World I present to you RoboZank. What exactly is the RoboZank? It is an electronic fuel injected gravel killing machine. It is the rocker, it is the roller, it is the out-of-controller. It is the chosen one. The mighty hand of vengeance sent down to strike the unwoods worthy. It's hotter than a rollin' dice. Step right up, chum, and watch the RoboZank lay down the rubber and ride to freedom! *paraphrased from Mad Max I am the Nightrider speech obviously. The RoboZank is one of the Zank SSCX Team bikes converted to Di2 shifting. One of the beauties of working with Mike Zanconato is he can customize anything. When he first made the SSCX bike we talked about flexibility and the potential of putting gears on the bike down the road. He converted my SS Mtn Bike to a sick 1x11 last Mountain bike season. It will go back to being a SS MTB this Spring in time for SSapalooza. The Team bikes are used as prototypes and experiments. We have lots of fun playing around with different setups. It is a very creative process and one of the reasons I love riding for Zank. The idea to turn the SSCX into a RoboZank was inspired by Ben Berden. His bikes are always very unique. And was riding 1x long before it took over the entire bike world.
The thing that initially got me thinking about the possibilities of turning my perfectly great SSCX into an electronic wonder bike was the brakes. I love hydro disc brakes. A season or two on the Shimanos sold me. One finger, predictable braking is literally a life saver. And makes riding CXenduro way more safe and for me comfortable. I have small hands. I broke my arm years ago and my wrist and hand get very tired after a few hours braking in the woods with cantilevers. Disc brakes have been a game changer for me. And while I LOVE the Shimano Hydro it is expensive and seems silly on a SSCX. Sure its nice but is it really the best allocation of your resources? So I decided to try the TRP SSCX hydro set up this season. At first I wasn't sure what to think about the levers. They look super long. But you know what they are much more comfortable than any hoods I have used in the last 5 years. Again its a limiter I have because of my broken arm. I tend to have pain on longer road rides with most levers. The TRPs allow my hand to sort of stretch out and not get crimped like SRAM and Shimano.
So that was a big plus for the TRPs. And as the promoter of a SSCX series I like to support those who make dedicated SSCX parts. So the big question I am sure you want the answer to: How do the TRP compare to the Shimano? If Shimano is a 10 the TRP are an 8. I actually like the feel of the TRP. There is a bit more lever feel than the Shimano. Shimano is pure one finger on- off-braking. Its incredible. That is why its a 10. The TRP have a bit of "drag" and then solid braking power. They do squeal a tad more than the Shimano when dirty but once they clear the dirt and water they are pretty quiet. Again, the Shimano's are quiet pretty much no matter what so again that is why they get the 10. The squealing does not equal less braking power. Just a bit noisy is all. So how do you use a SSCX lever and make it into a shifter? The TRP people clearly are geniuses and hid a little port into the inside of the lever. Add a Shimano Di2 climbing button into that little port and voila you have a sick 1 x 11!
The bike is currently set up with an Ultegra Di2 rear derailler. I saw the Luna ladies running this derailler at Night Weasels. Not going to lie they were an inspiration for this project as well. The concern is that the Ultegra doesn't have a clutch so there is a worry that you will drop the chain. With a Wolf Tooth ring up front I have zero issues. I went with a 40 and 11-32 for a nice range. For VT Overland and NH riding I am going to put an XTR rear Di2 so I can run a 11-40 in the back. That should give enough range for even the burliest of gravel climbs. I don't mind being spun out on 40/11 I race and ride single speed spinning goes with the territory. To do this some planning needed to happen. Mike uses Ahren's slider hoods and with Paragon inserts you can go between SS and geared really easily. The beauty of electronic is all Mike needed to convert the bike was to install the Paragon insert with the derailler hanger and then drill two holes to feed the Di2 wire. It took about 15 minutes. A quick tune of the shift levers aka program the shifting buttons and voila RoboZank was born.
Ok so why do all this? #CXenduro that is why. Or gravel. The term gravel aka gravel bike is the most elegant term available at the moment. Until someone comes up with a better term that is what I am going to use. The bike is a cyclocross bike. Make no mistake. Pure racing machine. It is the nicest race bike I have ever ridden. Only bike even close is my old Rock Lobster. It is also a fantastic woods shredder. And gravel bike. And monster cross bike. It is the do everything bike I have always wanted. Since I moved to the east coast and the Boston area my riding has evolved from "racer" to rider. And 90% of the rides I do are woods riding. Park to park adventure rides. Over this period of time with countless gravel rides its become clear to me what the most critical aspects of what a gravel bike should be. A gravel bike must have: Hydro disc brakes, reliable and large gear range, tubeless tires, room for 40s. The next crucial thing is that magic unicorn of all day comfort and nimble handling. That holy grail is where in my opinion most gravel bikes fail. Long wheel bases suck. There I said it. It makes a bike handle like a pig. CX geometry was and is pretty much perfect. 33s are great for most riding but there are lots of rides where you are going to want 40s. Not being able to fit a tire bigger than a 33 is a huge red flag in my opinion. You might have noticed I never mentioned weight. Worrying about weight on a bike you are going to smash into logs, attempt to hop over rock walls and rail through rock gardens is not having your priorities straight. A bike like this has to survive these rides. Nothing is worse than flatting or catastrophically destroying your bike mid-way through some rad ride.
