I’ve noticed time and time again this year that I’ve said or typed phrases which then set off alarm bells that I may actually be embracing middle age. Horrified by that label and concept, I then go to great lengths to counteract such a notion by either dressing like a street kid/bike courier, putting “As fuck” on to the end of sentences, or if the situation is really extreme, maybe even using an Emoji while I throw up in my mouth with the bitter taste of self loathing as I refuse to age gracefully.
With that in mind, this post is going to do nothing to detract from that general vibe that I’m sliding towards the second half of life, whilst I try to put up a rear guard action as I insist that I can still “Send it” and get loose as fuck, without the use of a Mojito. Today I’m not going to be talking about ENDURO racing, or rad DH shuttle runs, or #parklyfe, instead I’m going to be frothing on something that resembles a road bike and a whole genre of cycling that I’m pretty sure I enjoyed liberally taking the piss out of
constantly at some stage in the last 5 years… My, how far we have cum.
However, in my defence, love does funny things to a man, so I can’t really be blamed for my regression from full ENDURO here for a moment into a weird middle ground which seems to be occupied by a lot of bearded people (luckily I pass that test) who can always be seen in photos with Zoolanderesque looks, with the mandatory black & white filter applied. Before you suddenly start to feel horrified that I’m going to use the word ‘Pannier’, relax and allow me to start my froth engine talking about the surprising revelation that has wolfed it’s way into my cycling life – The Santa Cruz Stigmata:
Given my current embarrassing post drought, you may be forgiven for thinking “Didn’t he just wank on about this thing recently?“, which I sort of did in a way. However, since that initial flirtation, I’ve managed to hit the magical 1,000km’s ridden mark, which is the minimum requirement for understanding what a bike it really about. The fact it only took exactly 2 months to arrive at such a milestone may be a give away, but there is one word to properly sum up my feelings about this machine:
We probably don’t need to dive into the psychological aspects of applying that emotion to a bicycle, but I shall try and elaborate and make my case for why its valid, appropriate and unadulterated. But originally I didn’t have love in my heart, I had eye brow raised scepticism garnished with judgemental preconceptions:
- Its too big (56 vs my usual 54)
- It will be too heavy
- It will feel like a pig on the road
- I’ll probably never ride it
- Its not the CC version, so clearly it will suck shit
- The gear ratios are totally fucked and I’m going to have to replace the drive train
What… a… hater… And what a flawed foundation for starting a relationship. Why the fuck would you even bother? Well, I had a vision in my head for what this was all about, so even loaded up with that much Haterade, I decided to push forward with an idea in my cranium (which I suspect was planted there by Rapha and Giro marketing departments with an Inception like vibe), so I could fulfil my desire to be a bearded person riding along a long gravel road with dust romantically kicking up around me whilst I pretended that a farm road was actually Tuscany.
Aside from the inevitable reach around from Rapha, the love for this bike is really driven by two aspects which I would propose are essential ingredients in not only life, but also cycling:
- Variety – Why have road riding and mountain biking when you can vaguely mix watered down versions of both together?
- Freedom – I mean freedom in the “I don’t live in Syria/Discretionary/White privilege” kind of way.
Yes, this is a bike that will unshackle you from your terrible first world prison of having to choose between genre’s and let you ride with unadulterated freedom until your thighs eventually surrender to the relentless grind of gravel. No longer are you defeated by getting to the end of a paved road, only to be denied further adventure by a gravel road that’s more than happy to shred your 25mm road tires to pieces. This is the polite middle aged uprising you’ve been waiting for while you mulled over buying an MX5 because you’re too cheap to get a Porsche and hookers scare you.
Conversely, you also no longer need to be punished riding your marshmallow soft trail bike on the road, punishing yourself and your knobs. This is the gift of a machine that genuinely believes it can do everything, assuming your game enough to hang on.
As a bike, the Stigmata essentially has a massive multiple personality disorder. When on the road its utterly convinced its a road bike, happily ticking along at essentially the same pace as my legit road bikes, granted with slightly more effort, but all in all its busy telling everyone that “fucken oath, I’m a road bike cunts“. However, show it anything dirty and it will become engorged in a way that would even challenge a viagra fuelled Rodfather.
The fact it can suddenly become a, granted rigid, mountain bike is a rad little trick. I tested this concept on some 15 minute MTB climbs down at the local, to find I was a minute faster than on the trail worthy Hightower… So its not just hyperbole. Don’t ask me about the MTB descending however, I’m yet to try and break my collarbone that way. Having said that, its stability is something that you almost take for granted, on one of my new favourite loops there is a downhill gravel section where the Stig will happily get along above 50kph, in a manner that makes you think you may as well be on tarmac.
