The Comprehensive Guide to Winter Gravel Riding

We all know that gravel riding is fun in the summer when the sun is shining and the sky is blue, but what is it like in the winter? Specifically, this means riding in temperatures below 0°C (or 32°F) and likely on roads with snow. This post will help you understand some of the unique considerations for riding in these conditions.

First and foremost, check the weather for the area that you are going to ride for all the parameters. Unlike rides during the summer, you will need to pay close attention to the wind strength and direction, as well as the humidity level. While we love a tailwind home on our summer rides, there is a bit more to it when you’re planning your winter ride. Depending on your region, winds will likely bring some kind of weather change, which means a south wind could be warm whereas a north wind could be cold. Here in Alberta, if the wind is coming from the north, it is likely that it will bring cooler weather and air with it. On top of the temperature of the wind, you also need to consider in the wind chill factor. As you can see in the chart below, the wind chill can drastically change what the temperature feels like.

The condition of the roads will also greatly affect how fast you’ll be able to travel. One of the big perks of riding gravel in the winter is that the gravel is frozen in place with snow and ice. On our ride, the roads were quite a bit smoother than during the summer, because of this. How recent the latest snowfall was, how traveled the roads are, and what the weather has been like, all play a role in the gravel conditions. Should you be attempting a ride during or just after a snowfall, expect to travel significantly slower than after the snow has been packed down.

Humidity is another important aspect to be attentive to. In Alberta, when the temperature is hovering around -30°C, we make light of the situation by saying: “It’s not that bad; it’s a dry cold.” It’s how we pretend that we are ok with the weather. What does that mean though? When the humidity is higher, the heat transfer from your body to the outside air is significantly increased. Add in that you’re likely sweating and the situation becomes even more extreme. Given the choice between a ride at -10°C with 15% humidity or a ride at 0°C and 85% humidity, I would happily choose the colder temperature with the lower humidex. You simply feel warmer and it’s easier to dress and control the temperature. 

When choosing a route for a winter gravel ride, especially if it is your first one, having bail-out options to get home quickly is crucial. Riding in the cold weather takes quite a bit more out of you than a nice summer ride and fatigue tends to hit harder and sooner than you might expect. I would strongly encourage you to start with a shorter route, close to home so that if you misjudge the clothing or conditions, you aren’t hours from home and in a dangerous situation. On my recent winter gravel ride, I was reminded that when riding roads over creeks or near lakes, the temperature will feel much cooler than average. Not only are these areas lower in elevation than the surrounding areas, but they also trap humidity. Each creek crossing that I did felt at least 10°C cooler than the area on either side of the valley despite there only being a 30 m difference in elevation. Keep an eye on the elevation profile of your route as well, long descents will cool you off quickly. On my ride, even a 40-second descent was enough to rob me of all the warmth I had generated. Luckily, there was always a hill following the descent which made warming up quite easy.

You can see how the temperature, the grey portion, changes with the elevation profile, green.

Choosing your clothing for a winter gravel ride is going to be the toughest part of the whole ride. The saying is “be bold, start cold,” but you also don’t want to chill yourself, as not only is this the best way to hate your ride, but it’s also very dangerous. This means you should feel a bit cool at the start of your ride. If you’re feeling warm when you first throw your leg over your bike, you’re likely going to be a sweaty mess within 10 minutes. If you are planning to stop along the ride for snacks and photos, it would be worth bringing a light-down jacket to toss on over your kit. These pack down very small and can be a lifesaver if you for some reason run into an issue and can’t ride to generate heat. The reality is, it is unlikely that your clothing choice will end up being perfect on the first few rides. Choosing your clothing takes a bit of trial and error, but here are a few considerations to help guide you.

Minimal exposed skin is the key.

As the contours of the land change, you will experience different conditions. It is unlikely your outfit will feel well suited for the whole ride, meaning you will feel too hot at times and too cold at others. You’ll need to choose which parts of the ride you are dressed for. Wearing layers is the key to success when it comes to cool weather riding. If you’re prone to always being cold, pack some chemical hand/foot warmers. They don’t take up very much space and can warm the coldest digits up quickly. Merino wool is the gold standard material for anything that is touching your skin. The temperature dictates how thick my merino base layer will be and if I will use a long or short sleeve shirt. My go-to lower body attire for winter gravel riding is a pair of Windstopper bib tights. Not only are they warm but they fit tight to the skin so there is no loose fabric flopping around like you would experience with fat bike pants.

You’ll want a nice pair of merino wool socks on your feet as the last thing you need is cold toes. The big perk of merino is that it doesn’t lose its insulating properties when wet. What goes over the wool socks? My go-to boot for any winter riding is a pair of the 45nrth Ragnorak boots. I have never been a big fan of overshoes for any kind of riding as they are a pain to put on and, in this case, likely won’t offer enough insulation. Not only are dedicated winter cycling shoes wind and waterproof, but they also have extra insulation that your summer shoes don’t have. You’ll also want to run the shoes a bit looser than in the summer as having them too tight will constrict the little blood flow that is in your feet. If you have a pair of fat bike boots, such as the 45nrth Wolvhammers, you can use them, just be prepared for sore hip flexors as they weigh significantly more than a normal cycling shoe, and the longer the distance, the more you’ll notice the weight.

Dedicated winter shoes make a world of difference.

Up top, I would strongly recommend a soft-shell style jacket over a hard-shell jacket. Hard-shell jackets are built for riding in wet conditions, which you are unlikely to encounter on a winter ride. While Goretex and similar membrane fabrics are marketed as breathable, they will never be able to touch the breathability of a soft-shell jacket, and you’re going to sweat. The fabric on a soft-shell jacket evacuates moisture much faster while still protecting you from the wind. Another thing to look for on your jacket are inner sleeves that you can loop around your thumbs. These keep the sleeves from riding up your arms while stretching out over your bike, preventing your wrists from being exposed to the elements.

Your headwear, neckwear, and handwear are likely the most important parts of the equation due to the heat loss you’ll experience through your head and the lack of blood flow that most people experience in their hands. I’m a huge fan of thin windstopper hats as they don’t interfere with the fit of most helmets and provide enough extra warmth. If you can find one that dips to cover the ears, you won’t be disappointed. A neck buff is critical as well. The carotid arteries run through the neck, acting as a major blood supply to the brain, neck, and face. Keeping your neck warm will allow you to stay warmer without wearing more layers. You can also easily remove and store this small piece of clothing to quickly moderate temperatures. On top of that, a buff will prevent wind from going down your jacket and it can also be pulled up over your face if the air is colder than you’d like. Again, merino is the material of choice here as the buff is likely to be saturated by your breath. I have a variety of gloves ranging from thin windstopper glove liners all the way up to leather, primaloft-filled gloves that I’ve used for ice climbing. The ice climbing gloves have been my favourite as they provide enough dexterity for shifting and braking while keeping my hands toasty warm. If your jacket doesn’t have the inner sleeves that go over your thumbs, I would suggest using gauntlet style gloves so that the wind doesn’t creep up your sleeves. Carrying a second pair of gloves is always a great idea, especially if you’re prone to sweaty hands when you’re riding. If the sun is shining, don’t forget to apply sunscreen as, despite the weather being frigid, you can still get a sunburn!

Eye protection in the winter is equally as important in the summer. I know a few people who swear by ski goggles for winter riding but I’ve never found them to be overly comfortable on the bike. Large sunglasses are my go-to as not only do they keep the sun out of your eyes, they shield your eyes from the wind. Riding without eye protection in the winter is likely to result in your eyelashes freezing shut (this happened to me on a recent run!). It’s also good practice to keep your eyes protected from debris. Riding with people especially, there is always a chance that your partner will kick something up with their tire and you want to keep your eyes protected, especially when speed is involved! Unlike fat biking, where the speeds are slower, I have not had an issue with glasses fogging when riding gravel in the winter. If you are running into this issue, you can try anti-fog treatments or simply moving your glasses away from your face a little bit.

You can see how I increased my effort to generate heat after the cool spots on the ride.

Keep in mind that none of your clothing choices matter if you don’t plan around the pace of the ride. Maintaining a steady pace in the winter is critical, as you want to balance effort against clothing choices and weather to keep sweating to a minimum. Once you start to sweat, stopping to rest isn’t going to do you any favours, as you will cool off quickly and struggle to warm up again. Consistency is your friend in the winter. Descents are the only place where your pace is beyond your control and you will inevitably cool down as you coast down the hills. 

