What bike is best suited for the race? Which tires should I run and at what pressure? What gear range is optimal, will i spin out with a 1x setup?
Well, fear not fellow riders, this post is specifically created to help guide you towards a setup that will suit your needs depending on your goals. This is the first in a series of blogs to help you gear up for this event, and future posts will cover myriad other topics well in advance of race day! To help frame our discussion I’m going to separate my guidance based on what your goals as a rider may be, but first i’ll give you some info on the course and terrain.
Course and Terrain
The race course as you already know spans the great State of Michigan from Lake Huron near Standish to Lake Michigan in the coastal town of Ludington. That’s 200 (or 100 for the Coast Loop) miles of glorious gravel, two-track and minimal pavement to plan for! For the sake of our discussion we’ll cover the route as one would race it; from east to west. Starting off near Lake Huron you immediately roll out on gravel roads with some medium size gravel that’s a bit loose in the first miles. If the area received lots of recent rain, you may need to bypass a massive mud section on foot, but it’s a quick bypass. The terrain isn’t super hilly out of the gate with just enough undulation to keep you occupied. Some mildly sandy roads are encountered near game lands that can be loose if dry along with chatter from vehicles.
Generally speaking the route is pretty tame to the first checkpoint in Gladwin, MI around mile 50. Once you depart from Gladwin the terrain will begin to undulate more abruptly with some actual climbing and descending starting to take shape. The roads are less populated and more rural at this point so the surface varies quite a bit. Right around mile 70 you’ll encounter another two-track section to spice things up and get your attention. From there it’s gravel per usual with some sandy spots here and there as you pedal through the Muskegon river watershed and surrounding low areas. At about mile 100 you’ll hit the second checkpoint in the small town of Marion, MI. A little bit of pavement will be a welcome reprieve to stretch those legs out and rest the upper body.
The Leota Mini-Mart is one of several un-official fuel sources along the route. You’ll find this gem around mile 81 and it might just be what you need to push through to Marion. Departing from Marion you’ll enter into the “high country” of the route but we doubt you’ll feel the altitude of 1,400 feet. This area offers great open views and spaces but can be subject to higher winds if they’re whipping up. Enjoy this rolling gravel as once you cross under US-131 highway you enter the territory of the Manistee National Forest. To navigate past US-131 you’ll jump on the scenic White Pine Trail for a stint prior to entering the land of the Forest Roads.
Right around mile 125 you get to the Forest Roads in earnest. We kind of figured you’ve had enough of the regular old gravel roads at this point and were ready for something more adventurous. The Forest Roads in the Manistee National Forest are one of the hallmarks of this race and will surely keep you on your toes. It’s important to stay focused while on the two-tracks and keeping an eye out for sticks, rocks and nefarious sand pits. This portion of the course also contains the majority of climbing for the race, and if you were wondering why you couldn’t just use a 1x with a 48T chainring up front now is the time you’ll have that “ah ha!” moment. Fear not, the forest roads will come at you in short stints, we wouldn’t make you slog them the whole way to the lake. They add a great amount of charm and character to the race, and when you see one of those flexible brown markers with a 4 digit number on them then you’ll know you’ve hit the jackpot!
You’ll wind and weave along a serpentine route passing the Pine River which is a National Scenic River corridor. There’s plenty of time for deep thought in this stretch as you look forward to meeting your support crew at checkpoint 3 at the Big M Recreation Area and fueling up for the final stretch. This third and final checkpoint will be just what you need to power onward toward the mighty Lake Michigan and its sandy beaches.
I hate to break it to you, but you’re not quite in the clear yet once you saddle up and power out of checkpoint 3. Variety is the spice of life and we spice things up for you with a couple miles of gravel friendly singletrack as you cut through the heart of Big M. One of the biggest climbs on the route is lurking within Udell Hills and anyone that’s done the Lumberjack 100 MTB race will know what I’m talking about. This area is perhaps the most sandy as well so good tire choice and pressure will be key.
Leaving Udell Hills you’ll get to roll on some of that pavement stuff for a stint as you pass over the Little Manistee River. If it’s a warm day this is a perfect spot to cool down and take a break. Heading southwest from the river you’ll hit your last Forest Road.
From here the route flattens out considerably with the occasional dip where the road crosses a gully or stream. You’ll be able to catch smells of the Lake in the air now. Turning south onto M-116 you’re home free and all there is left to do is dip your hand or toes in the lake and enjoy your accomplishment!
