There I was alone in what was a 110 mile gravel race, but for me it was now a 119 mile gravel race. I was lost and alone in the middle of Kansas on gravel roads and I had not seen a car or a rider in over 2 hours, only rarely seeing a farm house in the distance. It was just me and my Cannondale SuperX, grinding through the gravel wondering if I would ever get back on the race course. I couldn’t help but think “how did I get here”.
|Kansas Gravel - Photo Credit Chuck Vohsen|
For almost a year I had been coveting my teammate, Chuck’s, adventure/gravel bike. He had scoured the earth and found all the perfect parts and built a Salsa Vaya, he even blogged the whole build process. As he built his bike, he kept telling me what a great time he was going to have competing in all upcoming gravel races. I was not convinced that gravel racing could ever be fun. I had done plenty of adventure races on a mountain bike riding gravel roads and it was never what I would call fun. I said “I will never gravel race, EVER, I don’t care how many times you tell me it’s fun”.
So the more Chuck rode and the more stories he told me, the more I thought, maybe I want to try this, but I did not want to waste a bunch of money on a gravel bike and find out that I hated gravel racing. Oh, but then the light bulb in my brain went on. I had been wanting to start riding a few cyclocross races and I realized that a gravel bike is really just a cyclocross bike with bigger tires. In my mind I could justify maybe making a purchase of a cyclocross bike and using it as a gravel bike also.
Now this meant that I would have to start researching bikes, because I’m not mechanically inclined like Chuck, so much so, that the bike shop guys tell me to never ever do my own maintenance. I hate to admit it, but every time I have tried to do my own maintenance, it has turned into a disaster and I end up running into the bike shop yelling “code blue” because it always happens the day I’m leaving town for a race.
So after looking at Trek, Felt, Giant and Cannondale, I had narrowed the search to two CX bikes that I could afford. My number one choice was the Trek Cronus Pro and the Cannondale SuperX was my second choice. Since I race for the Cyclery which is sponsored by Trek, I was pretty sure I would go with the Trek. Plus the Trek had tubeless ready wheels, which I thought I would really need, but it had Shimano 105 components, and I really wanted the next step up to Ultegra. It also had the Bontrager Evoke saddle which I like and of course the frame was carbon and I wanted the lightest bike I could get.
I compared it to the Cannondale which was also carbon and it had the upgrade to the Ultegra components, it was not tubeless ready, which at the time was a strike in my mind, because I knew how hard gravel can be on tires and I was afraid of constant flats with tubed wheels. The saddle was a Fizik Tundra, which seemed to be a very expensive saddle, but I had never actually tried one before so I didn’t know if I would like it or not.
After all my research and thinking about it, and let me tell you, I thought about it for 6 months before I made the purchase, I made a trip to the Cyclery, where Andy, a master mechanic and coach, fitted me for both the Trek and the Cannondale. Andy was also a Trek Cronus lover, but in the end, he said fit is everything, and the smallest Cronus made was a 50 cm, which he couldn’t in good conscience tell me would fit. However Cannondale came in smaller sizes and I could get a 47 which is what I needed. The Cannondale was a bit out of my price range, but with some coordination between the Cyclery and Cannondale, I was able to get an affordable price.
|Robin's Cannondale SuperX|
I was still not a believer and was worried that I would get the bike and hate it, I had heard some bad stuff from fellow riders about Cannondales, and was worried that it may be true. I did have one friend who is a great road racer and all he rides is Cannondale, he told me I would love it and not to worry. I ordered the bike, while I was still recovering from tailbone and heart surgery, it came in just a week before I was going to be released to ride.
I started thinking about what kind of tires I needed for gravel racing, the bike came with Schwalbe Rapid Rob’s in a 35C size. Everyone told me that they would never hold up to the gravel. My adventure racing team, ROCK Racing, is sponsored by Schwalbe and I happen to really like their tires, so I wasn’t really worried, but the Rapid Rob is not considered a tough tire, so I ordered Schwalbe Marathons, the toughest tires they make. I had to stay with the 35c’s because the next size up in the Marathons was a 40c and I thought it would be too big for the bike. Unfortunately, the tires would not arrive in time for my first ride or my first race.
|Rapid Rob vs. Marathon|
After a week of looking at the bike, I rode it one time on some gravel roads in the Busch Wildlife area, in Missouri. It was only a 50 mile ride, but the bike felt pretty good, except for the saddle.
|Photo Credit - Dan Singer|
Then six days later I took the bike to Herman Missouri and competed in Tour of Herman Gravel Race. If you know anything about Herman Missouri, you know that it is crazy hilly.
|Hills of Herman - Photo Credit Dan Singer|
So I’m on a new bike, rolling down steep hills at 40 mph in deep river gravel. I was more than a little scared and I was riding a race tire, instead of a tough tire. Guess what! It was all good, not one flat tire, and I only fish tailed to the point of hysteria one time. After finishing 68 miles of tortuous hills and heavy gravel, I decided that I really liked my SuperX. The only thing I really hated about the entire bike was the saddle, it was not made for a butt the size of mine. I knew I would be swapping it out for one of my favorite saddles before my next ride.
|Saddle from Hell - Photo Credit Dan Singer|
I left Herman, still as out of shape as ever, but feeling good, I mean for the shape I was in, I should have been sore from being rattled to death over the gravel and hills, but I really felt good and I felt good the next two days too with no residual back aches. So the bike did a great job handling the some of the roughest roads in the Midwest.
Just a few weeks after the Tour of Herman, and not very many rides on my SuperX, I found myself in Kansas racing in the Dirty Kanza.
|The Epic Gravel Race|
As far as the course went, it was all hills, but not the steep grueling hills of Herman, mostly long climbs with one after the next and the gravel of course was much tougher than the Herman gravel. I had to constantly find a line left from previous riders to follow. Yes, I was scared a couple times, but I was able to keep both wheels on the road.
|Who said Kansas was flat|
Oh and I was riding the half pint race of 110 miles, but since I got lost once, I ended up riding 119 miles. Never once did I curse the bike, or feel like it was killing me on the rough roads. I had put on the Schwalbe Marathon tires and they were really working well. I never felt like crying or like I wasn’t going to make it, I never wanted to throw my bike in the gravel and walk away. I have to give credit to my SuperX, it was so comfortable, so light, and so freaking awesome, that I was even smiling when I crossed the finish line and I finished it faster than I had expected even with the extra nine miles.
|119 miles later|
Now if I were my teammate Chuck, I would have given you a more technical review of the bike, but Chuck thinks like a engineer and he is a guy, so all the mechanical stuff means something to him. For me though, the icing on the cake was finishing a Dirty Kanza and thinking, well I might just do this again. Well it actually took a couple days before I really thought that.
So next up, I will be putting the Schwalbe Rapid Robs back on and racing some cyclocross and I have no doubt that I will love the SuperX just as much, when I’m racing a cyclocross course.