Now that we’ve covered what you’re wearing, it’s time to look at what you’re fueling with. Fueling in the winter is largely the same as in the summer but has a few extra considerations. The first obstacle to overcome is that your water is likely to freeze. Adding drink mix and a pinch of salt to your bottles helps slow this process down but doesn’t prevent it entirely. I haven’t had much luck with the insulated water bottles, as the nozzles on them freeze. The Camelbak-style bottles, with the rubber valves, freeze quickly, forcing you to deglove to unscrew the lid to access your water. You can avoid this entirely by wearing a hydration pack under your jacket and routing the hose up through the collar in the front, taking frequent sips to keep the nozzle working. This is the only surefire way to ensure that you have access to liquid water for the whole ride. I’m not a big fan of this method as I find that hydration packs cause me to sweat more, and in the winter, sweat is your enemy. For this reason, I find that cheaper water bottles with drink mix work the best, as salt and sugar prevent the water from freezing and their nozzles are simple and easily forced open when they do freeze. 

Frame bags are a great place to store any extra layers you may want to take with you.

You’ll want to keep your snacks inside your jacket as well, as I assure you that soft bars are more enjoyable than trying to gnaw on frozen ones while you’re riding. Having your packages opened beforehand helps as well, as opening wrappers with gloves on is an exercise in futility.

The bike is where you’re going to change the least, if anything at all, for winter gravel riding. I kept my Checkpoint setup the exact same as in the summer, which you can read about in my review of the bike. Tire choice is the big one and, contrary to what you might think, more aggressive tires aren’t necessarily the answer. First and foremost, make sure your tire sealant is rated for cold weather. If your sealant is frozen, it won’t seal and your wheels won’t be balanced. 

I ran my 43 mm Panaracer Gravel King SS tires, the same as I do in the summer, just with 2 psi less per tire (28 psi). If you’re riding in an urban environment, you may want to consider studded tires for ice. Remember, studded tires aren’t going to allow you to rail corners as you would in the summer; ice is ice and it doesn’t care what you’re running for tires. If you’re riding rural roads, studs are unlikely to add any extra safety. The gravel king tires had more than enough grip on the climbs and the descents, as the roads we were on had hard-pack snow. The ice we did encounter was not an issue at all. If your bike is equipped with electronic shifting, make sure that it is fully charged or that you have a spare battery with you. Cold weather greatly diminishes the working life of batteries so don’t be surprised if you see your battery life cut in half. I am a huge fan of day time running lights on any ride where there is a chance of seeing traffic. During the winter, the sun is low in the sky, the days are shorter and there is a higher chance of overcast weather. When you compound those factors with drivers not expecting to see cyclists on the roads, I would consider both front and rear lights, a critical safety aspect when winter riding.

I use a wax-based chain lube in all conditions. Luckily, when it’s below zero, the gravel roads are frozen, so your drivetrain is likely going to be as clean when you finish as when you started. Adding fenders wouldn’t be a bad idea if you’re expecting the temperature to exceed zero during your ride, again, that is a personal preference. One area on the bike that many people don’t consider is the grease inside your hub, especially for pawl-based systems. Factory grease is often quite thick, for longevity. Unfortunately, in cold weather, this means that the grease thickens and slows the engagement of the pawls in your hub. This means that the pawls could slip and strip out your hub body which would leave you stranded. Using a lighter-weight oil means you need to refresh it more often but will ensure a smooth running hub, no matter what the temperature is.

This stretch is usually covered in inches of fresh gravel.

Winter gravel rides can be wildly fun, unique adventures. I hope that this post has helped you plan your first cold-weather gravel ride and that you too, will enjoy winter gravel riding as much as I have.

Can a Gravel Bike Truly do it All?

The Checkpoint set up in All Road mode.

Can one drop bar bike really do it all? This seems to be one of the most debated topics over the last year. Three years ago, I would have easily answered that a gravel bike could not replace a road bike. Since then, gravel bikes have changed significantly making my current answer much more complex.

2022 was the year for me to see if I could truly test this out since my wife and I were going to be in Nova Scotia for a couple of weeks with our bikes. Typically, we bring our road bikes because the road cycling down there is incredible. This year, I wanted to explore their endless network of gravel roads while also being able to ride fast on the roads (KOM hunting is fun on vacation) so I needed to sort out a solution that would allow me to have my cake and eat it too. 

Midway through a circuit that would not have been possible with a road bike.

Turning my Checkpoint into a fast allroad bike was pretty simple with a few changes. After going down the rabbit hole of larger-volume tires, I picked the Gravelking Slicks based on my previous experience with their gravel tires. I took the Bontrager RSL62 wheels off of my Madone and mounted up a pair of Panaracer Gravelking Slicks that are 38 mm wide. These wheels work great because of their 23 mm internal width giving the 38 mm slicks a great profile.  And, all of the reports on these tires suggested that they were just a couple of watts worse on the pavement than my go-to Continental GP5000s. I swapped my stem out from the stock 90 mm to a 110 mm version to get a more aggressive position on the bike as well. The 110 mm stem now lives on the bike because I found it more comfortable. Since I already run a 46t up front, the largest that my frame will take, I didn’t have much choice but to run that and hope that a 46-10 gearing combination would be sufficient.

On my wife’s Ibis Hakka MX, we swapped out her 650b wheels for a set of 700c wheels with another pair of 700c Gravelking Slick tires. We weren’t able to swap the front chainring out from the 40t to something large as there weren’t any options available locally. She found that having a 40t on the front was her only complaint with this setup because it was pretty easy to spin out.

Within the first 10 km of riding my Checkpoint with these wheels and tires, I was blown away by how fast the bike was. I took it for a test spin around town and tested it out on a few segments that I use for benchmarks with speed and power. Shockingly, the Checkpoint was hardly slower than my Madone. Not only was the speed there, but the ride was much more comfortable than the Madone, this is no small part due to the tires. On less-than-perfect road surfaces, a larger tire run at the appropriate pressure is going to be much faster than something like a 28 mm tire. The 28 mm tire will feel faster, but that is only because you are feeling the tire bouncing around on the road; each bounce you feel is the bike ever so slightly changing its course, making the tire slower. 

Some gravel is just too big for any tire.

Once we landed in Nova Scotia, I had the chance to test the setup out on gravel ranging from hardpack rail trails to abandoned forestry roads. On the hard-packed gravel, these tires were absolutely incredible. They allowed us to comfortably cruise at road bike speeds, despite being on a less-than-ideal surface. It was only once I got deep into the forestry roads that I started to feel as if I didn’t have enough tire. The lack of tire was not so much the fact that the tires were slick, but that the volume was not enough for how chunky the gravel had become. This was the only time that I wished I had a 43 mm tire because that is what I typically use on this terrain. Now, if Panaracer were to come out with a 43 mm version of the slick tire, I could see it becoming my go-to tire for all conditions (unless the gravel was very wet). The one quirk that I noticed with the large volume tires on asphalt was that they squirm a bit more under high-powered sprints. This isn’t something that I’ve noticed on my road bike with 28 mm tires, so I would say it’s exclusive to wider tires. Since I’m not road racing on my gravel bike, this is very much not an issue for me.

If you are looking to have one bike do double duty without swapping tires regularly, I would have two sets of wheels for your gravel bike. This eliminates the need for swapping tires, which may be a burden for many riders. While this is an additional expense, a set of wheels, with rotors and a cassette, is much cheaper than a second bike.

Before gravel bikes were a thing, most folks rode their cyclocross bikes on gravel. Cyclocross bikes have always made poor road bikes for the same reason that they make poor gravel bikes: geometry. Cyclocross bikes have always been built around super sharp handling, a high bottom bracket, and ultra rigid frames. While this makes them great to race for an hour on a tight course, they really take the fun out of longer rides. For road bikes, sharp handling and an aggressive position are prioritized over comfort and stability. Compared to my Madone, the Checkpoint has a significantly longer wheelbase, a longer top tube, and a much higher stack. With all of that being said, the Checkpoint handled exceptionally well on the road. In fact, unless you are racing a criterium, I don’t believe that you would see the handling of a gravel bike as worse than a road bike. In fact, if you are a newer rider, you would likely appreciate the stability found on gravel bikes.

The big question is: is a gravel bike with road tires slower than a dedicated road bike? Yes, and no. When you’re considering a purchase like this, you need to be honest with yourself about how you plan on using the bike and who you’ll be riding with. If you’re looking to race at a higher level, you will want a dedicated road bike, it’s as simple as that. If you’re a casual rider, typically riding at speeds from say 25-32 km/h, I would say that you can easily get away with a gravel bike with road tires. I noticed that on my harder efforts where the speeds were higher, 38 km/h or better, the Checkpoint was not as fast. This is one of those situations where the aero benefits of modern road bikes really pay off big time. The tires weren’t the issue here so much as the lack of a more aerodynamic frame and cockpit, not to mention the body position. On my Madone, the hoods are about 1.5” lower than those on my Checkpoint. Shy of going to an extremely aggressive stem on the Checkpoint, there is no way to get the bars lower. Even then, I wouldn’t want to be that much lower on a bike that spends most of its time on gravel.

