In 2016, Nico Joly of France’s Velo de Route took an interest in Canada’s gravel scene, and produced an in-depth interview with me on our races and my Steelwool Truffle Pig race bike. I posted the English version of that piece here. Over the winter I bought two Brodie Romax framesets (the #dynamicdirtduo), both of which would serve as cyclocross race bikes in the fall. But first, the ‘a-bike’ would be set up for all the mixed surface riding and racing of spring and summer. When I was building this a-bike, Nico and I agreed to do a profile on it when the time came. After nearly 5,oookm, Nico published the piece in French on Velo de Route. I’ve reproduced it here in English. My post on the b-bike, in full cx-mode, can be found here; it includes more specifc info about the framesets. I will follow up with a post that covers more of the backstory behind the #dynamicdirtduo, including the process of customising them. This weekend will mark the a-bike’s last throwdown before switching over into cx-mode for cyclocross season. If you’re reading this and find yourself at Vermont Overland on Sunday, please say hi! You’ll have to read on to find out what tires I’m using 😉
The Gravel Brodie
VdR – Last year we introduced you to the Canadian gravel scene, and its very mature racing calendar. Our local correspondent, Matt Surch, took advantage of the off-season to make a quantum leap. He has abandoned his faithful Truffle Pig, a traditional cyclocross bike, made of high-grade steel, for industrial production by the Canadian brand, Brodie. Matt is happy to experiment with a munber of novelties, always with attention to detail and the goal of winning gravel races. On the menu: aluminum, hydraulic brakes, oval rings, and 650b wheels.
VdR – Hi Matt, your new bike seems so different from the one you presented a year ago, we wonder how you got used to it so quickly… starting with the transition from steel to aluminum?
Matt – I didn’t change from steel to aluminum for 2017 because I have any issues with steel. I changed because I wanted a disc brake platform, and aluminum was my best option. I’ve learned over the last few years that wheels and tires make the most difference in terms of how any frame material feels under the rider, and my preference now is to use high-tension carbon wheels with tires that are matched to the terrain I’m on. Even 26mm tires at 80psi can transform the feel of a stiff bike compared to 23mm tires at 100psi. This approach to tuning my ride crossed over from my steel cyclocross and gravel bike to my new Brodie Romax.
VdR – And were you satisfied with the results?
Matt – In a word, yes. My first rides on the bike were on 32mm Compass Stampede Pass Extralight tires. I’d mounted a Specialized CG-R elastomer suspension seatpost to take the buzz out of the bike, and my first ride suggested the TRP full-carbon fork was transmitting more vibration and shock than my saddle. However, this sensation went away after one day on the bike, and I also ended up dropping my tire pressure to 50psi, which worked extremely well. Since then, I’ve ridden many different wheel/tire combinations, and I’ve never felt the bike was harsh. The overall weight is similar to my old bike, so that’s not really a factor, but I do like the somewhat snappier/more precise handling I get from the Romax, which has a bit to do with the overall torsional stiffness and the thru axle in the front. I really enjoy the its ride quality, and find myself reaching for it whenever I don’t need my aero road bike for really fast paved riding and racing. Part of that is the position, which is shorter than I used to ride. It just feels a bit more fun and playful to be slightly more upright on the bike.
VdR – The hydraulic brakes must be a big change from your old V-brakes?
Matt – Yes, I’m using SRAM’s Force hydraulic group, and I love it. The most impressive thing about the brakes is the ease of set-up. I had to cut both lines to run them through my frame and fork, and then shorten them. I didn’t have the matching bleed kit, so I was really careful, and ended up being able to do this job without bleeding the brakes. If I had any air in the system initially, it found its way up to the reservoirs, and is a non-factor. I did tonnes of heavy braking in South Carolina in March, had perfect performance, then raced through the classics in April with very reliable hydaulic performance. An issue I did have was experienced by all of my team-mates in the spring races: ground down organic pads. The gritty dirt roads kill brake pads, so we’ll use sintered pads next spring, and probably hybrid pads for cyclocross. I also had pistons stick a little in the spring, but that was an easy fix, and I’ve not had any more since. Perhaps that was to do with the cold, wet conditions, I’m not sure. It’s been nice having quiet rotors all summer, no dragging.
