There was no better bike for this 116-mile gravel race though the back roads of Vermont
I recently rode the Rapha Prestige New England. If you’re uninitiated in Rapha-speak (like I was), a Prestige sounds sophisticated and mysterious and not nearly as difficult as a bike race. The only way I knew it wasn’t going to be all magic and leisure was that the guy who invited me, three-time cyclocross national champion Tim Johnson, said I should come prepared to ride fast and hard. That’s kinda like Stephen Hawking inviting you to a debate and telling you to bring your A-game. Needless to say, I showed up in Vermont feeling anxious.
Sponsored by Rapha and Cannondale, Tim wanted me to experience this unique event—which turned out to out to be a four-man team time trial in which each group sets off at three-minute intervals—and he wanted me to do it aboard a new Cannondale Slate, which he told me in advance was the most fun bike he’s ridden in years.
At the start line, the scene was what you might expect from Rapha. There were the melodramatic black-and-white marketing materials, the branded Volvo XC70 team car with custom Oregon plates that read “Suffer,” and the Airstream event camper complete with espresso machine. More than half the teams were in subdued but matching Rapha kits, and the vast majority of riders were aboard handmade lugged bikes from the likes of Firefly and the Vanilla Workshop. There were lots of mustaches and helmets with brims, too.
Compared with all the classy, handmade steel bikes at the start, the Cannondale Slates were veritable Frankenbikes that inspired plenty of chortles (and circumspect interest) from the trendy crowd. With drop bars, 650B wheels mounted to 42c tires (which are verging on MTB width at 1.65 inches), a SRAM CX1 1x11 drivetrain, disc brakes, and a 30-millimeter Lefty suspension fork, the Slate looks like a roadie-mountain bike-commuter mashup, with an intended purpose that’s about as clear. At 19 pounds, it was about the same weight as most of the boutique bikes on display but significantly heavier than many high-end road racers.
However you classify the bike, it proved to be the perfect ride on a course with 11,000 feet of climbing and about a 50-50 split between pavement and dirt. The weight never slowed me down, and the fork lockout made for snappy climbing. Meanwhile, on the dirt road descents, one of which went on for a ridiculous ten miles, Tim and I blazed ahead as if on mountain bikes. We were laughing and chatting to one another as the steel frames and skinny tires on other bikes around us nearly shook their racer’s mustaches right off their faces.
As an aside, if you haven’t ridden road bikes in Vermont, it’s worth making the effort. For one, this place, in a similar but different way to Emporia, Kansas, defines the current “adventure road” or “new road” or “gravel bike” movement. Quiet two-lane back roads give way to even quieter dirt farm roads, with nary a car to trouble you. (We passed about six all day.) Deep woods cast cooling shadows, and burbling creeks beckon you to stop and cool off. General stores in nowhere towns sell hand-poured coffee and maple donuts. You have this sense that if God rode a bike, it would likely be through these isolated haunts.
The other highlight of the day: Rapha’s un-race format, which forced us to move as a group. While everyone had their bad moments (except for Tim), it mostly just felt like a fun, fast, sometimes competitive group ride with friends. Even when, six miles from the finish, two of my teammates pushed ahead and made a wrong turn that entailed me descending after them and climbing an extra 2.5 miles, I didn’t mind because the roads were beautiful, the descent was a total scream thanks to the Slate, and the company on the ascent back to the course was good.
At the end of the day, we came in fifth or sixth out of 18 teams, which was… okay. But that wasn’t the high point. On the final long descent, Tim had stashed a cooler of goodies in the trees, including some meat sticks, chips, and local brews. It tasted like manna from heaven after about 100 miles on the bike. We even lured a couple of teams behind us, which we’d already passed, to stop and eat and drink together. Then, with beers downed and toasts made, we grouped into one big team and time-trialed to the finish together.
Though Tim, with a monumental pull in the last two miles, nearly burned us all off, suspension fork and all.
Rapha will publish a schedule of the 2016 Prestige events at the New Year.