A Philly-Related LiveStrong-Related Note from Fatty: Folks have been asking if there will be a Team Fatty at the Philadelphia LiveStrong Challenge. Well, Philly Jen has told me she’d like to captain a Team Fatty there, which is incredibly cool of her. As promised, the Davis event was the big push for Team Fatty / LiveStrong this year, but the fact is, not everyone can get to Davis. And the Philly event is amazing. So, EastCoasters, click here to sign up!
A Topically-Relevant Note from Fatty: Today marks the beginning of the annual “Mostly, Fatty writes about Leadville” obsession. Thursday, there will be even more Leadville obsessing, including a liveblog Q&A featuring — along with LT100 fixtures Ricky McDonald and Dean Cahow, as well as Cole Chlouber — 2-time UCI World Cup winner, 2-time US Nat’l MTB champ, and 6-time Leadville Trail 100 MTB Race winner Dave Wiens.
I’ve got a Cap’n Ahab thing going with the Leadville Trail 100 MTB Race. I’ve started it fourteen times. Completed it thirteen times (1997, 1998, 1999, 2000, 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005 , 2006, 2007, 2008, and 2010) and crashed out once, in 2009.
Fourteen tries. No finishes in under nine hours.
A week from this Saturday, I’ll be racing it for my fifteenth time. But for the first time ever, I don’t yet know what bike I’m going to ride.
Choice A: Trek Superfly 100
For several months, I had a pretty simple plan: take the strength and fitness I’ve developed by riding singlespeed for the past few years, and then blow the doors off the Leadville 100 by riding a geared, full-suspension bike: my Superfly 100:
Yes, yes, I know it’s dirty. It’s been rainy lately. Try not to focus on that, and instead pay attention to the fact that I’ve put together an extraordinary bike here: a 24.2-pound full-suspension 29er. Brand-new Shimano XTR throughout. Bontrager XXX carbon wheels.
A beautiful, incredibly functional, race-ready cross-country bike. A perfect bike for racing the Leadville 100.
Choice 1: Specialized S-Works StumpJumper 29er
But then, something happened. Specialized sent me a bike to try out [Full Disclosure: This bike is currently loaned to me, with an option to purchase later if I choose]. And not just any bike, either. They sent an S-Works Stumpjumper 29er. Observe:
Carbon Roval wheelset, SRAM XX components pretty much across the board. 20.5 pounds. A wicked-fast climber of a racing hardtail. A perfect bike for racing the Leadville 100.
So now I’ve got a bit of a dilemma. Specifically, which of these perfect bikes is — somehow more perfect for my goal of, finally, finishing this race with an elite racer’s time: under nine hours.
I know, it’s a horrible choice to have to make, and I welcome your sympathy.
Race it Out
At first, I tried making the choice by trying to decide which of the two bikes I preferred. But that got me nowhere. Whichever bike I happened to be on was the bike I preferred. This may happen to be because both bikes are top-of-the-line, beautiful, meticulously-engineered carbon marvels.
With a retail price of around $7000+ for either bike, you can bet that neither is going to exactly suck.
Then I had an idea: instead of basing my choice on which bike I liked better — a choice I don’t think I’ll ever be able to definitively make — I should base my choice on which bike I can ride faster.
I decided to take turns riding the course I am extremely familiar with — one I know so well that learning the trail shouldn’t be a factor at all. So I went with riding my favorite out-the-front-door, don’t-gotta-lotta-time mountain bike rides: Home to Hog Hollow to Jacob’s Ladder to Ghost Falls to Canyon Hollow to Brock’s to Hog Hollow to home again.
Unless you’re a local, of course, that will be totally meaningless. So while I’ll be giving a description of each of the major sections of the trail — along with how I thought each bike would do in those sections and then how they actually did — a little overview might be helpful.
First of all, here’s what the route looks like if you happen to be in outer space with a good camera:
That’s still not very descriptive, is it? OK, an elevation profile might help a little more:
There’s about 2,000 feet of climbing in this 14.7-mile ride, and a lot of variety — a very rocky doubletrack you’ve got to climb at the beginning and descend at the end, a treacherous, fast, technical singletrack descent with embedded rocks, forested, as well as buff forest singletrack — some ascending, some descending.
