And yet, here I am on the precipice of purchasing a 'gravel' bike…well, it is a cross bike really, but it will be a sweet gravel bike too. Am I just a bandwagon jumpee? Perhaps. I tried the slack-in-front/short-in-back 29er hard tail deal and that was a bust. I mean, you cannot pick up an industry mag without reading about either fat bikes or gravel bikes. Am I chasing a fad?
I don't think so, and this is why.
I have already ridden three gravel events, one on a cross bike, one on a 29er hard tail, and one on a 29er FS (Epic) so I have an idea of how it feels to ride one. As well, I really, really liked the format of the events. They were long and non-technical, but challenging and scenic. I really liked them and pedaling for miles in open spaces or along mountain roads does not bother me at all.
I have been doing a lot of summer road riding, so the body position and overall style of bike is working for me on the road. It is not like I have never held onto drop bars before.
I got no gravel. Nope. None. Not in the classic style, anyway.
Oh now, I have dirt roads…yessir…lots and lots and lots of those. And I have miles of paved roads connecting them so there is the potential to make some big training loops by stitching together road and dirt sections. And I plan on entering at least two gravel events for 2015, so while it is still a gamble, it is not a complete jump off a blind cliff.
Well, I am on my second road bike of the decade now. After building up the steel Ritchey Logic bike, a project that really came out well, I decided that I was liking it well enough to dive in a bit deeper. The Ritchey was built with SRAM Rival 10spd (love Doubletap), an FSA Mid Compact crank with 52/36 rings running into a 12-28 rear cassette, FSA brakes, stem, and seat post, Ritchey bars and tape, Ritchey pedals, and a Specialized saddle. The wheels were American Classic tube-type Hurricane wheels with Conti 700x25 GP4000s.
It came in at 18.5 lbs with pedals and was really a fine bike. It rode like a steel bike…smooth and silent... and that carbon fork kept the weight down. I did a few centuries on it and some all around group rides, training rides, etc. It was obvious that road riding was not a fad for me and I rode it more than anything else all summer. But there were a couple of things I wanted to change a bit, so I began thinking about the next road bike.
The 59cm frame was just slightly long in the reach for me. I was barely ok with a 10cm stem and that was a short as I feel is good for a road bike for someone my size. It was a great handling bike all in all, but I was thinking I would like to back off the HT angle a bit from the 73.5° setup the Ritchey had. I was also ready to try a good carbon frame and 11spd shifting. What I was not ready for was disc brakes, thinking that the refinement is still happening on the road side. Next bike, for sure, but not this one.
So I began looking around to see what was turning heads and setting the bar for endurance/sport bikes without costing me a fortune. As much as I would have appreciated the higher end lay-ups in carbon frames like the S Works or Hi Mod type of stuff, I did not want to spend that much. This was not going to be a 'super bike' build then, but just really, really good. Working on a budget then, I looked at three bikes that were at the LBS: The Specialized Roubaix SL4, the Cannondale Synapse Carbon, and the Giant Defy Advanced. All were similar in spec and weight, and I only was able to ride them in the basic bike shop parking lot situation, hardly ideal.
Reading about the bikes as much as I can, I knew that the Giant Defy and Defy Advanced had set the bar for the endurance road bike market. I had recently bought my wife the women's version of that bike, an Avail Advanced, and she absolutely loved it. The Roubaix was where the modern endurance bike met the masses and it was loved by MAMILs everywhere. But the Synapse had been re-done for 2014 and the new carbon layup, combined with a more sporting geometry than some others in its class, really had me intrigued. Riding them, the Roubaix seemed a bit stodgy. The Giant was likely the best of all and had a great, stable, yet fun feel to it. The Synapse was the sportiest of the three and snapped up pretty well when asked to, but was as comfy as any of them.
