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Accept the challenges so that you can feel the exhilaration of victory.
George S. Patton

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Tony's XTC Advanced 27.5 review- God's Country TT

XTaCy in God's Country - My race test of Giant's take on 27.5"'s

I am officially old school. Not "old skool" or "olde skule" or however the hipsters spell it, but quite simply...I'm old!  I got into mountain biking in the late 80's, like, when "SIS" was new, 21 speeds was a lot, rigid bikes were only option, Chromoly was the frame material of choice and oversized headsets first came around. Throughout the years, technology has done amazing things for the sport, but I've often resisted:  I fought off the suspension "craze" until the Mag 20's turned into Mag 21's.  I replaced Rapidfire controls on any new bike with thumb-shifters until that was no longer possible.  My only leap of blind faith came in the form of SPD pedals & shoes, but that was only after years on the road and finally giving into the ski-binding pedal idea that had taken over, there.

Fast forward a few dozen bikes (and 20+ years!!) and I finally found myself giving in to all the hype about 29er's.  I was intrigued by the claims, and it seemed a sensible option for my next bike back in 2010 - a bit smoother ride from a hard-tail & XT-level components at a reasonable cost.  I couldn't get both out of a full suspension 26" for the same coin, so into the 21st Century I jumped.  I spent nearly 4 good years on that 29er and while I very much appreciated the smooth roll and momentum of the big wheels, my wheelie-riding, trials-inspired style sure missed the shorter chainstays of my 26" wheeled hard-tails of old.
I started hearing rumors of some "'tweener" wheel size - 650b, or 27.5" - something precisely between 26er's of old and 29er's that seem to be setting the current standard.  Of course, I shrugged it off as some marketing ploy to get me to add a THIRD wheel size to my off-road fleet.  Great gimmick, but was it really necessary? I mean, could this compromise between handling and roll-ability really be the promised land touted to be "best of both worlds"????  Then, I started seeing more data from Giant, (I LOVE data!!), about weight, approach angles, wheelbase impacts, etc.  My eyebrows lifted from scrawl of doubt to genuinely curious.  Then...I saw "her":  the 2014 Giant XTC Advanced 2.  Wow...what a looker!!! Full carbon hard-tail frame, trusted XT components (w/ XTR rear derailer!), proven Fox fork, AND, she was wearing a magnificent pair of those 27.5" hoops - all at what is a very reasonable price by today's standards.  Yeah, it was love at first sight.

I finally pulled the "buy trigger" in mid-February and when it came in I was instantly pleased with her looking even better in person than in photo's.  Hanging her on the scale just made my grin bigger and about brought a tear to my eye: 23.95 lbs for a Large with 2 bottle cages, inner tubes and basic (heavy!) set of SPD's.  Yum.  Unfortunately, buying a new MTB in mid-February Missouri meant it was nearly a month before I could take it for a ride!  If it wasn't so darn pretty, it'd been excruciating to just sit at look at it, but...even that wasn't so bad.  
First ride was in anything but perfect conditions:  11-15 degrees & frozen Stocksdale trail that had been used too much last time it was wet.  I couldn't wait any longer, though, so this had to do.  The trail is pretty smooth by design, but completely covered in frozen foot, paw and tire prints.  This made for rather annoying trail chatter, but an excellent first test of how the 'tweener wheels rolled and how the full-carbon hard-tail absorbed.  Both passed with flying colors!  What the first few short uphills unveiled, though, was even better:  the bike flat rips under power while keeping the rear wheel pretty well planted!!  It felt 29er stable & smooth, but tricked-out 26er quick, light, and responsive.  Even in a semi-frozen state, my smile grew.  It was a miserable day, but I rode until the skin on my toes was black simply because I couldn't get enough of this new-found balance of speed & comfort! I hadn't even finished tweaking riding position or finding "right" tire pressure - all very good indicators of what this bike brought to the party.
A month, a few miles, 2 rides of position & air pressure adjustment later and I'm lining up for the God's Country Time Trial at Lawrence River Trails.  I'm a bit under-trained, it was 38 degrees with reported "slick as snot" sections of trail, yet I was itching to go all out on this new rig for 10-ish miles of tasty twists, turns, short ups & downs.  Now granted, this trail was extremely smooth and mostly un-frozen, but I was still surprised at how comfortable AND fast this Giant carbon frame was.  I'm not a carbon fiber expert, but for much of my riding career you could have carbon stiffness & acceleration OR you could be comfortable.  Giant delivers both with this bike, and by the 27.5" wheelbarrow full!

Seemed every valuable ounce of leg put into the pedal was making it to the rear wheel.  Small roots, ruts and holes were only minutely more noticeable on this bike than my 29er, but both the out-of-saddle efforts and cornering ability (aided by the OverDrive 2 steerer) far exceeded anything I'd experienced on the bigger wheels.  Heck, even on some pretty fancy-schmancy 26er's! Of course, the sensible-which-makes-it-pretty-affordable components also shined for amazing function. Shifts were quick & quiet, braking was precise, and the ride position was aggressive enough, yet totally comfortable.  I cannot wait to get more dry/thawed trail miles on this thing.  I'll be going tubeless in the next few days and can only imagine that will make all the above shining highlights of this scoot even brighter.  This is an out-of-the-box-in-stock-form hot rod.  In my relatively well-educated experience & opinion, the 27.5" wheel does seem to live up to all the hype.  The chassis Giant built around it, though, still confuses me as I truly didn't believe this combination of comfort, handling and brute acceleration were actually possible.  Win. OK, well, a 2nd place finish for me, but the bike itself is a pretty big victory - check it out:  
***  I wanted to also send out a huge Thank You, Well Done, and Kudos to all The Wheel Cyclery & Cowtown folks who made this past weekend's event what it was.  Those I know that competed in the duathlon were thrilled with the setup.  Me & my OCD self were quite impressed with how smoothly the rider-every-30-seconds time trial was organized, run exactly on-time, and quickly scored.  ****