I like the shape of the SRAM hoods, though the Shimano hydros seem more ergonomic. I’ve experienced a bit of discomfort in my wrists (I’m using 42cm bars), which seems to have been helped by angling the hoods inward a bit, similar to the shape of Shimanos. The tall shape of these hoods makes them safer for descending on rough terrain than the old 10-speed hoods, but it still remains a bit of a mystery to me how to grip them well enough and also brake well enough like that. For this reason, I still use the drops when trails get gnarly. Shifting has been good; I’m using a SRAM XO 10-speed clutch rear derailleur with an Ultegra 11-speed 11-32 cassette most of the time, then a 10sp XT 11-36 cassette for when I have to climb crazy stuff. Both work great, SRAM is great for allowing this flexibility.
VdR – Since you are talking transmission, you also moved to Absolute Black oval chainrings, remaining faithful to the double format; why?
Matt – I was really impressed by my initial week on Absolute Black’s Premium Oval road rings, which prompted me to write a blog post about them. In short, I feel I have a smoother power delivery with these rings versus round, and I experienced this especially when climbing out of the saddle. In fact, I did a 30 minute climb standing up in South Carolina. I am fully adapted to the rings, and when I move between round and oval ring bikes I feel no difference. But I believe I am more economical on the oval rings, which is why I took this bike to Vermont in June to ride the 6-Gaps route, which involved climbing 6 big climbs over about 210km. I could have taken my aero road bike, which is a lot lighter, but I wanted my low 34t climbing gear up front, and the oval shape. It went great, and I was on 35mm Compass Bon Jon tires too. I prefer to use two rings up front rather than one. The 34/50t combo is ideal for me, and I’ve had good shifting on these so far. I’d rather not worry about my gearing when travelling to ride my bike across new terrain. Around home I could ride a 46 or 48t single chainring for just about everything, but this bike is meant to be polyvalent.
The other thing, aside from climbing: ovals are great for traction. I’ve been doing some cyclocross training on the bike with slick Compass tires lately, and I can climb steep grass grades without slipping. The oval shape helps you deliver smooth power, instead of spiking the power on the downstroke. This is really helpful during all situations where traction is reduced. For cyclocross, I will use Absolute Black’s oval narrow-wide rings on my bikes. They will be direct mount, so a really clean system with SRAM cranks. I’ve been really impressed with my Kogel PF30 ceramic bottom bracket, which has remained perfect all season, despite the terrible conditions through spring, and all the wet riding we’ve had since (it’s been the wettest year on record in Ottawa).
VdR – You could also try 650b wheels?
Matt – Yes, this was something I was really excited about as I lined up the bike build. Disc brakes have allowed me to run either 700c or 650b wheels my Romax, which is a first for me. Over recent years I’ve determined that I like handling of 700c wheels up to 35mm tires. After that, the handling doesn’t feel good to me anymore, and I don’t like the raised ride height (this is with low bottom brackets, but typical front-end geometry). For some terrain, a 38mm tire like the Compass Barlow Pass performs really well, but I find that size takes a lot of aerodynamic drag, so I’m not a big fan of racing dirt on it. The cool thing is that moving down to 650b allows me to increase my volume to 42mm without suffering an aerodynamic loss. It turns out this size is about the same aerodynamically as the 700c x 35mm size; smaller diameter wheels are more aerodynamic than larger wheels. This increase in volume allows me to drop pressure from about 40psi to about 30psi, which makes a large difference on rough surfaces. For even rougher terrain, the Compass Switchback Hill tires in 48mm end up handling about the same as the 35mm 700c tires, but with a lot of extra volume over the 42mm tire.
The 650×42 Compass Babyshoe Pass tires have a quick handling feel to them, even quicker than a road bike with 23s. This is interesting, as it makes a pretty rugged bike feel pretty sporty. I suspect lower trail bikes feel more ‘normal, but I think the low inertia of the Woven carbon rims I’m using play a significant role here. I like the feel, but for fast, well paved group riding my bike is a little twitchy. I’ve decided the sweet-spot for this set-up is long rides with average speeds around 30kph. As the hours on the bike add up, the reduction of suspension losses the soft tires provide pays off, preserving the rider’s energy. But when the speeds go up, the rider must spend more energy to maintain speed, and as we know, the power required to combat air resistance is exponential as we increase speed. My observations align with the use of 650b x 42s I’ve seen by randonneurs over the years, where they tackle 300 – 1200km routes at moderate paces.
VdR – Any practical advice to share, then?
Matt – Yes, I’d put it this way: if the route I’ll ride is medium-rough, I’d suggest the 650b x 42s. If it it’s faster, and not really rough, the 700c x 35s. If really rough (think Dirty Kanza), the 650b x 48s are great, and they are good on dry trails too. If speeds are going to be quite high, averaging around 40kph, an aero road bike with 26mm or 28mm tires (mine only fits 26mm). The odd time there’s something in between, I’d go with 700 x 32s, which I consider ‘road tires.’