In the end, the Synapse worked out the best for me as I was able to get it with a lower spec'd grouppo and work out my plan of replacing the parts and putting my own stuff on there. So, since the frames/fork are all the same across the bottom few models, I bought a Shimano 105 bike and stripped it. On went a complete SRAM Force 11 speed group and a compact crank in a 172.5mm length. I was finding that the 175s that I run everywhere else…MTB, SS, etc, seemed to be a bit tiring to spin all day on a road ride. I used the same model of Ritchey bars, added a Ritchey stem and tape, and the same model in a Specialized Ronin saddle.
The wheels were a pretty big step up. A set of American Classic tubeless Argents with special graphics shod with the same 700x25 Contis looked amazing and are darn light and stiff. Tubeless ready, but not yet for me.
The end result was a bike that weighs 2 lbs less overall and accelerates and climbs better than the Ritchey, although the steel bike still out-smooves it. I also got a better fit in the 58cm Synapse and even with a 110cm stem have a cockpit that is 1/2" closer at the brake hoods. Perfect. I also got a bit more stability in the overall vibe of the bike, something I notice on rough, fast corners and even on long straight sections of road, in the wind, etc. Except for the slightly reduced comfort and the loss of some uniqueness, the Synapse has been total win.
Life has been quite intense since Mid August, so there has been little energy to blog…still, this demands a conclusion.
All the way to Idaho I was gauging my health and staying decently drugged up. I had come down with a cold of some kind the week before the event and I was really struggling on whether or not to go. In the end, I figured if nothing else I could cheer on Navy Mike and drink hot teas in a coffee shop while he raced. I was really hoping not to infect Navy Mike along the way, but I figured that it would take longer than 1.5 days to have anything really affect him for the event day. If he gets sick post-victory, so be it. We can eat cheeseburgers and take Sudafed together.
Along the way, at gas stop somewhere, I was listening to a group of touristy looking folks with interesting accents while I waited in the world's longest Subway Sandwich line. It turns out they were a bunch of New Zealanders out on holiday along the old Route 66, all of them in matching Ford Mustangs. Sweet.
Friday night we rolled into the area and found our hotel…a very nice one, by the way…just downstream a bit from Ketchum. We unloaded our bikes in a light rain. Hmmmm. 93 miles of rain riding and a head cold too? The Sun Valley area had been getting an unseasonable amount of summer rain and while that could make for nearly dust free and fast road conditions, it might be over the top on the day of. We shall see as the weather was supposed to clear by then.
Saturday we arose and headed over to the town square for the pancake breakfast served to us by bright faced young girls and all of this for charity. Awesome. We set up our chairs on main street for the parade later on and did what any high level athlete does the day before the race. We went shopping. This is the weekend when the town shuts down summer and flips the winter switch so the deals at the local outdoors shops are really pretty good. The parade was very cool…that is a really, really big steer.
I went for a walk with Navy Mike to see if we could get to the river we could hear below town. A wall of fancy condos and driveways with No Trespassing signs kept us from our goal. Sooo close and yet… I was just about done-in by my 2 mile walk. At this point I could not imagine riding tomorrow. I was a bit concerned. I waited in a line in the nicest Starbucks I had ever seen, hit the green tea and honey and waited to see what the next day would bring. We ate at The Powerhouse, a combo bike shop/food place/micro brewery that served a great ahi burger. I actually was feeling better as well but I was still nervous about the next day.
And then it was here. Thanks to God and a good night's sleep, I woke up feeling nearly normal. The early morning ritual of up in the dark, figuring out breakfast, final mixing of bottles, then out in the dark to drive to the start in Ketchum had me feeling better and better about this endeavor. The crowds, the bikes, nervous laughter, colorful jerseys and lots of selfies; the starting line poured into the street and out of town to Trail Creek Road with a police escort.
Nissan is a new event sponsor.
Last year I had a lighter bike and a small Camelbak. I pushed too hard too fast and did not have spinning gears for the first climb. I never really recovered from that and that was a big factor in my cutting short the ride the first time. This year I had a much heavier bike and no hydration pack, but I had gears! Real MTB gears, light wheels, fast tires…mix that with the good pedaling platform that a Specialized Epic is and I was passing groups of people that last year were passing me. This is a good plan.
