As I joined the Cannondale Overmountain team for dinner last night, conversation soon moved onto the topic of the day’s stage practice and Jerome asked me “did you crash today?” While I was coming up with an answer that suitably indicated that I was looking after his personal bike, he cut me off with a “because you can if you want!” A funny conclusion to a great day getting to grips with not only the epic stages of La Thuile, but also one of the fastest bikes on the circuit, Jeromes own Cannondale Jekyll 27.5.
Before starting this experience, I was perhaps under the impression that a top factory team would be officious, elitist and competitive, snubbing my slow performance, but I soon realised that I could not have been more wrong. The Cannondale Overmountain team is more of an extended family, jokes and banter run strong in the pit tent and good natured insults are exchanged readily. This does not mean that the team is unprofessional, far from it, everything is in its place, and everything is done perfectly to ensure that team racers have all they need, but the atmosphere is always welcoming and fun. Rival riders and mechanics popped in frequently to exchange banter and borrow tools and kit.
KML had lost my luggage in Amsterdam on the way over, so I was still waiting for my full face to arrive. All I had was an open face helmet and goggles, so that would have to do for the day. After a morning working with Matteo setting the Jekyll up, it was time to hit the stages for practice. Jerome had given me the useful advice that when racing full-gas, there is always a chance that you may crash, so keep a small part of your brain scanning ahead looking for safe areas. If it all goes pear shaped and you know you are going to bin it, you have something soft to aim at. I am not sure if he was joking, but I was certainly crapping myself about the prospect of a big ‘crowd pleaser’ on his bike. My first run was pretty nervous, everywhere I looked on the bike, I could see Jerome’s name staring back at me, on the brake levers, frame and bars, this was certainly one very unique bike. The last thing I wanted to do was send it into some rocks and gouge the frame.
The 750mm bars were a little narrower than I was used to, and the grip shift travel adjust was confusing the hell out of me, so my first few minutes could only be described as stiff. But as I grew more familiar with the bike it all started to make sense, when you need full power on the pedals, roll the grip shift back, moto style, and the bike lifts to 95mm travel and you can smash down the power, hit something steep and a quick forward flick of the gripshift opens up the full 160mm of capable travel, correcting my creative line choices.
I am not sure if it was partly physiological knowing it was a championship winning bike, but it felt fast, really fast. The Fox Dyad shock offered almost coil like sensitivity off the top, and the bike never felt like it was at the end of its travel or running deep. It sat high and poised and travel was always there when needed, it certainly wanted to press on. At first, I was dragging the brakes and felt stiff in the corners, but as soon as I started letting it run, the 27.5 Jekyll kept true to its name and just accelerated forward. The suspension is so balanced it reacts almost imperceptibly to impacts. As I started running faster, I would undoubtedly find myself on the wrong line and heading unstoppably towards a large rock, I would wince in anticipation of the big kick from the rear, but each time there was nothing more than a soft thud and I was rapidly onto my next line choice mistake. The Dyad offers near coil performance and the stiff frame operates almost silently.
It served to show how important a proper suspension setup is, and how much impact it has on the bikes performance. I was not running the crazy high pressures and super fast rebound favoured by Jerome, as that would soon result in an expensive helicopter flight, but I was soon enjoying late breaking into turns, blind jumps and playing with the traction through the switchbacks. The poise of Jerome’s bike is insane, the ride is so smooth, it makes you want to ride smoothly too, copying Jeromes distinctive style which Matteo calls ‘doing the turtle’.
The La Thuile stages were impressive too. Stage One, SuperKapa, is a monster that takes even the fastest riders around 20 minutes, After a loose, rocky start, the stage dives over a few rocky slabs before starting a high speed traverse out over the flank of the mountain. It’s downhill, but also grassy, rough and not very steep, so you have to keep feeding in the power. After a couple of tricky boggy sections things get a little steeper, but by this point you feel like you are breathing through a straw, clinging on with your fingertips and willpower alone. Stage Two is shorter but needs to be reached by a substantial pedal climb, and an equally substantial push, but once at the top it is a fantastic trail. Low on rocks, but high on thrills, it’s a high speed roller coaster that urges you to go faster until one of the many 90 degree switchbacks scare the pants off you.
The remaining 3 stages share the same tricky, rocky start before splitting into equally steep downhill runs, full of tight turns, plunging chutes and rough, dusty full-gas traverses. Jerome sat me down before practice and spent some time explaining how he would approach it. “I stay on the main flow line, and try and open up the turns as much as possible. With the length of the stages, I would also concentrate on learning where the climbs are so I can get in the correct gear, and try and work out when to go full-gas and when to conserve energy for the climbs.” As he talked, I kept on worrying about this ‘full power’ he kept on talking about, with my 2 day winter training program, I guessed that his reserves were far superior to mine. With the racing starting tomorrow, my plan is to simply try and be steady through the technical sections, and then try and bury myself on the climbs.
At first, I felt a bit of a tit riding Jerome’s bike, people would see it, then double take as I rolled by, but I soon got well into it and after posing for a few ‘fake’ Jerome photos, and signing an autograph, it was time to head back to the pits and get set for the next morning. This is where the ‘factory rider’ part came into play, as soon as I rolled in, Matteo took the bike and started working on it, I felt pretty guilty letting someone else work on a bike I had been riding, so hung around uselessly in case he would let me wash it, but there was no chance. While he was checking it over I admitted to hearing a big rock flick up and hit the BB, and Matteo’s eagle eyes instantly diagnosed a cracked chain device, I started thinking how I would pay for it, “no problem, I will change it before the race” was his quick response, phew. With the bike fully inspected and checked over, I was free to head back to the apartment, chill out and get ready for dinner, as I left Matteo started to scrub off the scorched surface that my over zealous braking had left on the rotors.
Once again it was an awesome experience working with the team, there is now nothing left to do but rest up, eat a big breakfast and then try not to come last!
Words: Trev Worsey
Photos: Trev Worsey and copyright www.reuiller.com