Before I worked in a bike shop and had access to a whole suite of amazing high-end bikes, I used to love the saying that it's "not about the bike." Fast is fast, and if you're talented and fit, you can be on any bike and throw down. Sure, you might be 1% faster on a new, higher-end bike, but in most cases that difference isn't even noticeable. But over an ultra-endurance race event, those small percentage gains from a bike add up. not only in straight up speed, but even more-so in peace of mind.
I know it sounds like I'm going towards recommending an $8000 super bike, but that's actually not the case. You can definitely race something that doesn't cost more than your car and feel like you aren't giving much up, so today I'm going to run through my recommendations on what to look for in a bike for ultra-endurance racing, as well as highlighting the bike I'll be riding in the 2017 Cape Epic.
There are some key factors for a bike meant to serve ultra-endurance race duties, with comfort and durability being of utmost importance. Next up, efficiency and light-weight play a part, as long as they are not at the expense of your comfort on the bike, and the ability to finish the race without catastrophic failure of any components on the bike itself.
It should go without saying, but don't try anything you haven't used before in a race-situation. That goes for not just the obvious things like saddles and grips, but also things like stem length and the bike frame itself. Spend some time getting used to your bike so you feel 100% at home on it once you toe the start line for whatever event your are racing in.
Starting Point - the frame: Find a good cross-country bike that suits you, both in fit and style. Full-suspension is key for comfort in almost all cases (especially the Cape Epic). 100-120 mm travel both front and rear keeps things comfortable, yet still efficient and light. A carbon frame is nice if you can justify the price, if not, no hurt in aluminum.
Thanks to Pedalhead Bicycle Works and some friends at Cannondale and Mavic, I've set-up a top-notch bike for the Cape Epic in the 2017 Cannondale Scalpel-Si 3. The stock build was almost perfect, with only a few changes needed to get it just the way I like it for Africa. It's super lightweight, 100 mm travel front and rear, and has the odd-looking, but amazing in function, Lefty front suspension fork (can it be called a fork? Maybe strut is more accurate).
It's a lame thing to be excited about, BUT 2 bottle cages in the frame triangle is a major bonus!
Drivetrain: With the advent of 1x11 and 1x12 drivetrains, many bikes now run without double chainrings up front. Do the math on gear-ratios and figure out if you can pull it off. There's no shame in running a double for the most versatility, but with cassettes getting an even wider range than ever before, there's a good chance you can stick with a 1by drivetrain.
The Scalpel-Si came stock with a Shimano 1x11 drivetrain, mated to Cannondale's ridiculously light Hollowgram crank. XT shifters match with an XTR rear derailleur. It came geared with a 32 tooth chainring and an 11-46 cassette, which means no changes to the stock build were necessary here.
If you're going to stick with a 1by drivetrain, your cassette better be bigger than your rotor!
Brakes: Everyone has a preference, so stick with what you're used to. Do some homework on what brands are popular where you are racing (if travelling out of country), as some of the smaller brands may not be as well supported should something go wrong. Every tech-support and/or shop at events is going to know how to work on Shimano or Sram, so those are your safest bets.
Again, the Scalpel-Si stock spec nails it, with Shimano XT brakes mated to 160 mm Shimano Ice-Tech rotors. No changes needed there!
Wheels: The key here is durability! Go with a wheelset that will hold a solid tubeless-tire seal (more on that in a second). Working in a shop, I've been lucky enough to watch what kind of wheels come into the shop with durability issues and failures that could leave you stranded. My favorite has been Mavic Crossmax - there's no need for tubeless tape to seal spoke holes (which I've found to be unreliable at times), they are within 100 grams weight of the highest-end carbon options, are half the price of other high-end options, and are the most durable wheels I've seen and used.
This is the only major upgrade I felt inclined to make on the Scalpel-Si. I've had such amazing experiences with Mavic wheels, and trust their durability and lightweight to handle anything I can throw at them, Even better, I've never had a wheel handle tubeless tires so well (Mavic is one of the few still using the UST standard for tubeless, which means a less finicky tubeless experience) so on went a pair of Crossmax SL wheels!
Tires: If you're travelling somewhere you haven't ridden, ask someone who has for tire recommendations, as this will vary on the terrain. Regardless of where you are riding, go with a tubeless set-up. For the Cape Epic, thorns and sharp rocks are a plenty, so flat protection is key for tire selection. I'll be using Schwalbe tires with Snakeskin flat protection, set-up tubeless, and both in 2.25 width for some extra comfort and traction. My go-to set-up has always been a Racing Ralph in the back, and a Rocket Ron in the front.
Contact Points: Now it's the fun (or not so fun) part. Nothing can hinder your experience on the bike like a poorly set-up cockpit. I've heard them called touch-points before.
Starting with the handlebar, splurge on something carbon. It'll provide some vibration dampening and comfort on long rides. With a suspension fork, I used to think this was redundant, until last year I went back to riding an aluminum bar for part of the year. I noticed sore wrists on longer rides almost immediately, something that went away once I went back to a carbon bar.
Next up comes the grips. Find what's comfortable for you under long distances, which will usually be a bit of a larger, cushier grip. For the Cape Epic, since the days are long and the terrain rough, I've opted for a full-on Ergon style grip. I get wrist issues with normal grips during ultra-endurance events, so Ergon's have been a life-saver. I've also opted for the model with a small integrated bar end, which gives some extra hand positions for the long flats and climbs during the race.
Ergon grips w/ integrated bar-end aren't the most confidence inspiring for short, high-intensity events. But when you're spending consecutive days riding 8-10 hours, they are a big-time wrist saver! The green bar end plug is an expander, used to reinforce the carbon bar so the lockring/bar-end can be securely clamped without fracturing the carbon.
Then it's on to the seatpost, which like the handlebar, should be splurged on in going carbon. Vibration dampening is key, even on a full-suspension bike.
Finally, the most important touch-point on the bike, the saddle! Everyone has a personal preference, so unless you're particularly unhappy with the current saddle you've used/been using the most, stick with it. If not, make sure you spend a lot of time on whatever new saddle you decide on before departing for your event. Nothing can derail an event like a saddle sore...(thankfully, I'm not speaking from experience on this one!)
The Fabric Scoop gets my vote as world's most comfortable saddle! I actually stumbled into this one by accident - it came specced on the 2015 Cannondale Scalpel I bought for the 2015 Cape Epic. Being too lazy to swap saddles to my relatively liked Fizik Antares, I spent a few trainer rides on the bike with the stock saddle. Never looked back!
That's the set-up that will see us through another ultra-endurance race. Spend what you can, make sure you pick durability over extreme lightweight (but still aim for lightweight), and above all else, make sure it's comfortable!
Not long until we take off, so thanks for following along!