Another thing that you’ll need to factor into your decision-making process is which groupset you’ll be running on your gravel bike. Personally, I wouldn’t run a 2x system on a gravel bike now that 1x systems have matured to where they have. SRAM Xplr is brilliant for a bike that you’re looking to do double duty with as it gives you a 10-44 cassette, which means you can run a 44t chainring up front while retaining a 1:1 ratio for the steep gravel climbs and not running out of gears for the fast, flat sections that you find on the road. Sure, you won’t have the same top-end speed as a bike with a 48t or 50t up front but, be honest with yourself, how often do you find yourself pedaling over 60 km/h?

With all of this being said, for me, more often than not, I’ll be traveling with my gravel bike with a set of 38 mm slicks on it. All of the riding photos in this post were taken on our trip where our bikes took us to places we’d never dreamed of going on our road bikes. Exploring any terrain I come across when I’m away from home is a massive perk and allows for worry-free adventures. Anytime that I‘ve traveled with my road bike, I’d end up looking down gravel roads and wondering what lies ahead with no way to explore them. Now that I know that my gravel bike is nearly as quick as my road bike, it will most certainly be the bike that I road trip with since this will allow me to have a single drop bar bike solution while giving me room for my mountain bike as well.

2023 Checkpoint SLR 7 Etap Review

The 2023 Trek Checkpoint is Trek’s second generation gravel bike, coming four years after the release of the original one. A lot has changed in the world of gravel since 2018 and the new Checkpoint. Having owned a 2020 Checkpoint for 6500 kms worth of riding, I was very keen to get my hands on the new one. I had over six months of waiting for the bike, due to the supply chain issues that have plagued the bike industry since the beginning of the pandemic.

Unlike the previous generation Checkpoint, which was offered in aluminum as well as a carbon model, the new generation is offered in an aluminum option and two tiers of carbon. This review will focus primarily on the SLR model; however, it is safe to say that the SL and SLR models will ride nearly the same. With this being the SLR7 Etap model, the price is just over $11,000cad.

An SL6 Etap in action

The key differences between the SL and the SLR, are as follows:

  • 500 Series Carbon on the SL vs 700 Series Carbon on the SLR which accounts for the SL being about 250g heavier than the SLR.
  • A normal 27.5 mm seat post and simplified Isospeed on the SL vs the Seatmast and isospeed system similar to the Madone and Domane on the SLR. The big perk here is that you could run a dropper post on the SL as well as not being concerned about needing a size-specific mast topper on the SLR; The SLR should, in theory, have a smoother ride because of the more advanced isospeed design. 
  • The SLR uses a different fork that forgoes the mounting bolts for things such as anything cages. This saves a bit of weight and makes the SLR fork a bit more aerodynamic than the SL model.

The biggest difference for most potential riders will be the build kits. The SLR models come with higher spec builds, not just in terms of groupsets, but the finishing kits, carbon wheels, as well as all of the SRAM, builds come with power meters.

Unlike other brands who took their existing bikes and slackened the head tube and called it a day, Trek went a different direction. While the head angle remains the same at 72.2°,  the bikes have been lengthened by 2 cm in the top tube. Not only does this eliminate the toe overlap that the previous generation suffered from, but it also allows riders to run a shorter stem should they want to.

Despite these changes, Trek still suggests that at 6’ tall, I should be on a 58 cm frame, the same as their last generation of Checkpoint and the Madone that I ride. As I mentioned in those reviews, I would strongly suggest talking to a bike fitter before pulling the trigger on any bike. Not only is the 56 cm the right size for me, I actually lengthened the stem from the supplied 90 mm to a 110 mm version. With that being said, I prefer my gravel bike to feel as close to my road bike as possible, which is low and long. While this works for me, many people prefer to be more upright on their gravel bikes.

With the geometry being so similar to the previous generation, I was not expecting the bike to ride that much differently. Within a few kilometers of loose gravel, the change in ride was surprisingly noticeable. The extra length of the bike makes a world of difference when you’re trying to hold a straight line through our loose Alberta gravel. The new Checkpoint rides as if it’s on rails, regardless of how deep the gravel is. On a short ride, this may not make a big difference; on long rides, this stability makes your ride that much more enjoyable. Not needing to constantly fight with the bike to keep it straight means that you accumulate fatigue much more slowly than on a more twitchy bike. Does this stability make the bike feel lazy on the road? No, not at all. The turn-in is a bit slower than my Madone, but it is by no means a slow-handling bike when you’re off the gravel. The Checkpoint leans towards the road side of gravel, whereas a few other companies are chasing the mountain bike side of gravel. Unless you are riding more singletrack than gravel roads, I would say that a bike on the road side of the spectrum is the ticket for maximal enjoyment.

Fitted with 38mm Gravel King Slicks on my RSL62s for the ultimate allroad experience.

Adding to the comfort on the rough terrain is the isospeed seat mast system. While isospeed has been around for years, this is the latest iteration of it, which seems to offer quite a bit more compliance due to the carbon strut design. Unfortunately, mine has given me a bit of grief, which has required a frame replacement. Trek has assured me that this is not a common issue. (I look forward to putting more miles on the new frame next year to test this theory.) The SL frame has a less complex design that utilizes flex in the seat tube for compliance. Thankfully, Trek has not gone the way of other brands where they introduce suspension forks and frames. As we gravitate towards larger volume tires, I am starting to question the need for these complex, weight-inducing, ride quality improvements.

For those who often venture into mountain bike terrain with their gravel bikes, you’ll be pleased to hear that the new Checkpoint officially supports 650b wheels with tires up to 2.1”. With 700c wheels, you can officially run 45 mm tires. Trek is notoriously pessimistic with their tire clearances across their bikes, so I wasn’t surprised to see people running 50 mm 700c tires with ample clearance. I have not yet tried this myself, but plan on it when the tires I’d like to run are available. As with my last Checkpoint, I’ve been running 43 mm Panaracer Gravel King SS tires, and have had very little reason to try anything else as these work so well. Personally, I’m not a big fan of the Bontrager GR1 that Checkpoints ship with, as I find they roll quite slow across a variety of terrain.

The Bontrager Aeolus 3V wheels that come with the SLR7 are a great set of wheels. I put over 6500 kms on these on my last Checkpoint and never once had a single issue. These wheels are 37 mm deep with a 25 mm internal width. When these wheels first came out, they were one of the widest on the market. Not only does the wide internal width provide more sidewall support for the tires, but it increases the overall air volume inside the tire, allowing you to run lower pressures for more speed and comfort. If you are looking to use these wheels on another bike, be aware that like all wide wheels, they usually increase the tire width as measured. This isn’t an issue on the Checkpoint but could be on other gravel frames that only have clearance for 40 mm tires.

As I chose to go with the Etap version of the bike, the groupset is SRAM’s latest innovation: XPLR. Until XPLR came out, you had to choose between narrow range road cassettes or wide range mountain bike cassettes. XPLR splits the difference and gives you a 10-44, 12 speed cassette. Unlike the mullet drivetrain setup that I had on my last bike, this one doesn’t leave me looking for gears between gears. The steps between each gear are very reasonable, especially in the smaller gears where it is really noticeable. Initially, I thought that I would miss the 50t on the cassette, but it hasn’t been an issue yet, despite running the same single 46t chainring up front. All of the SLR models come with Quark power meters as well, which is a huge bonus. Pacing on gravel is the biggest challenge and having a power meter makes it that much easier. In terms of the shifting performance, it is flawless. I now have AXS on all of my bikes and have yet to have it miss a shift or drop a chain. Not having wires that can come loose or cables to gum up with mud makes the drivetrain a real treat when the conditions deteriorate. 

On my last Checkpoint, I had three complaints, all of which have been taken care of: externally mounted hoses, difficult to service bottom bracket, and lack of frame storage. 

The hoses on the last model were not entirely internally routed, which made mounting some frame and handlebar bars a bit of a pain. Sure, you can push the hoses out of the way, but then they’ll chafe your bag or frame. The cables and hoses enter the frame and fork through the headset, only to be seen at the other end of your frame now. Not only does this make for a much cleaner-looking frame, but it also makes mounting bags easier as well as the whole package that much more aerodynamic. 

Gravel bikes see the worst of the worst conditions so having an easily serviced bottom bracket is a really big deal. The previous model had a pressfit90 bottom bracket. Not only are these not easily serviced at home, unless you have a bearing press, but there have also been reports of the housing enlarging with wear and causing bottom bracket fitment issues. The new model has a threaded T47 bottom bracket, one of the few things that manufacturers are starting to agree on. A threaded bottom bracket is less prone to creaking and is much easier to remove and service than one of the press-fit variety.

