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Old Man Winter bike and gear test: What worked well for me, and what didn’t

Lessons I should have already learned with drivetrains and lube, plus gear wins and fails.

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The Old Man Winter Rally 100K gravel race out of Lyons, Colorado is a lot of things: fun, cold, sketchy in parts, hard, and an excellent test of bikes, gear, and bodies.

This year I rode a Colorado gravel bike for the Colorado gravel race, and I appreciated everything about it except some of my poor choices.

Related: Unbound Gravel bike and gear test — What worked well for me, and what didn’t

Part of the fun of gravel is trying to figure out what gear to use for any given event. Tires are typically “The Choice,” and that certainly applies to Old Man Winter, where for many years riders are treated to ice, snow, mud, and pavement in various measures. But perhaps an even bigger head-scratcher is how to outfit your body for an event that happens to include at the midpoint a 30-minute run/walk/slog up a jeep road that’s buried in snow — and then how to stay warm on the subsequent 1,700-foot descent.

Related: Ruth Winder, Alex Howes win Old Man Winter Rally

This year Old Man Winter started on dry pavement, but within a few miles we were off into the snow and ice, which turned to soupy mud by the early afternoon. (Photo: Eddie Clark)

Here’s what I picked for the 2022 edition, where temps varied from the low 20s Fahrenheit to the high 30s, and the course surface ranged from dry pavement to sheets of ice to the aforementioned snowy hike-a-bike.

Bike and parts

The new Alchemy Rogue is made in Denver, and although there are mounts for three bottles and one top-tube bag, I went a different direction with the hike-a-bike in mind. (Photo: Ben Delaney)

The Rogue is Alchemy’s second gravel bike. Compared to its more aggressive Ronin, the Rogue has slacker front geo (70.5 degrees in size medium) and room for more rubber. I typically like a slightly steeper front end, but I have to say I really appreciated the extra stability as 200 of us or so skated across icy roads en masse.

The 42-tooth ring was fine for everything but a long paved pedaling descent, where I got spun out a bit. (Photo: Ben Delaney)

This test bike came dressed in Shimano’s GRX Di2 with a single, 42-tooth ring. I appreciate the clean aesthetics of a 1x bike as much as anyone, but I’m partial to 2x bikes for Colorado, where you often need a tiny gear for getting up the mountain and a bigger gear to stay on the gas coming down it.

Related: SRAM vs Shimano gearing for gravel

On this course with 5,300 feet of climbing, I had enough on the low end, but did run out of top gear on a paved descent.

The rear shifting was flawless as always; one benefit of electronic drivetrains is that there are no cables to get junked up and affect the derailleur movement.

Here’s where I went wrong: I opted for the Finish Line Wet because I was lazy. I should have taken the time to clean the chain and apply a wax, like Squirt or Allied’s Grax, which I’ve found to be excellent in a range of conditions. (Photo: Ben Delaney)

Okay, so my big forehead slapper of the day: I slathered on Finish Line Wet lube, which did not shed mud well. In fact, my chainring and chain got so laden with muck that my chain came off four or five times. On a 2x system, you can often carefully pedal a chain back on. With a 1x, well… A couple of times on slow, paved roads I could grab it with my hand and put it back on the ring. But most times I had to stop, which makes staying in the group challenging at best!

The Finish Line Wet lube works great in the rain. However, I should have taken the time to clean off the factory grease on the chain and then put on wax — like Squirt or Allied’s Grax — both of which work much better for shedding mud. Dang it!

I went with Panaracer Gravel King 43mm tires for one very specific reason: they were what came on the bike. (And that width and tread pattern did seem pretty spot on for the course.) I weigh 185lb and ran them at just over 30psi. I didn’t hit the deck, so a win there for the rubber, and perhaps my overly cautious descending and cornering.

Clothing

How do you dress for a 20F- to 37-degree day that involves laborious ‘running’ at 2mph but also descending in the shade at 35mph? And what is the footwear choice?

Two years ago I overdressed and overheated on a 20-degree start. When I crashed in a snowy corner I was delighted to be able to stop and pull off a massive jacket, but then struggled to carry it tucked under a thick thermal jersey.

Video: Snow-testing SRAM Force eTap AXS HRD at Old Man Winter Rally

A Little Hotties hand warmer under the shoe cover is great — until you’ve postholing through deep snow. (Photo: Ben Delaney)

This year I did a thermal jersey under a MAAP Prime Vest with NeoShell. NeoShell is PolarTec’s answer to GoreTex — it’s thin and breathable and a bit stretchy. That combo worked well; I was warm enough for everything but the last couple minutes of a 1,700ft descent — despite putting on a GoreTex skull cap and Pandana neck gaiter.

For bib tights, I’m pretty sold on Sportful’s Giara, which have an on-leg pocket and then two rear pockets that sit below your jersey. When riding in a group on dodgy terrain, it’s nice to be able to grab food without trying to dig under a vest with gloves on.

For gloves, I brought my trusty old Castelli Chiro 3s (they aren’t made any more but you can still find them online) and a back-up pair of Specialized NeoShell, which are thinner.

So, the footwear. I put Sportful booties over my trusty Specialized S-Works MTB shoes, with a Little Hotties handwarmer on the top of each shoe’s toebox. This was delightful — for the riding portions of the day. But, a few steps into the snow of Rowena, and the shoecovers were more like snow scoops.

Alex Howes (EF Education-EasyPost) choose to wear Northwave cycling boots, which served him well. The WorldTour engine probably didn’t hurt, either, as he ran his way clear of the front group of 15 or so that came into the base of Rowena together.

Alex Howes won Old Man Winter on the run, wearing Northwave cycling boots with covers that extend over the ankles. (Photo: Eddie Clark)

Nutrition

I brought one bottle on the seat tube, thinking a bare down tube would be helpful if 30 minutes of shouldering a bike was involved. (However, I mostly ended up pushing the bike alongside me, slowly, not running with pro ’cross form like Alex, above.)

The race format was two, timed segments, with an aid station at the end of the first one after Rowena. I figured one bottle on a freezing day would be fine for the first 30 miles. That mostly worked fine, but later in the day when my chain kept jamming, I wished I had a second bottle to spray on my chain.

The Base gels laid out at the aid station were nearly frozen, and more chewy than slurpy. I think I ended up with more on my glove than in my mouth. It made me appreciate the liquid, easily drinkable GU Liquid Energy packs I had brought all the more.

The Clif Nut Butter Bar I picked up in bulk at Costco was also a welcome snack.

But perhaps the best parts of the day were the snow-chilled beer and posole from La Mariposa consumed by a roaring fire in the snowy park at the finish of Old Man Winter Rally.

As for the results sheet, I ended up kinda where I expected: I got dropped from the Howes group of 20 or so towards the end of the climb to Rowena. And then I rode with women’s winner Ruth Winder, Rob Smallman of CeramicSpeed, and a Lux rider (sorry I didn’t catch your name!) for much of the second segment. I ended up 20th.

See you out there next year?