Grinduro: I came for the ride and stayed for the hike

The greatest of all bicycle debates rages on in the Gold Country of California.

If you love an endless back-and-forth over tire size, gear ratios or everything tire-pressure, then next year you have to make the pilgrimage to the western edge of the Sierra Nevada mountain range, and to the event known as Grinduro.

For it’s there where the most faithful followers of all things gravel, mountain, adventure, and dirt come to debate the pros and cons of everything from tubeless tires to shaved legs and beard care products. This is deep in the weeds nerdiness. Peak bike-geek. And I love it, for these are my people.

Perhaps part of the reason that everyone here is so enthusiastic is because this is not an easy event to get to. First of all, there’s the fact that it sells out quicker than local legend Carl Decker descends single-track (and that is truly fast). Secondly, you have to make the trek to Plumas County to the town of Quincy, which is at least five hours from everywhere. And finally, you have to come prepared to be prepared. There are some facilities – a few food trucks and some delicious Verve Coffee, but all things bicycle, sleep and living comforts are pretty much left up to you.

So it was with much glee, and a tiny bit of apprehension, that we loaded every piece of camping gear, bike stuff and personal hygiene paraphernalia into the team car and headed north-ish/east-ish into the Sierra Nevadas, on a steep learning curve towards an unforgettable experience.

We played it pretty mellow Friday night, rolling into town, unpacking the sled, swapping out some pedals, airing up some tires and setting up our abodes for the weekend ahead.

For my own comfort, I’d gotten hold of a Mountain Hardwear Shifter 4 tent. And, like a true outdoorsman, I declined to read the instructions or erect it during daylight hours. With the darkness fast approaching, I grew a little concerned … until I realise that the Shifter 4 only uses two poles and clips, practically building itself. Yet again, I was saved from my own stupidity by someone else’s hard work and ingenuity, and my buddy didn’t have to freeze to death on account of me. Although it might have been better to have four in the tent for the crisp nights ahead, we found the tent to be smartly designed and the vestibule to be plenty vast for what one could only call over-packed packing.

On that point, I have to give a big, warm round of applause to the Osprey Transporter. This thing is amazing, part duffel bag, part backpack, it’s designed so well that it kept me at least partially organized throughout the whole affair.

Chilly doesn’t really begin to describe how cold it was the two nights we spent sleeping in our frost-covered tent. And to make it worse, I unselfishly loaned my North Face Blue Kazoo sleeping bag to my tent-mate – having thought that it was so lovely during the day it was going to be a balmy fall evening. So giving the extra long bag to my tall, fast friend seemed like a no brainer. If only his effusive thanks for getting him toasty were enough to warm my bitterly cold toes.

After the first questionable night’s sleep, we rose at the ass-crack of dawn to join almost 900 other riders at the start line. Staring down the barrel of a course covering a little under 8000 feet of vertical in just over 60 miles, this is the point that normally leaves me like a nervous wreck, the jockeying-for-position and the testosterone-fueled, sick-to-your-stomach electricity.

But as the countdown began, it was obvious that Grinduro is a little different. What would normally be a living hell for me was actually a surprisingly relaxed and enjoyable moment. This is because the format is completely different from any other bicycle event on the planet. Instead of timing you from the gun, the Grinduro geniuses have set up four timed sections, leaving the rest of the course to be ridden at whatever pace you desire. They claim this stops the event from being a sufferfest, but I can attest for just about everyone on the course, suffering ensues even if you are not interested in “winning.”

The first timed section is an uphill dirt climb, followed by a downhill fire-road ripper, a paved time trial and finally a glorious stretch of ripping fast single track. And that’s where all the discussion, debate and nail biting about bicycle selection, tire pressure and gear inches come into play.

The perfect bike for this event is what, exactly? A road bike would have come in handy for the pavement. I could only dream how fun the single track section would have been on a dialed, big hit dual suspension mountain bike. And with all the dirt climbing in-between, you realize pretty quickly how horrible both of these ideas are for a day in the woods.

