Horse for Course: FOX 32 Taper-Cast Gravel Suspension Fork for Unbound 100 Niner RLT 9 RDO.

Can the wet and wild version of the unbound gravel race be suspended?

Prior to this year’s event, I topped the starting line at Unbound Gravel eight times and claimed five finishes in 2006, including One Way of the Year.  At the time, none of us had a clue what we were getting or how popular we were.  Was gravel.

The gravel ride has evolved at a steep pace and I have never raced the same bike twice on the unbound.  I completed the Unbound 200 at the Surly Cross-Check in 2006, the first prototype of the first Salsa Warbird in 2012, the Special Crux in 2016, the Specialised Diverge in 2017 and the fourth generation of the Salsa Warbird in 2018.

This year, I decided to change things up and try the 100-mile version of Unbound.  The smaller event makes the logistics, nutrition, hydration and gear options much simpler, and while I’m less trained, I can duplicate 100 miles of fitness.

Nevertheless, I decided to make some unit choices that would arguably be better for the 200- or 350-mile unbound sections, but hopefully help me finish stronger.

Josh Patterson’s 2022 Unbound one hundred Gravel Race Bike

Horse: Niner RLT 9 RDO equipped with SRAM ‘Mullet’ 1 × 12 drivetrain, Fox 32 taper-cast suspension fork, Ergon CF Allroad Pro Carbon Flex seatpost and other gravel-centric components

Total bike weight: 20.5lb / 9.3kg

Course: Unbound 100 Race Course.  The Flint Hills area of ​​Kansas has rugged gravel roads with rolling hills, open pastures and razor-sharp boulders that can quickly work up tires.  This year’s route was 104.8 miles / 168 km long with a gain of 4,300 feet / 1,310 metres

Heavy rain until race day has caused many athletes, including myself, to alter our gear choices and our expectations

Goal: Feeling more fresh than my 200-mile effort to complete Unbound 100, free of mechanism

Go with what you know

Over the past years, I’ve tried calling the latest, most newsable bike to race and check in during unbound.

This year, I decided to keep things simple and reduce my pre-race uncertainty by sticking with my personal RLT 9 RDO – a bike I know well.

  

  Easy, right?  Josh Patterson

In my opinion, the Niner RLT nine RDO is one of the exceptional gravel motorcycles on the market.  The ride quality is predictable and the ride quality excellent without feeling cumbersome.

The RLT 9 RDO’s frame has all the necessary bottle mounts, as well as the top tube mounts for the bolt-on feed bag, and the carbon fork legs bosses for carrying extra cargo.  These features make it a great bike for riders who want a rig for gravel racing and bikepacking adventures.

Suspension for a winning mid-pack finish

  

The new Fox 32 taper-cast fork took the edge of rough gravel roads. 

I have long believed that suspension may play a role in the future of gravel bikes.  Gravel suspension can take the form of compliance designed in a frameset, similar to Flex Stays or Trek’s Isospeed System;  Flex trunks and seatposts offered by Redshift and Kane Creek;  Integrated suspension systems such as specialist futureshock and BMC’s Hydride;  And suspension forks, including MRP Baxter, RockShox Rudy and Fox 32 taper-cast.

I have chosen to mount the Fox 32 taper-cast to my Niner.  Does the 40mm suspension make a difference?  Is it worth the 660g weight penalty on a stock carbon fork?  I wasn’t sure, but I was curious to try it.

Some of my best finishes on Unbound are on bikes with some sort of suspension – the FutureShock-equipped Diverz and Warbird with Redshift’s Shockstop trunk.  In both cases, a small amount of suspension reduces hand and shoulder fatigue, which allows me to spend more time in drops.  I’m ready to try my luck with a proper suspension fork this year.

  

Ergon’s CF All Road Pro Carbon Seatpost I handled without a second thought. 

Since I planned to run a suspension fork, I concluded that I could spend more time travelling in rough terrain with a harder carbon fork. So, I changed my fashionable carbon seatpost with Ergon’s CF Allroad Pro Flex post.

