Why do cyclists love gravel so much? Our eCommerce Catalog Specialist, Luke Hall, has a nice take on things.
“I think that gravel is great because it’s this really amazing meeting ground between rural America and people typically not from or living in rural America,” he said. “The speeds are so much slower, you feel like you can wave at somebody driving by in their farm truck. There's more interaction with other people on the road, and I think people see you as a human and not just some obstacle on the road.”
Cruising down uncrowded gravel roads, greeting every friendly face with a smile — it’s the American (cycling) dream! However, I take issue with one thing Luke said: “The speeds are so much slower.” Because if you’ve ever ridden with him, then you know that “slow” for Luke is actually really, really fast. That’s because he’s one of the top gravel racers in the country. In the last couple of seasons he’s racked up countless podiums, several wins, and even set records.
Luke flexing. Who's that hanging on his wheel? Oh, just former World Tour pro and top gravel racer, Peter Stetina.
Since he’s regularly at the sharp end of big races, I was keen to learn more about his latest gravel rig. Let’s find out why he picked up a 2022 Specialized Crux, and how he set it up to race against the best.
[button]Shop gravel bikes[/button]
2022 Specialized Crux: The lightest gravel bike
Last year, Luke rode a handmade Chumba Terlingua Titanium. It was a beautiful and versatile bike, but for the 2022 season, Luke wanted a bike that was more race-focused; it had to be carbon.
“As soon as the Crux came out, and I saw the specs on it, I knew, ‘That's my new bike,’” Luke said. One of the major selling points of the 2022 Crux is its low weight. Specialized used all the tricks it learned from developing the Aethos (the world’s lightest disc brake road frame) to slim down the Crux. It claims that it is the lightest gravel bike in the world, with a frame weight of only 825 grams. S-Works frames are even lighter at 725 grams.
“The weight difference is insane,” Luke said. “I shaved off four pounds just going from the Chumba to the Crux.”
I’ve argued before that bike weight doesn’t really matter. And for the most part, Luke agrees. But there are plenty of reasons beyond pure performance to walk the path of the weight weenie.
“I love tinkering with things,” Luke explained. “My very first bike was a 1987 Schwinn Circuit. The moment I could, I just dove into it. I started by swapping out the wheels and then little bits and pieces here and there. I love stuff like that. All my weight weenie-ism really comes from my love of tinkering. Also, it's not that I can necessarily feel the reduced weight while I’m riding, but a light bike just makes you feel better. Even if it's just a placebo effect, it can still provide emotional gains.”
Luke on his way to a 5th place finish at the 2021 Big Sugar Gravel race.
Switching from a titanium frame to carbon also had other benefits. Titanium has a reputation for good ride quality, but after several months on the Crux, Luke has become a carbon convert.
“The thing about carbon is that you can tune really precisely how the ride is going to feel,” he explained. “You can kind of do that with titanium too, but it's a lot more limited. There’s only so much you can control with metal tubes. In general, the Chumba was comfortable enough, but it was rougher and sort of jittery when compared to the Crux.”
Building the perfect gravel race bike
Luke bought the Crux as a frameset, and since it had a threaded bottom bracket, he was able to transfer every single part from his Chumba onto the new frame. His set-up has been extensively battle-tested, and it’s been a key component to his success.
SRAM AXS 1x Mullet drivetrain
Luke’s Crux has a 1x Mullet set-up with SRAM Force AXS shifters, an XX1 rear derailleur, and a 10-50t GX Eagle cassette.
“I had a lot of dropped chains racing on a 2x,” Luke said. “It happens way less with the 1x. I also like the simplicity, concentrating on going up or down, and not worrying about the chainline or how much gear crossover I have. I never need to think about trying to find the exact right combination. The jumps between gears don't really bother me. Whatever gear I'm in, I'll make it comfortable.”
As for electronic vs. mechanical shifting, Luke has experienced his fair share of tough conditions, from dust to mud to snow, so he’s decided to ditch cables for good.
“I'm never going back to mechanical,” Luke said. “I’ve gotten so much dust and grime into my cables during [an ultra-distance event] that it eventually broke my shift lever.
“AXS is just consistently great no matter the conditions. Just carry around an extra battery with you and you're always good. If you're doing these super intense, long races, it makes a lot of sense. This is the third bike this drivetrain has been on and I've only changed the brake hoods once.”