Before I go to far into the actual cool features of the bike I just want to get on one more soap box. Aluminum bikes kick ass. This theory that steel or ti is somehow more "comfortable" is just wrong. And is driven by marketing. I have ridden ti bikes that are so stiff they are barely rideable. And steel bikes are great. I love them But my aluminum bikes, the Zank and the Rock Lobster are just as comfortable as any steel bike I have ridden. But they aren't flexing all over the place like steel can. See how I said can. Steel can be built to be very stiff. But it becomes heavy when you do that. And for me the ride quality isn't the same. I prefer aluminum. To me it is the perfect mix of stiffness, weight and comfort. For this bike Mike used Dedacciai tubing. The bike was built for CX racing but is one of the nicest woods bikes I have ever owned.
On to the details! As mentioned earlier the key to this whole setup is the TRP levers and Shimano climbing shifters. The climbing buttons are used mainly on the bars. Or that is at least how Shimano intended them to be used. I guess climbing in the Alps is tiring and moving your hand from the bar to hood to shift is exhausting. I guess if you have T-Rex arms that may be the case but for most normal humans this seems overkill. But it opened the door to the RoboZank so I applaud it! When set up it feels like a Campy thumb shifter. I can hear the gasping of retrogrouches and Campyphiles across the Globe. I loved Campy. That tumbshifter made a nice perch and was a really smart way to shift. I still ghost shift on my bikes with my thumb when I am tired. For me this feels so right. One button shifts down, one up. All at your thumb which is resting on the hood 90% of the time anyway. The shifting like all Di2 is crisp and flawless. Zip, zip and you shift gears. You can hold a button down and go through a few gears if you prefer. I love it. The limiter I suppose is the range. To do a wide range you need a XTR derailler. Word is an XT is coming. That certainly will be a game changer. I am willing to pay the XTR price for this bike but its not a reasonable amount for a person to be expected to pay for a rear derailler. The Ultegra has been great but 11-32 may not be enough range for some people with a 40 up front.
Other than disc brakes tubeless was probably the next biggest thing I wanted to experiment with. Flatting sucks. Running high pressure in the woods sucks. But the only way to not flat on the rides we do is run high pressure. By high I mean 45-50. That is about the lowest I can go riding in the woods without flatting. Even then its not a guarantee. You have to ride a bit more carefully. Or less rad. Or in my case less like a Bull in a China shop. A few of my friends have been experimenting with tubeless for the past three years or so with varying degrees of success. But finally things are at a point when as long as you use a system it is a reliable option. And by system I mean no DIY tubeless hack jobs. Tubeless specific tires and rims is the ONLY way to go. I turned to Dave at November bicycles for help. I had heard great things from Mike Wissell and Lesli. I coveted some baller carbon wheels but me and carbon really seem like a bad idea. After a few emails and a phone call we came up with the best plan. November built and branded Grail rims to their house hubs which are made by White Industries. Bombproof and reliable. I raced them at Ice Weasels and loved them. I am almost 100% convinced I will be racing tubeless all next CX season. Tubulars are nice but the convenience and reliability of tubeless trumps fancy French rubber.
The initial tires my mechanic set up were WTB 40 Nanos. Awesome, awesome tire. All "gravel" bikes must fit 40s. Repeat after me. The Nano is a great tire for woods shredding. File tread-ish. Plush. Rolls over everything but is fast. I will be rolling these at VT Overland next year for sure. They are big and don't have a lot of side knob so things can get a bit interesting if you lean it over too much but I highly recommend them. For 33s I went with Specialized Terras. Again tubeless specific. Set up super easy. They remind me of a Mud. Same basic tread pattern. But wider and just shred everything. My new favorite tire. So what pressures am I running? About 30. Going from 45-30 is a game changer. Hate to use that word but its true. So much traction and so plush. On the Stevil ride I bottomed them out a bunch. I was sure I flatted going down a stream bed rock garden. Nope. Not at all. I am never going back to tubes. I am already dreaming of a 38 tubeless road tire. Summer is going to be so rad.
Ok so we covered the hydro disc, electronic and tubeless what else? That is really the sweet spot as I said. This bike is going to see so much action in 2016. Signed up for the VT Overland. Thinking of Hell of Hunterdon, Ronde for sure. The more adventures the better. Huge thanks to Mike Zank, Scott Novick, Dave from November and Rosey for inventing this type of riding.