We all dream of having full factory support, but how much of a difference does it make? From the cubical in a snowy climate to the race tape of Sea Otter in a about a week, Jeff Brines tries to dust the cobwebs off and not embarrass himself more than usual with the help of Team GT.
I've raced for the better part of 15 years. In my time between the course tape, the closest I ever came to feeling like a "factory pro" was during my college days when we'd bring a mechanic to tend to our bikes during Collegiate Nationals. One year, at a mud race in Pennsylvania, our team mechanic scaled a fence to cut down some old wire to help secure my grips to my wet bars while I sat in the comfort of our condo eating hot ramen or whatever we did in those days. It was a weird feeling to have any sort of support, but I vaguely remember liking it.
With exception of those handful of races, I've been my mechanic, my chef, my pit setup man and everything in between. At every big race I always wander the factory team pits wide eyed, just like a little kid. Looking lustfully at the impressive everything-you-could-ask-for-on-wheels setups in awe and always wondering what secret technology is being tinkered with behind closed doors. Or who am I kidding? Sometimes I just look toward the factory pits with a jealous eye for all the shade and a nice place to eat lunch.
This year I got the ultimate Golden Ticket with GT Bikes, and was invited to come play Factory Pro for a weekend at the Sea Otter Classic event in Monterey, California. The opportunity would include full support alongside Dan Atherton, Martin Maes and Mike Day.
As most of you probably guessed, I'm not that good of a racer. If I was, I would have had some time in one of those fancy trailers and you'd recognize my name, but I digress. My results are usually "riff raff" pro. Mid pack. Every now and then I'll get lucky and eek into the top 10% at a race, but I'm no real pro. I'm a results bolstering (for most of the other guys) kind of pro. I ride a desk during the daylight hours Monday-Friday. I squeeze my training rides in during lunch, early in the morning, or after work, but I'm a working man with a bike problem - something I'm guessing many of you can relate to.
For this event, the big problem was timing. I live in a snowy climate. Around Jackson Hole our season doesn't really kick off 'til late June, so despite an impromptu road trip (and an angry boss) just before the trip. I had exactly zero days on the bike through the winter months leading up to the race. Could I pull together a decent result? Some two months after GT's invite I was yet to log one day on my bike. With the race coming in less than eight days, I headed South in search of sun and singletrack, and to remind myself how to ride a bike...
Here are my takeaways in Vital RAW format:
Pro Bike Setup and What It's Like to Have Factory Support
- There is very little difference between a true factory pro’s setup and what you can go buy off the showroom floor. With exception of a FOX shock that was released at the event and a custom cut on their tires, everything on both Martin and Dan’s bike was something any person could go buy. Compared to any other kind of racing, this is extremely cool.
- You can skip the Sea Otter shuttle line and pedal up the road on the Sanction Pro without problem. Cool for fun. Bad for racing legs.
- Both Dan Atherton and Martin Maes are on Sanction Pros. Identical to what you can buy with exception of paint. Both riders are on a size large (Dan has swapped to a L from an XL now). Both riders running their rear shock air pressure at 10-12% more than body weight.
- Dan runs 29psi in his back tire and 26 psi in his front. Martin slightly less. Both Dan and Martin commonly cut center and cornering knobs depending on the track. Rims are 25mm wide internally, for those wondering.
- Martin makes very few changes to his bike race to race. Only a few clicks of rebound to suit the course. Otherwise he leaves it be.
- Both Dan and Martin ran 36 tooth rings at Sea Otter. Usually they run a 32 or 34 in Enduro racing.
- Through working with Fox at the event I discovered I often run too little compression damping. Bringing both LSC and HSC up I found the bike to stay out of the holes and my lap times went down. Effort going into handling the bike, not the suspension, is key if you are chasing seconds.
- Martin Maes is more of a true professional at 18 years old than most athletes are at any point in their career.
- Martin's dad raced dual slalom for GT. Martin won the Sea Otter dual slalom.
- Mike Day (olympic BMX silver medalist) is one of the most humble and down to earth athletes you’ll ever meet. A privilege to be around and figuring out the mountain bike thing (very) quickly.
- Despite having excellent mechanical help, I found myself wrenching on my own bike just as much as usual. It's calming. And I can’t stand around and watch someone else work on my stuff. It doesn’t feel right.
- The Sanction Pro is an excellent Sea Otter bike (read my review).
- Hanging out in the shaded pits with food, water, beer and good company did not get old.
- The GT factory tacos are really good.
My result was right on point. 69 of 121 pro racers. Right near the middle of the pack. Smoking fast time of 2:15.
Truth is my result had a lot less to do with the support I received than the training I did for the event prior and just how shot the ole' legs were come Sunday. It was an absolute blast however, and one I won't soon forget. It made me realize when you are chasing hundredths of a second, as they are at the top of the sport, everything makes a difference, and conserving energy is huge. The well oiled machine that is GT Factory racing showed me how a real race program works. Everyone has a role and they perform their job like a professional. The mechanics are dialed into the smallest of nuances of bike setup, the racers simply race, and the team manager makes sure the machine has what it needs to keep moving toward victory. With a win in the slalom for Martin Maes and three Top Ten finishes in the downhill, I think it's clear the program works.
As they say, you can take the privateer out of the dumpster truck, but you can't take the dumpster out of the privateer. Or something like that. Truth is that it'd take some time to get used to the factory pro gig to more accurately figure out just how big of a difference it makes... but I had fun trying.