By Joe Parkin/Originally published in the December `13 issue of Bike
Compared to the haberdashery of modern downhilling, Greg 'HB' Herbold's roughly 20-year old, sublimated, spandex skinsuit is about as alien as a vegan in a steakhouse. But for a few years during mountain biking's early history, a costume like this could turn a talented mortal into a hero.
"You just put on one of those suits," says HB, "and you feel like Superman."
It was an era when downhill bikes had fewer inches of suspension travel than modern cross-country bikes. Since the sport was patterned largely after alpine ski racing, courses included high-speed sections. Mammoth's famed kamikaze, for instance, was a 50- to 60- mile-per-hour adrenaline rush. Then, as now, reduction of aerodynamic drag was an important consideration—and trips to the wind tunnel weren't out of the question.
Voler made HB's 1994-campaign suits in two different fabric thicknesses to best match temperatures on course. His personal allotment was about a dozen, and replicas were sent to his sponsors because each of the logos sublimated into the stretchy fabric indicated another check in the bank account.
Though these skinsuits were clearly more fragile than the rugged materials used in a modern downhill kit, Herbold says they held pads in place perfectly, were incredibly comfortable and, perhaps most important, felt fast.
Shaun Palmer stormed onto the scene in the mid-90s and, in a couple of seasons, made flat pedals and moto gear de rigueur. Bikes got better, courses got steeper and more technical, making aerodynamic advantages—even at the World Cup level—a bit less obvious. Riders began viewing skinsuits as a threat to mountain biking's image and would forego them and risk losing for fear of even possibly being mistaken for Ziggy stardust.
In 2008, the sport's governing body, the UCI, banned skinsuits from downhill racing, ruling that they provide a clear aerodynamic advantage over looser fitting, motocross-style apparel. While HB, the 1990 UCI downhill World Champion, sees value in promoting an image of mountain biking that's more inviting to new participants, kids especially, he's clearly still a fan of the skinsuit and disagrees with vanity putting the brakes on speed.
"Is top-level racing an image thing or is it a sport?"