A new weapon in the quiver for the seven-time world champion
By James Huang
FSA's OS-115 stem may be
Merida claims its Ninety-Six
Dr. Andy Pruitt and newly
hired biomechanist Sean Madsen
The chain stays, seat stays
Curiously, the rear shock
lockout is operated
Dahle FlesjŚ's Manitou
R-Seven MRD fork
Lots of familiar faces
FSA's OS-115 stem may be
Dahle FlesjŚ's bike is
Dahle FlesjŚ uses a 160mm
rotor up frontÖ
The cross-section of FSA's
K-Force Light crankarm
Ceramic bearings are fitted
We don't have much information
on 'Whizz Wheels'
More SRAM can be found
The FSA K-Force carbon
Dahle FlesjŚ sticks with
When all is said and done, Norway's Gunn-Rita Dahle FlesjŚ may just
go down as the most dominant female mountain biker in history. With
the exception of two poor seasons attributed to severe overtraining,
the 34 year-old has been a constant and overshadowing presence at the
sport's uppermost level almost immediately since turning professional
in 1996 with two World Cup wins and a fourth-place finish at the Olympic
games in Atlanta. Since 2002, she has also earned seven sets of UCI world
championship stripes (four in cross-country, three in marathon) and
has won the European title six times (five cross-country, one marathon).
In spite of the success, though, the Norwegian remains surprisingly
unassuming, is eminently approachable and personable, and has managed
to retain her love of the sport.
Many have wondered about the secret to that nearly unrelenting mass
of success, but Dahle FlesjŚ insists that there is no such secret; just
focused determination, a meticulous attention to detail, and lots of
good old fashioned elbow grease on behalf of herself and her husband
and trainer, Kenneth FlesjŚ.
"I probably have some talents for the sportÖ I don't know," she said.
"I started with mountain biking and just came out of nowhere more or
less, and I felt I was one with the bike from one of the first days.
So maybe it's a little bit of talent, but it's mainly passion and hard
work in my opinion. At least since Kenneth and I started working together
as athlete and trainer in 2002, it all comes down to that you do every
day more or less perfect, as close to 100% as possible. There has to
be a good plan, of course, but you can have in that plan three hours
of long training today, and you have intervals tomorrow. But if you
feel that you'd rather do two because you want to have the most of tomorrow
also, you also have to do this adjustment."
2003 marked the first time Dahle FlesjŚ visited Dr. Andy Pruitt, bicycle
fitter extraordinaire at the Boulder Center for Sports Medicine. Dahle
FlesjŚ's early career coach was primarily a road racer, and had thus
set her up in a decidedly road bike-like position ill suited for off-road
riding. Pruitt implemented a wide-sweeping range of adjustments, including
handlebar and saddle positions and careful canting of her feet to achieve
proper knee tracking and power output, and has also assisted the seven-time
world champion with her pedaling technique.
"It's hard to tell if I've become seven-time world champion [as a result
since] I won the worlds and the European [championship] also in 2002
before I met Andy," she said on the effects of Pruitt's services. "Of
course, the sport is kind of becoming more and more professional in
every aspect. So working with Andy has given me some percent for sure.
And just the confidence in working with AndyÖ we have more or less been
visiting every year now for the last five or six seasons and it's just
the confidence that you can show that, yeah, you can still improve but
you are already strong. And you can look at where you can improve and
work with that the rest of the year. So it's not only the millimeter
here or centimeter there, but you also find that it comes to the technique,
not only with the setup of the bike."
"For sure, after she was at his place in 2003, I could feel a lot of
difference on how her muscles worked," added Kenneth FlesjŚ. "Because
before she had not such a good recovery. Her handlebars were 6cm lower
before. I think if she didn't change her position in 2003, her career
would be much shorter."
Another key to her success may also lie in the stability of her sponsorship
arrangement. Taiwanese bike mega-manufacturer Merida has supported Dahle
FlesjŚ since her comeback in 2002, and the pair has flourished together
since then. "She's won all of her titles on Merida," said Kenneth Flesja.
"That makes it really special, because they [Merida and Gunn-Rita] have
a history of support together. The budget now is huge. So we were really
lucky. They gave us a contract and we've just built on that. Now Gunn-Rita
has a great contract, and I think she will continue to ride Merida for
the rest of her life. There are not that many riders that have their
name so connected to their bike brand. On the mountain bike especially,
it's very important to build up a long-term relationship. In Norway,
if you were to ask a girl or guy on the street which brand Gunn-Rita
uses, they would say 'Merida'; they are so connected. All the dealers
in all the different countries are really behind the team supporting
it. All of the dealers give one dollar for each bike they sell to the
budget of the team. So it's like a big family. That's also special."