This split personality is perhaps one of the most surprising and perplexing aspects of becoming a Stigmata owner. At many points during my first 1,000km’s on it I’ve had to wonder why the fuck I now need 3 road bikes hanging in the shed… And gathering dust by the day. Simply put, this is an oddly fantastic bike to ride. I’m not sure what Santa Cruz did in the Unicorn Abattoir to make this thing, but it gives the usual logic about bikes a solid finger banging,
The reality is that every time I want to go for a non-shred ride, I find myself gravitating towards pulling the Stig off the wall and leaving the pure Road thoroughbreds behind. This was as much a surprise to me as it was to find out I actually enjoyed riding a bike that was not only heavy, but with 33c tires at 45 psi. <<Horrified Emoji>>
This is where the variety and freedom vibe starts to kick in. Once I established that the desire to grace this Orange miracle machine endlessly was real, it was like opening up the pandora’s box (Pandora was not harassed in the making of this post) of ride options. I found myself obsessively using Google maps and Strava Route Builder to try and fill this urge that every ride now had to be fucking different or more audacious. Entire new route and loop options were suddenly unlocked and encouraged as the end of paved road was something to be sought after instead of shunned by skinny tires.
I’m never going to be an intrepid explorer or real mountain person like a Chris Ball for example, but the watered down & sanitised thrill of exploring super safe unknowns has been an excellent part of what this bike is all about… Or put another way, what bikes should be all about in general. In a world of marketing driven segmentation, this thing wants to slap motherfuckers and take a Russian hooker style piss across multiple genre’s, all in the name of making it owner taste real cycling freedom.
Dirty tip – For your face, its not often I say this, but Google maps is not to be fully trusted for your Grindr exploring when using a machine like this. Its very keen to promote to you roads or tracks that are actually private property, or not actually roads at all. I found this out first hand when I had the very cliched “What the bloody hell are you doing?! This is private fucken property” yelled at me by a farmer who was accompanied by a pack of hungry dog wolves. My elation at being yelled at with a classic Kiwi cliche dimmed somewhat when the dog wolves showed legitimate interest in eating me, slowly.
Alarmingly he gave not a single fuck for the fact I was wearing the Rapha Brevet range head to toe, nor did he have interest in “Ya fucken Google thing“, which I understand he suggested could go fuck itself, along with my Gravel specific beard. Moral of the story – Stick to Strava Route Builder and its Open Maps based directions.
Time for a quick gear wank
The Hoops – Given I acquired this machine ex-Wolf and sans wheels, the first order was to find an appropriate set of hoops. Resisting initial temptations to acquire Enve AR carbon rims, and after scouting a market segment that left me fairly underwhelmed, I took the local Hub Cycle Centre advice and settled on the Stans Grail/DT350 combo. It may not be wheel wet dream material, but goddamn if these things don’t get the job done in a no fuss way. Good width, ok weight and all designed around rolling tubeless, you can’t ask for much more.
On the tire front I’ve begrudgingly gone with Specialized Trigger 33c tires, which I have to say have been pretty exceptional. Aside from the one sidewall failure that was amazingly warrantied with no questions asked on the spot (which made me slightly sad, as like an Eminem rap battle, it left me with nothing bad to say), these things have been champion – They don’t murder you on the road, but are happy to eat up most gravel and off road offerings with aplomb – But they do struggle a little with the really deep loose stuff. I’m still currently waiting to be assimilated by the Big S.
To be noted – The second that Santa Cruz release a Stigmata compatible set of the Reserve wheels for the Stig I’m gonna move on them like a bitch. This is both a bread crumb for future frothing about the quality of these wheels, mixed in with a plea for help to Josh Kissner to get these fuckers rolling for the Grindr crowd.
About that Groupset – This is the first drop bar bike I’ve had that has come adorned with a SRAM road gruppo… And even putting my toxic bias to one side the best I can, its been a mixed experience. The Rival groupset is supposed to have a good rep, even if its at the lower end of the fanciness food chain.
Granted, initially the shifts were fairly solid and positive, plus the brakes seem to be ok at this stage, but I think that I’ve found the reason why SRAM decided to go 1 X for all their MTB products – it wasn’t driven by innovation, it was out of desperation that they couldn’t find a single engineer in the fucking building who knew how to design a front D. Despite input from a wizard of a mechanic, the front shifting remains fairly woeful to be honest.
I do sort of like those big hood though, ugly as utter fuck yes, but good for when you’re smashing a coarse Grind out. However generally this groupset is pretty fucking average and not really worthy of the sensational frame its occupying space on.
