Julien Absalon – a Rider Re-born
No need for an introduction, you all know Julien Absalon; the man who is more at ease on his bike than in front of a camera, who prefers to let his results do the talking. He is undeniably the greatest mountain biker of all time, still riding with the same passion and motivation as when he first started riding mountain bikes 20 years ago. This quiet, gentle character has been at the pinnacle of his sport for over a decade – but it hasn’t always been smooth sailing. He is infamous for his meticulous attention to race and equipment preparation, but what many don’t know, is that these were also the greatest obstacles to his success. In order to stay at the top of his game he would have to learn the hardest lessons of all – to take risks, try new equipment, lose some control, perhaps fail – and take something from them all to become the absolute greatest of all time.
An Evolving Sport
The discipline of cross-country mountain biking has changed dramatically over the last twenty years. Any mountain biker during this time has had to constantly adapt to the evolution of the sport: races are shorter, the courses are more compact and technical and include artificial features like rock gardens, drops, jumps and berms. As a result, race tactics and training has also evolved – as well as bike technology.
Julien Absalon started racing in 1994 on an aluminum hardtail, it had 26” wheels, caliper brakes, a 550mm bar and three chain rings. For many years, he was obsessed with the weight of his race bikes – trying to shave off every very possible gram became a hobby. At one point he even went as far as replacing the metal screws on his bike with plastic ones. “In the past, when it came to material, most of my decisions were driven by having the lightest bike possible” admits Absalon. “The ratio between weight and power was very important at the time. Race courses favored good climbers and I wanted to have everything on my side to be the fastest”.
However, technology was passing him by – Absalon was the only top 20 rider still racing with 26’’ wheels at the 2012 Olympic Games in London. “I was feeling good on the bike at the time, so didn’t feel the need to go for bigger wheels”. Since then, he joined the BMC MTB Racing Team and now he dominates the world’s best with a BMC Fourstroke; a carbon, full-suspension mountain bike with 29” wheels and disc brakes, a single chainring, electronic shifting, suspension lockout, and 700mm bar. He has even tuned it with a 65mm dropper seat post for the 2016 season! “It was inconceivable four years ago when Julien joined the team, that he would try out a full-suspension bike, never mind actually race one”, confirms Alex Moos, Team Manager of the BMC MTB Racing Team. So how did the Frenchman overcome this fear of change, not only adopting new technology but embracing it?
It's all about the Bike
In the early days of mountain bike racing, bikes and components were a simple affair. Riders were essentially competing in downhill and cross-country races on bikes that were fundamentally the same. Equipment has evolved dramatically since then. There are so many equipment decisions to be made before the gun goes off; hardtail or fully? What tire type and pressure is optimal? Julien gives very high priority to his material. Change something on his bike without telling him and he’ll notice at the first pedal strokeWhat should the fork and shock settings be? For an athlete to be successful, a team of world-class mechanics and advisors are required as so many technical elements come into play these days. “Julien gives very high priority to his material. He is very meticulous and pernickety but he has a real feeling for it. Change something on his bike without telling him and he’ll notice at the first pedal stroke” says Moos. This type of sensitivity to change has been intrinsic to new technology development at BMC Switzerland and other team partners such as Shimano. “He is great at giving precise feedback, which is something the BMC engineers and team partners appreciate a lot. It helps them to develop their products further” adds Stefan Christ, Head of Products at BMC Switzerland.
Julien Absalon worked very closely with Shimano to develop the XTR Di2 groupset that was launched in Spring 2015. According to Cor Van Leeuwen “He helped us a lot in the development of the product. He was the first rider we tested XTR DI2 with; that was early 2013 already”. Once he’s convinced that a new piece of technology can be impactful, the five-time World Champion behaves like a child with a new toy. He can’t stop playing with it. “He wanted to race with it straight away while it was still a prototype. Julien is the most professional MTB rider out there, so he is the perfect person to test our products. If he thinks it is good, everybody will think it is perfect. He helped us out big time with the developments of XTR Di2”.