So what bike did the Grinduro masses choose for this adventure? They apparently didn’t call each other, because I don’t believe I saw two bikes with the exact same setup. There were cyclocross bikes and single speeds and hardtail mountain bikes and all manner of custom made goodness. I spotted Rock Lobsters and Sycips and Breadwinners and Calfees and a VYNL. Tire choice was almost as varied as the whip selection, with gum walls and fatties and slicks and semi-slicks were spread out across the mountain.

Which brings us to our next lesson. Never, and I repeat never, borrow a bicycle from a “friend” the night before attempting to “ride” an event like Grinduro. Or any event for that matter. As it turns out, that said friend is both fitter and less mechanically inclined than I (which is astonishing, btw).

I realized about 10 minutes into the first climb I was geared for a ride across Kansas and not the hills of California. As if this were not enough, I came to learn part way up the (epic) second climb of the day not only was my front disc rubbing like a teenage boy at the Homecoming Dance, but my drive-side crank arm was trying to exit stage right.

The thing is, if I ever do the Grinder again, I would be happy to do it on the exact same bike. The Cannondale Slate is part road bike, part hardtail mountain bike and part gravel gobbler. Only next time I would probably make sure it is looked over by a “proper” mechanic before throwing a leg over it myself.

The only thing which kept me moving forward was the realization everyone else was suffering on the hike, yes hike, up the second climb and no one, and I mean no one was complaining. As a matter of fact everyone I met was shockingly pleasant. Even on the timed sections everyone was cordial, communicative and encouraging. As it was pointed out to me by one of my riding companions, this is what it was like in the early days of mountain biking. Everyone enjoying themselves, encouraging those around them and generally making a grueling experience as pleasant as possible. It turns out racing bicycles is fun.

After rolling back into town we showered, drank Untapped maple cocktails, ate tri-tip chili, watched the awards ceremony, hung out with some locals looking for free booze and crashed hard in our tent where we still froze, but cared a little less. In the morning, we crammed all our crap into the back of the car and bolted for home, in the hopes we would soon forget the pain in our knees, backs and quads and remember, with fondness, our time grinding out the duro.

Only time will tell.

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Cross over to the SuperX

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Photo: Stephen Lam/ element.ly

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More of that slick finish on the all-carbon disc fork. Photo: Stephen Lam/ element.ly

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Toptube logo. Photo: Stephen Lam/ element.ly

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The SuperX utilizes Shimano's flatmount for both front and rear disc brakes. Photo: Stephen Lam/ element.ly

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Schwalbe's excellent X-One knobbies were fast and predictable. I just wish they were tubeless ready. Photo: Stephen Lam/ element.ly

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The Shimano 105/RS505 levers worked brilliantly but the slight bulge inside the hood was a bit awkward. Photo: Stephen Lam/ element.ly

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Grippy Cannondale gel bar tape. Photo: Stephen Lam/ element.ly

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Fabric's excellent Scoop Shallow Elite was comfortable and easy to clean. Photo: Stephen Lam/ element.ly

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Just can't get enough of that paint job. Photo: Stephen Lam/ element.ly

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Instead of the heavy stock wheels, we spent half of our test period using a pair Stan's ZTR Avion Team and the difference was night and day. Photo: Stephen Lam/ element.ly

You’re probably asking why I’m reviewing a ‘cross bike now that cross season is all but over.

But hear me out for a few minutes here.

After InterBike (I know, so long ago), I was told that a SuperX was on its way directly from the show floor and I was stoked! I’ve been hearing a lot of great positive things about the SuperX and simply couldn’t wait to give it a run. But before I got the package, I got called out to cover the Loma Fire in the Santa Cruz Mountains. So the wife had fun lugging the giant box into the garage. Thank goodness the bike was light.

When I got back from the fire, the box was sitting there taking up all the space in the garage, but wait, there’s a crack in the box. Let’s see which SuperX we have here:

It was the SuperX 105 with arguably the best paint job in the entire line up. I mean, just look at the fork.

