Shimano XT Di2 takes on BC Bike Race

Torture testing new electronic MTB drivetrain in British Columbia

Components Race Coverage
Option line in the rain means this rider is out there for racing and fun. Photo by Dave Silver

Taking the optional line. Photo by Dave Silver

Editor’s Note: This post is courtesy of Shimano. It documents use of the component maker’s new XT Di2 electronic shifting drivetrain at the always challenging BC Bike Race.

In its 10-year journey, the BC Bike Race has become the model for a new type of stage racing. One where the quality of the trail is more important than long grueling miles and collecting elevation stats on Strava. It has evolved to be a race that prioritizes the experience of the participants who seek the best trails in the world. For seven straight days, BCBR explores the fabled coastal trails of British Columbia where equipment and skills are tested on terrain that can make you pucker — and punch the air with joy — a hundred times a day.

The BC Bike Race also continues to prove to be a legit testing ground for companies like Shimano, which sends engineers from Japan, heads of marketing from all over the world, and a variety of other staffers within the company to be a part of the event. From the Shimano Mechanical Support at aid stations to actually doing the race, Shimano has triangulated our observational positions, allowing for the collection of valuable hard data. You might find your local Shimano rep riding along with the president of the company in any given year.

In 2016, Joe Lawwill, Shimano’s North American MTB marketing director, decided it would be an excellent idea to put the new XT Di2 through the BCBR washing machine aboard the bikes of the Kona Adventure team. If the drivetrains survive and possibly podium the race, what better proof would you need of the quality of the equipment the thinking went.

Joe Lawwill and Brian Lopes teamed up with Di2 equipped  non-XC rigs. They won their class and probably hit every jump. Marketing man Joe believes that the first rule of marketing is participating.

Shimano’s Joe Lawwill and Brian Lopes teamed up with Di2 equipped non-XC rigs. They won their class and probably hit every jump along the way. Lawill believes that the first rule of marketing is participating.

A few months prior, while attending the launch of the new Deore XT Di2 release at the Sea Otter Classic a simple plan was set in motion. By the time BCBR kicked off in early July there would be some limited pre-production XT Di2 that could outfit the Kona Adventure Team. What seemed like a simple plan suddenly turned into a scramble, as three of the four Kona riders became unavailable to attend several weeks prior to BCBR’s start. On top of that, a last minute realization that the pre-production parts that were being counted on were not going to arrive in time for the start of BCBR. As with most well laid plans, this one suddenly required traveling down the alphabet to plan B, C, and D.

With about four weeks to go there was only one rider committed to run the new XT Di2. Luckily Lawill thrives under pressure and set into motion a plan that involved getting the “pre” pre-production parts that Jill Kintner, Andrew Shandro, and Matt Hunter happened to be using for Shimano’s specific Deore XT Di2 brand videos. To make things more complicated these videos were being filmed literally scattered around the globe. Aside from jumping through hoops to quickly retrieve the parts, the stakes just got higher, as these are really only show sample parts intended to show at Sea Otter and not be raced, especially not raced at an event like the BC Bike Race.

Shimano XT Di2 is available in 1x11 or 2x11 configurations both usable with just one shifter. Here it is in 1x11 with a 46t big cog.

Shimano XT Di2 is available in 1×11 or 2×11 configurations both usable with just one shifter. Here it is in 1×11 with a 46t big cog.

So, with three used groups and a couple clean show groups it would be potentially possible to get four riders in the BCBR on XT Di2 and one spare group in case something went wrong. The next problem was convincing the athletes to put their trust into pre-production parts and race a truly epic 7 day stage race without having much time if any on the parts beforehand.

Lawill headed to Carson City, Nevada for the Epic Rides Endurance race to try to sort out a potential rider or two to run the new Di2 at BCBR. It was Kona rider Cory Wallace’s teammate Spencer Paxson who showed the most interest, but he was also on the short list for a spot in the Olympics and wouldn’t know until the next World Cup just a week before BCBR if he would be able to attend the race. So with Wallace confirmed and Paxson as a strong potential, Lawill left them two groups to get on a bike for testing. With the upcoming world champs XC race, it was unrealistic that Paxson would get any time on the parts. But at least Wallace could get about a week in on the parts.

Loam for days. Photo by Margus Riga

Loam for days. Photo by Margus Riga

With less than two weeks before BCBR, a Hail Mary request was sent to the Rocky Mountain team, which is a strong supporter of the race. To Lawill’ surprise Rocky’s resident Squamish shredder and previous BCBR stage winner Quinn Moberg jumped at the opportunity. Moberg was the only rider on the short list who has any experience on Di2. Both Wallace and Paxson would be riding and trusting equipment they had never used. This is not how professional riders normally operate. Although Lawill was confident in the parts, it’s the racer’s willingness to trust Shimano that really stands out.

