XTERRA World Championship Week – Evolution of the Champions Mountain Bikes

The XTERRA World Championship will celebrate its 20th anniversary this weekend. Much has changed since the event’s inception as “Aquaterra” back in 1996. The host venue has moved, the first generation of XTERRA Champions have moved on, and the equipment has significantly evolved. Gone are the days of 26 inch wheels on metal dual triangle frames with “V” brakes and 8 speed shifting. We thought it would be interesting to take a look at the evolution of the mountain bikes used by various Champions over the past two decades.

1996 Aquaterra – The Off Road “Tri Bike”

Back in 1996 mountain biking was new, exciting, and totally extreme (that’s some hip 90’s lingo just so ya know). Design concepts were evolving, carbon fiber was all but totally unheard of, and 29 inch wheels, yeah, those were for road bikes. Actually so were 650s… but that’s a different story.

It was in this revolutionary era that XTERRA was born, and when then Quintana Roo president, now publisher, Dan Empfield came up with a concept for an off road triathlon bike called the Quinterra.

Jimmy Riccitello won in 1996 riding Empfield’s creation, which with the benefit of 2015 hindsight was a ridiculous design. In the video below (starting at 16:03) Empfield describes the Quinterra as “3/4 off road 1/4 road”. Meaning, the seat tube was too steep, the wheelbase was too short, and therefore the handling was unstable and sketchy. However, the Quinterra was a shot in the dark to create a bike specific to an event which had never been done before. So… you win some and you lose some. XTERRA was a massive success and is still the fastest growing segment of triathlon 20 years later, while the Quinterra, and Quintana Roo flailed and eventually died after Empfield left in 1999.


Michellie Jones at the 1996 Aquaterra. Photo- XTERRA
Michellie Jones at the 1996 Aquaterra. Photo- XTERRA


1996 women’s champion, Michellie Jones rode a GT Zaskar, one of the most popular bikes of the era due to the GT sponsorship of Julie Furtado, one of the most successful MTB pros of the 90’s. The Zaskar was an aluminum frame which used GT’s trademark triple triangle design. Interestingly GT will celebrate 25 years of Zaskar in 2016. Find out more HERE.




2000 XTERRA – WTF!

2000 was most definitely the year of the WTF bike. The men’s and women’s Champions were both members of the very successful Team Swift, the brain child of XTERRA Hall of Famer, Scott Shumacher.

Team Swift was one of the triathlon world’s first and most successful teams with numerous wins both on and off road, and a double XTERRA World Championship in 2000. However, Team Swift boasted some of triathlon’s most “90’s” brands in Softride, Spinergy, Speedo, and JogMate. (Remember JogMate? The protein recovery gel that came in a toothpaste tube and tasted like stale pudding skin.)

Image snatched from XTERRA's 2000 video which can be found on Vimeo.
Image snatched from XTERRA’s 2000 video which can be found on Vimeo.

Somehow Team Swift’s Micheal Tobin and Kirsten Wuele were able to claim World Championship titles on board the Softride “beam style” mountain bike.

These things were insane. They were anything but light, probably coming in around 27lbs. They were fully rigid except for the Softride “suspension stem”, basically a steel spring between two aluminum levers with pivots on both ends. No damping, no lockout, and your DAMN bars moved up and down rather than the wheel impact forces being absorbed.

With a suspended carbon beam and a flex stem every time the rider hits a bump their entire position changed. the seat height dropped and the bar height and reach dropped and lengthened. NUTS!! How can anyone ride an MTB that is constantly changing
your riding position. You gotta hand it to Michael and Kirsten, their wins were most definitely due to their abilities and in no way can be Pigg_2000attributed to superior equipment.

To put some icing on the crap equipment cake of 2000, Mike Pigg was third in the men’s race on board a Trek Y SL 300. Trek “Y” bikes are widely regarded as one of the worst mountain bike designs of all time. The suspension design just didn’t work and they were very heavy.




2001 XTERRA – The Caveman and Full Suspension Arrive

Ned Overend and Conrad Stoltz prior to the 2001 XTERRA World Championship. Photo - XTERRA
Ned Overend and Conrad Stoltz prior to the 2001 XTERRA World Championship. Photo – XTERRA

2001 was the beginning of the “Caveman” era for XTERRA. South African Conrad “the Caveman” Stoltz attacked the bike with Simon Lessing and lead into T2 at the previous year’s 2000 Sydney Olympic Triathlon before being reeled in by runners who spent the bike sitting in within a massive draft pack. Frustrated with the ITU format, Stoltz decided to give XTERRA a try and found his niche in the process.

Fortunately for Stoltz he also found a mentor at his bike sponsor, Specialized, in ’98 and ’99 XTERRA World Champion, and mountain bike legend, Ned Overend. Ned was a strong proponent of cross country full suspension bikes, which, at the time was a topic of great debate. Stoltz, however, ignored the haters and wholeheartedly bought into Ned’s opinion that full suspension was the way to go. Stoltz went on to dominate bike leg by nearly 5 minutes and claim the World Championship on board a Specialized S-Works FSR.

Since 2001 the all but three men’s XTERRA World Championships have been won on full suspension bikes. The ladies however are still split on full suspension versus hard tail.

2006 XTERRA – Epic Gold

Hamis Carter on his Specialized S-Works Epic at the 2006 XTERRA World Championship. Photo- XTERRA
Hamis Carter on his Specialized S-Works Epic at the 2006 XTERRA World Championship. Photo- XTERRA

In 2006 Canadian Melanie Mcquaid claimed her third XTERRA World Championship while 2004 Olympic Gold medalist, Kiwi Hamish Carter claimed his first.

However it was Carter’s Specialized S-Works Epic that would start a dominant career.

Since 2006 the S-Works Epic has been piloted to six XTERRA World Championships, more than any other bike.



2007 XTERRA – Ladies Embrace Full Suspension

Julie Dibens rides to her first XTERRA World Championship on board a BMC Four Stroke full suspension bike.

While the first men’s championship on board a full suspension bike came in 2001 it took until 2007 for the women to embrace full suspension.

ITU and Ironman stand out, Julie Dibens, races a BMC Four Stroke to the 2007 title.

Interestingly, 2nd place, Melanie Mcquaid was also riding a BMC. However, Mcquaid opted for a carbon hard tail. Was this decision the difference between first and second?


2010 XTERRA – The 29er Arrives

Stoltz_2010_MauiConrad Stoltz won his 4th World Championship in 2010, while Shonny Vanlandingham claimed her first with both becoming the first for any XTERRA athlete on board a 29er.

As with full suspension Stoltz was the first to embrace a debated technology which would soon become the norm, and as with full suspension Ned Overend probably had a strong influence on Stoltz’ decision. And again, as with full suspension in 2001, Overend had long been a proponent and advocate for the use of the larger 29er wheels for cross country mountain bike racing, proving the Legend to know what he was talking about as now the majority of bikes in the XTERRA World Championship athletes are riding 29ers.

Shonny_2010Meanwhile, on the women’s side, Vanlandingham rode an Orbea Alma 29er. Orbea, like Specialized taking a chance on the 29er platform early. Vanlandingham’s choice also reaffirmed the ladies preference for hardtails over full suspension at the XTERRA World Championship.

So there ya go, 20 years of mountain bike triathlon evolution. From 8 speed, aluminum, “Tri bikes” to carbon fiber, full suspension 29ers, the mountain bike has come a long way. Whats next, electronic shifting and intelligent suspension? Oh wait…

So give us your opinion, whats the best XTERRA bike from the past 20 years? Let us know in the comments below or on our facebook page HERE.





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