But I am not here to review paint jobs and how much it weighs. I want to ride it and maybe abuse it a little to see how much it can or can’t do.

Fast forward to February 2017, the bike is now on its way back to Cannondale and I am sad to say that I am smitten with the SuperX.

Compared to a lot of cross offerings on the market, the SuperX has a rather different geometry than most in such that the headtube notably has more slack (71 degrees) with the fork using a bit more offset. This results in the bike handling nicely on low speed technical stuff yet staying rock steady as speeds head north. I took the SuperX to the Super Moon ride (in the dark) and the more time I spent riding it, the more I realized how much confidence-inspiring the SuperX is even when I was essentially riding blindly with merely the moonlight. Its carbon fiber frame will take all your lines and soak up all your mistakes comfortably.

On the race course, the SuperX takes loose off-camber turns like a champ and the 42.2 cm short chain stay feels agile with plenty of traction at the wheel. The thru-axles (10×100 front, 12×142 rear) also make a difference on long twisty descents when I use it as a gravel bike. Speaking of riding gravel, while the SuperX is a pure-breed cyclocross race bike at heart, it will do gravel very nicely.

Now, I know Cannondale offers a bona fide gravel bike, the Slate, but I don’t care. The SuperX is arguably lighter (our test bike was weighed at a respectable 19.5lbs) and better as a gravel bike than using the Slate as a cross bike, plus I can still use my old wheels as long as 1: they’re disc and thru-axle compatible, and 2: able to re-dish the rear wheel 6mm toward the non-drive side to play nicely with the SuperX’s asymmetrical chain stay (they call it Asymmetric Integration (Ai)).

The stock Maddux 2.0 wheels, though, were a bit of a disappointment. They are tubeless ready alright, but they felt sluggish as if the bike got bogged down by a pair of boat anchors. For comparison sake, I swapped the stock hoops with a pair of Stans’ ZTR Avion Pro (of course I re-dished the rear), a $2,300 upgrade that costs as much as the SuperX 105 itself but the difference was night and day as if the red bull got its wings.

So my suspicion was confirmed: With a good set of race wheels, the SuperX will fly.

And Cannondale, the Schwalbe X-One tires had just about everything I had hoped for in an all-around cross rubber: Plenty of traction and rolls fast, but why not throw in the tubeless version instead? And while I am going to nitpick here, I am just going to say that I am not a fan of the shape of the 105/RS505 hydraulic STI shift brake lever. Functionally, it worked beautifully but the bulbous bulge located inside the lever just never felt right.

So if you’re still wondering why I am writing about a cross bike in February, it’s because…

She stole my heart and I’m ready for cross season to be all season long.


Relive InterBike

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Welcome to InterBike 2016! Photo: Stephen Lam/element.ly

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PURPLE PURPLE MORE PURPLE PLEASE Photo: Stephen Lam/element.ly

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Everyone seems to be making their own cycling computers these days but one thing that caught my attention about this Stages Dash computer is its claim of 30-hour battery life. Hey, you can now record your entire 24 hr bike race in one charge! Photo: Stephen Lam/element.ly

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Shouldn't this fall under the e-motorcycle category? Photo: Stephen Lam/element.ly

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Otso Voytek got a good buzz throughout the show. Carbon frame that can take 27.5+ or 29+ AND up to 26 x 4.6” tires on 70 mm rims? Sign me up. Photo: Stephen Lam/element.ly

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Lightweight's amazingly light Meilenstein has finally gone disc. The Meilenstein C Disc is a thing of beauty but was a bit disappointed to find out the rim width is still 20mm external and 17.8mm internal. photo: Stephen Lam/ element.ly

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Giro's Factor Techlace sure looked different but it made a lot of sense after checking it out at the booth. Photo: Stephen Lam/element.ly

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I have to admit I was drawn to the Orbea booth by the dazzle paint job on this prototype Terra gravel bike. Looks even better in person. photo: Stephen Lam/ element.ly

