Talking Gravel with Velo de Route

In May, 2016, I had the pleasure of speaking with Nico Joly of Velo de Route about all things gravel. Nico is an avid alpine cyclist with a penchant for beautiful steel bikes, and an accomplished photographer. When I wrote out this interview I didn’t imagine him taking the time to translate it, but he did, and wonderfully well. If you’d like to read it in French, please click over to the original piece. Many thanks to Nico for sharing our passion for gravel with our brethren in France and Europe!

What do you ride? Matt Surch’s Gravel

Nicolas Joly – Originally published on Velo de Route, 05/05/2016

While French gravel might is still in an embryonic state, the scene is much more developed across the Atlantic, particularly in Canada. We speak with Matt Surch, a very active racer from Ottawa, who explains many of gravel’s elements to us, including the bike he created to win races, and the great spirit that surrounds the gravel scene…


VDR: Could you tell us about you: your cycling background, professional and family life?

Sure. I’m 37, born and raised in Ottawa, Canada. I grew up like many kids in this part of the country, obsessed with hockey. At 16 I made the difficult decision to quit hockey and focus on cycling. I was very much into mountain biking, and had done my first race at 14. I wanted to be a professional, but didn’t really know how to do that, aside from ride and race as hard as I could. Looking back, I could have really benefited from coaching. Times have really changed!
I race as an ‘Elite’ on the road and in cyclocross. I focus on spring classics in the spring, including gravel races, then shift to road and criterium racing for the summer and cyclocross in the fall. I like to mix in long dirt road rides and some mountain bike rides over the summer, and do a bit of fat biking in the winter, including the odd race.
My wife and I have been together since 1998, and we have two kids: our daughter is 11, our son 5. They are wonderful little humans. My wife has developed a passion for spending time outdoors adventuring with the kids, and has been blogging about ‘simplicity parenting‘ for a couple years. Their time spent meandering outside on weekends means they are not waiting at home for me to come back from rides and drive them places (we actually are car-free) or entertain them. I’m able to ride about 600-700 hours a year (not including my short daily commute), which is about 17-18,000 kms. I generally aim for 10 hours a week as an attainable target. I ride inside on the trainer a lot, and not just in the winter.
I work for the Canadian Coast Guard in a policy job that draws on some of my academic background in philosophy, environmental studies, and communication studies. The predictable office hours have been a big part of my being able to focus more on endurance riding and racing over the last 7-8 years, as working in bike shops before then made balancing riding and family really difficult.

VDR: How did you become passionate about gravel?

