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The Grind: Solo gravel gear gets weird and wonderful

A brief tale of Mr and Mrs Narwhal, the Dirty Kanza aero bars. Also, remote shifting? Yes, please.

The Grind is a weekly column on all things gravel.

Gravel gear was already getting strange before the pandemic. And now that many of us are riding alone, it’s getting even weirder. And that’s a beautiful thing.

Part of the fun of gravel is the riddle of the gear. Which tires should I run? What’s the best set-up for this particular course? And how the heck am I going to carry enough water?

Self-sufficiency has always been part of the gravel ethos, if there is such a thing. If you’re going to go out for a long ride or race, you should be prepared to take care of yourself and your bike. This isn’t road racing, with feed zones and a follow vehicle toting extra wheels, or a criterium where you can visit the pits and get a free lap. “You are responsible for you,” reads the website instructions of many a gravel race.

Fair enough. But even at the big races there are checkpoints for refilling your supplies and getting mechanical help, not to mention the scores of other riders you are with along the way.

Now that many of us are riding solo versions of gravel events, and trying to steer clear of stores for our usual pitstops, the gear riddle has changed yet again. What’s the best way to do this alone? In my case, the answers are starting to look a lot like the bike leg of a triathlon.

Solo gravel efforts prompt gear reconfigurations

Two weekends ago I bolted a double bottle cage on my saddle rails for a solo Belgian Waffle Ride. Yesterday, with the idea of a solo Dirty Kanza 100 planted in my brain by Frank Overton at FasCat Coaching, I went and borrowed some particular clip-on aero bars from my friend Chris Case.

That’s right; I’ve gone full Panaracer in my solo gravel fetish. Okay, maybe not full Panaracer. I mean, I haven’t owned a skinsuit in years. But staring down the barrel of a long solo effort, aero bars just make good sense.

Overton and the FasCat Coaching crew laid out a 100-mile Dirty Kanza homage course, for any local Colorado folks to go do alone on May 31, the same weekend as the original date for DK. It’s an informal Strava-based race — solo, of course — during which FasCat will be providing nutrition support at the half-way mark. Thanks, FasCat!

I have to say, I’m geeking out over connecting the new SRAM eTap MultiClic remote shifters to the eTap shifters on a test Diverge. Remote shifters are cool, and one of the big benefits of electric drivetrains. Do you need it? Of course not. You don’t need any of these toys, but they sure are cool.

I already appreciate remote shifters just on normal road bars, both in the drops and on the tops up by the stem. For a while I had a Scott Foil aero road bike set up with a two-button Di2 shifter zip-tied onto the front of a Barfly Garmin mount. For bikes with aero bars, it’s a game-changer.

You can stick remote shifters just about anywhere.

Aero is everything. No, really!

You’ve probably seen Specialized’s phrase ‘aero is everything’ in recent years, yeah? I am at least partly responsible for that. I worked at Specialized when the California company launched the Shiv triathlon bike in 2011 (that bike that Craig ‘Crowie’ Alexander raced to victory in Kona.) The marketing copy I wrote for that bike pointed out that, when it comes to racing solo, ‘aerodynamics is everything.’

Okay, technically not everything; but certainly the vast majority of the resistance you are pedaling against is aero, not rolling resistance or mechanical drag.

In normal gravel situations, as on the road, I am all about the draft. I’m not pro aero bars or anti gravel bars for racing; I’d just rather ride in a pack, thanks very much.

At the 2018 Dirty Kanza 200, Chris and I found ourselves doing a two-man time trial for, oh, 170 miles or so after early punctures and self-inflicted mechanical boondoggles.

The narwhal aero extension. Now with an eTap remote shifter.

One of the many funny things about this was our bike set-ups. Chris had a single aero-bar extension, without the arm rest, bolted to his handlebar. He dubbed it the narwhal. I had mocked him for this quite a bit in the lead up to the race. Then, the night before, looking at the forecast of strong headwinds for the last 80 miles of the race, I sheepishly asked him if I could use the other extension.

When it came down to it, I didn’t mount the aero extension. It seemed dumb. Fast forward to mile, oh, 100 or so of the race, at which point we had been crawling along into the wind for hours, and I would have paid good money for that stupid aero bar.

So now I have both Mr. and Mrs. Narwhal on my bike, and the elbow pads, and remote shifters. And I am quite pleased.

I hope you are able to cook up a solo gravel adventure that gets your gears turning similarly.

Follow Ben on Strava.

Is it bikepacking or triathlon we are doing here? Nope, just solo gravel.