Editor’s note: This story is a cross-post from our sister magazine, Dirt Rag. This weekend riders from across the country will converge on the Flint Hills of Kansas to tackle the Dirty Kanza 200, one of the premiere events in the burgeoning gravel racing scene.
By Mike Cushionbury
Gravel road racing is filled with innovations and inventions. Bikes range from road to cyclocross to full-on Frankenbikes cobbled together from a mix of road, cross, touring and mountain bike parts. As a mountain bike racer and first-time DK200 competitor I momentarily considered setting up my 29er cross-country race bike for the task late last year but further consideration led me towards my cyclocross bike—namely a 2013 Cannondale SuperX Disc—with the goal of keeping it as simple and familiar as possible.
I knew for sure a Frankenbike was not the answer. I didn’t want to gamble with a cumbersome bike I wasn’t used to. I also wanted something I could consistently train on, making sure my position was completely dialed. In February, after ‘cross season, I set up my SuperX with the exact same measurements as my road bike, a professionally fitted position I’ve had for as long as I can remember. My saddle height, reach and stem length are all exactly the same on both bikes.
I also chose the same model Fizik Areone saddle (that’s well broken in by now) and same crank arm lengths (being a mountain biker I use long-ish 175mm on the road for consistency.) Once everything was set I put road tires on and used this rig as my road bike, compiling as many miles as I could to make sure the bike and my position was deeply burned into my muscle memory and as comfortable as possible.
The SuperX’s carbon frame is lighter than many road bike frames and with SAVE seat and chain stays it’s compliant and forgiving over rough terrain. It is truly an elite level ‘cross bike that performs like a refined road bike with snappy acceleration and geometry suited to longer road races opposed to crit-style racing—just the ticket for DK. Front and rear disc brakes insure precise stopping will never be an issue.
Nothing too radical for parts save for some drivetrain adjustments. I choose a short reach Ritchey WCS Curve carbon fiber handlebar and WCS 4-Axis stem for ultra lightweight and reliability. I also went with a bump absorbing Ritchey WCS Carbon Flexlogic Link seatpost. The post’s carbon layup provides a claimed 15-percent increase in vertical compliancy compared to standard posts without giving up any lateral or torsional stiffness. For a little extra comfort I double wrapped the top of the bars since this is where I will mostly be, not down in the drops.
Shifters and front derailleur are standard SRAM Force. For the road I used a Force rear derailleur, SRAM Red 11/26 cassette and Cannondale Si 53/39 crankset. Because 200 miles is, well, 200 miles, I wanted extra low gearing for the later hours of the race. I switched out the rear derailleur for a SRAM XX mountain unit and matched that to an XX 11/32 cassette. I also geared down the front with an FSA K-Force compact crank and 50/34-chainring combo.
This is a set-up I successfully used at last year’s Iron Cross race so I’m already comfortable with it. I’ll be using Shimano XTR Race pedals and mountain bike shoes because I believe top-level mountain bike shoes, though they do have very stiff carbon soles, vibrate less over such harsh roads. Super stiff road shoes could lead to early foot numbness and fatigue.
Wheels and tires
Wheel selection was simple; I’m using the same NoTubes Alpha 340 Team road wheelset I’ve been on all winter—simple, light and ultra reliable. Initially I was going to use a NoTubes ZTR Crest mountain bike wheelset to widen the tire’s contact patch but tire installation proved difficult due to the increased rim width (something I didn’t want to deal with in Kansas.)
My tire choice was simple as well: Challenge Almanzo’s. These super-durable, 360-gram, 700x30mm tires are specifically designed for gravel road racing. They roll very fast and utilize a special Puncture Protection System belt between the casing and belt—perfect for the spiky rocks on the roads around the Flint Hills.
Since I’m not much of a water pack wearer, I plan on going with two bottles on the bike and one in my pocket—three bottles per 50 miles to each checkpoint where I’ll have a drop bag loaded with supplies including real food like sardines, pepperoni sandwiches, black licorice and of course drink mix and bottles. If I stay on point of not using a water pack I’ll add a large seat bag with three tubes, a multi tool with a chain breaker, two quick links, a few links of chain, electrical tape and a tire boot. I also have a Lezyne mini-pump secured to the bike. As a precaution, I’ll have a full water pack in my drop bag at the midpoint checkpoint.
Veterans of the race may think I’m gambling by going minimalist but when I built up my bike for this mammoth event I went with what I know and am comfortable with. It’s a roll of the dice I’m willing to take.
Dirty Kanza is Saturday, June 1 in the Flint Hills region of east-central Kansas. Go to dirtykanza200.com for more info.