Really, a little bit of everything, all close to home. I don’t think this route plays favorites to either the Superfly or the StumpJumper.
Acknowledgement of Biases
I wanted this experiment to be as fair as possible, so I did the rides a week apart, on the same day of the week, with similar amounts of fatigue in my legs (in both cases, I had done a long, medium-effort road ride the previous day).
That said, it’s not exactly as if I came to this without any riding biases. I’m going to identify the ones I can think of here, so you can add appropriate amounts of salt to my descriptions in the rest of this writeup.
- A Gary Fisher Bias: Between the two of us, The Hammer and I own (Full Disclosure: have purchased) a Superfly 100, a Superfly Hardtail, two Superfly Singlespeeds, a Paragon, and a very old Sugar 2. You might say that we’re big fans of Gary Fisher bikes. So much so, in fact, that I felt a little bit guilty at the thought of even trying a Specialized. But I got over it, because I have a strong spirit, and because the S-Works Stumpjumper 29er is just so darned sexy.
- A Hardtail Bias: Prior to the Superfly 100, I haven’t owned / regularly ridden a full-suspension bike in at least seven years. I haven’t ridden regularly with even front suspension in about three years. So while I have a bias toward Gary Fishers in general, I have a bias toward the way hardtails (in this case, the Stumpjumper) ride.
- A “Type of Rider” Bias: Maybe this is a self-fulfilling prophecy kind of thing, but in general I think of myself as a climber. I pass people in the cliimbs, and get passed in descents. I think it’s likely that I don’t get the full advantage of a full suspension bike because I don’t make it do what it’s capable of doing. I.e., I descend like a sissy.
With all that said, when I took out each bike, I rode as hard as I could, with the intention of being as fast as I could and of making the bike proud to be ridden by me.
I punched the “Lap” button as I passed certain significant points on the trail, to make it easy for me to see how I did for that section of the trail.
In order to keep me from trying to “better” my previous time on any particular section of the trail — an advantage I didn’t have the first time I did the ride — I set up my bike computer to not show time. Just distance.
OK, now on with the comparison.
Section 1: The Hog Hollow Climb
For the first section of the ride, I’m on pavement for about a mile or so — I expect this doesn’t favor either bike, since I can effectively lock out the rear suspension on the Superfly.
Then the Hog Hollow climb begins. This is a rocky ascent up a jeep road, with a very technical, eroded and rocky section toward the top.
Honestly, I expected this section to favor neither the StumpJumper nor the Superfly. The StumpJumper’s lighter, and the Superfly handles the rocky, embedded stuff more smoothly.
And in fact, my times for this section were close. In fact, they were ridiculously close:
- Superfly: 26:13
- StumpJumper: 26:16
A three second difference over the first 4.93 miles. Three seconds. Not a lot.
Section 2: The Jacob’s Ladder Climb
The brief (maybe a quarter mile) reprieve reprieve at the Hog Hollow saddle is followed immediately by a brutal climb up to another jeep road.
You have three choices as to which route you’re going up to that jeep road. The leftmost is easiest (but longest), the middle is more direct and difficult, and the rightmost route is very direct and is guaranteed to make you hurt by the time you reach the top.
For both the Superfly and the Stumpy, I took the rightmost route, and — to the credit of both bikes — made it up to the top without having to dismount and push.
Following this nasty little climb, you…well…continue climbing. But the route becomes less technical and even levels out for a bit, before hitting the final extremely steep mile, an old washed out ATV trail.
I assumed that I would be considerably faster on the StumpJumper than on the Superfly for this section — after all, it’s not especially technical. Not a lot for that full suspension to take advantage of. So a four-pound difference should win the day, right?
- StumpJumper: 11:10
- Superfly: 11:15
Hmmm. A five second difference. And, overall, for the nonstop climb from the lowest point in the ride (4,888 feet) to the highest point in the ride (6,302 feet) — I have a two second difference between the two bikes.
Section 3: The Jacob’s Ladder Descent
This next section is short. I figured that if there’s one section where the full suspension bike would outshine the hardtail, this would be it, so I wanted to isolate it.