This seatpost acts as a carbon leaf-spring and provides flex for up to 20mm.  I rounded up my handlebar for an extra cushioning layer on Ergon’s new 3.5mm-thick BT Gravel handlebar tape.

I finalised my bike setup and then the forecast started to look wet.  Really wet.

Plan for the worst and desire for the exceptional

  

I prefer 2x drivetrains for most gravel events, but with bad weather, I leap into SRAM’s 1 × 12 mullet drivetrain. 

I grew up in Flint Hills, Kansas and I know these roads absorb a lot of water.  Overall, most of the course is well drained, but the infamous B-road sections of the route are more clay than gravel and turn into a quagmire that cannot be ridden quickly when saturated.

After pondering the 10-day forecast, I decided to make some component changes to minimise the possibility of a mechanism in case the worst case scenario should unfold.  First, I changed my SRAM Force eTap AXS Wide 2 × 12 Drivetrain for simplicity and extra range of SRAM’s 1 × 12 Mullet Drivetrain.

Normally, I prefer small steps between 2x drivetrain gears for gravel racing, but this mullet setup, with a 40t chainring and a 10-50t MTB cassette, gives me the range I need to power through thick mud.  Possibility of mechanical problems over 2x drivetrain.  Congratulations to SRAM for offering such a wide range of 1x and 2x drivetrain options for gravel riders.

  

Before the rain forecast, I plan to run some special new S-Works Pathfinder tires. 

Once I sorted my drivetrain, I began to rethink my tire choice.  I have a few go-to gravel tires that I can count on to park in Flint, Central Kansas.  My go-to tires are Panaracer’s GravelKing SK Plus +, Vittoria’s Terreno Dry, Specialized’s Pathfinder Pro and its new S-Works Pathfinders.  However, while the Pathfinders are a good dry-conditioned tire, I prefer something with more bite in sedimentary conditions.

I opted to try Schwalbe’s brand new G-One RS tire.  According to Schwalbe, it is the fastest gravel tire on the company line with a 20 percent lower rolling resistance than the G-One R.

The outline of the fish-scale centre resembles that of Vittoria terrano Dry.  Schwalbe recommends running these tires in opposite directions – the front tire is fitted with front-angle bezel knobs for cornering grip, and the rear tire allows digging and biting when facing upwards.

The 700x45mm G-One RS tires fit nicely when fitted to my Rowell Terra CLX wheelset.  I drove 26psi at the front and 28psi at the rear, which perfectly matched my 155lb (70kg) rider weight.

Allows support from race staff at designated checkpoints throughout the unbound course.  Unbound 100 riders had a chance to refuel and refuel for 66 miles on the 104-mile route.  The 200-mile racers had checkposts on Mile 72 and Mile 168. The 350-mile unbound XL riders are chargeable for themselves, however capable of being prevented at comfort shops alongside their route.

I plan to stop only to exchange water bottles and food before adverse weather becomes part of my calculus.  To my drop bag I added fresh pairs of shoes, socks, gloves and a bottle of Chain Lube with food and water.

Tools and other tools

 

Garmin’s Edge 1030 Plus was the computer of my choice, with the Bontrager Ion 200 RT front light attached to the bottom of the K-Edge out-front mount. 

I’m now no longer a minimalist, however I do not take the kitchen sink with, The repair kit placed on my Bantrager spring roll included two tuboleta gravel tubes, a dual-plug air and my trusty crank brothers M17 multi-tool with two tubeolitto gravel tubes, a mud scraper that can double as spare tire plugs and two CO2 canisters.

  

This was my first trip to the Special Pro Power Mirror Saddle.  The power is the shape I am familiar with, but not with this 3D-printed construction. 

Unbound requires all racers to start and finish with front and rear lights, even if they are likely to finish before sunset.  Bontrager’s Ion 200 RT / Flare RT was my preferred setup.  I rely on the Garmin’s Edge 1030 Plus for navigation.