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

GIANT TCR SLR- Review and Race Report

One of the things we have always loved about Giant is that they are continually on the cutting edge when it comes to their products. And not in a “what is flashy that we can sell” kind of way, but in a “what do our customers need, and what is the very best way to give that to them” kind of way. They built an aero road bike (The Propel and Envy) lighter and stronger than anyone else’s, and it actually handles like a road bike, not a sailboat. They engineered a full-suspension platform (Maestro, used on the Anthem and Lust bikes) that doesn’t rely on gimmicky shocks to be efficient and active even during hard braking or pedaling. And don’t even get me started on 27.5- while everyone else is still pushing 29ers, Giant did the research and found that 27.5 is the sweet spot, and backed that research up with a commitment to make nearly every mountain model (EVERY women’s mountain model) 27.5 equipped. Not because it is the cool thing, but because they want to put the very best thing in the hands of their customers.

And while Giant is a leader in carbon manufacturing, making their own carbon from the resin to the weave, and manufacturing it in-house to ensure the highest level of quality control, they also know that carbon fiber isn’t necessarily for every rider. Some riders want a high quality, sharp handling bike, with good quality components—but without breaking the bank or worrying about scratching a carbon bike. That’s where the TCR SLR comes in to play. The TCR is Giant’s race geometry bike, with a longer top tube and a shorter head tube for snappy handling that is nimble in the pack. SLR stands for Giant’s very highest grade of hydro-formed aluminum, carefully formed to provide a very stiff bottom bracket and head tube area for high performance when you’re on the rivets, but some dampening to make long road rides or races more comfortable. Can’t afford to drop 8 grand on a race bike? Can’t afford to replace the $8,000 race bike that you crashed and destroyed in a spring crit race? Not many of us can afford that kind of heartache and heartburn, and for us mortals, there is the TCR SLR. The TOP of the line SRAM Red 22 model builds for about 4k, or you can get an Ultegra 11spd model for a super-budget friendly $2250. There's even a 105 bike available for under $1500.
Here is where it gets good. Giant’s commitment to innovation would be nothing without feedback from cyclists. What’s the point of creating a cool product that no one wants or needs? To ensure that they have their finger on the pulse of cycling, Giant works to put their newest and most innovative products in the hands of consumers, avid cyclists, and racers that will put their products to the ultimate real world test. That is how a shiny new, murdered out TCR SLR ended up on the front stoop of The Wheel this week. Ride it, they said. Race it, they said. Who am I to argue???? I stripped my components off of my Scott, and built the new TCR. It looks bad ass. The stealth, murdered out paint scheme says “I’m all walk, let me show you what I can do” and the bike built out to a svelte 15.8 lbs, using my 3 year old Force groupo, and with training tires. I’m sure it will go sub 15 with a more selective component selection and a set of race tires.

Next, Heather and I started the fit process. This is an “inline” model, or unisex bike, but Heather’s fit policy starts from the ground up and takes everything into account, so I wasn’t concerned at all about being able to get a good fit on a “men’s” bike. The race geometry of the bike gave me a nice long top tube so I could keep a flat back and a fairly low position. It fits like a glove, comfortable and balanced. It would have been ideal to get outside to test ride it before the weekend’s race, but at least I was able to ride it in spin class. We worked out the kinks in the shifting and I was ready to go.

The Frozen Waffles Road Race in Springfield Missouri is just under an 11 mile road loop around Fellows Lake, done 3 times. The course is mostly rolling hills, a 5 mile flat section, a screaming curvy descent, and a monster climb with the sprint at the top (all in that order). It would be a great test for the new bike. To be honest, I was a full lap in before I remembered that I was riding a different bike and I was supposed to be noticing how it handles. Let’s stop a moment to appreciate that statement. I've been riding a carbon bike for 4 years, and over 1 year on a very expensive carbon bike, and my first ride back on aluminum and I DIDN'T NOTICE. My hands felt good, back felt good, no undue vibrations to speak of. On the rollers the bike squirted skyward when I stood up, and zipped down the descents with good control even in a tucked position. On the flats I felt strong and steady, and wasn't pushed around by the cross/headwind (I am not running aero wheels). All in all, I was super happy with how this road-rocket performed. As for geometry, the overall handling is very confidence inspiring. Last year late in the summer I took a spill in a corner and I've been trying to get my mojo back ever since then. I have been cornering like absolute chicken-shit. After this weekend I maybe feel a TINY bit better. A near-death experience on a road course in a scary 40mph corner with a car in the oncoming lane so close you can see the horrified look on the driver’s face will give you back a bit of that invincible feeling, I suppose. The road was damp and I could feel the back tire breaking loose, and in that moment, YOU KNOW you have to let go of that brake or it’s all over, and it’s hard to do. But if you let go, the tire hooks back up, holds it’s line, and the car squeaks past. It just reminds me that the bike is capable of way more than I'm willing to ask it to do. The things that hold us back aren't tires, or frames or wheels, because good equipment will go as far as you push it. The thing that holds us back is ourselves; my fear, my lack of commitment, not wanting to push myself and feel that pain.  Maybe you don't need to spend 5-8 grand on a road bike to have a race-ready machine. Maybe you just need this bike, a good engine, and lots of guts. As for me, after a 5th place finish, I'm just going to keep trying to work hard and get that stronger engine.