This is where the tool that should be included with the bike would go.

The third nitpick that I had was a lack of in frame storage. With storage compartments being the norm on mountain bikes, I really felt like having one on a gravel bike would be ideal. Trek delivered on this front with a storage area hidden behind the bottle cage on the downtube. The bike comes with a tool roll to keep things organized and rattle free inside the frame. My go to kit for this is a spare axs battery, small pump, multi tool, tire plugs, and a C02 cartridge. There is a spot behind the bottle cage cover for a Trek specific multi tool but that is not included. For how cheap it would be for Trek to include this, I think it’s a big miss that they didn’t. Either include the tool or have a system for mounting any multi tool. For those who might ask, why not use a saddle bag? Keeping your tools in your frame means that they are never covered in mud. A bike without a saddle bag is also a cleaner-looking bike. On top of this strategy, it allows you to mount a seat bag for bikepacking without having to sacrifice precious cargo space elsewhere for your tool kit.

With many people looking to upgrade their first generation gravel bike or wanting to step up from a cyclocross bike to a proper gravel bike, the Checkpoint is definitely worth a look. The changes that were made to this generation, while more evolutionary than revolutionary, have taken the bike from pretty damn good to almost perfect. Not only is it extremely comfortable on the roughest of terrain, it is also extremely quick when you hit the long, open stretches of gravel. 

The Checkpoint is as fast as it is comfortable.

Would I buy this bike again? Absolutely. If you’re looking for a fast but not bone-jarring gravel setup that is equally at home on the gravel race circuit as it is on a weekend bikepacking trip, the Checkpoint is worth taking for a spin. For all of the build kits and options, check out Treks Checkpoint Page.

2022 Croken Classic

The Croken Classic started out in 2016 as a small group of riders who were looking to get in one more punishing ride before winter struck. The event was nothing more than a few of us meeting up, usually at Pigeon Lake, to suffer together through the gravel and the typically cool, wet, weather. With a record turn out last year, despite it being two degrees and pouring rain, I decided to turn the Croken Classic into an official event on the ABA Calender for 2022. By doing this, my intention was to spread the gravel love and offer everyone a chance to challenge themselves before the season was over, all while being surrounded by friends, new and old.

Why is the event called the Croken Classic, you might ask. With a bit of a reputation for organizing punishing rides and convincing others to tag long for them, the first ride was collectively dubbed the Croken Classic by all of the riders involved. Since then, I’ve strived to keep the ride on the edge of punishing and enjoyable with Mother Nature often tipping the event to the punishing side.

A Small group for the first Croken Classic in 2016
Another year, another group to suffer with!
Notice the winter riding gear we were all sporting that year.

The true romantic version of the Classic revolved around cooler temperatures and some variety of precipitation. This year, we were treated to the exact opposite, with an average temperature of over 21 degrees and a gentle breeze. One rider even remarked that he drove all the way from Regina to experience the foul weather gravel riding that this ride is known for and marveled at the civil climate. With memories from last year’s weather still lingering, I was thrilled that we would have perfect weather for 2022.

2021 was a year to remember.

With the weather being spectacular, many riders were early for the event, sharing bike tips and their expectations while we geared up for the draw prizes. One of my favourite parts of the event is that everyone has an equal chance to win a prize, no podium is required. That didn’t mean we couldn’t race though, and we had chip timing to keep the pace fresh! We kicked off the prizing with the early bird registration for the Kuat Sherpa. To keep things fair, we had a nonparticipant draw the name, and would you believe it? The winner was me! That wouldn’t work, so we threw my name aside and along with some chuckles, we drew again. Tensions were high as we mixed extra thoroughly and picked a name. Despite only one winner, the group cheered our winner on as she came to collect her prize. From there we raffled off the prizes. There before the group, a generous table of cycling must-haves. From lights to tires, to coffee, and more, there was a healthy display of items to get excited over. As a name was called, participants came forward and picked which item best fit their needs and taste. From there, everyone grabbed a chocolate bar, geared up, and headed to the start line.

Big smiles as they got to go home with the brand new Kuat Sherpa!

At this point, I’d like to thank all the sponsors who graciously provided prizes for the event.

ERTC – The Edmonton Road and Track Club graciously offered me their support for this event. With a large club and years of experience; they know exactly what an event like this takes. Albert, the president, was indispensable on this front, helping with permits, and organization as well as highlighting any potential weak areas. Without him, this would not have been as successful as it was.

Hardcore Bikes offered discounted service to all riders who participated in the event as well as a wide range of draw prizes.

Good Goods Co provided curated prize bags with Canadian-made goods and volunteer support for the event.

Kuat Racks supplied a Sherpa 2.0 rack which we used to encourage early registration for the event.

Trek Bikes provided us with gravel ride specific prizing.

Blindman Brewing came through with beer for the volunteers as well as our beer garden.

Ottalaus Inc. came through with a gravel specific front light for the raffle.

Smithstine Jewelry created five unique keychains to commemorate the 2022 Classic.

Seven Summits Snacks provided chocolate to fuel every rider.

Alexander Patton Photography for photographing the event. You can find the gallery of images of the event here

This year,  we were treated to a poem written by one of our volunteers, James.

The Croken Classic:

There are strange things done in the dim fall sun by those who brave the cold.

The gravel trails keep Erie tails of bike races of old.

The grader blade will wipe away all signs of bygone traffic.

Leaving gravel trued, its depth renewed, just for the Croken Classic.

Now Croken was from Edmonton, Twas gold bar he called home.

Why he made his race at Pigeon Lake I guess God only knows. 

Perhaps he bored with city streets just knowing them so well. 

And thought to himself “I have an idea, let’s put my friends through hell“

On a damp fall day, when you make your way to the start, you’ll be delighted. 

To see some faces that you know, other suckers that Nick invited.

Though the sky is grey you’ll think or say “this ain’t that bad for fall”. 

But your better judgement requires convincing, of why you’re here at all.

As regardless of it, you’ll don your kit and for a moment you’ll despair. 

At next months massive visa bill from all your bikes repair. 

For the Classic is known to take its toll on wheels and frame and chain.

And while your derailer may still shift… it will never be the same.

On last years loop, some lost the group, and never made it back. 

We think some died from exposure… some from that grizzly bear attack. 

Maybe that’s humour, maybe a rumour, but I should keep it short. 

As I really shouldn’t comment more… while the matter’s still court. 

So before you race, wipe that smile off your face, and acknowledge what you do at your own peril. 

For the Croken Classic has crushed more souls than the wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald. 


The sleepy autumn community joined us along the shoreline, where James led 120 eager cyclists through the summer village of Mission beach to ensure that the group stuck together safely until the gravel begin. People came to cheer, which made the start even more exciting. To me, seeing the community lined up to cheer really showed how special cycling is and how amazing it is, that such a simple device can pull so many people together. After we passed through the community, we hit the gravel and it was game on.

Starting both the Classic and Cordial distances at the same time afforded every rider the experience of a mass start event. In fact, the group largely stuck together for the first 25km, as the terrain wasn’t overly hilly and the draft was huge with such a peloton of that size.

The variety of riders that attended the event was nothing short of remarkable. For many people, this would be their longest ride to date, their first 100km. Others were out to push the speed at which they could race on the punishing terrain around Pigeon Lake. Equally as unique as the riders were the bikes. From a fat bike to a fixed gear, there was a lot of variety in terms of what was being ridden, which highlights that any bike can, in fact, be a gravel bike if it’s ridden on gravel.

The area surrounding Pigeon Lake is quite unique. Typically, the prairies in Alberta are thought to be flat and boring; that is not the case in this area. With nearly 1000m of elevation over 100km, there is an abundance of climbing to test your legs. Many of the climbs are long and mellow, making you question if you’re actually climbing or if the gravel is just that slow. There are also a few climbs that made you long for the gearing and comfort of the mountain bike. Two of the climbs exceed 14% on some of the loosest gravel I’ve ever ridden. You can’t stand up or you lose traction, and you can’t gear down, or you’ll lose traction.

Sometimes, the ditch was the only place you could get traction.
A vew we were all treated to.