A few days after talking to Moberg, an email arrived from U.S. rider Stephen Ettinger who happened to be traveling with Paxson at the World Championships in the Czech Republic. Ettinger was just learning that he along with Paxson wasn’t going to the Olympics and was wondering if Lawill was still looking for another Di2 rider. This was the week before the race and if you know anything about the BC Bike Race, it’s that it’s sold out months in advance. Fortunately, Shimano had a secure spot as a major sponsor of the race so the idea of using the fourth group for Ettinger was a possibility. A rider with his talents who was disappointed to not be on the Olympic team meant there would be some serious fire under the hood!

Right after Ettinger’s email, Lawill got word that Anthill Films, who were producing the XT Di2 videos, called to say they needed a group back ASAP to re-shoot a piece for the brand video which had a strict deadline. Due to the limited availability, the only option was to ship the parts that were now planned for Ettinger to Anthill in hopes that they could get what they needed in time and get the parts sent back in time. Luckily Anthill was filming in the North Vancouver area, so a simple hand off would be all that was needed to get the parts to the start of BCBR. There was also one backup group that was planned for display, which could pull together if needed. So there was a contingency plan but the goal was to keep one brand new group for a display bike.

Steep, tight, rocks, wood, wet, fun... pick 6. Photo by Dave Silver

Steep, tight, rocks, wood, wet, fun… pick 6. Photo by Dave Silver

The plan from April that had almost totally fallen apart was alive again. It might not have all the original players involved, but it was still a dream team of riders with three previous stage winners and two Olympic short list riders. In the last two days before go time Shimano Mechanical Support technicians Ben Pye and Ryan Sweeney made magic happen and managed to collect all missing pars and get Moberg, Ettinger and Paxson’s bikes together, as well as make sure Wallace’s bike was dialed in and ready for the next seven days.

The rest of the week went just as was hoped. The four XT Di2 riders went on to win at least one stage each, and they finished the race as the overall top 4 riders. Along the way, there were no issues with the XT Di2 and no one had to charge a battery once.

The stage winners were identifiable by these fancy shoes. Brave of them to try them right away with such high stakes but Shimano has done their homework. Photo by Margus Riga.

The stage winners were identifiable by these fancy shoes. Brave of them to try them right away with such high stakes, but Shimano has done its homework. Photo by Margus Riga.

The race itself was exciting to the end, with Wallace barely winning the overall on his birthday by beating his teammate Paxson on the last day. Besides being one of the wettest years on record for the BC Bike Race, Wallace also had the roughest week, with a couple flat tires and several crashes that caused him to continually chase the other riders and erase time deficits. He definitely put his Di2 through the most stress, but his impression was that the precision and ease of use helped make the difference.

For the Shimano crew, it was exciting to be a part of this group of racers who were battling it out for the top spots. Though he was second again for the fourth year in a row, Paxson did wear the leader’s jersey for several days and we’d like to think the Di2 helped him keep his mind on the race. Paxson, who is always trying to find the smallest percentage of improvement, also gave his approval to the electronic drivetrain.

BC Bike Race finds the best trails that every area has to offer. Here's some rock slab from Squamish. Photo by Dave Silver

BC Bike Race finds the best trails that every area has to offer. Here’s some rock slab from Squamish. Photo by Dave Silver

As a company, Shimano got a huge thrill when Moberg won stage 6 in front of his hometown crowd in Squamish aboard XT Di2. It was the cherry on top of this journey since Squamish is the stage that Shimano has sponsored for years and where product debuts have often occurred. Even though Squamish had the trails Moberg knew best, it may have been the energy saved from the other stages that helped him clinch the day.

First couple of stages saw rain so it was quite a test for Di2 shifting.  Good news is there's no mechanical cable to contaminate or stretch. Photo by Dave Silver

The first couple stages saw rain, so it was quite a test for XT Di2 shifting. The good news is that there’s no mechanical cable to contaminate or stretch. Photo by Dave Silver

As with any idea, it’s only as good as the hard work that is put in to get there. All the athletes who ride BC Bike Race arrive having sacrificed something to get them to the start line. The time and commitment required is something that Shimano is intimately aware of and respects. We couldn’t be happier to be part of the journey of so many of the athletes at all levels. A huge thank you goes out to the guys at the top who trusted the newest product we have and to all the other riders who use Shimano on their path to the finish line.

About the author: Mtbr is a site by mountain bikers for mountain bikers. We are the best online resource for information for mountain bikers of all abilities, ages and interests.

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