One important item I tried for the first time was the special Power Pro Mirror Saddle.  This new saddle features 3D-printed cushioning.  As a long-time Power Saddle user, I’m willing to give it a try since the Fit is the same, but I was a little hesitant about how it would work in the mud.

And heaven opens …

  

It becomes a moist and wild yr at Unbound.  My bike has 104 miles of dirt and dirt with no mechanical issues. 

Four thousand jallikattu students were eager to take the course on Saturday morning.  Once started, the cloudy skies, mild temperatures and stiff gravel roads are the perfect ingredients for a stormy start.

We had a one hour rain-free ride before the intermediate showers started.  The rains have dried up just as quickly and the roads are in good condition.

I started to doubt my drivetrain swap – is it worth the time and effort?  Finding my preferred cadence with a double and tightly spaced cassette is very easy, especially when riding on pace lines.

Sometimes it is better to be simple.  The wide range of this SRAM 1 × 12 drivetrain is the perfect choice for Unbound 2022.

This second assumption continued until the checkpoint, at which time the skies opened up and rain began.

It wasn’t long until the B-road sections of the course became riverside.  Riders carry mud bikes, along with many broken derailleurs (here’s the advice for any gravel racer: how to convert your bike to a single speed and be prepared to do so).

Enlarge Photo

Riders will be walking on mud roads during the 2022 Unbound 100 gravel race

Walking becomes extra powerful than using it in deep mud. 

I was lucky enough to achieve no harm.  SRAM’s mullet drivetrain worked flawlessly, and the Fox 32 Taper-Cast fork allowed me time to descend, improve confidence in my corners, and relieve any hand and shoulder fatigue.

I’m done with the mechanics free and for the most part, I’m very satisfied with my setup, although there are a few things I would change if I could do it again…

Pros and Cons

Pros

SRAM’s 1 × 12 Mullet Drivetrain Bomb Proof of this Year’s Unbound Race Course

The Fox 32 taper-cast fork was fine but probably overkill for 100 miles unbound.  I strongly consider using it for the Unbound 200 and fully using the suspension fork for the 350-mile version

Schwalbe’s G-One RS tires strike an ideal balance of speed and traction.  Under difficult conditions, these new tires proved themselves by shedding the dirt and lowering the shoulders with a sharp flint.

Ergon’s cushioned gravel handlebar tape and CF All Road seatpost improve my comfort and staples on my gravel bike

Cons

The exclusive Power Pro Mirror Saddle is quickly covered with mud.  Even in dry conditions, the textured surface will hold up your bib shorts, making it difficult to move around – which is especially noticeable in endurance events.  For gravel events I stick to my tried and true Power Pro Elaston Saddle

Touchscreens are not always a good choice.  My Garmin Edge 1030 Plus kept me on course and fast and I finished with an impressive 18 hours of battery life.  Unfortunately, water, sludge and sweat often cause the device to switch between screens during an unexpected

The sediment

Allied’s Grax Chain Lube stood against the evil Mother Nature threw at it.  My drivetrain remained silent and moved smoothly despite mud in the mud

The Pearl Izumi Expedition Pro Bib Shortcode is very comfortable and provides easy access to my gels

The Pearl Izumi Pro Barrier Jacket fits like a jersey and dries me off without overheating

What do I change for next year?

If I do the 100-mile version again, I may abandon the suspension fork in the name of weight saving, though I would consider running it again for longer events.

I have had mixed fortunes with Schwalbe’s gravel tires in the past, having shredded several pairs of G-One in Flint Hills.  The new G-One RS made me rethink my stance and I drove this tire again without hesitation.  For less demanding courses I can opt for the narrower and lighter 40mm-wide version.

As mentioned, the Pro Power Mirror saddle did not work well in the mud but could work well as a dedicated road bike saddle.  Last but not least, my major upgrade is my fitness before next year’s race.

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