Speaking of loose gravel, we encountered the entire gamut of gravel surfaces on this ride. The chip seal rollout lulled people into a false sense of security. After the neutral truck pulled off, we immediately got into the deep gravel that Alberta is known for. The fastest running gravel was through Battle Lake, an area that is always a wildcard for gravel conditions. I’ve been through there at 20kmh and 34kmh; you never know what the gravel in that area will allow for. Following the fast gravel, we were treated to the long westbound leg with three hills, all of which had fresh gravel within the last two weeks. The next notable section involved two steep hills on very large gravel led you into the lease land portion of the route. The best part of this section is that the first steep hill is immediately followed by a second steeper and harder hill. This was punishing for the legs and the grouping spread out significantly. Following the two leg-breaking hills, we were treated to a section of oil lease land. Winding through an unmaintained dirt road with capped wells really highlights how much variety in terrain we have here in Alberta for gravel riding. About 85km into the race, we were treated to very freshly laid gravel; we slogged through the fresh gravel for about 15km. This is where wider, gravel-specific tires outperformed the narrower tires. If you ran a narrower tire, this section made you work harder to get through, while the float of the wider tires rewarded riders. When I turned onto this section of the course and saw countless, deep ruts, from the 65km group, I knew what we were in for. Naturally, this 15km was also on a nice false flat. It was at this stage of the race that it was uncommon to see more than one or two riders together. We were all deep in the pain cave and suffering at our own pace While many would prefer a fast downhill finish on a ride like this, it just wouldn’t feel right for the Croken Classic.

One of the many punishing hilly sections.
The suffering was real as we neared the finish straight.

Despite having a ton of fun during the race, my favourite part, was after we crossed the finish line. Misery loves company, is a phrase that comes to mind for any long event and it couldn’t be more true for the Croken Classic. With the mercury sitting at 22 degrees, most riders stuck around to enjoy a freshly grilled burger and a wide array of snacks as they attempted to get their blood sugar levels back to a normal level. The beer gardens were a great success as well, as everyone was keen to quench their thirst with the tasty Blindman Beer.

I’d like to extend a big thank you to the riders as well as the volunteers; this event ended up being much larger than I had anticipated and I am already looking forward to next year!

St Paul Gravel Riding

Over the past few seasons, I have explored a fair bit of the gravel terrain surrounding Edmonton, particularly the area around Pigeon Lake. Nina and I were itching to get away for a weekend to explore new terrain which brought us to the Floatingstone Lake Area, just outside of St Paul, Alberta. Being only two hours from town, this made the drive after work on Friday quick and easy. As you can see from the map below, there are tons of lakes and winding roads to pick from which is why we chose to explore this area.

The best sign to see!
It doesn’t get much better than this!

If you are looking to make a weekend of riding, which I would strongly suggest you do, there are a couple of campground options that we scouted out. The first being the municipal campground at  Floatingstone Lake, The other option is the provincial campground at Garner lake, Both of these campgrounds have playgrounds for kids as well as manicured beach areas and boat launches, should you want to play on the water as well.

The gravel in this area proved to significantly faster than the gravel down south. Most of the roads are protected by trees which keeps the wind at bay for the most part. For most of the roads that we travelled on, the gravel was quite shallow or even very hard packed. With how little cars there were on the roads, I’d imagine they don’t see fresh gravel more than once in the spring.

When you’re mapping out your ride, I would strongly encourage you to ignore the elevation gain predictions from RWGPS as well as Strava. They grossly underestimate the climbing that you’ll be doing. Nina did a 50km loop with over 500m of gain. You’ll experience everything from short steep walls out of the many valleys to longer, moderate climbs as you crest the endless rolling hills around the lakes.

Should you anticipate spending more than a few hours on the bike, there are a few small towns along the route that I’ve created where you can fill up with water or snacks. The campgrounds also have potable drinking water so there’s no need to truck it out with you if you’re camping.

If you’re following the route that I’ve created, you don’t have to worry, if you’re making your own route, heed the boundary restrictions around the native reservations. Strava does not show these in their route builder, RWGPS does if you scroll through the mapping options. Having chatted with the locals, the reserves are very much so a no ride zone. My initial route had actually crossed through two reserves which were thankfully pointed out by our hosts.

Outside of avoiding those areas, you can expect virtually no traffic other than the odd snake, deer, skunk, or bear. The few drivers that I did come across were extremely courteous both in overtaking and passing me in the opposite direction.

Damn near as fast as pavement!
The Checkpoint SLR performed admirably, yet again.
Clearly, aliens exist.

You can check out our video from the rides we did and if you’re feeling keen, you can follow this route, which combines the best of both days of riding into a palatable 100km ride. I am very much so looking forward to coming back to this region to explore it further.

All smiles, all the time on the gravel up here.

Bliz Fusion Sunglasses Review

Bliz(pronounced like Biz, as in the short version of business, but with an L) sunglasses first came across my radar when I was looking into quality sunglasses that didn’t cost $300 for a pair. I reached out to Bliz to talk to them about their glasses and they offered to send me a sample pair to review. Bliz sent me a pair of the Fusion glasses with the Nano Nordic Light lens and they retail for $159.99CAD.

The sunglasses arrived in top tier packaging, packaging that exceeds that of any of the other sunglasses I’ve purchased over the years. The box is heavy cardboard that is lined with a soft fabric with magnets taking care of the closure. Inside, the glasses and lenses are inside of a typical microfibre bag which you should use for cleaning. On top of that, there is a separate nose piece as well as a black jawbone piece for the sunglasses. We’ll touch on those two pieces later.

The extra jawbone.

As a photographer, I have high expectations for anything to do with optics. Minimizing distortion and maximizing optical clarity is always a challenge for sunglass companies, especially with the trend towards larger, goggle-like sunglasses. In the past, I’ve used both Smith and Oakley sunglasses, two of the most popular brands out there. The first time I put the Fusions on, I was immediately impressed with how crisp and distortion-free the lenses were. Looking to the bottom of the lens at my bike computer or to the side didn’t introduce distortion either. A lack of distortion plays a critical role when you’re riding singletrack or dodging debris on a road bike.

Light filtration is the next most important part of a lens, and is more complex than how much light is blocked. The Nordic Light lens lets through 25-28% of the visible light. After a few 4 hour rides in bright sunlight, this left me wanting a lens that let through a bit less light. Bliz makes lenses that let through less light, with the Nordic lens being right in the middle of their lineup for light transmission. I will say that the lens was perfect on the trails where the tree cover is heavy as well as on overcast days. The light that was coming through was perfectly filtered in a way that created more contrast on the singletrack as well as the pavement. This means that any imperfections are accentuated making the hazards more visible. 

Next up, is the fit of the sunglasses! Most sunglasses offer zero adjustability in the nose or temples which is one area where Bliz really steps ahead of the other major players. On the Fusion, you can adjust both the nose piece as well as the temples, which means you can really dial in how they fit your nose and head. Personally, I like my glasses to be tight on my temples so that they don’t bounce around, which was easily achieved with the Fusions. Earlier in the review, I mentioned that an extra jawbone piece as well as an additional nose piece came in the box. The ability to swap out the lower portion of the frame on the glasses for a different colour or remove it entirely is a great feature. I have friends who prefer not to have lower frames on their glasses for road riding as they don’t like the frame to be visible when they look down. Due to the large size of the lenses, I did not notice the frame on the top or bottom of the glasses. When my wife tried the Fusions on, she wasn’t super keen on their size with the lower frame on, but when the frame was removed, she loved them. Another perk of these sunglasses being on the larger end of the spectrum, is that there is zero gap between the top of the glasses and the brim of my helmet. While a minor detail, I believe that it creates a more cohesive look on the bike.

After about 600kms of riding with these sunglasses, I can wholeheartedly recommend them to anyone looking to upgrade or replace their current glasses. As you all know, I wouldn’t suggest something that I wouldn’t use myself. Bliz was aware that if I found shortcomings with the glasses I would still be writing the review and bringing them to the attention of the readers. Bliz has quite a few options on tap for styles and lenses which I hope to be able to test in the future, particularly their photochromatic lenses;these are lenses that automatically adjust their darkness to the conditions, which would be very handy here in Alberta as the days grow shorter in the fall and our rides often end in the dark.

For $160, I’m not sure what else you could find that offers what Bliz has offered up with their Fusion. They have sports performance glasses starting at $129, which is a steal for any pair of glasses offering the lens quality that they are. If you’d like to pick up a pair or read more about the glasses, you can check them out here and the rest of their lineup here.

2022 Dusty 100

The Dusty 100 is a gravel ride hosted by Jasper Gates and features The Victoria Trail which you may recall from previous rides such as a couple of Croken Classic rides. 2022 is the sixth year that Jasper has hosted the informal ride with this being the first year that my schedule allowed me to participate. 

The route is a 100km loop starting from the Metis Crossing and riding counterclockwise along some of the deepest gravel I’ve seen in Alberta. Jasper decided that this year would be extra difficult as he included a large stretch of the Iron Horse Trail, a trail that is used by off-highway vehicles. This year, we had a special guest courtesy of mother nature, a howling wind. On our drive out to the Metis Crossing, we knew we were in for a treat as all of the flags were pointed straight west, as if they were solid pieces of fabric, there was no fluttering of these flags. 

Click the image for a link to the gpx
Jasper at the ready with his Bugle.

