Gearing Up/Down for Vermont Overland

“Saturday: Vermont Overland prep ride. 07:30, the Gate, El Camino route. We will hurt ourselves on the climbs, recover.”

Such was the plan.

When you’re getting ready for a race as badass as Vermont Overland, you better work. Sure, intervals are effective and all that, but riding hard with your buddies is way more fun. And that’s why we ride, right? Cause it’s fun.

Vermont Overland is on Sunday, from Suicide Six ski resort just outside Woodstock. This will be the third edition of what is fast becoming a cult classic in New England for a broad range or riders, from adventurers to pro cyclocross, mountain bike, and road racers. Why? Because it’s a route-based event backed up by more-than-solid organization, support, and after-party. By ‘route-based,’ I mean the event stems from Peter Vollers’ deep familiarity of and passion for the Class 4 ‘roads’ around Woodstock. Class 4 roads are unmaintained, and resemble trails more than roads most of us are familiar with. By piecing together segments of these ‘roads’ with dirt and paved ones, Vollers creates exciting, dynamic adventure rides that inspired the first Overland race. The terrain is awesome. There’s a whole lot of climbing, much of it on the Class 4 sectors, much of it steep. Low gears and high volume tires are a must.

Road riding and racing is great for fitness and all, but not the best way to prepare for off-road racing. Like in cyclocross, one has to be able to deliver power across a broad range of cadences and use a fair bit of core strength to muscle up climbs. Overland is a nice segue into cyclocross season, because it motivates fitting in some tough off-road riding around home.

The Ottawa-Gatineau region has just what we need to prepare for Overland, but one has to know where to go. Gatineau Park is the obvious place to start, but there’s some nuance involved in choosing a route that allows for enough consistent pedaling to get the hard work in required. Our El Camino route has been massaged to ride just this way: consistent pedaling, minimal wheel-damaging rock sections.

On Saturday we launched from the Gate (Gamelin and Gatineau Parkway) early in the morning. Six dudes, six ‘gravel’ bikes. 5/6 would race Overland, 4/6 had ‘proper’ gearing on their bikes. A few different tire set-ups, everyone in shakedown mode. Here’s what we’re riding, and why.


Richard Grieve is on Woven’s 55mm carbon clinchers with Schwalbe G-One 38mm tires, tubeless. These tires have a small dot-shaped tread. They are not particularly supple, but are designed to take abusive riding. Rich is on a 36/36 low gear and TRP’s linear-pull / V-brakes. Dave is on a disc Ridley cx bike with Compass Bon Jon tires, 35mm, tubeless. He’s on a 36/36 low gear as well.


My bike was in mullet mode on Saturday. I’ve just built a new Woven 45mm-deep carbon front wheel, which is my top choice for a hilly route like Overland. We’re waiting for more rims to arrive for rear wheels, so I might have to use my 55mm wheel for the race. I’ve got a Bontrager CX-0 mounted, which I used last year with tubes, thanks to Mike Lowe, who was kind enough to loan me the pair. I found their minimal tread a bit better than my 38mm Compass Barlow Passes for the course, and was happy to easily mount them tubeless to my wheel earlier in the week. Their tread helps on the climbs if there’s moisture, and on the descents when things get a bit wold.

What helped a lot with the mounting was the Woven rim’s tubeless bead shelf, which has a lip along the channel the tire bead has to climb over. Once over, it’s locked into place. When mounting, I was able to mount one of the beads into the bed by hand, which made airing up with my compressor really easy. The tire sealed up with one scoop of Stan’s, and was good to go. On the 19mm internal-width rim, the tire measures a bit over 39mm wide.

I use TRP’s V-brakes, which are as good as rim brakes get, ATMO. I’d much prefer disc brakes, but that’ll require a new bike and a bunch of wheels for cyclocross.


Mountain bikes are great for the trails, but hard to ride in an aerodynamic position on the fast roads. Our drop bar bikes let us get a lot lower, comfortably. It’s super fun team time-trialing as we transition from the climb on Trail #1 from Penguin Picnic Area to Champlain Lookout, down the Gatineau Parkway and up Highway 105 toward Pine Road, where we’ll pick up the trail to Lac Phillipe.


Trail #50 from Pine Road to Lac Phillipe is perfect for 35 – 50mm tires. Marc Hunt’s Prologue CX bike has 35mm Compass Bon Jons mounted (left), while Iain Radford has Compass’s 650b x 42mm extralight Babyshoe Passes mounted. Even though his tires have no tread, Iain was able to use the extra volume of his tires to climb and descent everything as fast as anyone else. The weakness of the ‘slick’ tire is, of course, anything slick that a knobbed tire might penetrate through, gripping substrate below.


Rough paved surfaces like this are much faster on high volume tires at low pressures than small tires at high pressures. There’s so much less vibration for the body to deal with; comfort and speed are closely related.


I’m running Absolute Black’s oval small ring for climbing, a 34 tooth ring. The oval shape allows for smoother power transmission, which helps maintain traction on tough climbs. In the back I’ve got a tweaked 12-36 Shimano XT cassette, on which I swapped the 11t for a 12. I wasn’t big on the gap from the 11 to 13t cogs. My SRAM X0 clutch rear derailleur has been upgraded with Kogel’s 12-tooth narrow-wide aluminum pulleys with ceramic bearings. I find these smooth out the chain’s passage over the pulleys, because they are larger than the stock ones. Their narrow-wide profile improves shifting precision a bit, and their ceramic bearings are supposed to roll with less drag than steel, though nobody could perceive that.

On the back I’ve got a tubeless 35mm Compass Bon Jon, which I’d punctured 10 minutes before this photo was taken. A wood screw penetrated fully on the road, but my sealant completely closed the hole, and I only had to add back the lost air with my Silca Impero frame-pump, which makes for light work. This was my first puncture all season on the Bon Jons, and I was stoked that it repaired perfectly!


Lost in translation.


Iain used road shoes in the first Overland. That was dumb. Mountain bike shoes FTW. I’m loving Giro’s Empire VR 90s. It’ll be time to install their toe studs soon; #crossiscoming !


Disc brakes are definitely the way to go for terrain and events like Overland. We don’t need to brake a lot in our region, but down there you sure do!


On loose gravel atop packed dirt, there’s such a thing as too much tire volume. Instead of cutting into the firm surface, a tire that’s too big will float across the top of the gravel, sliding. In a straight line a high volume tire can be great on loose stuff, but it’s important to compensate for the lack of tracking in turns.

Just under 6 hours in the saddle and 160kms, what a fantastic ride! So much variety along the route, so much flow. We couldn’t have chosen a better way to prepare for Sunday’s adventure! Hope to see many of you there!

Related Posts:

How to Choose a Gravel Bike: Part 1 – Key Questions and Materials 

How to choose a Gravel Bike: Part 2 – Geometry

Talking Gravel with Velo de Route

MATTER: Stafast Suspension Stem

Talking about pressure: getting the most out of your bike’s tires

Less is More: The El Camino Team Time Trial is Born

How to clean your bike in ten easy steps

Archive: Vermont Overland Grand Prix: Crush and/or be Crushed