One thing that caught my eye was the 44t absoluteBLACK oval chainring mounted to Luke’s Quarq crankset. I don’t see many top gravel racers using oval rings, so I had to ask him why he runs one.
“I feel like [oval chainrings] make a difference on low-speed, loose climbs,” Luke explained. “I have a much smoother pedal stroke. I can put down consistent power through the entire pedal stroke so I don’t spin out. And it also makes me pay more attention on low-speed loose climbs. It keeps me from being too forceful since I’m definitely a masher. AbsoluteBLACK also just has the best designs, aesthetically.”
Carbon wheels, big tires, and tire inserts
HED is one of Luke’s sponsors so he gets to run a set of HED’s Emporia GC3 Pro carbon wheels. They’re 1,420 grams, which is impressively light, especially with the wide 26mm internal rim width and 30mm deep aero rim profile. The Emporia GC3 Pro was designed to handle the tough flint gravel found at Unbound Gravel, so there is a lot of compliance designed into the rim.
“It has really great deflection,” Luke said. “Before the HEDs I rode the Zipp 303 Firecrest and those were stiff suckers. Kind of too harsh to ride on gravel.”
As for tires, Luke is always swapping them to suit the course he’s riding.
“My Unbound Gravel XL set-up was the Specialized Pathfinder Pro in the back and the S-Works Pathfinder up front,” Luke said. “I wanted a bit more protection in the back so I wouldn’t have to fix flats. Right now though, I’ve got 40mm Challenge Strade Bianches. Those are really nice if it's really cushy gravel. I’ll use them for an event like SBT GRVL. The Crux can clear 47mm tires, which is amazing. The widest I've run is 44mm and there's still a lot of clearance. Great for mud. For longer endurance stuff, a bigger tire makes a huge difference for comfort. Big clearance is definitely a must.”
Since Luke described himself as a weight weenie, I just assumed he wasn’t running tire inserts. Well, you know what they say about assuming …
“No, I’m definitely on the tire insert train!” Luke said. “I use Tubolight inserts and I love them. I’ve been running them for six months actually. I’ve been able to drop about 5psi from my tires after adding them, which makes things really comfortable now. It still feels super fast. And I just have a lot more confidence in my tire set-up. The Tubolights are only 33 grams a piece, pretty lightweight. And they're just really nice to set up.”
Specialized Crux vs. Diverge
Until now, the Diverge has been Specialized’s flagship gravel bike. It’s won Unbound Gravel, and it’s packed full of technology designed to smooth out the roughest gravel. We know Luke chose the Crux for its light weight, but did he consider the Diverge at all?
“The Diverge’s Future Shock is very … personal,” Luke said. “It’s not for me. I’ve tried the Redshift ShockStop stem too, and I just don’t like my bike pivoting up there. I feel like if you set your tires up right you'll get the compliance you need. That's probably what people should really be focused on.
“The one thing that kind of bums me out is that the Crux has no SWAT box. I would love to have a SWAT box. It’s super nice to have the extra storage, and I like the idea of having storage in a place where, I mean, nothing else is happening inside there anyway.”
What’s next for Luke and the Crux?
When I asked about future upgrades, Luke stared at his bike for a second, then just shrugged. He had the blank, unperturbed look of a man fully content with his set-up. So I decided to press him about his mismatched cockpit.
“Oh, it’s great. The stem is just an unbranded 110mm stem,” he said. “It's from a cheap Chinese manufacturer but it's only 110 grams, which is actually pretty decent. The ENVE road bars are 42cm, so kind of narrow for me, but they were given to me and it’s what I had. The flare on gravel-specific bars is nice, but I don’t really see much purpose for it. Maybe it’s good for longer, ultra-endurance stuff. If I was to do it all again, I’d probably go for some basic Zipp XPLR bars. I don’t know.”
And there you have it. A peek into the mind of a successful gravel racer. While I’m obsessed with having all my cockpit components blinged out, optimized, and all matching, Luke is more concerned with riding 10,000 miles per year and winning his next race. I guess I should be more like Luke.
On his calendar, Luke has Robidoux Rendezvous, Gravel Worlds, SBT GRVL, and The Rad Dirt Fest still to come. With his lightweight Crux by his side, I think we can expect to see him on the podium (or at least fighting for it) a few more times this season.
[button]Shop gravel bikes[/button]