My 1x, Gravel & Ice Cream
Words and Photos by Ethan Wolff-Mann
When you’re driving through the country and the Interstate narrows to two lanes, there’s always somebody who asks, “what the hell do people do out here?” It’s never really phrased as a question, but there’s always a safe answer if you’re in rural New England—they ride bikes.
At the risk of cheapening their vibrant economy, Northampton felt like one of those towns as we got off the I-91 exit, headed toward the 69-mile “Grand Fundo,” the personal sportif of American cyclocross god Jeremy Powers. Sure enough, Subarus with cross bikes on top started appearing from all sides.
As a Vermonter stranded indefinitely in New York City, the Fundo course description read like a list of things I missed most about home, with 20 miles of dirty gravel, 6,500 feet of elevation gain, and no mention of wildcard NYPD cops parked in the bike lane. There are no bike lanes in Northampton apparently, people just share the road. There are even signs that announce it at regular intervals.
If you want to squeeze the most out of a ride, you have to do it right, and providing a strong contrast is a foolproof way to do it. We limped to the ride in a devastated Buick that had suffered an altercation with a fire hydrant and every part of the day’s two-wheel experience invited favorable comparison to that disaster of modern engineering. The Whyte Saxon Cross bike I borrowed was set up with elegant simplicity specifically for the event: SRAM Rival 1 drivetrain, hydraulic disc brakes, and Zipp 30 Course wheels with Challenge Almanzo file tread tires. With fewer than 10 gravel miles under my belt this year, I was feeling pretty grateful for the discs, wide rims, and tires—I’d rather have a watt penalty than a mouthful of dirt—but I didn’t know about that single chainring. I was told that with the 10/42 cassette in the back, the 40-tooth chainring would give me an easier gear than my double. I didn’t have the heart to tell them the little dirt I had been riding was on a old X7 triple.
1x looks sharp on most CX bikes and downright gorgeous on this Santa Cruz Stigmata.
The first half of the day’s profile showed a jagged edge that contained almost all of the climbing. But unlike the longer ramps in Vermont and New Hampshire, the hills never lasted too long and were peppered with short descents, which meant no time to zone out in a rhythm, but plenty of time to recover. It’s really easy to go 50 miles in New York without cracking 1,500 feet of vertical, but surprisingly my flatlander legs had no issues with the lack of a smaller chainring. I could spin and take it slow when I needed to, eating the hills one bite at a time. I’d even try a 42t ring next time for a course like this.
The few technical sections of the route highlighted the simplicity of the system—shifting under load wasn’t a problem and not worrying about getting caught in the wrong chainring allowed me to put gear selection out of my mind and focus on the sand and gravel under my sliding wheel, which was key because my bike handling skills are horrendous (but improving).
After mile 45’s requisite ice cream truck, staffed by a smiley Mr. Powers himself, the route turned from a stretch of pavement to a long slight downhill section of doubletrack that reminded me half of Flanders and half of a plane landing—smooth, smooth, bumpy. Smelling the barn a little, we rode in hard, powering through the loose sections, potholes, and washboarded gravel, stoked by a Chocolate Lovers’ cone. I've only ever ridden a 1x drivetrain once, and I was told to notice its performance when things got a little crazy, but I noticed nothing through the bumps. No chain slap, no weird shifts, no noises.
Just like tire selection, you have to take into account where and how you ride to decide if 1x is right for you. But unless you're one of the few people who frequently races hilly terrain where you need both a tiny gear to spin up hills and a massive gear to pedal hard down them, it's exactly what you want out of a drivetrain."
Read more My 1x stories from: Grinduro!, Open the Road Gloucester, Gloucester GP CX Race, riding and racing in Indiana, German National TIme Trial Champs, 70.3 Ironman® U.S. National Champs, and the Dirty Kanza 200.
Learn more about SRAM 1x Force 1 and Rival 1 groups in the video below.