As I mentioned earlier, this was an unofficial event with a start to match. There were about 40 of us lined up in the parking awaiting the blowing of the bugle. Yes, there was a bugle to send us off into battle. While not a race, I was planning to ride this fairly hard and steady to see how the legs were feeling as I haven’t done a ton of gravel yet this year. We started by heading east, into the wind and up a few gentle climbs which quickly split the group up. After that, we started to make our way west. It was at this stage we had a bit of fast gravel and even some tarmac. As tempting as it was to hammer the pedals with the wind at our back, I knew that it was better to chill out and enjoy the effort as there would be plenty of time to suffer on the rest of the route. 

Little did I know that the suffering would start up the second we hit the Iron Horse Trail. Deep gravel and sand greeted us which meant that the best line was often in the ditch! I was very thankful that we had a tailwind at this point as we were crawling a 20kmh for sections of it, I couldn’t fathom what that would be like with a 40kmh headwind. About a mile into this section, I looked back and realized that it was just Will and I left as Kurt and Marcus had dropped off.

Following the Iron Horse Trail, we had a 20km stretch of dead straight roads that were generously graded with fresh gravel. Again, the tailwind was welcome here as this isn’t the scenic portion of the route where you can distract yourself with the sights of the North Saskatchewan River.

The real grind started as soon as we headed south, pointing our noses squarely into the wind. At this stage, we quickly realized that the next 60-70km were going to be mentally and physically punishing. An often overlooked element that the wind adds is the mental exhaustion as there is no reprieve from the noise when the winds are gusting to 50kmh. Between the loose gravel and the wind tossing you around, your whole body starts to get tired. While there were brief periods of respite along Victoria Trail, the majority of the trail is unprotected leaving you to fend for yourself. At around 85km, I noticed that Will was no longer on my wheel. From that point out, I got on the gas again to end the suffering as quickly as possible.

We ended up averaging 29kmh which I was pretty pleased with given the gravel and wind that we had to endure. Despite the ride being just over three hours, it sure felt like we had been out there for longer!

My bike setup was the Checkpoint SL7 running an eagle cassette out back and a 46t chainring up front. The 43mm Gravelking SS tires proved to be a great choice, as they always seem to be here in Alberta. I ran 30psi for the rear tire and 28 up front, with the cushcores installed. The only other difference on this ride was that I had a third bottle on the downtube as I wasn’t planning on stopping for resupply.

Will had lost his soul about 15km earlier after putting in one of his strongest rides to date.

If you’re looking for a fun, casual event, check out the Dusty 100 next year! If you’re looking to ride this route on your own, aim to ride it on a day with less than 40kmh winds for maximum enjoyment.

Blue River Gravel Riding

The search for a gravel route in Blue River began when we decided that it would be an ideal stopover point on our trek to the island. I started perusing the maps of the area and cross-referencing them against the Strava heatmap as this gives me some insight into whether a route is viable or not. While there are many roads heading up into the hills around Blue River, a dead-end logging road isn’t what I had in mind. I noticed that there was a road heading up to Murtle Lake, right on the edge of Wells Gray Park.

This route had zero activity on the heat map; this was before Strava knew which roads were gravel or paved so I assumed that it would be gravel. This route was indeed a nice combination of hardpack gravel as well as loose, large rocks and chunky gravel.

You know it’s going to be great gravel when this what you see at the end of the asphalt.

The route starts from the gas station in town and gets right down to business with the climbing. While there are a few steep sections on this ride, most of it is done at a manageable grade. I run a 46t chainring with a 10-50 cassette on my Trek Checkpoint and Nina ran a 40t chainring with a 10-42 cassette on her Ibis Hakka and neither of us was left wanting lower gears. We both had Panaracer Gravel King SS tires with mine being 700×43 and Ninas being 650×47. These tires were easily aggressive enough and the volume was just right for the chunky sections. You could get away with lower volume tires if you were ok going slower on the descent and being extra careful with your line choice. 

The Checkpoint performed flawlessly, as always.

The road had virtually no traffic on it with us only seeing two cars other than the ones parked at the top. With that being said, you need to be self-sufficient on this road as there is no cell service and it’s unlikely that you’ll see someone else if you get into trouble. The lack of traffic is probably why we ran across a fearless black bear at the bottom of the road. Bringing bear spray wouldn’t be a bad idea.

The fast gravel portion.
The trees provide quite a bit of shelter from the sun.
You’re treated to great views the entire ride.
One of the many waterfalls that you’ll see.
Always up.

Murtle Lake road tours you up to Murtle Lake. When we got to the top, we learned that this is a staging area for canoe trips into Wells Gray Park. There is a small parking lot at the top but no other amenities. We talked to the ranger who was stationed at the canoe launch and he said that while the area is popular for overnight canoe trips, he had never seen anyone cycling the road.

The park ranger with his trailer heading to the canoe launch.
Had it been any warmer, this would be a great place for a quick dip!

After a quick snack, we began the fun descent back to town. As I mentioned earlier, you’ll want to exercise some caution; there are sections of the road that require your attention as there are rocks that will crater any wheel.  After about 8km of descending, you’ll have a bit of a climb, and after that, it’s all freewheeling back to the bottom.

Chunky gravel on the climb on the descent.

After your ride, you can head over to Eleanor lake where you can cool off or knock the dust off at their beach house. There are ice-cold showers as well but the price is right!

We camped in Blue River the night before along the river. I would not suggest stopping here overnight if you’re camping! We heard that the mosquitoes were bad but that ended up being the ultimate understatement. Neither of us has experienced noseeums or mosquitoes this bad before, they were relentless! We spent the bulk of the night killing mosquitoes that snuck into our camper, an experience that left the inside of the camper looking like a scene from Dexter in the morning.

While I wouldn’t say that this is a destination route, it is a great way to break up a drive through the mountains and experience a road that sees very little use!

You can find the GPX file here

Nice and dusty, how every ride should end.

2021 Croken Classic

Another year, and another Croken Classic in the books. For the last five years, the inaugural Croken Classic has held the title for the most punishing gravel ride any of us have been on. So much so, we all used it as the benchmark for horrible riding conditions. Many of us have said many times, how could it possibly have been worse? I urge you to never test the cycling Gods with those words; as we found out, it can always be worse. The Croken Classic has always been a ride that tests your mettle both physically and mentally. Tough conditions are part of the charm that everyone has learned to embrace. As my friends will attest to, I’m always encouraging everyone to push their limits, this event allows everyone to do that amongst a group of like-minded athletes.

Look at all of those unsuspecting faces!

With Covid having caused most events to be canceled this year, my goal was to pull together an event for the community to bring everyone together for a good time. The Croken Classic has always been a fairly low-key gathering, but with the huge increase in popularity of gravel riding, I had a hunch this year would be the biggest yet. 

Gravel has always been about local grassroots vibes and we were fortunate enough to have secured sponsorships from Good Goods Co, Hardcore Bikes, Ottalaus Inc and SYC Brewing. One of the riders even brought 5 homemade cakes!

Instead of having “prizes” we handed the goods out in a door-prize raffle. Not only did this stir up discussion about the goods we were giving away but it ensured everyone had a chance for a prize, as we had a feeling that people would be finishing the ride one by one.

The courses for the two routes, 100km( and 60km(, both included some of the finest gravel that central Alberta had on tap. There are ripping descents, painful climbs, gravel so deep you need a snorkel, and stunning vistas.  With a distinct lack of precipitation this year, I pictured the riders ripping along at speeds you’d only expect to see on a road bike. Little did I know, mother nature had something special in store for us. We’ll come back to that.

Coming into the event, I had over 60 riders registered; far more than I had ever anticipated!  Quickly realizing that this was more than a casual ride with friends, Nina and I decided to stock up on burgers, snacks, and beverages so that we could offer some post-ride hospitality for the low cost of $10. We were both feeling great until the forecast came into view. The Croken Classic has always been about suffering on the bike, but the forecast was truly atrocious, calling for two degrees and rain… lots of rain. In the spirit of the event, I sent out a follow-up email indicating that the ride would be a go, regardless of the weather conditions, but for participants to feel no pressure about showing up. Suboptimal weather conditions elevate the true spirit of the Croken Classic. Simply put, the most romantic version of the Classic includes mud, precipitation, and suffering. That being said, the ride isn’t for the faint-at-heart. You can imagine my surprise when 25 people showed up, in the pouring rain and frigid temperatures, ready to ride.

We kicked off the ride with the aforementioned prizes and portraits of all of the riders. My intention was to have a “before” and “after” photo of everyone who rode, but the conditions quickly derailed that plan.

With the formalities out of the way, we left the comfort of the heated garage and hit the roads. Nina led a 60km, no-drop variant of the ride, and my plan was to be the tip of the spear for the 100km race pace ride. With ideal conditions, I’d imagine we’d have people of all levels riding both distances. Through this process, we learned that a no-drop 60km gravel ride in challenging conditions is not safe or enjoyable, as you can only wear so many clothes. 