Here are some additional observations about the 650b wheels and tires that didn’t make it into the VdR piece:
- The 48mm tire fits the TRP fork easily, and barely clears the Romax’s chainstays. There is 2-3mm clearance on each side. Does it rub while I ride? No.
- The Romax’s bottom bracket drops with the 650b x 42s compared to the 700c x 33 tires it’s designed around. Pedal strikes at slow speeds while leaning occur, but are easy to adapt to. With the 48mm tires, the ride height is normal. I’m lower to the ground overall, and have an aerodynamic advantage while behind other riders, because I am more sheltered. Some team-mates noted it sucks riding behind me on this set-up, as I am hard to draft. This is worth considering for gravel team time trials!
- My gearing became a little lower when using the 650b x 42s, which is always the case when reducing overall wheel diameter. Was it a problem? No. I noticed it on fast paved descents, as I was spinning my 50×11 out sooner, but it didn’t really matter. If we assume we’ll use 650b x 42s for more loose, steep terrain, lower gearing for climbs is nice.
- The 650b Woven Precision Handbuilts 650b wheels I’m using are the Gravel Plus model, measuring 27mm external. They are shallow, 35mm, and light. My typical 700c wheels from Woven are 55mm deep, and 25mm external width. The 650b wheels are lighter than the 700cs, but probably less aerodynamic if comparing use with equivalent tires, which is hard to do, since there is no 42mm Compass model, and even if there was, I probably wouldn’t have a pair.
- Compass is now producing a 650b x 42mm knobbie tire, called the Pumpkin Ridge. It uses the same tread as their 700c cyclocross tire, the Steilacoom. These tires roll fast on hard surfaces, but not as fast as tires like those that use centre diamond file treads. The Pumpkin Ridge doesn’t have the twitchy feel of the Baby Shoe Pass. It is an able all-rounder, but I believe its smaller outside diameter and lower initeria than a 700c actually make it a slower-rolling tire on gravel than the slick 42mm, which is more aerodynamic, has a little more actual volume (the knobbie is 42 measured at the knobs, not casing), and lower rolling resistance. The Pumpkin Ridge seems ideal for bikes built around 650b x 42mm clearance under riders seeking more grip, but for fast-paced gravel, I’m convinced a quality larger diameter set-up will be faster. If keeping ride height low and riding all sorts of terrain at a mellower pace is the order of the day, these tires are fun.
VdR – This new platform seems exceptionally polyvalent and capable. Do you foresee anf further developments?
Matt – Well, yes, I do, and as always, it’s all about tires! Based on the riding on 650bs I’ve been doing, my current dream tire that would probably be ideal for a lot of mixed conditions riding would be a 45mm 650b with a low-height centre tread and significant shoulder knobs for cornering. This is a tire I am hoping to convince Jan Heine of Compass to produce!My recent testing of the Pumpkin Ridge has informed my position on this, and I’ve decided against using it for my last big event before cyclocross season, the amazing adventure that is Vermont Overland. I’ve been using a pair of the Specialized Trigger file treads in 700c x 38mm recently, and I’ve decided to use them for Overland. Their tread is a great example of an all-rounder that suits most mixed-surface race course. So I’ll do what I can to convince Jan there’s a market for such a tread on a high quality, supple Compass casing. As I said, something about 650b x 45-46mm and 700c x 35-38mm would be ideal.
Many thanks to Nico and Velo de Route for taking an interest in my bike and taking the time to translate me from English to French!
Sincere thanks to the fine people at Brodie, Kogel, Compass, and Absolute Black for their generosity and support, without which I couldn’t have built my #dynamicdirtduo. Huge thanks to Kent Dougall of Woven Precision Handbuilts for dedicating a lot of time to making the decals for my bikes a reality, helping me source a whole lot of parts through Phat Moose Cycles, not to mention allowing me to use his shop tools to install my bottom brackets! If you’ve never been to the Moose, pay them a visit sometime, they are a fantastic bunch of guys who have mad wrenching and fabrication skills! If you are after a pair of wheels with a custom flair, visit Kent at the shop and ask him to show you his books of vinyl samples!
Behind the scenes, Giro, Silca, Mad Alchemy, Xact Nutrition, Vega, and Re:Form have been along for the ride too, and I’m thankful for all of their support. I encourage you to check out everyone’s fantastic Instagrammin’: