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With the advent of gravel suspension forks and wider tire clearances, the ATB (all-terrain bicycle), or drop bar mountain bike, is great for adventuring. However, racing is another story.
I’ve long been trying to find a scenario where such a build would actually be faster than a lighter rigid gravel bike or a lightweight hardtail MTB. I felt there could be a competitive use for such a rig but had yet to find the right fit. When Life Time announced that the Chequamegon 40 would be the fifth stop of their Grand Prix series, I did some research of the Wisconsin event that had never been on my radar before.
What I learned was that the event is extremely unique. It takes place predominantly on nordic ski trails that serve as the site of the biggest nordic race in the USA, the American Birkebeiner. As such, the course in summer consists of very wide and rolling grassy fields, with a lack of technical terrain. There are a lot of sweeping turns rather than tight singletrack.
In the day and age of events pushing grueling endurance, vert, and terrain, Chequamegon’s draw lies in being an event that is accessible to many. Indeed, I reasoned, this just might be the perfect time to try this frankenbike after all.
As Big Tall Wayne and I drove across the American West this summer we rang up my tech confidant, Shimano’s Nick Legan. Would it even be possible to mix and match enough parts to “mountain bike-itize” my gravel rig? The answer was yes.
While Shimano’s groupsets are most efficient and reliable when kept within their respective families, it is possible, with the help of a skilled mechanic, to mix and match. The end result was my Canyon Grazil ATB. A drop bar, front suspension, archaic tire choice build that would either give me a competitive edge or put me on the back foot. I was confident in the former.
Upon arriving and pre-riding, my confidence grew. The course was dry and fast. The bike hooked up surprisingly well on the terrain and if I could handle the bumpy first half against the bigger bikes, the second half of the course lent itself to a road racey drop bar tactical battle.
Chequamegon is also unique in its format — since the distances are shorter, the organizers can send people off at different start times. The age groupers go off in the morning and the pros in the afternoon. This creates a massive crowd able to spectate the action-packed finale of the pro race.
As Wayne and I sat in our hotel room waiting for the clock to tick over to “p.m.” we watched the masses take off. 20 minutes later an intense rainstorm rolled through. The weather app had said 10 percent chance of a light drizzle, and it was dumping!
While we were lucky enough to avoid rain on our heads, what happened to our conditions was an unavoidable mud scenario that would change the entire scope of the race. With enough rain and 2500 riders in front of us, the course was transformed into a soupy, sloppy, rutty, cyclocross-style track.
The race started as expected, with a violent viscous effort, and it never let up. It moved, with pack dynamics, over the hills for two hours of drag racing. Attrition took its toll as rider’s gaskets blew one by one over the relentless hills, and by the halfway mark there were 15 of us left. During a lull my competitors even gave me kudos for handling my gravel rig to keep in contention against their flat bars!
I’d gained their respect but could I do more?
As we got into the second half and what should have been my preferred terrain, my fortunes turned. The mud was extreme. The minimal clearance of my rear tire and the front derailleur 2x set up I’d opted for gunked. I struggled to follow over Firetower Hill, the most decisive moment in the course, and lost contact.
Up ahead selections formed and reformed as we slip-slided around using every inch of grass we could find. Payson, Keegan, and Finsty would all slide out at one point or another. The front formed and reformed constantly. It would come down to the final corner where race favorite Keegan would slide out, XC star Riley Amos would narrowly avoid but overbrake, and bike handling ace Brayden Lange would come through the chaos to take the biggest win of his young career!
A minute behind I would make up lost ground, picking off a few riders, eventually reconnecting with Payson and Cole Paton. I would settle for seventh at the line, collecting a few precious GP points.
Given all the same information I would opt for the same equipment. I do believe this ATB can challenge for the win, and I have no regrets. I played my card, and I enjoyed it immensely.
Things now look very interesting as we head to the GP finale at Big Sugar Gravel next month. Barring disaster, Keegan will sew things, up but the podium fight for 2nd-5th for the men is extremely tight, and anything can happen. It will surely be one of the biggest storylines to follow one month from now, and I know we’re all already priming for the battle.
I leave Chequamegon with a silver lining: I never contemplated traveling to Northern Wisconsin for a two hour race. The cost to benefit ratio had me skeptical. But this race is so unique — it’s not gravel and I don’t think it’s a true MTB race either. It’s unlike any other event I’ve done and I 10/10 plan to return … with my ATB.