Long Distance Riding Part 2: Comfort vs Speed vs Distance
Summer is coming and already there are riders out there training… I am training to get fit and to do the 100mile South Downs Way (SDW) and have met a few Riders on Gravel Bikes. After riding with them for a few miles, they have been training for the 300 mile North and South Downs Escapade…
This is what the Great British Escapades North and South Downs Way suggest you ride on under the “Important Stuff” section. The GBEN&SDW is self-supported long-distance bikepacking adventure ride. It is 65-70% off road and requires a mountain bike, ‘monster cross’ style bike or gravel bike with 50mm tyres (or close to it) to complete.
Most riders ride the SDW on MTBs. I know people who have ridden the SDW on Gravel bikes, they do not recommend it. The SDW is only a section of the GBEN&SDW ride, however it will break you if you are not ready. If not at 50miles then 70miles and a little bit of comfort will not slow you down, but allow you to complete the distance.
65-70% off road… I was surprised that they were all riding Gravel Bikes with sub 700x40c tyres, Rigid forks and 140 – 160mm disc rotors. I know from experience that the SDW is gruelling to get a sub 10hour time. My best time was 9hr30mim on a 26x2.3” single speed with suspension forks. I have since ridden 11hr with carbon forks, but 29x2.2” tyres. Why were so many riders choosing Gravel Bikes over Mountain Bikes to do this event?? I was interested in riding this type of event and started thinking about the perfect bike??
300mile at a steady pace is different to the 100miles at a fast pace. There are other things to carry, such as; Self catering equipment, wet weather gear & clothes, Bivy, tarp or small tent, night lights.
I understand that there is a lot more equipment to carry on frame bags or light racks. 300miles will be slower, however I am not sure a gravel bike will be faster and here is why…
Brakes – Some of the long fast descents on the SDW will cook a 140 rotor. MTB normally run 180 front & 160 rear for this reason. Gravel bikes sometimes have 140 front, so that the front tyre does not washout. This is good for a short course Cyclocross race, however the extra braking confidence is needed over long distances.
Wrist comfort – Drop Bars are good for multiple hand positions and rider comfort. However at approximately 70miles your body is going to start reminding you about how much braking you have been doing over the rough trails. Again the big rotors means less hanging on to stop. Gel pads under the handlebar tape or 2x handlebar tape – like the pros do on the Paris Roubaix for the extra comfort. Suspension is not common on Gravel bikes, however MTBs is where they have the advantage. Even if you are a purist, short travel suspension forks will add a lot of wrist comfort. Suspension forks can also be light like SIDs or the insanely light 1.0Kg Lauf leaf sprung fork. Suspension forks make dynamo hubs a bit more complicated, and expensive.
Tyres – Comfort at both ends? If you do not or cannot fit a suspension fork, then you are left with the passive comfort of tyres. Tyres are a balance of rotational weight vs grip vs comfort. Even the GBEN&SDW recommends 50mm wide tyres, so why are Gravel Bikes running 700x40c? Wider tyres give you air volume, so that you can run lower tyre pressure for more grip and comfort and less pinch punctures. On the rear tyre trail buzz migrates up the saddle, causing saddle discomfort and back pain..
What is the perfect bike for 300miles?
A MTB can be built into a Gravel Bike, with drop bars, just like John Tomac rode in the late ‘90’s, also known as Monster Cross.
A lot of the above is how frames have been designed and how the sport has evolved. Gravel Bikes might have started as Road bikes with discs, but riders have pushed the sport back to where cycling started. Rough Stuff and Pass Storming was done on bicycles that were available at the time. When I started designing the Ardnamurchan Gravel bike, I wanted it to do more than road touring, I wanted it to fit the widest Gravel tyres it could. You will see from the photos that in fact it comfortably fits 700x52c tyres or actually 29x2.05”.
What bike would I choose to ride a 300mile Brevet??
I am very close to the SDW, so I would choose the bike which has evolved to suit the SDW.. Flat bar (possibly H-Bar) XC 29er MTB with Lauf fork and portable compact LED lights. With Handlebar & Seat post Bags – multiple bottles with spare tubes in a bottle cage. Any camping equipment would be on an “Anything” cage mounted to the frame.
In a way cycling has come full circle. Monster Cross was something that riders were building for themselves. Bikepacking is just touring under another name, but without racks. Gravel bikes came from road, but have inherited most of the good parts of MTBing. Whatever you choose, Riders will keep riding and wheels keep turning.