The Jacob’s Ladder descent is extremely technical, rocky, and often pretty darned loose. A couple years ago, I made a video of it, riding with Brad:
I was surprised by the time gap between bikes:
- StumpJumper: 3:05
- Superfly: 3:06
One second? One? That could be the amount of time I took to find the “Lap” button on the GPS. That’s no time at all. And most importantly, I’m just as fast (slow) on a hardtail as a full-suspension bike when descending rough, rocky stuff.
I’m learning that sometimes, the lack of a difference can be startling.
Section 4: Jacob’s (Singletrack) to Ghost Falls to Canyon Hollow to Brock’s
This is my favorite part of the ride: smooth, fast, twisty singletrack. Some forested, some high-desert. Quite a bit of downhill, some uphill.
There are no more drops or ledges on this part of the trail, so I expected that the StumpJumper would have no disadvantage to the Superfly here. In fact, with the markedly shorter wheelbase, I expected the StumpJumper to maybe have an advantage on this part of the course, since it feels like I get around tight hairpin turns faster and easier on the StumpJumper than on the longer Superfly.
But check out the times:
- StumpJumper: 16:49
- Superfly: 16:49
The times are the same. To the second.
Guys, you are not making it easy for me to make a decision here.
Section 5: Hog Hollow to Home
This final section mostly retraces the first section, but now I’m going down the rocky jeep road. It seems like it would be an easy win for the Superfly.
And in fact, I made a riding error while descending with the StumpJumper and had to get off and get back onto a rideable line, which probably cost me fifteen seconds.
So I was surprised by the results of this final section:
- StumpJumper: 16:42
- Superfly: 17:29
The only (semi) significant difference between the two rides happens in this final leg — one where I’d expect the full suspension to win handily — and the advantage goes to the StumpJumper. 47 seconds.
Is it because I’m more used to descending on hardtails? Is it because I maybe pushed harder on the StumpJumper, trying to make up for my mistake early in the descent? Did I have a tailwind? Was it just a margin-of-error difference?
Or is the StumpJumper just a surprisingly awesome descender?
I started this experiment hoping to find a significant quantitative difference between a very top-of-the-line Superfly 100 and a very top-of-the-line StumpJumper.
And I didn’t. Probably some of it has to do with the fact that this is a short course and so can’t expose big differences that might appear over a long race. Like maybe the efficiency of the hardtail (the StumpJumper) will become important over the long haul. Or maybe the additional comfort full suspension (the Superfly 100) provides will be critical.
Even after doing the Leadville 100 as many times as I have, I just don’t know.
The overall times for the bikes are:
- StumpJumper: 1:14:05
- Superfly: 1:14:54
49 seconds, over 14.67 miles, with ~2000 feet of climbing and descending. That’s not a lot of variation.
Still, there are a few things I have observed by comparing these bikes — not just during this experiment, but as I’ve ridden each multiple times during the past few weeks.
- I love the new Shimano XTR. Riding both the bikes, one thing became clear that had nothing to do with the frames: the new Shimano XTR is sublime. I’ve never had braking that is so perfect. I’ve never had shifting that is so precise, with action that is so easy. I can do any shift, under any pedaling load. It’s amazing. This is not to say that SRAM XX isn’t good. It’s very good indeed. But Shimano XTR is off the charts. It’s a huge leap forward for MTB components. If you can find a way to afford Shimano XTR, you should.
- Perception is not reality. In every case, I felt like I was faster climbing on the StumpJumper than on the Superfly. A hardtail just feels more direct, and you get the sense you’re moving faster. But feeling faster isn’t the same as being faster. It was an interesting surprise to find that I’m essentially equivalent, regardless of what I’m riding.
- I’m in pretty good shape. Ever since I’ve lived in Alpine, I’ve occasionally timed myself from home to the beginning of the saddle of Hog Hollow. It takes me 28 minutes. This year, I’m getting to the end of the saddle in 26 minutes. If it takes about two minutes to get across the saddle (a reasonable guess), I’m about four minutes faster on this climb than I have been before. Maybe this year a sub-9 Leadville is within reach.
So, back to the original question: Which bike should I ride at Leadville this year?
I still don’t know.
I really don’t.
I’d love your opinion, though.