I think my passion for ‘gravel’ is an extension of what brought me to cycling in the first place: fun. I can still vividly remember my first trail ride at 12 years old with my friends. It was an adventure, it was exciting. The riding felt like something special compared to all the other sports I did. I loved doing skids, wheelies, jumps. I wasn’t great, but I loved it. I was very fortunate to have the Gatineau Park, a large conservation park with many trails, within riding distance from my house (about 20kms to trails from home), so I was able to do get up there on my own steam with my older brother or solo, and just explore and tear around. It was a different time, kids like us were not kept close to home. We were free to do whatever on our bikes.
I’m the kind of person who is pretty self-motivated and determined. I’m not super talented athletically, but when I love a sport, I LOVE it, and I want to do it as much as possible. Talent is nothing without that drive, and that drive is enough to do well. So from hockey (my first passion), I took a ‘work/play ethic’ of drilling skills over and over. I’d set goals like not stopping my shooting practice until I hit the cross-bar 5 times. I took that same drilling approach to mountain biking, and worked on skills over and over and over. I didn’t care about crashing. I learned a lot. So I compensated for less than amazing aerobic ability with pretty good skills as I got into racing, and that foundation of skills served me well as I raced cross-country until Senior Expert, then downhill through a couple seasons in Senior Elite. From there I dialed back racing and focused on skills-based riding: dirt jumping, ‘trail riding (like what ‘enduro’ is now), street, and skatepark as I got back to studying full-time.
The process of learning and improving skills has always been motivating, but I also struggled with the risks. I decided to stop downhill racing when I realized that I would have to risk serious injury or death in order to crack into a top-10 at a national-level race. I didn’t know how to get better without taking bigger chances. A pretty scary neck injury later while dirt jumping saw me ‘retire’ from that discipline, which was sad, as I really got a lot of enjoyment from it. I had to shift focus to lower amplitude, more technical riding, which is where street and skatepark riding came in. I could do that stuff and manage the risk. However, I wound up hurting my knee pretty bad, and that set up my transition back to endurance riding in general, and road in particular.
My first ‘road race’ was a local classic, the Almonte Paris-Roubaix, organized by the oldest bike club in North America, the Ottawa Bicycle Club. It’s been running for more than 25 years now, and the trophy is an actual cobblestone from Paris-Roubaix. I rode the race with my mtb gang on fixed gear bikes! It was awesome. The next year I ‘raced,’ poorly, and the following year actually spent time near the front. That was a turning point, as I finally could understand what was happening in the race. I was hooked. The route had awesome off-road sectors, which I was good at, and loved riding them fast. I’ve raced it every year since, and am proud to have won it twice now, this year and last, thanks to great teamwork. It’s still my favourite race course.
To bring this back to the question, the mix of skills required for gravel racing, along with the fitness is a big part of why I love it. It’s not nearly enough to be really fit. There is so much going on in a gravel race, those who have years of off-road experience can really tap into it to stay relaxed, choose good lines, and ride the hardest sections fast. My favourite courses have trail sectors with multiple lines. The hilliest, like the Vermont Overland, are hard for me, but I love the trails. Also, since I am a good descender, I can use the downhills strategically or to compensate for a lack of speed on climbs. In fact, a number of my team-mates share this ability, which we use to great effect in certain races. It’s nice to be able to ease up on a climb, knowing you can roll back to the group with zero extra energy! If only there were more races with flat finishes after descents!
Each race is different; sometimes the strategy is pretty simple, other times complex. Some days, racing with team-mates counts for a lot, other days there’s not much we can do to help each other. Most of the time being strong and skilled is enough to put you in a position to get a result, whereas in road racing the pack dynamics and tactics play a much greater role.
The other thing I love about gravel racing in eastern North America is the vibes. Most of the events have their communities behind them, and they put a lot of effort into the whole experience for the riders, from the ride to the after party. This is something you see with Gran Fondos, but at a larger scale, and not necessarily done well. Events like the Deerfield Dirt Road Randonnee have been doing this well for years. I think D2R2 actually set the bar in the East, in that they had such incredible food in their early years, both during and after the incredibly beautiful, hard, 185k ride, with 15,000ft climbing! When we started our event, the Ride of the Damned, which we call a ‘raudax‘ (randonnee + audax, a team randonnee format), we wanted to work toward doing food as well as D2R2. I think we’re there now with the event; I’m happy with the experience we create for our riders.



VDR: Your Steelwool cyclocross bike, the Truffle Pig, is a true beauty. What’s the story behind the bike?

I did some work with the guys behind the Steelwool brand in Ottawa when they had a small shop and were having frames produced in Taiwan. I was getting into road racing, lots of dirt road riding, and cyclocross, and they were designing bikes. After they took a framebuilders course in the US, they started making prototype frames. I co-designed my first custom bike – an all-road I named Secteur 18, after the Forest of Arenberg sector on the Paris-Roubaix route –  with them, modelled after my Specialized Roubaix, but with bigger tire clearance. The bike was built under contract by Sam Wittingham (Naked Bikes) in British Columbia.
That process informed the design of the Truffle Pig, their first cyclocross race frame, because I actually raced the S18 in cyclocross races for a while. I liked the angles and low bottom bracket, but of course, caliper brakes are not great for cyclocross.
True North Cycles built my first prototype, which I raced for a year. It had curved seat-stays, which worked really well, especially over lumpy frozen ground. We made a few small changes for the next year. I like ‘road geometry’ for my head and seat-tube angles, (73/73), and that’s what we settled on. Bottom bracket drop has been important to me for some time, and over the course of developing the 3 bikes I settled on 70mm drop for the TP. I’ve had my current frame for 2-3 years now, after crashing its predecessor into a stump and bending it. That’s the nice thing about steel; I rode it home!
I’ve ridden my Secteur 18 and Truffle Pig on an awful lot of dirt roads over the years, and I honestly believe 80mm bb drop is the best for descending. While my S18 doesn’t feel as good as the TP on the climbs, it’s the more stable descender. But my TP is still very, very good on the descents, so I have no qualms whatsoever about riding it at every opportunity. It’s in fact my favourite bike, because it always feels good.
Speaking of which, the frame is made from Columbus Spirit for Lugs, which is a very light tube-set. My other custom, the Sectuer 18, is made from thicker tubes, and I don’t love how it feels in comparison to the Truffle Pig. The TP is more flexible, and feels much more responsive under power. I climb well on the bike (in relative terms), and I feel the ‘planing’ I get out of it, the synching of my pedal rhythm and the frame’s seat-tube flex, works really well for me. I honestly don’t think I climb as well on my Cervelo S5, which is stiffer in this regard (though not the stiffest out there by far).

VDR: What about your components? Why did you choose them? I notice you mix Shimano, SRAM, and Campagnolo. 

I guess growing up a mountain biker and bodging bikes together means I don’t tend to care about having matching components on my bikes. I choose my components based on their ROI (return on investment), not branding. I am not fond of Shimano’s exposed guts in their shifters or their durability, and I also preferred the early SRAM hood shape over Shimano’s. Now I run SRAM shifters for all my drop-bar bikes, and I’ve been really happy with my ability to repair them when damaged, and their value. I go for Force, as I don’t see the value in Red, when I could spend that extra money on a weekend out of town with my family. I have not been impressed by SRAM front derailleurs early on, so I wound up with a mix of Campy and Shimano on my bikes. The TP has an old Campy on it from my Roubaix; it works, why change it? For cranks, I gave SRAM a try with their Force carbon crank, but after a pedal insert came loose, I confirmed I don’t care for carbon cranks. Shimano’s cranks are incredible works of engineering beauty, and I run a set of 7800s on my S18, a new Ultegra on my TP, and a 7900 on my Cervelo. I also use XT and XTR on my mountain bikes. I appreciate quality aluminum cranks. I also only run aluminum bars and stems. I use TRP v-brakes on the TP, which are superior to cantilevers, except when they get knocked and drag on the rim….
Going back to my mtb background, again, I think that experience was/is really influential for me when it comes to wheels and tires. I started building wheels at 17 years old while working my first bike shop job, so I took an interest in the tech and wheel dynamics early on. Because I was one of the people pushing the equipment harder than it was designed for, I quickly came to struggle with sourcing adequate rim widths and tire volumes. I mean, I used 2.3 tires on Mavic 217 rims, and rolled them all the time! It was terrible. Things improved slowly, but it always felt like the industry was behind the curve the riding was on. I flatted a lot, dented and killed rims a lot, basically just struggled with wheels for years being inadequate. Eventually, I, like many, sort of went overkill and used Michelin Comp 24 and Comp 16 downhill tires for all my DH and trail riding. They are really stiff and slow rolling, but durable and grippy. I experienced similar struggles with the early tubeless tires on the market….
Lots of years of trying to figure out what rim and tire combinations worked well for our terrain (lots of it is rocky) formed the basis of my perspective on tires and wheels today. Aerodynamics is of course the more recent variable that is top of mind pretty much all the time. I am a firm believer in optimizing aerodynamics, tire volume, and rolling resistance.
In recent years, after using Woven Precision Handbuilts tubulars for cyclocross, and loving them, I used them on the road during the summer. I didn’t like the tubular experience on the road, it wasn’t worth it. So I stopped pulling the CX tires off, and now only use the tubulars for CX (except when I have to use a spare wheel at a race! I won Almonte on a front tubular in April, 2016). For gravel, I have been on their clinchers for a couple years now, first their 45mm depth option, now the 55mm, and their 35mm from time to time. I have been most impressed by the rims’ durability; it’s sort of shocking. I’ve hit holes so hard on them, I am convinced I’d have flat-spotted my aluminum wheels. Not these. I even rode 3km of off-road this year on a front flat at the Paris-to-Ancaster spring classic race, and the rim was completely unmarred! I love the aerodynamic benefits, which I definitely feel and can see working for me. These days, I consider the 45mm rim a ‘normal’ option, and the 55mm is for the fast, rolling terrain. If I was doing a lot of long climbs and descents, I’d likely use their 35mm or 45mm wheels. I love working with Woven, as the two guys behind the brand are long-time friends, and they are all about quality. The wheels are all handbuilt carefully here in Ottawa, and they really pride themselves on their client service.

