Okay, so here was the idea, and the challenge — Put together a bike, with disc brakes and drop bars, and road type shifters. Design and build it, so that it handles well, fast enough on the smooth and straight, but also capable enough for any type of adverse terrain or surface, or weather conditions you can throw at it. Make it light enough to be quick and responsive and climb well, and comfortable enough to sit on for 100 miles or more on sometimes smooth, but oftentimes bumpy, washboardy, or otherwise not the smoothest of roads and trails. And then added to the above criteria, use the 650b wheel size. And of course, it has to fit, and feel right.
Well, truthfully my goals at first were not as clear and concise as the above (but foggily close), and the 650b factor was more of a function of being able to use a mountain bike frame as the base for this bike. And the final choices for components and tires evolved, with trial and error, and what I had available at the time. I had just built an older steel hardtail mountain bike (Balance), and took it on some rides, and out on the gravel. But the fit and feel of it wasn’t quite right. And I remember hitting some nasty washboard that made the bike and me shake so hard, the whole world went blurry. This bike was close, closer to the goal, but not quite there.
The tires, unfortunately, were a little disappointing. They provided a nice cushion of air, but other than that, didn’t do anything particularly well.
The frame was long, typical of these type of mountain bikes, but too long to be set up with drop bars to my satisfaction. And the fork was very stiff, and unforgiving.
I needed a different frame. And I found it.
A shorter top tube. Disc brake. Steel. And higher at the head tube, because of the suspension corrected geometry. And I had a fork for it. And, as it turns out, this frame is lighter than the last one, too. The Soma Groove.
And I’ll go into some detail, starting with the tires. Pacenti Pari Moto tires, 650b x 38c. Very little tread, just a fine herringbone. Run at 40 to 45 psi, these grip all kinds of surfaces well, and still have very low rolling resistance (fast). And a superb ride quality that you really have to experience, but as true as others have claimed. And on dry gravel roads, I think more than adequate. It was only on the softest sections these tires struggled, but I feel no less than other tires with more tread.
And some more highlights of the build
-The frame, nicely made and finished, with Tange Prestige steel
-Fork, Exotic carbon fiber, rigid suspension corrected
-Salsa Cowbell 3 handlebars
-Campagnolo Veloce Shifters, 10 speed, coupled with a Shimano 8 speed drive train (shimergo)
-Hayes CX 5 disc brakes, with Ashima rotors
-Hand Built wheels, cheap (but nice!) DiaTech hubs, Sun Inferno 27 rims, and Sapim spokes
-Carbon Fiber Bontrager seatpost
The Inspiration 100 would be the first real test for this bike. And the course provided plenty of challenges for the bike, and it’s motor (me). More than a few rolling hills, and plenty of soft gravel to suck the life out of you. And washboard, sometimes washboard with soft gravel. Now that was a treat!
Well somewhere around or before mile 70, we came upon Our Lady of the Hills. I can only speak for myself, but it was just at about this time I found myself in need of inspiration, and possibly even divine intervention.
And near the feet of the Lady was found friendly well wishers with a cooler of ice and icy beverages. Maybe not a miracle, but an icy Coca Cola quickly consumed felt like a godsend to me. And upon leaving the Lady, and resuming the race, suddenly the roads descended, became smoother and more forgiving, and the winds became favorable, simultaneously. Morale was boosted, and confidence returned, at least for a few miles. And I felt grateful.
So the bike worked really well. And I finished the race, and bettered my Gravel 100 mile time significantly, on an arguably tougher course (than the Dirty Benjamin), with an associated greater degree of suffering.
And the 650b gravel bike I will call a success. Version v.4 Soma Groove. I think I’ll keep it for a while.