Dahle FlesjŚ has raced on a hardtail throughout her career but will
finally add a full-suspension model to her arsenal this season, Merida's
brand-new Ninety-Six. Previously debuted as the 'Beijing', the new Ninety-Six
offers (surprise) 96mm of rear wheel travel in a svelte carbon fiber
package that is claimed to weigh under 1.9kg (4.2lb), complete with
its DT Swiss XR Carbon rear shock and remote lockout lever.
The carbon main frame and rear triangle employ a mix of monocoque and
tube-to-tube construction techniques using pre-compressed prepreg sheets
and Merida's own 'Nano-Matrix' resin, which the company says improves
impact resistance by 40% over standard resins. The rear suspension uses
a simple single-pivot architecture for stiffness and durability and
includes a short top tube-mounted rocker link to drive the shock. That
link was still made from CNC machined aluminum on Dahle FlesjŚ's bike
when we caught up with her during a training camp in Boulder, Colorado,
but Merida ultimately plans on using a carbon piece.
In spite of the frame's relatively short travel, Merida saw fit to
equip the Ninety-Six with a low leverage ratio (said to be in the neighborhood
of sub-2:1) that keeps operating pressures low and improves the suspension's
ability to react to terrain changes. In this particular case, Dahle
FlesjŚ's machine was fitted with a slightly shorter-stroke shock (but
with the same eye-to-eye length) that maintained the frame geometry
but decreases travel slightly to a more race-appropriate 88mm.
According to Merida research and development head Juergen Falke, however,
light weight was but one of several prime objectives. Bottom bracket
and front triangle stiffness were of paramount importance as well, and
Merida claims a substantial 25% advantage in stiffness-to-weight ratio
over its next best competitor in the lightweight XC segment.
Carefully engineered fiber layup schedules and tube shapes obviously
play their usual role here, but the Ninety-Six top- and down tubes also
house a now-patented surprise. Much like FSA does with its top-end K-Force
Light carbon crankarms, the Ninety-Six sports a vertically oriented
rib in those spans that bisects both tubes from wall to wall, thus forming
two separate chambers.
Both of those additional hidden frame members serve to greatly increase
the overall frame stiffness. Falke says that the top tube rib also serves
to distribute transmitted shock loads over a larger area. "At the down
tube, the vertical rib improves the bending strength of the chassis
against forces initiated through the fork, [especially] during hard
front wheel braking and causes as well higher head tube stiffness,"
he said. "As additional benefit, the hit resistance of the down tube's
bottom side [from objects thrown up by the front wheel] is still quite
reasonable, even [though] the carbon wall thickness of the down tube
bottom is very small."
Just as in years past, Dahle FlesjŚ's bike continues to wear a healthy
dose of FSA componentry, including the carbon fiber seatpost, crankset,
ceramic bearing bottom bracket, handlebars, and aluminum stem. In addition
to the rear shock, the DT Swiss label is also found on the 190 Ceramic
Center Lock disc brake hubs and Aerolite spokes (the Norwegian star's
bike was also equipped with DT Swiss aluminum rims as well, although
they wore the decals of Taiwanese rim manufacturer Alex). The rest of
the build was filled out with SRAM's X.0 twist shifters, X.0 and X-9
derailleurs, PC-991 chain, and PG-990 cassette, Avid Juicy Ultimate
disc brakes, Maxxis rubber, and a Selle Italia saddle.
Manitou continues on as Dahle FlesjŚ's fork sponsor and equips her
with its new 80mm-travel R-Seven MRD model that is reportedly fully
stock with the exception of some additional crown machining.
Interesting, Dahle FlesjŚ continues to champion Shimano SPD pedals,
in this case from the latest generation XTR group. According to Kenneth
FlesjŚ, "Gunn-Rita has been getting a lot of [sponsorship] offers, but
she feels that Shimano gives her a safer feel and they are bigger. She
doesn't want to mess around with other pedals."
Chiming in from across the room, Dahle FlesjŚ added, "I feel my feet
going over like that [makes a 'c' shape with her hand] and I get so
Merida was careful to mimic the geometry of its carbon hardtail when
designing the Ninety-Six, but Dahle FlesjŚ still must put in some valuable
time in getting used to her new rig. Surprisingly, the seasoned veteran
has never raced on a full-suspension machine, and admits that she's
barely even ridden one for any appreciable length of time.