No mud yet!

With the forecast calling for the rain to subside after the first hour of riding, our hopes were high that this was going to end up being a glorious ride. We envision our damp start and perseverance would be rewarded with a sun-kissed finish… Boy, were we wrong. Very wrong. The 100km route that I had mapped out was 98% gravel/dirt roads which would have been incredible had it not been raining for over 24 hours. Within 4km, the mud claimed a couple of bikes! Before we took off, all of us postured over what we should be wearing for this ride to stay warm and dry. Some riders had cycling specific raincoats, others had ice climbing jackets. Below the waist, there were shoe covers, summer cycling shoes, fat bike boots, and some shoulder season waterproof boots. None of these options worked, as all of our footwear had filled with water in under 10km. Next up, gloves; again, there was no winner here. I had softshell gloves on and lost feeling in my hands about halfway through the ride. I don’t believe that anyone had feeling in their hands or feet by the end, which is wild.

The gravel around Pigeon Lake is notoriously deep and slow, even when conditions are perfect. Add in a couple of inches of rain with zero sun and you have a recipe for conditions that make this year’s Paris – Roubaix race look chill. Line selection was akin to a game of Russian roulette; one grain of gravel in either direction had you inches deep in mud.  Who am I kidding? There was no right line anywhere. The first major hill climb was so soft that we resorted to riding up the ditch full of hay. Some guys walked. The ride was bordering a duathlon at this stage. 

After conquering that climb, we descended into the Battle Lake area which was a challenge in itself. By this point, our glasses were covered in mud and our brakes were no longer functional. Hell, everyone who had a front derailleur on their bike was now stuck in one ring or another. Normally, Battle Lake is the highlight of the route with fast gravel and scenic views. As expected, Battle Lake was beautiful, at least what I could see from behind my mud-speckled glasses. Riding was definitely slow. In fact, the going was so slow that my power was 75 watts higher than my fastest time and I was over 10 minutes slower. It was an epic effort and it kept me warm enough. 

At the end of Battle Lake road, it was decision time. Everyone was cold, the group had shattered, our speed was 8kmh slower than expected, and the rain had picked up. I polled the guys to see what they’d like to do as this was the last spot where we could reasonably start heading back to the cabin, not turning north here meant we were only going further from safe haven. Being the host, you have to be prepared to go the distance, but thankfully, the group voted that we should start heading back as our bikes were in shambles and we couldn’t feel our extremities. This was no shortcut though, we still had hundreds of meters of elevation and some torturous gravel to contend with. 

At the end of the gravel, we hit the highway. At the time, this seemed like the best choice as it was easier pedaling and the guys could draft me all the way home. In reality, the road was a double-edged sword. Sure, we were making good time getting home but we were also dealing with an additional 30kmh windchill that we weren’t dealing with on the gravel. Trying to shift at this point was futile as my hands were blocks of ice. Shifting involved swinging my arm towards the shift buttons in the hopes that I could actuate the derailleur. Sometimes it worked, others, it didn’t.

Once we got back to the heated garage, we were treated to hot chocolate, beer, and burgers. I don’t think anyone could even possibly consider holding a burger for at least 15 minutes, as we were all in rough shape. Some of the riders who had turned around early were there and then there was a continuous trickle of riders rolling in. Everyone was still smiling, even if they had blue lips. War stories were already being traded and as we warmed, everyone’s spirits lifted rapidly. It was at this point where I realized there was no way for me to get everyones after photos. I tried to shoot as many as I could despite having numb hands but ended up with not nearly enough after photos. It turns out that you can’t do it all when running an event like this!

The afters that we managed to get.

Despite the horrors we saw on the ride, I had a stellar time. The rides we remember are never the ones where the sun was shining and there was no discomfort. I’ve done hundreds of rides where everything was perfect yet they are rarely memorable. Testing my limits on the bike, whether through distance, difficulty, or conditions provides me with endless entertainment, for better or worse. Growth comes from a place of discomfort, as they say. Everyone on the ride pushed through some serious physical and mental challenges are stronger from it. Not a single one regrets coming. The Croken Classic always aims to be on the hard side of Type 2 fun. You may not be having fun during the ride but you sure look back on it with great fondness.

The aftermath. The rain kept the bike looking somewhat clean. Clean, it was not.

Overall, I will say the event was a great success, despite the truly atrocious conditions. While being a grassroots event, I have learned quite a bit and look forward to applying it to future events. The Croken Classic 2022 will be a go and larger than ever. I polled the audience and here are a few key things people said:

-People want to show up no matter what the conditions are

-Postponements are not favoured by the majority of guests

-I will have foul weather course alternatives and weather parameters set for riding them

-Post ride eats are huge for people

-I’m going to need better weather or a bigger venue

-a check in procedure is needed for unsupported rides to keep track of everyone. We will get everyone to text their name when they start and text “finished” when they’re done. 

On the tech side of the ride, I learned a ton as well.

-Electronic shifting is amazing, my Sram wireless shifting didn’t miss a single shift despite the worst possible conditions

-If it’s wet and muddy, your brake pads may not survive the ride

-There is no staying dry when it is that wet; wear wool where you can!

-Wider tires are better. I had 43s and was having better luck than guys on skinnier rubber

-Semi Slick tires are all you need for straight gravel riding, even when it’s all mud

-Sand will get everywhere and you won’t be truly clean for a couple of showers

-The more effort you put through the pedals, the less blood flow you get to your hands

-1x drivetrains are the only way to go for reliability in foul conditions. Every front derailleur on the ride suffered

Again, I would like to thank everyone who came out to this event, even if it meant the demise of your bike and your souls. The weather had me feeling very disappointed the morning of the event, seeing you all show up with smiles on your face turned my day around big time. That alone is reason enough for me to continue the Croken Classic for 2022.

Please consider supporting our gracious sponsors the next time you’re looking for local goods, liquor, or bikes and servicing.
Good Goods Co Hardcore Bikes Ottalaus Inc SYC Brewing

I look forward to see you all out there and can’t wait for next years Croken Classic!


Trek Madone SLR Long-term Review *updated April 2022*

Choosing between the Emonda SLR and the Madone SLR was likely the hardest bike choice I’ve had to make, ever.  Both of these bikes are raced in the pro tour.  The Emonda is insanely light for hill climbing stages and the Madone is an aero rocketship that is a bit chunky when you throw it on the scale.  After weeks of deliberation, I ordered up a Madone SLR7 etap.  I wanted to log a couple of thousand kilometers on the bike before writing this to have the widest gamut of riding conditions possible.  With that being said, let’s jump into the review.

One of my previous Norco Tactics

My previous two road bikes were a 2014 Norco Tactic and then, due to a warranty issue, a 2017 Norco Tactic Team Edition.  These bikes were light at 15lbs, had carbon everything, and, at the time, felt quite fast.  My driving force for upgrading my bike was to jump onto a disc brake bike before my rim brake bike lost too much value and, of course, to jump into a 12 speed wireless groupset.  For over twenty thousand kilometers, the Tactics served me well, but I was always wondering about the so-called “super bikes”:  Could a bike really make that big a difference?  Many people don’t think so but I’m here to disagree.

Deep profiles on the frame make for a fast ride but cost you in the weight department

The first question that everyone asks is: “How much does it weigh?” For the first month, I hadn’t even bothered weighing it because I knew that it was heavy.  It’s like looking in the mirror and seeing some extra pudge; you know it’s there, do you really need to quantify it?  The bike felt faster than anything I had ridden before and it didn’t feel heavy on the hills, so the weight didn’t bother me.  Eventually, I did end up weighing it at the shop. With cages, Garmin mount, pedals, etc, it was 17lbs.  Heavy.  As you’ll see though, that weight has paid off in every scenario from hill climbs to 200km rides to race rides.

One of the biggest draws to the Madone for me was their adjustable IsoSpeed seatpost design.  My Checkpoint has the nonadjustable version and it works great, so I had no reason to doubt the adjustable version.  The adjustable IsoSpeed utilizes a carbon strut that is part of the detached seat tube, allowing for the post to flex and eliminating harsh bumps and road noise.  Adjusting this is simple with two allen keys and a wedged slider that controls the flex of the strut.  Whether you have the IsoSpeed set to the firmest or softest setting, nothing changes in terms of the rest of the bike; you still have the torsional stiffness when you sprint.  I’ve since left the bike in the softest position as the roads in Alberta are far from perfect, and the reduced fatigue lets me ride faster for longer.