VDR: Tires are definitely a big subject! What would be your ideal quiver of tires be to cover all type of “gravel”?

For sure, tires are the other side of the equation, a big part, and I am an admitted tire nerd. Life is simply too short to ride bad tires! For gravel, I always try to use ‘slicks’ if I can. I’ve been using Compass tires and before them, Grand Bois tires, since my friend, Rodd Heino, introduced me to the Grand Bois tires way back around 2007. At the time, it was all about their 28mm and 30mm models, depending on what fit our bikes. We got the Steelwool guys to stock them at their shop, and after a few years, they started to catch on around here. Now they are pretty popular among discerning riders, and I am proud to represent Compass as a sponsored rider.
My favourite tire at the moment is the Compass Extralight Bon Jon Pass, which is their new 35mm tubeless ready tire. It’s essentially the tire I and many riders have been waiting for. Tubeless at this volume is great, as the tires are not hard to get on and off the rim, or put a tube into if needed. The compass extralight tires are incredible. I’m not saying that because I’m sponsored by them. I’m sponsored by them because I love the tires and I race well on them. The casings are very supple, and because the tires don’t use puncture protection belts, they roll very fast. I also find their compound rolls and grips very well. The Bon Jons mount to my carbon wheels, which have a tubeless bead, btw, pretty easily, and they seal up without a tonne of sealant. Their ride quality is fantastic, and I find they strike a great balance of volume and aerodynamics. It tends to help a lot of run a deep rim on wide tires like these. I also use their 26mm tire on my road race bike (at 80psi), their 32s on my Secteur 18 (at 60-65psi), and their 38s (at 50-55psi) for the roughest stuff I do in a given season. Those are pretty amazing for the roughest dirt roads and can do dry trails well too. But they really are best on wider rims like mine, which have a 25mm wide brake track. The aero hit with the 38s is noticeable, so I only race those if the terrain calls for it, which means only if there are descents with really big impacts. That’s how I choose my volume, based on the magnitude of the impacts I’ll take on the descents at full speed.
I prefer no tread whenever possible, because tread slows you down! For gravel and spring classics, I will only use a treaded (I mean, ‘knobs’) when I’ll have to climb a trail that’ll be slick, and/or there will be ruts or corning I will need to ride at full speed where shoulder knobs will help avoid crashing. This season I only used a treaded tire – the Clement LAS file tread – for two races, the Almonte Roubaix and Paris-to-Ancaster. That was because the Roubaix comes down to a final trail sector where I have to ride at about 95% intensity in order to try to get out first and solo to victory (I’m not a ‘sprinter’). So there is no real margin for error, and the tread is an insurance policy. Paris-to-Ancaster has lots of off-road sectors that need a little tread, and those are where I’d potentially get detached, not the road parts.

VDR: What will the next piece you’ll buy for this bike be?

Haha, this one isn’t very glamorous! It would have to be bar tape and a new saddle. I damaged my tape in a recent crash, and I bent my saddle when I almost ejected myself on a descent at the Rasputitsa Gravel Road race. It’s a Fizik Arione, which I love, but they don’t come cheap!
I’ve recently installed Kogel ceramic 12-tooth narrow-wide derailleur pulleys , for testing and review, which have been rather good. I use a clutch derailleur on the bike, mainly because I use an Absolute Black narrow-wide ring for cyclocross, and the tension on the chain with these derailleurs is pretty….extreme. This means there’s a lot of rolling resistance on the chain from the lower pulley, which has bothered me; it’s not efficient. The larger Kogel pulleys help quite a lot (there is not noticeable drag anymore), and they have also improved the precision of my shifting significantly. I am impressed, and I can’t see myself going back to normal pulleys.

VDR: Given your use, it seems weird you didn’t design this bike with disc brakes and/or a single ring. What’s the story there?