"I don't think I'm going to switch [completely]," she said. "I probably
have the chance now to choose, depending on the course, and that's a
great benefit in my opinion. I just have to get used to the riding style.
And if I feel comfortable on that, then of course, I can probably ride
faster on the really technical courses than if I only had the hardtail
After a rough summer in 2007, Dahle FlesjŚ looks optimistically and
excitedly towards the coming season with a new bike at her side and
an unwavering support structure. "We really got the bad taste of that
this summer when you couldn't be on the bike because of your health
was not good," she said. "So then you really got to tell yourself, 'This
is why I am mountain biking because it is so fun.' And we'll never forget
that again after what we went through last summer. There are so many
people expecting this and pressuring that and you have do thisÖ you
feel that it's crazy. It's still great to win but you forget the heart
of it. It's not about winning. It's the passion for what we are doing.
That's what it comes down to, the center of the thing with mountain
biking. If I can just come back, ok, even if I don't win a single race
next season. No one will believe me, but just if I feel good and my
health is normal, I'm happy! If you don't have the enjoyment and passion
about it, it's hard to be the top in the world, that's for sure."
And what of her long-term plans? Racers hoping that Dahle FlesjŚ would
soon hang up her cleats clearly have a long wait ahead of them. "I hope
I will race even when I am seventy!" she continued. "But as a professional,
I will look towards the Olympics in London. So that means at least five
more seasons. And I hope my body can handle it! I just have to take
good care of it. But the spirit, the joy about mountain biking is higher
and feels better than probably ever."
What should the world think of a well-trained, highly disciplined,
well-prepared, highly motivated, and newly equipped Gunn-Rita? Let's
just say we're happy to be on this side of the course tape. Watch out,
For a thumbnail gallery of these images, click here
Gunn-Rita Dahle FlesjŚ starts out the 2008 season
with a refreshed outlook and a new bike.
The Merida Ninety-Six frameset is said to weigh under 1.9kg (4.2lb)
including the rear shock and lockout lever. Want one? Bring some cash, and hope you don't live in North America because you can't get one there.
Merida claims its Ninety-Six frameset
offers a 25% advantage in stiffness-to-weight ratio over its next competitor in the segment.
Vertically oriented wall-to-wall ribs
inside the top tube and down tube supposedly provide the Ninety-Six with fantastic frame stiffness.
The chain stays, seat stays
, and even the driveside dropout are also made of carbon fiber.
Merida uses a simple and effective
single pivot suspension layout.
Dahle FlesjŚ's rockker link was aluminum
for now, but Merida plans on ultimately using a carbon fiber one.
More carbon fiber can be found
in the DT Swiss XR Carbon rear shock.
Curiously, the rear shock lockout is operated
by an old Rock Shox Poploc remote.
Dahle FlesjŚ's Manitou R-Seven MRD fork
is mostly a stock offering with the exception of additional crown machining to save weight.
Lots of familiar faces here
, including FSA, SRAM, and Avid. And yes, she does use bar ends.
FSA's OS-115 stem may be aluminum
but it's lighter and possibly stiffer than many carbon models out there.
Dahle FlesjŚ's bike is equipped
with Avid's Juicy Ultimate brakes and SRAM X.0 twist shifters.
Dahle FlesjŚ uses a 160mm rotor up frontÖ
Öand a 140mm out back.
The cross-section of FSA's K-Force Light crankarm
is ironically similar to that of the top tube and down tube.
Ceramic bearings are fitted
in both the front and rear hubs.
We don't have much information on 'Whizz Wheels'
, but that's apparently who built Dahle FlesjŚ's wheelset.
More SRAM can be found out back
in the X.0 BlackBox rear derailleur and PG-990 cassette.
The FSA K-Force carbon post
is capped with a Selle Italia carbon-railed saddle.
Dahle FlesjŚ sticks with tried-and-true
Shimano SPD pedal technology.
Dahle FlesjŚ's bike is fitted
with a rare Emporelli Dolomiti carbon fiber bottle cage.
Dr. Andy Pruitt and newly hired biomechanist Sean Madsen
of the Boulder Center for Sports Medicine check out Dahle FlesjŚ's position on her hardtail before moving on to her new rig.
Old friends at their annual reunion.
One of Dahle FlesjŚ's many rainbow-striped jerseys
adorn the fit studio at the Boulder Center for Sports Medicine.
Gunn-Rita Dahle FlesjŚ and her new bike
, ready to attack the 2008 World Cup.