What really happened: Hafjell 2014
Absalon joined the BMC MTB Racing Team in 2013 after a disappointing season, and arrived with a collection of old habits. Although okay with some of them, team management also had to impose its conditions. “He had a trouble moving on to new equipment” remembers Moos, “when he liked something, it was really hard to make him try something else, he would become very attached. So we had to compel and oblige, and even force him sometimes” said Moos, with a glint in his eye. “That was certainly the case with the 26’’ wheels that he still wanted to continue to use in 2013. But on joining the BMC MTB Racing Team, he had no other choice than to start riding 29’’ wheels”.
Despite the initial teething pains typical with a transfer to a new team, a relationship of trust quickly developed between the rider, Moos, and the team mechanics. “The team was always very reactive, had really good advice, and I realized I was getting better”. But despite evidence to the contrary, weight was still on Absalon’s mind. “He always refused to ride our team-issue BMC Fourstroke, the full-suspension mountain bike” remembers Moos. “Because it was heavier than the hardtail Teamelite. He lost a few races because of the gaps his competitors were able to create with their full-suspension bikes, on the descents of the particularly technical courses. I forced him once again to go for a couple of laps of the course on the Fourstroke, and he never came back to the paddock! We had to stop him from training!I wasn’t there with the team in North America for the Mont-Sainte-Anne and Windham World Cups in 2014, but I watched them carefully on TV. It was obvious that a full-suspension would have helped him a lot in those races, so, without telling Julien, I decided to have a bike built for him. I presented him with the bike at the World Cup finals in Méribel a few weeks later. Initially, he didn’t want to try it but I put my foot down. I forced him to do one lap on the course with it. He came back saying ‘It wasn’t that bad’ and that he might use it at Roc d’Azur”. However, Moos is more than a one trick pony. After the race in Méribel, where Absalon finished second behind his archrival, Nino Schurter, he had Absalon’s race and training Teamelite packed up to be transported directly to the World Championships in Norway, leaving the 2014 World Cup winner with only the BMC Fourstroke to ride. “That was the only bike he had to ride until the World Championships two weeks later. I faked an excuse, so he also had to take it with him to Norway where the use of a full-suspension bike made real sense. Although he was still attached to his Teamelite, I forced him once again to go for a couple of laps of the course on the Fourstroke, and he never came back to the paddock! We had to stop him from training!”
Absalon discovered a new toy and had so much fun with it that he left behind the pressure of the World Championships. We all know how the race unfolded. Absalon won his fifth World Championship title, seven years after the last. “This was incredible. I truly believe that the change of equipment was what gave me the competitive edge. Although it was a huge risk I truly believe that the change of equipment was what gave me the competitive edgeto make such a big change so close to the race, it was just what I needed”.
The 2014 World Championships were a turning point in Absalon’s career. He realized that it wasn’t all about weight, and that a bit of extra weight could easily be justified by the benefits of technologies. The following Spring, he adopted the re-launched Teamelite complete with Micro-Travel Technology (MTT) and won his 30th World Cup.
Absalon Improves with Time like a Good French Wine
In 2016, Absalon, ever in search of optimized material, has gone a step further and come up with the idea to try out a dropper seat post in racing. This piece of equipment shifts the saddle post up and down and is pretty much essential amongst Enduro mountain bikers since it allows for more saddle clearance and freedom in the steeper race sections. “The dropper seatpost changes my riding style: I can and save energy on steep obstacles and ride faster downhill”. However, it comes with a significant weight penalty of 400g. “It is definitely not a negligible weight but it has so many pros. In the end, what made the balance tilt in its favor is the fun I have riding with it”. After a few training sessions, he decided to use it in competition and became one of the first top riders to use it at XCO World Cup level. He’s pretty sure we will see more cross-country riders using them soon.
Absalon has become a trend setter. Who would have believed it five years ago? “Not even myself!” he says, with a big smile across his face.