Bikes & Set Ups: It is all about the bike after all?
Gravel Union On
15 June 2021
Many of you will know the name Mark Beaumont from his many record breaking adventures from Round the World to the Length of Africa by Bike. Emma sat down for a chat with Mark about gravel riding, what he’s got planned for the future and to tell us all about his latest build, the Argon 18 Dark Matter.
Gravel Union – Can you tell us a little about your new bike?
Mark - I got Gavin and the guys at the Gamma bike shop, arguably the most famous bike shop in Edinburgh, to build it up for me. When I say famous, it's tiny and it’s down a little back alley, but it's where people go if they want custom built bikes. They’re classic super bike geeks and they make great coffee too. Gavin's the grey haired guy in the photographs building the bike and Owen is his lead mechanic.
The new bike has been built for me to race in the GBDuro in August. It’s an Argon18 Dark Matter. When gravel riding first came on the scene, I was one of those massive skeptics that had my mountain bikes and had my road bikes and thought that all the gravel biking was sort of spoiling both. What actually happened though was that in the last 18 months to two years, I’ve become a massive convert and now spend most of my time on the gravel bike.
I've come a long way in terms of my gravel journey. I was doing a bunch of films for GCN and riding gravel - it was really through borrowing some of their bikes that I ended up exploring the Scottish islands, then riding around the Cairngorms and other parts of Scotland, often a lot more by tracks and trails than by road. I was just so impressed with where I could go on them - there was almost nothing that you couldn’t ride on a gravel bike.
I wanted to build a bike, which was both testing and showcasing the Shimano GRX groupset to its limits and taking it to interesting places, but also to have the geometry a bike which was good for racing. The finished bike is very racy. It's got a pretty slim front end and flared handlebars.
I'm quite a tall rider, 6’3” (1.9m), but I've gone for a relatively compact geometry on the frame and it's great. My biggest ride so far was nearly 14 hours. It'll be interesting to see how it fares doing 4-500km stages. I've done all the usual stuff I do to set up a bike for ultra-endurance - double taping the bars and fitting my favourite saddle. I'll put a set of tri-bars on it too. Apart from that, it's pretty standard. I’ve ridden the bike a lot over the last six months since building it up and it will need a complete rebuild for August before the race, that's for sure.
GU - You’ve chosen 2x GRX in the Di2 version for your build, what’s shaped these choices? Are you ever worried about things breaking on the trail?
MB - I broke the world record for riding the length of Africa, completely unsupported, over 10,000kms without any mechanical problems and riding electronic Di2 gears. I genuinely think these days riders are going for reliability over fixability. There's so much on modern bikes that you can't fix with the tools in your back pocket, but the reliability is now incredible. You so rarely even get a puncture, let alone break frames or spokes and the rest of it.
I weigh 90kgs and I'm an ultra-endurance rider. I've never felt like I needed more range than standard [31-48] GRX gearing offers. I like the double chain ring on the front, although I know a lot of people are choosing a single chainring setup instead these days.
GU - The new bike has a carbon fibre frame and electronic gears, what made you chose this over other materials?
MB – Riders might have historically shied away from a lot of those things when doing hardcore gravel riding. Particularly in the UK, because gravel riding here is not like gravel riding in the US where you have big open gravel roads and drier conditions. Gravel riding in the UK is more like mountain biking.
But, during testing I submerged the Di2 battery completely and got the components repeatedly caked in mud and they were absolutely fine. I've never had issues with the electrics on the bike. I sent Shimano photographs of me cycling through a Scottish lake up to the top tube, and they were like, we did test it, but…
I think you can essentially go for a swim with a bike fitted with GRX Di2 and it will [most likely] be fine - the gears have never, ever missed a beat.
GU - What have you done in terms of tyres? Have you gone for more traditional 40mm or something bigger?
MB - I have swapped on to Schwalbe G-One tyres for the GBDuro event to try and get the right balance of speed for the road sections and grip for the off road sections. GBDuro has some pretty gnarly sections, but as long as you've got decent amounts of grip on the front you should be OK. I will definitely do better on the road sections - I'm not the most technically proficient rider off-road, but I've got a big engine. I'll definitely want to get the hammer down and get the tyre pressure up when I hit the road sections. I've not really ridden it fully laden yet, but am looking forward to doing some testing before the event. It'll be very interesting to see how the bike handles.
GU – You recently suffered quite a bad hand injury - how do you think you’ll cope racing on it?
MB - GBDuro will be a real test because it will only be three months after smashing my hand. I’m hoping the bones will have healed sufficiently - it feels OK at the minute and I think it’s strong enough. I did a 200kms road ride last Saturday and it felt fine after that. But gravel riding obviously puts a lot more pressure through your hands, especially if you're having to carry the bike. I don't yet have full range of movement in my hand.
The potential problem won’t really be about shifting, it's more the grip on the handlebars. My grip will potentially be less because, believe it or not, most of the grip strength comes from your pinky [little finger]. If you smash your little finger, you lose over half the grip strength. Your fine detail in terms of dexterity comes from your index finger and your middle finger, but your grip strength actually comes from curling in your smaller fingers. It was the outside of my hand that I smashed.
GU - How are you feeling about lining up with the other racers?
MB - I've never stood on the start line of an event! I've always gone out there and done major expeditions [but generally by myself]. It's funny because I'm such an odd one out in that sense - I've not really grown up in the cycling community, I've always just done expeditions and not just cycling but also rowing and mountaineering and going to the Arctic, all sorts of stuff. I've never really defined myself even as a bike rider, certainly not in a competitive sense. In a weird way, I'm an outsider to my own sport.
I genuinely would love to test myself in some of the big iconic endurance cycling events. My plan last year and this year was to do Race across America, but with the arrival of Covid19 that can't happen, which means I’m now looking at GBDuro. I guess I might be a “marked man” because people know I can ride endurance, but I'm a complete novice when it comes to gravel riding and certainly a race like this will be outside of my comfort zone. There's a hell of a lot I don't know - I'm sure it will be a bit of a baptism of fire, but I'm excited about it. I'm nervous, but also, it’s kind of like my summer holiday, so I’m going to make the most of it.
If you’d like to find out more about the event Mark built his Argon18 for, check out their website here - GBDuro. The event kicks off on Saturday 14th August and the participants should have finished 10 days later. There’s normally a dotwatching feed so you can vicariously take place in the event, but the details haven’t been published yet. Keep an eye on their website over the next few weeks. We’ll be keenly watching Mark’s progress and will publish a story on how he did later in the year.