Bike Types, Tires, Gearing
You’re probably thinking “What the heck, I thought he was going to tell me THE setup for this race?!” Well, you needed to know what you are in store for and now that you do, it’s clear there’s no single one bike, tire or gearing that is ideal for this race course. Don’t panic if you don’t have a purpose built gravel rig because that might not even be the right bike for you. This course would be just as fun on a gravel bike as it would a mountain bike. It’s all in your goals and what you’re comfortable on. I’ve ridden large chunks of the course on two different setups; Salsa Cutthroat with 29×2.0” tires and 2×11 gearing and Salsa Warbird with 700x42c tires and 1×11 gearing. Here’s what i would recommend based on your goals/riding style.
For the relaxed rider looking to finish within the cutoff and enjoy the scenery. You might not be into those clip-on aero bars and precious watts saved by aero shoe covers. You’re looking to just enjoy the adventure and to roll in sometime before 3:00 AM. Perhaps your back isn’t interested in being bent at acute angles for long periods of time. For this style i’d recommend a bike like the Salsa Fargo with either the 27.5 plus tire setup or 29×2”+. A bike like the Fargo with flared drop bars will give you all the hand positions you could want and a more upright position to keep that lower back happy. Lots of room to put a frame bag, extra bottles and other sweet accessories for the long haul. You don’t need super knobby tires for this route, but the extra width won’t slow you down too much in the long run as well as providing that extra float for the sandy and rugged two tracks, which get looser as more and more bikers pass through them. A nice 2x gearing setup can help you creep up the steeps while switching up to the big ring to mash the flats. A wide range 1×11 will do the trick too. Tires like the Schwalbe Thunder Burt, Teravail Sparwood and Bontrager XR0 will give you that fast rolling tread but width for comfort (Mark adds that he races gravel with the XRO 2″ wide on a Trek ProCaliber hardtail because he’s old as dirt and values the comfort; you don’t HAVE to ride a gravel bike). Having a tire with built in protection will be a good insurance policy as it’s never fun dealing with flats on a 15+ hour day.
For the sporty rider looking to cover some ground but who still wants a flexible rig. You’ve probably got a time goal or pace in mind, and you don’t mind tucking into some aero bars every once in awhile to duck out of the wind. However, you’re not ready to commit to an aggressive geometry, narrower tires and deep drop bars. For this style I’d recommend a bike like the Salsa Cutthroat with 29” hoops that roll fast and room for 2” rubber and plenty of frame mounting options for a top tube feed bag or downtube mounted third bottle. The Cutthroat has a more leaned-over geometry than the Fargo to get you a bit more aero, and with a mildly flared bar you can move your hands about without getting too wide. If after some pre-riding you decide you want to run a narrower tire like a 42c you can do that but if you find you need the wider tread of a 2.25” tire you can do that too. Running a 1x setup for simplicity is always nice, and with a 10-42T cassette a 36 or 38T chainring should cover most everything well. The same tires as mentioned above are great if you’re looking for something wider, and if you’re looking for more speed there are some good tires like the Teravail Cannonball 42c, Panaracer Gravel King SK 43c and WTB Nano 40c.
For the serious rider looking to race fast and hard. You more than likely plan to run an aero setup, only stop at the designated checkpoints and closely monitor your competition as you blaze a path across the great state of Michigan. You’re probably not even considering 2” tires but rather gambling between running a narrower 38c or “super wide” 43c. For this style and approach I’d recommend a purpose built gravel bike like the Salsa Warbird. Oh yeah, there’s room for a 43c tire on wide rims in there if you want. With ample mud clearance and a clean frame design this setup is lightweight and built for covering ground in a hurry. I’d recommend a clip on aero-bar setup to stay out of the wind on pulls at the front or solo efforts. 38c tires will be a disadvantage in the sandy sections so that’s your call. I’ve been able to ride everything in the course with a few foot dabs here and there on 42c tires in damp conditions. As far as gearing goes I’d say if you like 2x then a 50/34 compact road setup with an 11-32 should cover you. I like to run 1x and find that a 42t chainring with an 11-36 cassette gives me everything I need. For tires I’ve been running the Teravail Cannonball 42c rubber which is a good mix of speed and float for the loose stuff. Going tubeless you can air down a bit more than with tubes and still have a fast rolling setup. WTB and Panaracer also have several good offerings in the 38-43c range.
Well, that’s all I’ve got for now. That should be plenty of info to get your setup selection obsession into overdrive and give you a few items to add to your Christmas list! Be sure to follow us on Facebook for future blog announcements! – Matt Acker