XC race on a big boy bike?
To be fair, I am no XC racer. I am barely an Enduro racer! I vascillate often on my bike choices. I want something that will not hold me back on the descents. I also want to be a better climber. Where is this unicorn bike that does it all? Does it exist? Everyone says they do!
I decided to try the Santa Cruz Hightower CC 27.5+ for 2017. My friend talked me into entering an XC race, the "Grand Junction Off-Road" and I had but one bike - this Hightower. Already I knew I was no climber, and I felt like the 2.8" tires on this bike would just make things more awkward uphill to boot.
I entered the race anyways, just to see how the combo of my pathetic legs and this bike would perform.
My teammate and I agreed that our strategy was "save some for the end, don't blast out of the gate and bonk", which sounds simple enough...
From the start horn, we left in a PACK from downtown Grand Junction on the pavement. We had three miles to jockey for position. The strategy was NOT to be bogged down in this rat race so early on. We both failed. We pedaled out of the gate with the front pack, just as quickly as our legs would allow. The 2.8" rubber was still foreign to me at that time (3rd ride out) and I could hear it roaring down the pavement. When we hit singletrack, I was roughly 30 riders back. After a few sprints uphill at near-max output, I decided to dial it back and let Cory walk away from me. The bike felt light and spry uphill, but I was not ready for full punch for 35 miles.
As the race progressed, I began to get a feel for the bike. On the uphill sections, the Clydesdales in the pack would walk past me on their full XC rigs and smile. I counted them... "six, seven, eight" as they passed. No big deal. I know where my strengths lie.
On the downhill/traverse sections which would follow, my count would begin again "six, seven, eight" as they yelled "the red guy is back" and get out of my way. I was able to MOB down the hill on this Hightower just as fast as I wished, with no compromises. It was flickable, quick to sprint, playful, and the thing just GRIPPED the soft stuff like nobody's business.
My final count was 18th out of over 300 riders. I didn't win the race, by any stretch, but I finished in the top 20 in my first XC race on a full squish bike with 2.8" tires. I was the guy "on the big bike" that the crowds would point out whenever a larger feature presented itself on the trail. The Hightower and I got rad. Like, really rad. At least twice, the trail allowed for me to pass another rider by simply hucking off of a rock face, over his head, as he made the switchback line. Now mind you, both times the riders knew I was there & they saw my intent. It was a very friendly affair as they cheered me on and I yelled 'Whooo!' as I flew over them.
I don't know of another bike that can compete in XC events on Saturday and then ride an Enduro race on Sunday, and I've tried quite a few in my day.
Since this experience, I've tweaked my bike significantly. This is a common theme for me. I ride a bike for awhile, make lots of subtle tweaks, and eventually settle into sweetness.
My build kit is as follows:
Santa Cruz Hightower CC frame
Arc 40 wheels - Maxxis Minion 2.8 up front (max terra) / Maxxis Rekon+ 2.8 out rear (swappable to the Minion DHR 2.8)
SRAM XO1 Eagle drivetrain with 34T SRAM chainring up front, MRP top guide
SRAM Guide RSC brakes F/R with 200F/180R rotors
Pike lifted to 160mm & added DSD RUNT
Shock swap to Monarch Plus with DSD custom tune
ENVE bars at 780mm wide
DROPPER extended to new 170mm Reverb with new shifter control (left).
I made it a bit more mean, added some squish (while retaining my pedal platform), beefed up the brakes, lowered my center of gravity (dropper length) & now the bike feels like part Nomad, part 5010. It just RIPS!
The tires are heavy in 6+ mode, but if you get them rolling they just keep on keepin' on. In 29" mode, it feels like free speed, but I did not like being that extra bit of height from the ground, so I've settled back into the fatties. It feels like the swap takes you from "trail bike race mode" to "overgrown BMX/Enduro machine" - which is rad.
If you aren't fast on this thing, it's not the bike's fault.