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Bike Check: Port Renfrew gravel gear strategies

Five different tactics for tackling the same backroads route on Vancouver Island

Photo by: Chris Hatton

As the newest niche in cycling, gravel bikes are still a wild bunch. There’s still no consensus on what the “typical” gravel bike should be, other than that it should have two wheels and drop bars. But even that last part is negotiable. For those of us that like endlessly obsessing over our gear, its a refreshing and exciting to have so much open to interpretation and personal preference. Especially as road bikes and, to a lesser extent, mountain bikes are increasingly standardized.

When I joined with the Fernie Gravel Grind group ride in Port Renfrew, B.C. recently, it seemed like a good time to check-in with what kind of set-up some gravel die-hards were running.

Gravel, trees and fog on Vancouver Island’s west coast. Photo: Carter Nieuwesteeg

Our route from Port Renfrew was made up of mostly rough forest service roads. Hardpacked, but embedded with stones and strewn with loose rocks and deep potholes. The road was mostly rolling but with one grim pitch of 15 per cent grade climbing over 700m up from the valley to the summit necessitating a wider range of gearing. There were no trail connectors, and only an hour of pavement to finish the day, so pretty specific gravel setups were the choice for the day.

Carter Nieuwesteeg’s Santa Cruz Stigmata

Carter Nieuwesteeg’s Santa Cruz Stigmata CC mixes mountain bike tech and gravel spirit. While the Stigmata can fit 650 wheels, Nieuwesteeg went with 700cc Reserve Carbon 22 rims and 40c tires for the days faster, smoother sections. SRAM XO1 AXS wireless shifting and a 10-50 tooth SRAM Eagle cassette gave plenty of gearing to get up the steep pitches on Mt. Bolduc and, with the 42-tooth chainring, to pull us all back into town when the route returned to tarmac.

Chris Hatton’s Trek Crockett

Chris Hatton brought his Trek Crockett for the Port Renfrew expedition. And by brought, I mean he rode it from Squamish, loaded up with everything he needed for the weekend. Then rode back home. His nearly-bald Bontrager CX3 33mm show the wear of his mega-miles, but Hatton himself rarely seemed phased. That could be because the recent Toronto transplant has a huge summer of B.C. miles under his belt already.

Hatton sized up from a 56cm frame to a 58cm Crockett to make the bike more stable for gravel riding. To make that fit, he’s switched from a 130mm stem to a 100mm on the 58, which helps improve the handling as well.

RELATED: Port Renfrew: A wild West-Coastal gravel adventure

Kristen Kit’s Juliana Quincy

Kristen Kit showed up on her Julian Quincy. The women’s line of Santa Cruz, the Quincy is similar to Nieuwesteeg’s Stigmata. Kit’s differs in build, though. To get extra gearing without big jumps between cogs, she’s running Shimano’s gravel-specific GRX Di2, set up 2x. Schwalbe G-One 40mm tires mix speed and traction, while a Rapha x Outdoor Voices bar bag held all the snacks needed for the day.

Holly Henry’s Cannondale SuperX

Holly Henry and the Cannondale and Kristen Kit rolling out of Renfrew

The fifth rider in our group, Red Truck Racing’s Holly Henry had to return to Victoria before we had a chance to shoot photos of her bike. While the rest of us licked our wounds from the prior day’s ride and settled into a second coffee, Henry woke early enough to drive 90 minutes for her start time in the Triple Shot Cross Fondo. Which she won. Which would explain how she powered 1x gearing with a mid-range cassette up Mt. Bolduc so fast. Henry fit 40mm WTB tires in with Hollogram rims in the SuperX frame. A bright pink Farsik bar bag, made locally in Victoria, sat up front for snacks.

Terry McKall’s Naked Bicycles X15

Fresh off the injured reserve after a mountain bike incident in Whistler, my Naked was set up more “as I left it” than specifically for this trip. The 40-tooth chainring and 10-28 cassette were a little optimistic about how much fitness I’d retained after a month off the bike, but Shimano’s Di2 continued shifting no matter how slowly I was pedalling. Wide (24-mm internally) Easton EC70AX rims and a set of 40mm Kenda Alluvium tires added welcome volume when the roads were rough. Being a cyclocross frame, it doesn’t fit more than 40’s, but the steel tubes pitch in to help dampen the road chatter.

That’s all from Port Renfrew. What’s you’re preferred gravel set-up?