I’m happy with my set-up, though yes, I would like disc brakes if I could get the overall bike’s weight close to mine. That won’t be easy….. I considered it when this bike was built, but at the time it was not possible to get it light enough. I also considered the loss in frame compliance that might come with disc brakes, because the frame and fork would have to be somewhat reinforced.
For a dedicated gravel bike I can go disc more readily than a CX bike, because I only really need one set of wheels. For the Truffle Pig I need 4! I have three pairs of tubulars, and one pair of clinchers from Woven for the bike, and I could really use another pair of their clinchers during the spring, when I have to change tires every week. That’s a lot of wheels to change over to disc, and a lot of wheels sitting around afterwards. This is the bind a lot of riders are in right now. The merits of discs are certainly there for me for gravel, as the modulation is welcome for the crazy descents we ride in the US. Thankfully, the braking on my wheels is actually quite consistent, and my v-brakes are powerful. Also, now that I don’t dent rims anymore, I don’t need discs to deal with that! But being able to ride 650B wheels and 42 or 48mm tires on my gravel bike from time to time would be a nice option…. If I had money to throw around, I’d likely have a disc bike by now, but I am thankful that my bike is really effective as it is.
I use a 42t Absolute Black narrow-wide single ring with an 11-28 cassette for most CX racing, sometimes with an 11-32 cassette. I find this works perfectly for me, and I’ve yet to drop my chain in any race in a whole season. I don’t believe in the single ring format for gravel and all the riding I do from spring through summer. Using a widely spaced cassette for the sake of losing a chainring does not end up being a good deal, for me. Even with an 11-28 cassette I can get into situations where I am between cogs, and that is really hard on the mind when under pressure in a race. I also like to ride my CX bike on some of our local trails that are hard climbs. This is actually the best way to do hill work in our area. This definitely required a double, and a 34 or 36t cog, which is the sort of cassette I use for the races with lots of climbing. However, I see that a lot of riders are not racing on single ring bikes with wide cassettes, and it works fine for normal riding. But racing is all about minutia coming together in one performance, so I am pretty particular about these little details.

VDR: How could your next improve on this one?

I’m not really sure what it will be. I have a lot of ideas about what I’d like, and aerodynamics are central, because a lot of the gravel races are not all about climbing. At the moment, the OPEN U.P. is the most refined platform on the market for this sort of riding. It’s out of reach for me, being a very expensive frame-set, but it has shown designers how to accommodate big tires in both the 700c and 650B size in one frame without compromising geometry. I’m not really fixed on any one frame material, and I tend to think a gravel bike’s tubing – whatever it is – can afford to be a little thinner than a CX bike, because they are not crashed as often or as awkwardly as CX bikes. At the moment, I would say Rob English is the builder who best exemplifies a very holistic, pragmatic design and building approach. He knows how to make fast, light steel bikes. He is the constructeur of the 21st century, in my opinion; I am very inspired by his work.


VDR: Your gravel race calendar seems incredible and the genre appears to already be pretty mature. How long has gravel been raced in Canada?  

Our local Almonte Paris-Roubaix is the oldest continuously running race/event I know of, having been started by Ian Austen in 1999. Ian spent time racing and doing randonnees in Europe, and brought his passion for Paris-Roubaix with him when he moved to Ottawa. He started the race almost right away, and it has become a classic. It’s small, by design, but mighty. In Toronto, Ian’s lifelong friend, and the man behind Mariposa Bicycles, Mike Barry, started The Hell of the North about the same time as Ian’s race, but it hasn’t been run continuously since then. It’s alive now, under another organizer. Paris-to-Ancaster is younger, but HUGE. It pulls in over 2000 riders, and it’s only growing stronger. These April races are really big motivators for riders slogging away inside all winter while it’s -20 and snowy outside.

VDR: What’s specific to Canadian gravel races compared to most known US races (especially the most renowned Dirty Kanza 200, Trans Iowa, D2R2, etc?)

Probably the only real difference is elevation profiles, because the races we have – the ones that seem most prominent being south and eastern Ontario – don’t have a lot of elevation change. Instead, they tend to use more off-road sectors to break up the race. I love that. In Vermont, the hotbed of the eastern US for gravel, there’s far more elevation to work with, so organizers use that to break up the races. The Vermont Overland is unique in using a mix of both, which is incredible! The Dirty Kanza and Trans Iowa are a different beast, being longer, and more marathon style races. They are far from us, so I’ve not done them, but I actually prefer the shorter races anyhow. But I’d love to try them.