*April 2022 Update Regarding the Isospeed Issues*

In October 2021 I took the bike into the shop as I noticed that my seat mast had a bit of lateral play. The shop disassembled the isospeed assembly and noticed that the teflon bushings had basically disintegrated which is what they thought was causing the lateral play. This seemed odd to me as the bike had seen under 4000km, all on the pavement. At this point, I was starting to think that something was wrong with my frame as this isn’t generally a part that needs servicing so soon. The shop, Hardcore Bikes, ordered me a new isospeed bolt and bushings as that seemed like a reasonable fix. If this were a mountain bike, new bushings would solve any play and you’d be on your way. Unfortunately, the new isospeed parts did not eliminate the issue and some further digging found a small crack in the frame where the bushings seat. Not only does this explain the play but also why the bushings wore out prematurely.

At this point, Trek issued a do not ride order for the bike and wrote the frame off as they had deemed it unsafe to ride. As there aren’t a lot of Madones on the road in Alberta, nobody had encountered this issue before. Clint, the Trek rep, and I started doing as much digging as we could, him reaching out to the engineers at Trek while I talked to other Madone riders, globally. Long story short, there had been a manufacturing issue on Madone SL and SLR frames produced for May 2021. The claim rate on these frames was less than 1% which means that very few frames were actually affected by this issue. Trek provided me with the below service bulletin to share with other Madone riders who may encounter this issue. In true Trek fashion, they started the frame replacement process immediately. At no point did Trek suggest that this was a rider error or abuse of the bike, they just took care of it. After six months of waiting, my replacement frame showed up along with my new wheels. Typically, a frame replacement takes 1-2 weeks but the pandemic has shattered production timelines across the board and my replacement frame was no different. If you run into any isospeed issues, please reach out to your local Trek dealer and they will take care of you. In the mean time, it’s worth removing the cover on your isopeed bolt and ensuring that it is torqued to spec. You can see the service bulletin below.

The replacement frame in Trek Black/Dark Prismatic.
The snub nose Aeolus saddle that came with the bike is exceptionally comfortable. The short nose allows for a far better angle with my hips when riding in the drops.

While we’re talking about the seat mast and how comfortable it is, it poses an issue for riders with long legs.  As you may remember from my Top Fuel and Checkpoint reviews, Trek doesn’t have their sizing dialed in.  They believe that at 6’ tall I should be on a 58cm frame which is crazy.  You can imagine my disappointment when my new bike showed up and the seat mast was too short.  The solution was simple but expensive, a $360 taller seat mast.  I’d expect this to be a free swap on a bike that sells for twelve thousand dollars.  I’ve talked with Trek about this and they agree that a situation like this should never happen and will work on preventing it in the future.  I was so doubtful about Trek’s sizing chart that I had a pre-bike fit done to determine if I was a 56 cm or a 58 cm before ordering the bike.

No cables or brake lines to be seen here

The Madone SLR comes with a fully integrated cockpit, whereas the SL models come with a standard bar and stem.  If there are any doubts about your sizing here, get a fit done before you pull the trigger.  The bar and stem are $460 each, not a small chunk of change if you need to change the length or width.  Normally, I run a 120 mm stem on a 56 cm frame, but, due to the long reach of the Madone bars, I was fine with the 100 mm integrated stem.

The bike came with Trek’s proprietary Blendr mount but it didn’t allow my Garmin 1030+ to sit flush with the bars. While expensive, K-Edge always has a sleek, sturdy, mount solution for Garmins and lights.
Cable free and spider based power, what more do you want?

With the sizing and frame features out of the way, let’s take a look at the groupset that the bike came with: SRAM Force eTap.  My previous road bikes had SRAM Red 22s, which I loved, and my Checkpoint has an SRAM AXS Mullet set-up, so I was familiar with the hoods already.  As anyone who rides with me has heard a million times: I prefer the tactile feel and sound of the SRAM Red’s mechanical shifting. But the performance of electronic shifting is undeniable; there are no cables to stretch, no derailleurs to trim, and every shift is perfect.  I find myself shifting more often than before because it is so fast compared to mechanical shifting.  Another big perk of having a 12 speed, 10-28 cassette is that your front chainrings can be smaller which allows you to stay in your big ring (48 on my bike) longer, which means more time pushing the pedals. Trek spec’d a 10-33 Cassette with the bike but I swapped that for a 10-28 as I’m willing to trade the climbing gear for smaller steps on the cassette. Despite having a 48/35 chainring, the gearing gives you the top end of a 53/11 and nearly the same climbing gear as a 34/28.  As you may have suspected, the disc brakes also provide wildly impressive stopping power. So much so actually, that I had to dial the pad contact off as they were either on or off.  The downside of electronic groupsets is that you can’t pull the shift lever towards the bar, which means you’re stretching for it when you’re in the drops or sprinting.  Adding blips to the drops helped with this issue, but again, it’s an issue I didn’t have with mechanical SRAMs.

Another big reason why I went with the SRAM version of the bike over the Shimano version was because it comes with a Quarq crank-based power meter.  Most folks riding this caliber of bike are training with a power meter anyway, so this just saves them one step of adding it after the fact.  Not only do you get dual-sided power at your head unit, but you also get information about how much power you put out in each gear, how much time you spent in each gear, and how many shifts you make, all through the SRAM AXS app.  You can get this without the power meter as well, but the power data makes it all the more useful.

While some brands try to save a bit of weight going with 140mm rotors, Trek as opted for more braking power with 160mm rotors.

When I ordered the bike, I had also ordered a pair of the then-unreleased RSL 62 mm wheels with the expectation that I’d never ride the stock Aeolus Pro 50 wheels.  Why? The RSLs are lighter and an aero bike deserves deep wheels.  Here I am, months later, and the RSL wheels have yet to surface thanks to the pandemic.  However, the factory wheels have really impressed me so far, especially in terms of rigidity when cornering and sprinting.  They came with factory rim tape and tubeless valves, which is great because many wheels require you to buy those separately.  The buffeting in crosswinds isn’t overly noticeable, but it’s there.  I expect the RSL62s to be better in this regard based on the testing data I have seen.  Outside of these wheels being heavy, I have no complaints.  Once they are up to speed, they keep on moving!  The hubs haven’t given me any issues either which is rare, as I go through hubs like most people go through underwear.

Just look at how little frontal area there is on this bike!

Earlier in the review, I mentioned the weight of the bike not bothering me at all, and there are a few reasons for that.  When choosing between the Emonda and the Madone I looked at my slowest sustained climbing speed, which was 16 km/h at 320 W for an hour, 16 km/h seems to be the threshold where aero creeps ahead of weight in terms of bike advantages.  On top of that, I ride at 170 lbs, so a 1.5 lb difference between the Emonda and the Madone is less than 1% of my total weight on the bike.  Nothing at all. Most of the riding around Alberta is done on flatter terrain with lots of wind.  Aero bike terrain.  Outside of all of that, I’ve been putting out higher wattage sprints than I ever did on the Tactics, and I believe a large portion of that is due to this frame not flexing like a noodle in high-wattage scenarios.

No more pressfit bottom brackets or creaks. Trek has finally gone to the T47 threaded standard

Not only has the Madone proven itself in sprints and hill climbs, but it has also proven itself on long endurance rides.  On my Tactic, I’d start to tire around 130 km.  Not my legs but the rest of my body, the kind of fatigue that makes every fiber of your body sore.  The longest ride I’ve done so far on the Madone was 215 km and at no point during that ride did I feel sore.  I attribute part of that to an excellent bike, but a lot of it to the IsoSpeed system.  Sure, larger tires help, but that was before I had 28 mm tubeless tires!  The Madone picks up speed and holds it like nothing else I’ve ridden.  Our group rides average 34 km/h or better with sustained periods at 45+ km/h.  While I can’t quantify the aerodynamic numbers, I can tell you that the speed is effortless.  When it’s time to sprint, the bike tracks straight and predictably.  On my Tactics, I needed to provide a lot of input to keep the bike going where I wanted it to.

You can see the truncated foil shape here on the seat post.
Fortunately for me, my fit didn’t require spacers on the steer tube. I’m firmly in the camp that if you have a ton of spacers on your Aero bike, an aero bike may not be the best fit for you.
While the purists may not like the Brooks Microfibre tape in dark brown, it sure is comfortable and durable.
I’m now running 28mm tires but could safely go to 30mm if I wished.

As you can tell, I haven’t regretted my choice to go with the Madone over the Emonda.  If you’re cross-shopping these bikes, you’re in a great position as there is no bad choice.  Are you a featherweight rider who spends their time riding mountain passes? Go for the Emonda.  Are you riding a variety of terrain and looking to eke as much speed as possible on the flats? The Madone is for you.   If you’re in the Edmonton area and want to pick up one of these rocket ships, give Hardcore Bikes a call and they’ll sort you out. For more information you can hop on over to Trek’s website .