun?
FB: I do race purely for fun, even if I’d like to do more. But enduro is clearly my favorite to watch and to do.
GF: Describe your working relationship with Mavic?
FB: Working with Mavic is a great experience for me. It is a brand that designs high-end products with passionate people for passionate people. They have this quality to always fit inside a sport, to understand it, and to clearly define the riders needs. For sure, there is a business plan behind all that, but the core of the company makes the process unique. From riders to commercial people passing by engineering, everything is based on product quality and pure message to drive for the sport.
I’ve been working with Mavic since 2008, and had been working with them from 1995 to 1999 — I hope it will keep on going for a long time.
GF: You’ve made reference in numerous interviews to the concept of optimum vs. maximum performance. “Optimum” seems to represent a complete approach, which takes into account speed, efficiency, and flow. “Maximum” seems to consider a single factor, at the expense of other considerations. Is that a correct analysis of the concept? Was this a concept that came easily to you, or was it a struggle to learn to focus on riding at your optimum level?
FB: No, it’s clearly not been easy to understand. I have started my career hitting every tree of the racetrack, trying to push myself to the maximum in my runs. After a few years, I realized that the excellence of the ride was through flow. The combination of the terrain, bike, and rider has its own speed, and trying to go above is a mistake. As I said earlier, for the geometries, it is a matter of compromises. MTB is an art, and if you want to draw the line as perfect as possible, let your mind free and let yourself go!!!!
I would end by a saying of my mechanic in 2001, “It has to be pressure, but only in the Tyres ;- ))))”
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