VDR: You’re also a team leader, a generous blogger and a really active on social media too. Is there something like a gravel community around you with strong culture/values? What  is new and different about gravel in contrast to the mtb or road circuit?

Yes, there definitely is a community of riders that lean toward the gravel events around here. It’s cool, the community is made up of riders from Ottawa-Gatineau, Montreal, Quebec City, and New England. Riders from these areas converge on a bunch of events, both in Ontario and New England, and the relationships are really developing.
I would say the Dirty 40 race and Rasputitsa Gravel Road race have a LOT to do with that, as they have been pulling all these riders down to northern Vermont and creating opportunities for us all to get to know each other and help promote each others’ events. Jean-Francois Blais, from Montreal and Trek bikes is a good example of a rider who is really passionate about the genre, and helps connect the communities. The Cycle Club Croix de Fer folks from Montreal are also really into the gravel, and they attend a bunch of the events each spring and organize a raudax as well. Peter Vollers, who organizes the Vermont Overland, exemplifies collaboration, as he helps the Rasputitsa organizers with their event out on the roads with his Land Rover-driving crew. These folks understand that the events are all part of an ecosystem, and they can and should be mutually supportive. This is something I don’t see on the road side, though it might be there….somewhere. When we go to road races, they tend to be as pared down as possible. I think this is not so much the result of organizers not wanting to do more with them as it is about the costs and energy that go into road closure, police escorts and controls, and running all the categories. They are big undertakings. The gravel events have one mass start, or perhaps waves, and generally no road closures. Different constraints, different realities.
I can also say that the gravel races tend to attract some of the biggest names in cycling, which is amazing for the ‘normal mortals.’ We’ve raced with Jeremy Powers numerous times, and last year with Ned Overend. These are special opportunities for us folks with day-jobs. These riders don’t just jump in a team bus after the race; they hang out like normal people. I love that.

VDR: You’re currentlly racing your ‘spring classics’ with a lot of success; what’ll your next objectives be for 2016?

Spring classics season is now over, and I’m happy with my results, especially because my team raced really well together on a few occasions. It was rewarding for all of us, and number of my team-mates have seen their best performances to date this spring. I’ve now transitioned to road season, which means we have training races (road and crits) every Tuesday night, which is some of the most fun I have on my bike every summer. As I write this I am recovering from a total ass-kicking I took at a really hilly road race in Quebec on Saturday, May 21. It reminded me that I am not a very good climber, nor am I good at starting hard like the guys in their 20s.
From here, I have a few targets. First is our 2016 Global Relay Canadian Road Championships p/b Lexus, which we host here in Ottawa at the end of June. My club and virtually every club in the region is helping organize the event, with racing over 4 days. I’ll do the road race on the Sunday, which is basically ‘tailor made’ for me, because it is flat(!) and has a 12 turns each lap. And there are many laps! Nationals races are special, because the Pro Tour guys come, and they are amazing, while the other best guys in the country are there in full force, so the field is really, really deep. I hope to get into a breakaway and realize a peak performance. It will be a hard race.
My next target is Vermont Overland. For that, I need to be as lean as I can be, and to have done a lot of hill work. My team-mate, Iain Radford, and I are really motivated by this race, and we are working together to improve each year there. We’ve been in the top-10, but we are aiming for a podium. Many of our team-mates love it too, and it makes for a really fun weekend away together, along with some of our families.
After that, it’s September, so cyclocross season will begin, and I’ll aim to get to two or three races in the US, which are head and shoulders better than the races in Ontario and Quebec. Cyclocross is just massive in New England. I will do the Gloucester Grand Prix again, which is the best CX race I’ve ever done, and I hope  to be a bit better tuned and have better luck than in 2015. A top 20 in the pro race there would be an outstanding result for me.
Overall, my main objective is to enjoy the riding and racing and try to learn and improve throughout the season, and to not lose sight of why I do all this: because it’s fun. I am also very much looking forward to seeing my team-mates develop, and see how our club matures over the season.

VDR: Thank you, Matt, for your time and all your insights.

More from Nico Joly: 

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