As the days get shorter and the mornings colder, we reach for our kneewarmers and reflect on all the adventures we enjoyed on our bikes this summer. From Kansas to Colorado Sage’s sponsored riders have been at the pointy end of some of the most famous, and arduous, gravel races in the world. As we transition into cyclocross season, we caught up with our sponsored pros to get their advice on how to prepare for next year’s goals. Even if you’re not quite up to speed with our pros there is a lot you can learn from their equipment and training advice.
DK is the Grand-Daddy of gravel. It’s longer, hotter, and more gruelling than anything else on the calendar. This year’s new course saw riders take on different roads and new challenges as the mercury pushed above 90 degrees on race day in Emporia.
We asked Jacob Rathe, who unfortunately crashed out of this year’s edition, how he spec’d out his Sage Barlow for DK.
For tires, Jacob suggests the IRC Boken Plus in 40mm. “fast rolling and good volume is normally the answer, unless it’s muddy! Check the weather and make sure you have options”
As for gearing Rathe elected to use a double with a 50-tooth outer ring. “That biggest gear depends on if you are racing or not. If you need to pedal down hills, and maybe sprint at the finish, a double ring setup with a 50+ tooth chainring is needed”. For just getting around, a single ring is probably fine and slightly less likely to sustain damage if it rains.
Leadville is, in many ways, the first gravel grinder. The race isn’t hugely technical, but the steep climbs at high altitude make it incredibly physically demanding. When you’re at 12,000 feet you will be putting out significantly less power, and that means that bike weight really comes into play. But high-speed descents mean that there’s no room for flimsy componentry. We asked Jacob how he set up his bike for the race across the sky.
For food and drink above the treeline, Rathe said variety was key. “Carry enough so you aren’t completely dependent on feed stations and bring something special for hour 6,7,8,9 or 10. Go beyond energy bars as well and think about what you crave when you’re bonking. Hydration is also very important as you need to dial in your mix for different conditions beforehand because nothing derails your ride faster than a bad hydration plan”.
As far as bike setup goes, Rathe advised that you “gear for the steepest climb, and then go easier.” The altitude at Leadville is like no other race you’ve done and walking on Colombine sucks. So, bring the easiest gear you can lay your hands on.
Bike weight and efficiency matters at Leadville as well. Put simply you are not going to be putting out many watts that high up, so you have to minimize the things that slow you down. An efficient hardtail with a short travel fork is fine (I used a 100mm fork and had it locked out for 90 percent of the event). Indeed big enough tyres on a gravel bike would be ok on much of the course however passing other riders often forces you off the best lines and this would be a bit more burdensome on a drop bar bike, even with 700×50 tires, however if you can get a good start placing, the gearing on a drop bar bike should let you stay up front and avoid too much traffic, so give it a try.
A good compromise if you’re worried about descents is to use a hardtail with slightly wider tires, my personal preference is a Maxxis Rekon /Ikon combo in 29 x 2.35” and 2.4” respectively. Lighter wheels and a lighter frame with a wider tire generally work out lighter than a full suspension bike and gives you a lot of contact for the fast dirt road descents. Dual suspension bikes are great for rocks and roots, but Leadville has none of those.
Just a week after Leadville, SBTGRVL is a much younger race. This year was the inaugural edition of the Colorado race that features 140 miles of well-groomed gravel roads. With higher speeds and less chunky rock than either DK or Leadville, racers tend to opt for a more roadgoing spec. There is always a balance to be struck between having the gears to go fast and having the gears to go uphill. Likewise, there’s a trade-off between traction and rolling resistance which racers will ponder as they select their tires for an event like this.
For a course like this, you will want a double chainring to keep up on the faster road-like sections and can get away with a smaller, lighter, and faster tire. Something like a 700×35 is likely ample.
Even when you are not running a smaller tire, Rathe advises taking enough equipment to fix any issues you might have “as for a tool kit, bring it all! The idea that ‘you’ll be screwed anyway if you get a second flat’ isn’t quite true – 1. These races are very rural and it’s not great sitting on the road or waiting for someone to help you. 2. You still can have a good result – time gaps are often well beyond the typical mechanical stop.” This means two tubes, a patch kit, a pump, a CO2, and a multi tool with a chain splitter as well as a quicklink to fix any chain issues or set your bike up singlespeed. I set a fellow rider’s bike up as a singlespeed at Rebecca’s Private Idaho this year when it became clear he didn’t know how to, so if this isn’t something you’ve learned it is worth asking your local shop mechanic.
The great thing about a custom bike is that you pick the spec. We’ve raced almost every gravel and mountain bike event in the world between us, so if you have a goal in mind when building your Sage be sure to let us know and we can help you make your bike perfect for your goal event.