The rain was beginning to fall and up ahead, the summit was draped in clouds. All I could hope for was a clearing or something less than full on rain. I had dressed a bit conservatively and did not have any real rain gear. Monsoons would end this day for me. I was wearing some Specialized bib shorts with knee warmers, a base tank, a race s/s jersey from Endura with a wind proof front, and arm warmers with a Buff head wrap. Wool socks and a extra set of warmer gloves and a windbreaker was all I had to upgrade to if the weather came in. Up we went into the mist.
I barely stopped at the SAG stop at the summit and pressed on with the goal of not missing the cut off. This year would see record setting course times as the dirt was packed down and there was little washboard. The weather had opened up so it looked like it would not rain anytime soon. I flew on the Epic and ran right by the second SAG. Hitting SAG 3, I was almost an hour up on last year's time and I felt pretty darn good too. The head cold was not affecting me and my legs were still moving well. I was going to make it.
I took my time at SAG 3, fueled up and headed out into Copper Basin, the best part of the ride. I was doing the mental calculations on a finishing time. I had set out to do 8 hrs start to finish. Navy Mike had set a 6.5 hour goal. I was thinking I might be under 7 hours myself. Wow. I pedaled with renewed focus and the miles and hours clicked by. Back at SAG 3 and 4, I stocked up on food and water and hit the fast return to Trail Creek road. I was thinking I would be close to 6.5 hours! But I knew that last year, as soon as I turned onto Trail Creek Rd, the headwinds hit me full on. That could be a kill joy for a record time.
Meanwhile, cranks were turned and gravel sped by under my tires.
Room to spread out.
Sure enough, as soon as I swung left onto Trail Creek Rd, I not only started a slight uphill grade, it was into a constant wind. Later on, Navy Mike would call this section out as "riding in a very dark place". I watched my speed drop from 20+ to 15 to 10 to 8 mph. Meanwhile I was conserving some legs as I knew in about 10 miles that the grade would increase for a good mile or two. The math was not working in my favor and 6.5 hours would be impossible. Maybe 7 though, so I kept at it, stopping to stretch a bit and pee, but mostly making circles with my pedals over and over. As I neared the summit, the wind abated and I knew that at 80 miles I had it made because then it was 12 miles or so downhill into town. 7 hrs had slipped away from my grasp in that purgatory of windy road, but not to be daunted, I set 7.5 hours as the new goal. Down I flew on a section that just drops and drops and drops on a washboard dirt road with no guardrail. Last year, on the Crux cross bike, I had to manage my speed and nearly ran out of hand strength to hang on, brake, and steer. It was not that much fun. This year, with 2.1 tires and 100mms of travel…shoot…it was a brake free 25mph plunge feeling totally relaxed. But that darn wind. I was still having to pedal hard to keep my speed up and that was going to make 7.5 hours very close.
The organizers had wisely set the timing line just outside of town so no one would be racing in urban traffic areas. But it still meant that I had a few miles of paved road rollers to make the finish and I just pinned it, watching my Garmin click off the elapsed time. I could see the finish line but it was going to be very close.
Over the line at 7 hrs and 32 minutes. Close enough.
I sat up, breathed a deep, deep breath of satisfaction and put it in cruise mode. Done and done.
Back in town the party was in full force. I did not realize how spent I was till I got off the bike and walked around. I think the cold had caught up to me and it took a Coke and a hand made pizza to get me right. Navy Mike had finished in 6 and 20, so he was under his goal as well. I was actually very happy to be only an hour and change off his pace over 90 miles as he is a strong rider. The Scott Spark that he rode was very similar in set-up to my Epic and he had 'roadie' types drafting him over the rougher sections of the course where he could stay seated and pedal hard. For shame…wheel suckers. :)
That night was a well deserved bacon burger back at The Powerhouse and then the long drive home the next day. It was a good trip back to Idaho. Next year? We shall see.