For those of you not from the UK, you may be unaware that we have been experiencing a bit of weather. Temperatures have soared leaving a trail of lobster red necks and melted ice-lollies. And it’s not just the usual bit of nice weather “darn sarf”! No, this has even affected the North. Scotsmen have been seen staring in wonder at the malignant orb that burns in wonder and fear. It’s HOT! What better time to tackle the 2018 CX Century?
If you’re not of a ‘cross or gravellly persuasion, let me explain what the CX Century is. Take one of Britain’s finest National Parks, the South Downs. Home to rolling chalk hills that gently meander eastwards from England’s ancient capital, Winchester, before dipping their toes in the Channel at Eastbourne. Then ride across it, for a hundred miles, off-road, on a ‘cross bike.
Which is exactly what I and many others were doing on the 7th of July, one of the hottest days of the year. Now I’ve ridden the South Downs Way far too many times, first off back in the 80s on a rigid Mtb, with laughable cantilever brakes. Over the years suspension and disc brakes were added, making it a little easier. But then I finally bought my first ‘proper’ ‘cross bike – the Handsling CXC – and moved to Eastbourne. With the Downs just the other side of my garden fence, I found I was riding my ‘cross bike rather than the Mtb.
You see, beautiful as the South Downs are, they aren’t exactly a technical challenge for a modern Mtb. Which is what makes them such a great playground for a ‘cross bike. The CX Sportive guys had spotted this and have run the CX Century as one of the must-do events on the UK gravel scene.
This year was the fourth edition of the CX Century and I noticed a slight change on the start line. While there’s always been a mix of CX and Mtb rigs, this year the ‘crossers seemed to be fitter, leaner and younger! My plan to finish better than last year’s fifth place (yes I know it’s a not a race!) was looking a lot tougher. I was only looking to improve on my position after seeing the weather report and knowing that a faster time was unlikely, due to the forecast high temperatures.
I’d actually noticed one of these new breed of rider on the train to Winchester the night before. Actually what I noticed first was his bike, a Pinarello GAN GR Disk. What a machine, it’s basically a Dogma K8S – Sky’s Roubaix machine – tweaked for off-road action. Which means it’s fast, or rather it can be made to go fast, given the right kind of rider. And as we were to find out it definitely had the right sort of rider.
The next day after the obligatory “be careful out there” talk, I rolled out towards the back of the group. My plan was to ride conservatively for the first hour, giving myself a chance to warm up. After a few stops to sort out a troublesome burping rear tyre, I was told at one of the feed stops that the first rider had gone through over seventy-five minutes before and he was shifting!
I won’t bore you with my tale of woe, suffice to say I had to pull out, victim of heat exhaustion. However I wasn’t the only one, organiser Martin Harrison, said they had one of their highest drop-out rates, over 50% of the field failing to make it to the end. While the trail conditions were perfect it was just too hot; a friend’s Wahoo recorded a high of 41 degrees centigrade!
With such high temperatures making a hard event even harder, surely we wouldn’t see any fast times, right? Wrong! Remember that Pinarello? Well it seems that it had a rider capable of producing an amazing ride. That rider was Daniel Hughes of the Meteor X Giordana Racing team. And his time was a new record of 7 hours, 25 minutes. The previous best was 8 hours and 4 minutes set back in 2015.
I had a brief talk with Daniel to see how he went about setting this fast pace. Part of his success is down to good preparation. Daniel rode the course the week before with his wife, seeking out the toughest parts and re-riding where necessary to find the best line. He even settled that old question of whether it’s faster to ride or walk those really steep bits (on which he was putting out 7-800 watts). The answer? Well it’s about the same time, but walking uses less energy, so he walked. Yes, he walked some of the hills and still set the fastest time!
Another big part of a successful CX Century is tyre choice. Go on any CX/gravel forum and look at the endless queries about tyres. I don’t think there is one tyre that will suit all riders, there’s just too many variables, but tyre chat is contagious. Daniel’s choice was a US brand I haven’t heard of before, called Teravail. He used their Cannonball, which was designed specifically for the Dirty Kanza race, which he has also ridden.
The Cannonballs withstood the battering that the South Downs loves to hand out to CX Century riders and their machines. Many riders suffered multiple punctures, but Daniel managed to ride the whole route, despite hitting 60-70kph in places, without a single puncture. He ran a 38mm front with a 35mm on the rear, not for any aero reason, just that the Pinarello would only allow 35mm on the back. I was running the new IRC Bokken tyres that I’m reviewing at the moment. Apart from a couple of burps at the beginning, that were easily fixed by adding more air, they performed well; for as long as I was able to ride!
Gearing for the event was, for my spindly legs, high. He ran a single 44t oval Absoluteblack chain ring, with a 32t bottom gear on the rear; in comparison I was using 36×42. Normally a seated spinner when it comes to climbing, Daniel said he would have liked to have had a smaller gear to tackle the longer climbs.
So with the 2018 CX Century record under his belt, I asked Daniel would he be back for next year and could he go faster? Simple answer, yes. This year he admitted to being a “bit grumpy” at the finish, the reason? Walkers. He knew he could have gone faster, but the South Downs Way is a public path and the CX Century is not a race, so you have to make concessions to other trail users. For most of us this isn’t an issue, but when you are trying to set a fast time being blocked by herds of charity walkers over the final twenty miles can be a little frustrating.
He’ll be returning to this “beautiful, but savage” event next year and, given a clear run Daniel reckons he could take another half hour off this year’s record. The CX Century will be one of his major events next year, along with the Dirty Reiver and Dirty Kanza. Before that he’ll be heading to the Gravel Worlds which are taking place in Nebraska this year. Daniel will be riding with his team and they are going there to win, so we’ll keep an eye out.
Daniel rides for Meteor X Giordana Racing, a small US-based professional bicycle racing team, that specialises in gravel and fixed-gear racing. With riders like Daniel and Taylor Gunman of Madison Genesis, who won the Battle in the Bowl this year, starting to target more gravel events are we about to see gravel racing come out of the shadows?
Personally I come from a road racing background, so would love to see more events like the Battle in the Bowl on the calendar. It would be incredible if the CX Century were to be a race, but I can’t see that happening with the UKs laws. Many riders tell me they are nervous when racing on the open road, especially down in the crowded south-east. Maybe more events like these will be the way forward? Who knows the future of racing could be a lot more gravelly!
CX Sportive’s next event is the Ridgeway 100 on August 4th, followed by the new for 2018 Jurassic Gravel. You can make a weekend of the Jurassic Gravel if you want, with some self-guided touring on the Saturday, then enjoy a chat with other riders and the CX Sportive crew. Follow that up with a route that CX Sportive says is “one of the most incredible places to ride in the country! Huge hills, amazing views, coastline cliff trails beside a sparkling sea, and networks of sweeping forest trails make up a near perfect dose of open hill adventure riding for Gravel Bike or MTB.” Sounds perfect.