Despite my original best intentions of not touching a single thing on this bike parts wise in a forlorn bid to ‘Keep it real’, I have indeed commissioned a study into the feasibility of swapping out to Ultegra Di2 and returning my life to the tranquility of being SRAM free once more.
Rats & Mice – Given this is about frothing needlessly over an inanimate object, here’s some additional random shit:
- The internal cabling is beautifully done, don’t settle for less. As per usual, the finishing on this frame is stunning, its an incredibly beautiful machine and that colour has to be one of the all time classic SC efforts, especially when you look at the 2018 colours
- Road pedals and shoes – Unless you intend to out flat the number of tubes you’re carrying on a gravel road, you really don’t need to MTB it up. My massively fucked Giro road shoes may however disagree with that notion, turns out carbon soles don’t mate well with gravel roads when you’re having a quick Gram wank somewhere deemed to be brag worthy
- I started out with a classic Thomson zero set back Alu post, but have been trying a carbon post recently with a 25mm layback, which feels like the better option in terms of position and comfort…. Meow. FYI, that’s not a fucking saddlebag in those pics either, its a Back Country Research MTB race strap and its SO hot right now, so get busy
- The 46/36 chainset was initially a head scratcher and I instantly thought there was no fucking way it was going to be practical on the road at all, especially given it was mated to an XT MTB cassette out back (no comment on what the first gear is). Alarmingly, its turned out to be surprisingly spot on, especially when smashing long range gravel sectors. Either I’m getting softer than a Michael Flynn defence strategy, or its just genre appropriate gearing.
Time for some questions you probably didn’t have
Q. Does this piece of art replace my road bike?
A. Depends… I’ve been asked this question by a DNGC member, so worth probing like a Matt Lauer work Christmas gift. If you’re a pure roadie, then hell no, that would just not be correct at all. I’m the first to recognise that the Maap sock crew who like to label themselves as “Breakaway specialists” need to have a thoroughbred, but for the rest of us and indeed those of us with dirt in our blood, there’s a case to be heard here.
The most sensible option would be to run two wheelsets – One for your grinding and then another for your more pure road miles. Granted there could be some fucking about with cassettes and rear D etc, but its not beyond the realms of possibility if you want two bikes but your hairy accountant doesn’t.
I haven’t ridden the Stig with pure road wheels and tires, but based on some of the speeds I’ve managed on my gravel set up, I think it would be fine for keeping your road crew in check, especially if you’re that cunt that likes to sit in and shirk turns on the front. You’re likely to run out of gears if you don’t set up properly, plus its never going to climb like a pure road bike, but if you give little to zero fucks about that, then this is one bike to rule them all.
What’s with the sizing?
A. This was intriguing… I can’t get on a 56 road bike at all, but both Wolf and the SC size chart swore at my face that I was a 56. Despite some hesitation, I trusted in my own personal Jesus in the form of Mr Roskopp and went with it. Oddly, its absolutely spot on. I read a Geo chart about as well as a Republican senator reads a Tax Bill, so I’m not sure why this is the case, but the 56 is money for my 179cm hairy monkey chassis.
Ok, so it does feel a tad big when I’m riding single track that I usually tackle on the Hightower, and there’s not much seat post sticking out, but I feel no compulsion to size down. Having said that, if you do intend to essentially make this a full time off road beast, try to demo multiple sizes on the appropriate terrain.
Do I need the CC model?
A. Hmmmmm… If you’re a snobby cunt like me or get first world anxiety about an extra 280 grams in the frame, then probably. I’m rolling on the C purely due to the indecent proposal that was put in front of me by Das Wolf and because this was the last Stig I could find in that insanely awesome orange (to be noted, this is the ONLY time Orange looks good and won’t end up in prison). I am yet to have a single moment where I think “Fuck I want the CC model“, which provides me with a strange combo of contentment and sadness that my inner snobbery is dying.
Time to unpack the Trojan Horse
And this is where the Trojan horse aspect springs into action. I utterly refuse to do a post on ‘Gravel Grinding’ by itself, that’s a bridge too far even for me. However, to fully extol the virtues of the Stigmata, I need to reference back to the grind in order to bring sense to this embarrassing froth. Yes, its just riding a fucking bike on Gravel – Best we establish that upfront.
Whilst I can’t profess to be a total expert and gravel connoisseur, I have picked up a couple of things that I can pass on to add little to no value to your cycling life. Plus I have a beard, which is pretty much the number 1 prerequisite for this kind of riding… Yes, I’m afraid that unless you have an artisanal beard and a black & white filter, then you’re fucked. Assuming you can pass GO, here are some thoughts on the topic of something so non-ENDURO it may make you queasy.