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A 3D-printed Syntace FlatForce stem and a real Syntace FlatForce stem photo: Stephen Lam/ element.ly

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Let's admit it, skinsuit is a pain to put on. But Giordana might have an answer with their Quick On zippered suit system. More aero than a bib/jersey combo but easier and more versatile than a traditional skinsuit. photo: Stephen Lam/ element.ly

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Dario Pergoretti's paint work never ceases to impress and this Responsorium in Ravenna finish is just so fresh. photo: Stephen Lam/ element.ly

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Just can't get enough of this 3T Exploro. photo: Stephen Lam/ element.ly

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Slovenia-based Unior tools might not be a household brand here in the States, but they've been around since 1919 and chances are you will see the tools a lot more in the States this coming year. photo: Stephen Lam/element.ly

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Australia-based Knog brought their newest Oi bell to Interbike. It's dramatically different than one's image of a bell, but it's an interesting take just like their line of LED blinker lights. photo: Stephen Lam/ element.ly

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Old-school-esque e-bike, anyone? photo: Stephen Lam/ element.ly

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Poor tire, its one and only job is just to be poked. Photo: Stephen Lam/element.ly

We had a glitch on the site in the days after InterBike, so this post is way past due but the unplanned slow down also meant more time to relive this year’s InterBike

While the gallery above is going to highlight all the fun stuff… Below are the observations from the show floor.

– First, the appointments. I got smart this year and did a bunch of appointments in advance to check out offerings from various brands. So my InterBike was more structured, with shots of adrenaline from random drive-bys to booths I didn’t know much about.

– The buzz I kept hearing was “it’s pretty quiet this year.” Well, that was true. The show was smaller than last year’s. I honestly could have just spent a day there. One industry veteran commented on how he/she was checking out people’s badges and noticed there weren’t as many buyers at the show as there used to be, and he/she would be pretty pissed if they got a booth… All about the ROI, guys.

– On the outskirts of the show floor was arguably where the fun was… I got a pitch about a solar USB charger stating “looks like you can use one of those” during day one. At the other end of the hall was also a booth that sells handheld electric massage devices. The massage device booth definitely saw an uptake in traffic on Thursday, possibly due to the walking from day one on the floor + CrossVegas hangover collab.

It's true. Someone tried to sell me this solar usb charger during the show. Photo:Stephen Lam/ element.ly

Really thought the days of scantily-clad booth women were a thing of past. But I was wrong. I mean, okay, sex (allegedly) sells. But wouldn’t money be better spent on making a better product instead of having models promoting shitty products (and offending the female attendees while at it)?

Amount of broken arms/legs: It dawned on me during day two that there were quite a few people in slings/braces. Guess adventure shows must have a few of those around. As one rep put it “they’re getting after it”.

Reception of e-Bike: Last year was all about e-bike bashing and all of a sudden e-bikes are the future this year.

Photo: Stephen Lam/element.ly

The international aisle. Probably the quieter, less buzz sections but everyone there was pretty cool to talk to (knowing Mandarin and Cantonese definitely helped) and they really deserve more recognition for their efforts of travelling across the globe to Las Vegas to showcase their products, whether it’s the gazillion lights, matte carbon fiber parts, or aluminum parts in all the imaginable anodized colors one can possibly dream of.

Three spokes, five spokes, no spoke, the international isle have got you covered. photo: Stephen Lam/ element.ly

Best snack from the show: Vanilla Ice Cream at the Skratch booth made with their new recovery drink mix. Not only was the line 4,000 times shorter than the Starbucks line outside but it was also freaking delicious. Way different than the typical “come by our booth for free booze” hook too.

Last thing I did at the show: tried an e-bike at the rep’s prudent suggestion, only to make it 30 plus feet before a security guard rolled up and warned “no biking on the show floor”. Returned the bike to the booth, walked down the aisle, and was greeted by two bros zipping past on motorized scooters.