Bike Connection is an event that throws a slight slant on the mountain bike industry picture for a couple of reasons. First, it’s in Italy so several of the brands here don’t currently have UK or US distribution. The whole Bike Connection concept is to put a bunch of brands and a bunch of media together with one-on-one presentations, good food and excellent riding. That means it works really well for a whole range of brand sizes – particularly smaller setups who couldn’t afford to ship a bunch of media out just to see them but are able to spread costs with the other brands here and still get their presentation time. It’s also more informal, personal, efficient and therefore useful than a mass presentation, or trying to catch up with brands at a typical random trade show where you’re fighting with dealers for time, the riding sucks and staff have more than had enough by halfway through the show.
The European thing is definitely less of a deal than it used to be when super-linear ‘German’ suspension setups ruled the world and anyone who used olive oil and had a tan was likely to be creating super-sketchy XC race bikes for skinsuit wearing, high posting, marathon loving dirt roadies. There are still elements of that about for sure, but now they sit alongside serious enduro bikes, and e-bikes are massive – with several of the brands here having dedicated themselves totally to powered machines years before many major brands (particularly US ones) started reluctantly thinking about motors. Ironically, while Euro MTB shares much more with UK MTB now, Brexit is still clearly causing issues and my lunch chat with Josh Lewis from 50to01 was mostly about how hard it is to sell into Europe now despite a high demand for their gear. The fact that € prices are now generally very close to £ prices is depressing too, when you consider the currency wins we used to get from cross-Channel shopping.
Politics aside, it’s great to see so many brands of all sizes thriving and developing some really interesting product. Some are very focused companies like SQ Lab which will only introduce new kit when it feels it can significantly improve on existing ideas. Its concept of selling gloves in different widths as well as sizes proves that ideas don’t have to be complicated to make perfect sense though. While Canyon is attending with a demo fleet to provide bikes to tire makers, the bike brands here are mostly small, but they’ve got some really interesting back stories. Nox is a small Austrian company composed of – in its own words – “old ski bums” but it has got a really sorted Epium e-bike that not only has a carbon frame made in Portugal, but as much of the hardware as possible is made close to the brand's Austrian assembly line, including the new Fazua 60 motor. The bike that I can’t name yet but will be jumping on straight after I’ve finished typing is a super-light e-downcountry rig with an 1820g wafer-thin wall carbon frame, bespoke battery and Boost switch system for its TQ motor. Scor, whose bikes I’m riding tomorrow, has got some really neat looking, widely adjustable designs too.
E-bikes are the hot topic among most of the tire brands here too. Interestingly the biggest (in bike terms at least) brand here is just sticking an E50-approved sticker on its DH carcass and calling it done. Pirelli has perhaps unsurprisingly reached into its motocross and Moto GP playbook to develop its e-bike specific Hyper Wall construction, but the brand was really keen to chat about whether I saw e-MTB enduro racing as a category it should be creating a specific tire for. Meanwhile Vee has gone for the very pragmatic but actually super-clever approach of using its moped and scooter experience to develop an e-bike tire. I mean it doesn’t have the glamour appeal of Moto GP racing but can you think of any tire likely to be more abused than the rubber crushed under a comically overloaded Thai moped?
In terms of other themes, there’s a return to focusing on pedaling efficiency and low weight on both shoe, transmission and e-bike designs that I’m all for and SQ Lab has some super-neat mid bar extensions that will definitely get me cancelled from the cool club but I can’t wait to test ride anyway. It has also apped the arse (literally when it comes to its saddle calibrating tool) out of the whole bike fit process, so dealers can give you a complete body profile to make sure you're sitting, gripping and insoling perfectly when you go riding.
From a UK perspective, it’s great to see weather protection getting more attention. Leatt has an awesome looking double-skinned flat pedal shoe and a dirt suit that will both be getting used this afternoon as the weather is remarkably home-like rather than Latin sun. I rode an excellent new severe conditions cross-country tire from another brand that was like a mash-up of all my favourite old UK speed treads. The new right shoe I was wearing from one brand handled the puddle splashes way better than the old left shoe I was wearing from the same brand, proving that A. I’ll probably be switching to a new shoe (news on that next week) as soon as possible, and B. wearing odd shoes and gloves is always the best way to test stuff.
Other themes coming up in brand chat/after ride/dinner conversations are the increasing blurring of more aggressive gravel riding and traditional XC riding. There’s also been lots of people interested to hear about the way-more-fun-than-I-expected Mondraker Dusty XR e-gravel bike review that went live yesterday. Leatt had some ultralight, super ventilated knee pads that would make great sense for those determined to get daft behind drop bars too. The whole topic of media coverage and growth between small independents and bigger algorithm-driven companies, ambassadors/racers/reviewers etc always raises some interesting opinions too, though rarely any obvious answers. Apps, whether for bike fitting, e-bike tuning or navigation, are becoming as ubiquitous as a 5mm Allen key and nobody is arguing that AI is going to totally change pretty much everything much sooner than we think.
The best thing about the week so far though is that despite some dreary looking stats at the start of the year and the unavoidable fact that there are serious overstocking issues, impending yard sales and potential closures and downsizings happening across MTB, the overall mood here is super positive. And you could argue that’s because Simon and his Bike Connection team put on a great event in a beautiful area, but dealers and distributors at the Core bike show in the UK last week were buzzing with the same enthusiasm too. And with a whole bunch of test riding already done here and a body bag worth of kit to bring home for working on before various embargo dates, I can hopefully share some of that upbeat, new kit day vibe with you here on Bike Perfect soon too.