It will completely fucking ruin your road riding – Not for the pure roadies of course, the ones which have a copy of Rouleur magazine on their coffee table and who pretend they think Strada Bianche is awesome, but are horrified at the thought of anything other than perfectly laid asphalt. But, if the genesis of your cycling was on the Dirt side of things, then this is going to fill your inner cycling child with joy… I mean that in a total Non-Roy Moore way obviously.
Once you get the taste of some quality variety in your road loops, gravel sector here and there, new loop over here, detour there and so on and so forth, the idea of just going for a pure road ride suddenly feels a little dull. Seriously, just hours on the road? We’re not mixing it up with something a little nasty? Fuck man, I need to get my Grind on bro. In simple terms we’re talking about the difference between a Rim job Vs. Hand job, it’s hard to go back to normality after you’ve mixed it up…
From an equipment stand point, the other issue is that the plush Stig glides across everything with confidence and nonchalance, smoothing out nasty chip without even warming its grease. Getting back on your 23mm shod road bike will definitely reconnect you with the feel of the road, which is code for ‘shake the absolute fuck out of you’.
Time is not on your side – I made the classic mistake of directly equating road riding time and distance onto my planned gravel missions. This is fine if you’ve got zero commitments and don’t mind sleeping in the back country because you’ve strapped a tent to your bike, but a total cunt of an approach if not.
It didn’t take me long to work out the quickest way to run out of water*, food, time and leg power was to think your road data had any relevance when a ride is sprinkled with Gravel. You’ll also be the cunt that misses every single agreed “I’ll be back by” time slot, meaning not everyone in your life will appreciate your new found fondness of the Grind like you do.
Its deceptively harder, its slower, you’ll be tempted to explore more and then of course, (because the scenery is generally banger), you’ll spend a ridiculous amount of time taking pics to send to chat groups to remind them what a cunt you are:
*Worth investing in a Camelbak Quick Stow flask for the back pocket, chances are where you’re getting your grind on is incompatible with shops, so don’t be that fuckbag that runs dry, that 500ml’s has saved my ass a couple of times now.
Location, Location, Location – At this point I’m pretty much saying that if you want to improve your first world life exponentially, then rushing out to acquire a Stigmata is undoubtably your best option. However, I would caution that this is not a “Buy it and the gravel roads will come” scenario. Its important to do some serious homework about what options you may have on offer around your HQ before you commit to a bike of this nature.
You may even find that there is a whole lot of shit you can ride that you didn’t know existed as you rode around your tarmac region like a Strava Zombie looking for KOM’s to consume. So, do some research first as you’ll be one pissed motherfucker if you get this bike and realise that you don’t really have anywhere to hit that’s banger.
Worth also noting that not all Gravel is the same… Which seems obvious enough until you’re sliding off a badly cambered road that seems to be 50mm deep in shit that wants to maim you. There’s the beautiful fine Tuscany style roads which you can hum along on with little to no thought and effort like a Faux Rapha model, and then there’s the brutal death march shit. Make sure you work out what’s in your Hood and prepare accordingly.
It will make you do strange things – The last trip to serious Mon-Tons reminded me that any delusions I had about being a proficient climber were as suspect as a Team Sky courier. Whilst I don’t mind a good road climb, there’s something about a big bad ass Gravel climb that seems to ignite the cycling spirit in an alarming way. Perhaps my brain equates it to mountain biking, so somehow gives me a pass for frothing over the biggest grind climbs I can find.
But, as we will see in next years Tour, there is just something romantically different about hitting a gravel climb and having to deal with a cunted surface on top of the usual punishment ascending brings to the soul. Embrace the suck… I’m currently on the hunt for the longest slap you in the face gravel based Whore Categorie climb I can get my Brevet mitts on.
Strava like its 2012 – Remember those good old days? Going out for a ride and coming home to the uploading goodness of PR’s, KOMing indiscriminately almost at will and so many top 10’s you could get laid just by showing someone a weekday ride file. Those days are fucking OVER now across the board… Except in the Gravel world.
Come along and embrace the Strava time warp, as there’s a whole world out there waiting for you to exploit it, because when you Gravel, they let you do it. You can also spend considerable time creating some exceedingly isolated and random segments that only you seem to have ridden. Not that I would ever stoop that low obviously.
Whilst you get busy with the Grindr jokes, consider this ENDUROphiles, in terms of ‘training’, this form of cycling feels significantly more beneficial than simply road riding, particularly if your intention is to translate these rides into shredding gains. Its also far more interesting and sliding around on the marbles will keep you on your game and highly engaged on whats happening around you.
Oh, and yes, I got through this whole rantview with mentioning that dirty business of Cyclo… Yeah fuck that shit, no concessions here!