"Perfect for Me" - Jordan Rapp’s Kona 1x Experience
All photos courtesy of @N2PHOTOservices
The Big Island. The Ironman World Championships. Kona, Hawaii. 112 miles.
Hard to imagine a more ruthless proving ground than the black lava fields surrounding the Queen K Highway and the long climb along the northern Kohala Coast to Hawi. The conditions are always tough, with the combination of heat, humidity, and wind making this a much tougher ride than the course profile might indicate.
Hawaii isn't a particularly hilly course, with the majority of the elevation gain being the long steady climb to Hawi. There are a couple short punchy climbs and the Queen K is basically a rolling road, but the big factor on the bike is typically the wind, which comes tearing in off the ocean.
2015 was an especially hot year, with historical records showing it to be the hottest Kona race in over 25 years. The wind was light - by Big Island standards - for much of the ride, which is a blessing in terms of not tiring yourself out fighting it, but the heat was punishing. You can never predict the winds, though, as even the morning of the race often means little in terms of what you can expect in the afternoon.
Overall, I felt more prepared for the heat than the wicked crosswinds, just because the rifts and valleys where I train tend to channel the ocean winds into a constant straight headwind or tailwind making it harder to prepare for the constant crosswinds that Hawaii is known for. In terms of overall fitness, I knew I was in a good place. I've done this race overdone (2012) and underdone (2013) and felt that I'd finally been able to split the difference and get it right after missing the race in 2014.
Racing all season - from my very first race in Monterrey in March - on a 1X drivetrain gave me a lot of confidence going into Kona with a single front chainring. By the time Kona came around, 1X was no longer something unique; it was just "my drivetrain." I ride 1X on both my race bike and also on my road bike, which I use for about 60% of my training miles. It's been long enough now that it would actually be weird to shift a front derailleur. So from that standpoint, I only had to focus on picking the right gearing in the same way I had been doing it all season.
Up front, there was no question. When you get a tailwind in Kona, you fly. So I needed the biggest 1X front I could get and chose the same 54-tooth X-Sync ring I'd been using all season. For most of the season, I've used either an 11-28 or an 11-30 in the back, reserving an 11-26 for only the flattest of races, which Kona is not. The choice between 11-28 - with the lightest gearing being the equivalent of just harder than 42-22 - and 11-30 - with the lightest gearing being the equivalent of just easier than 41-23 - was a bit of a tossup. The topography of Kona told me I'd be fine with an 11-28. But the potential for wind made me go with an 11-30. If I'd known how the day was going to play out, an 11-28 would have been fine. But the 30 in the back was nice insurance, and it does make that steep pitch of Palani early on that little bit more manageable.
I was able to find my comfortable rhythm right around 80rpm (I'm pretty happy anywhere between 77-83rpm) for most of the bike. I had a technical mishap with a total freak accident that saw both of my saddle rails snap about 30km/20mi into the 180km/112mi ride, but I managed to make it to Hawi, balancing a bit more precariously than normal, where SRAM Neutral Race Support was able to put on a not-ideal-but-better-than-what-I-had replacement saddle.
I ended up needing to stand and shift positions regularly, and yet I was still able to maintain reasonable average power - 267w - and a low VI - 1.04 for an NP of 279w - though not quite a low as I had hoped due to all the standing I needed to do. My cadence was 79 on the way to Hawi and 77 on the way back, but the aerodynamic penalty of standing and shifting position so much is clear on the return trip if you look at some of the Strava "flybys" of other athletes on the course.
Overall, in spite of everything that happened, I came away from the race even more convinced that 1X is really perfect for me. It may not be for everyone, but it's certainly been a revelation in my own racing. I always hated - seriously hated - the small ring anyway. The struggle of when do you shift up/down in the front is real when you're just exhausted late in an Ironman bike. And I'm light (right around 72kg/160lbs at 191cm/6'3"), relatively strong, and - most critically - I am really happy at a relatively low cadence. All these things make 1X a logical choice for me. But even I didn't expect it to be as versatile and adaptable as it has been.
On flat courses, I knew it would be great. But on hilly courses or courses where the wind can beat you up, I thought I'd miss having the tighter gearing. But I never have. I've never had a race where I thought, "I wish I had a small chainring." I do get that some days in training, mostly when I'm really tired, but the even, metered effort of pacing a non-draft triathlon really complements a 1X drivetrain well. You shouldn't ever need to just spin it out and recover during a race. And from that standpoint, I think 1X really shines even more on race day, because it really gives you everything you need, but only what you need.
Any doubts I had about the viability of 1X were pretty well settled when I got to Kona with thousands of miles on it. But in the weeks before the race, it was still nice to validate my decision. On race day, I never once thought about my drivetrain. It remains quiet, simple, and a joy to race on. I had a lot go wrong on race day, but my drivetrain was as bulletproof and reliable as it has been all year.
Read more My 1x stories from: Growling Beaver Brevet, the mountains of San Luis Obispo, veteran shop manager Mike Costner, Grinduro, Open the Road Gloucester, Gloucester GP CX Race, riding and racing in Indiana, The JAM Fund Grand Fundo, German National TIme Trial Champs, 70.3 Ironman® U.S. National Champs, and the Dirty Kanza 200.
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