While the Belgian Waffle Rides in Kansas, Utah, and North Carolina are bonafide gravel races that demand gravel bikes, the original event in California, per founder Michael Marckx’s vision, is a really hard road event with a whole mess of dirt sectors thrown in. An Unbound-style gravel bike and tires would be overkill, but a road bike with 23mm clincher tires would be a horrible idea. So what to do?
I brought a Cannondale Synapse 1 RLE road bike, and swapped in the new Hed Emporia GC3 Performance gravel wheels with Challenge 36mm Gravel Grinder tubeless tires. The new Synapse is an endurance road bike with room for 35mm tires, and has Cannondale’s SmartSense combination of front and rear lights with Garmin’s Varia radar, all of which runs on a single down-tube-mounted battery.
See below for the full details, but here’s the summary: The Synapse is a great endurance road bike with engineered flex and confident-but-not-sleepy handling. The SmartSense stuff is cool, but I wish it disassembled more easily, and the single battery would connect to everything on the bike, including the Shimano drivetrain and the (not-included) Garmin. The new Dura-Ace is friggin’ awesome. (I learned, you need to run two wires into the seatpost battery…) And, after bending a rotor and breaking a frame on previous trips, I had good luck with the Thule travel case this time, perhaps due to my adding rigid cardboard from a lawnmower box into the top portion of the bag.
I covered the Waffle Saturday, and raced the Wafer Sunday. I ended up tenth and won my age group.
Quick notes on clothing before the bike stuff: I really like POC’s Ventral Lite helmet for its ventilation and light weight, but it fits small so if you’re on the top end of sizing go up one. Sportful’s Giara jersey has six pockets and longish sleeves, which I like. The Rapha Core Cargo bib shorts I wore for the first time, and appreciated the compression on the legs. (Some early Rapha bib shorts felt too shapeless for my tastes.) Side pockets were good for a Dynaplug Racer on the right, and used food wrappers on the left. I tucked my Co2 breaker in one of the back pockets for easy access…
The Cannondale Synapse endurance road bike isn’t designed for gravel racing per se, but it handled the BWR CA just fine; the flex in the seatpost was an appreciated comfort feature. I like the shall0w-drop bars with long extensions, too.
Here is the stock configuration on the top-end Dura-Ace 9250 model, with HollowGram 45 SL KNØT carbon wheelset, a HollowGram SAVE SystemBar, and 30mm Vittoria Corsa clincher tires. It’s a buttery ride.
Cannondale’s SmartSense includes this bright, front light, a tail light, and a Garmin Varia radar (optional), all of which are wired into a battery that clips into the down tube. The light turns on as soon as your front wheel starts rolling.
You configure the light and radar settings with Cannondale’s app, and then you can also pair them with a Garmin or other computer.
The radar bolts to the light, which in turn bolts to a hanger on the saddle rails.
And this is the battery and brains of the operation. It weighs 178g. The 76g front light and 49g radar bring the system to 304g. I removed those for the race. The battery comes out easily, but the front light requires removing bolts and getting into the down tube to disconnect. The rear light effectively doesn’t come without pulling the power cable through the seatpost, where it’s tucked in against the Di2 battery. So, I left the rear light on.
For normal riding, you would leave everything — safety is the whole idea here. But for racing, removing weight is certainly attractive. Getting the radar and front light off were done not so much to save weight as to make room for a saddle bag and a GoPro.
Meet Merv Davis, who saved me from myself the day before Belgian Waffle Ride. I did not realize that the new 12-speed Di2 had two wires running into the battery in the seatpost. When I dissembled the bike for travel, I saw one Di2 wire peeking up from the seat tube along with the SmartSense wire. So, when I reassembled, I reconnected that one Di2 wire and was stumped that I couldn’t get power to either Di2 derailleur. I assumed that a Di2 wire junction down inside the frame had somehow come loose. Despite having never seen a 12-speed group in the wild, Merv figured out that, no, there were actually two wires that needed to connect to power the derailleurs and close the circuit. He fished out the very short second wire, reconnected everything, and got me rolling. Hero!
I’m sure my friends at Shimano reading this are shaking their heads, like ‘dude, we told you there were two wires.’ And I bet my friends at SRAM reading this are smiling, like ‘you know, if only there was an electronic drivetrain that didn’t require tricky wires…’
One thick SmartSense power wire, and two thin Di2 wires. On this particular build this was as far as the wires extend, which is how I accidentally disconnected them just by removing the seatpost — and then when one dropped down into the seat tube, I had no idea it was even in there. Lesson learned: two wires to the battery on Dura-Ace 9250 – check!
Challenge makes a variety of tires. The name of this one is a bit on the nose, but the width seemed perfect for BWR. The side knobs are a bit aggressive, but I figured if I was cornering that hard on dirt I’d appreciate the grip. The Gravel Grinder tested third fastest in our Wheel Energy lab test. My rear wouldn’t stay fully inflated during the race, despite not having a cut that I could see. I topped it off a couple of times, which validated the decision to carry the Co2 breaker and Co2 in the Rapha Cargo Bib pocket, instead of having it in the saddle bag, which would have taken more time to dig out.
Hed’s Emporia GC3 comes in a few models. This is the second-tier Performance build, a $1,650 set of carbon hoops with a 26mm internal rim width. Going wide internally is on trend, but Hed’s been at that game for years. The Performance set weighs 1,545g, compared to the 1,420g of the $2,400 Pro set. Both are hookless-bead rims.
BWR California featured a bunch of hiking paths and trails scattered amongst the pavement.
The Synapse is rated for tires up to 35mm. These 36mm fit fine, although in mud you’d be pushing it.
Shimano Dura-Ace is exceptional. What has impressed me about the new 12-speed group are improvements in the shifter ergonomics and braking. By widening the caliper stance, you get much less noise after hard braking than you do on the 11-speed group.
SRM X-Power power-meter pedals, compared to Garmin’s Rally models, are much smaller and closer in form and function to Shimano’s SPD. The first two sets I received last year didn’t accurately read for long, but this set has been reliable, and tracks well with other meters. However, you need a special charging cable to recharge each pedal — and of course, I left that cable at home after carefully setting it aside in the garage the night before.
Dawn to Dusk cages, in my opinion, aren’t the most attractive, but they hold onto bottles with conviction. So that’s why I used them for BWR.
One person’s integrated is another person’s incompatible. The HollowGram integrated bar and stem fit me, so the integration was a non-issue. But of course, you want to make sure your fit is dialed before you buy. I appreciated the flattened tops, and the shape of the drops.
The Di2 wire rubbed on the Challenge tires, initially.
So I taped it down for the race. The electrical tape mostly held. Next time I will wrap the tape around the tube.
Fizik’s Argo saddle has been popping up on a number of bikes recently, and the padded, snub-nosed design worked well for me on a bumpy day.
The Thule RoundTrip Pro XT travel case includes this handy workstand. The stand’s frame that your bike mounts onto snaps into the base of the travel case and the tripod, the legs of which serve as siding for the case. On previous trips, I had a rotor get bent and a frame get broken. On this trip, I used a sturdy piece of cardboard packaging from a lawnmower shipping box to brace the top portion of the case, which is otherwise shapeless and incapable of protecting against side impacts. Did that cardboard protect the Cannondale? Who knows, but it did travel safety both ways.
Not the most elegant solution — but a bit of reinforced cardboard can’t hurt the soft-travel-case situation, right?