I first caught wind of the Titan Tropic this August, with an email asking if I'd like more information on a five-day mountain bike stage race during the first week of December in Cuba. Yes, Cuba, the up-to-just-recently off-limits (for Americans) island to be found a mere 90 miles south of Florida. My interest was piqued.
- The bike: Cannondale Scalpel-Si Carbon 2
- The course: Titan Tropic five-day mountain bike stage race in Cuba
- The equipment goal: Fast, light, maintenance-free bike with suspension for my back and repeated huge efforts day after day
Knowing it was on the edge of the rainy season in Cuba, and it being Cuba in general (without many bike shops and limited resources), I wanted a simple, reliable full-suspension bike. One with decent mud clearance also weighed on my mind. I also considered the terrain and the back-to-back days of riding so I knew light was the way to go, which meant short travel was in order.
Cannondale's revamped Scalpel fit the bill. It was light, somewhat slack at the front, had tight rear stays and a sporty 100mm of travel. While 100mm isn't much, it feels even less on the race-hungry Scalpel with a drastic ramp up on both ends. But it was adequate for my endeavour and it made the bike feel like a rocket.
It took a bit of futzing to get the Scalpel set up. I flipped the stem so it had rise instead of drop, moved the saddle around a bunch, and experimented with suspension air pressures and settings until I got the performance I was needing. A big 'thank you' also goes out to guys at University Bikes in Boulder for knocking out some quick warranty work on a bunk XT disc caliper.
I toyed with the idea of swapping the Schwalbe tires, the thin, hard grips, and even the flat bar, but decided against it. Outside of tweaking the fit and suspension I ran it stock to see if the out-of-the-box build was suitable for racing.
I debated heavily over two pieces of gear, adding a dropper post and wearing a Camelbak. I decided against the dropper post due to not wanting to chance any unnecessary mechanical breakdowns first and foremost. Plus the terrain didn't look that tricky. In the end I was okay with my choice as there were very few spots where it would have been useful.
I wore a Camelbak every stage and was happy I did. The heat and humidity proved to be my biggest antagonizer. I suffered in the heat and sweat poured out of me. Just for reference, my suitcase filled with mostly technical clothing gained 2.7kg/6 lbs in moisture according to airport scales. Back to the Camelbak, I filled it with the full three litres and had a bottle on the bike as well. On the will-testing stage 3, I gave my bottle to a fellow racer who had lost his, and I was able to finish properly hydrated.
The last piece of additional gear I used was a top tube bag from Oveja Negra. They're a small, custom bag builder in the wonderful town of Salida, CO. To be honest, I had never used a bento box before but having food easily accessible was a huge convenience. That, and the super secure attachment, bombproof zipper, and water resistant materials made it simple to forget except when I needed it.
While billed as a mountain bike stage race the bulk of riding was on farm roads and dirt two tracks, with minimal singletrack. This meant the pace was fast, brutally fast. Additionally, the team tactics of drafting, hauling riders to the front group, and carrying food and water were in play for the teams in Cuba with an agenda.
Stage 1 was a 89km prologue as the original prologue was cancelled due to Cuba's Commander-in-Chief Fidel Castro passing. Even though it was an untimed stage, people still wanted to dictate their intentions and the pace was quick.
We started with a few turns through city streets of Havana then were deposited onto farm roads. From the farm roads we literally rode through people's yards, and right next to their homes. A couple of tricky field sections saw those riders lacking technical skills getting passed. But then it was back to gravel roads, and high-cadence hammering.
Stage 2 was the first actual timed stage and it showed. What the 106km course lacked in technicality it more than made up for in blistering speed. The pace was crazy fast. I spent probably over half the kilometers in my XX1 drivetrain's highest gear (32/10) and found myself spun out on numerous occasions on the flats.
The course spent a lot of time in sugarcane fields tracked out with ruts from tractor tires. Those ruts proved to be the downfall of a couple racers who crashed. The highlight of the stage was all the schools we passed. All the uniformed kids were outside cheering, waving and screaming.
Stage 3 was the longest stage and the most brutal for me. The stage had us traverse 119km from Soroa to Vinales mostly on paved roads. The day started out overcast as we quickly pitched upwards for what would be a day of climbing. I luckily found myself in a group of four other riders and we took turns on the front, laughed at each other's crappy use of non-native language, and reveled in the beauty of the mountains we were ascending.
We spent hours without seeing a single car, we had the entire pockmarked paved road to ourselves. As we descended out of the mountains, the sun broke through the clouds and the temps rose quickly. Our little group promptly shattered and I limped in across the line alone, feeling like a hollowed shell.
Stage 4 was the one everyone was looking forward to. It held the promise of trails, dirt, and was supposed to the most mountain bike-friendly stage of the race. Luckily the rumors were correct. A neutral lead-out by a pace car ended as we dove into a two track in a field, which progressively got narrower as it wiggled its way around old barns, the odd fence line, and stands of trees.
The dirt was epic, a wonderful mix of clay and iron-rich soil that was so red in spots it looked orange but more importantly held tire knobbies with a Velcro-like tenacity. Lots of turns, lots of accelerating, and as the stage wore on, lots of traffic in the way of people, cows, oxen, horses and goats. Despite the additional visitors on course, we were able to blast through unimpeded for the most part. Stage 4 was my best day and by far my favorite.
Stage 5 was the final stage. People were double-checking the leaderboard and marking the riders just in front of them hoping to jump up a place or two. The stage itself, while the shortest of the race at 68km, was challenging in its constant undulation. Every five-second downhill was met with a punchy, punishing uphill that had me reaching for gears I didn't have. I luckily slotted in with two other riders and we nicked off the bulk of the kilometers together.
The final 12km that led us from the mainland out to the key of Cayo Jutias was going to hurt. I'll admit I was nervous about this dead flat, riding into the ocean headwind part of the stage. Thankfully, the three of us stayed together, each taking turns tucking into the draft. Somewhere on the beach, one of the guys took a wrong turn or stopped for something, but by that time we were so close, the other guy and I rode across the line together and tied for 18th on the stage.
All said and done I moved up through the ranks as the stages progressed and secured 28th place out of 148 competitors.
The right choice
I was pretty confident in my bike choice knowing that Cannondale has a long history of making go-fast XC race bikes and a decade plus of refining their Scalpel race weapon. That confidence surged when I saw the pre-race staging area lined with Cannondales, all sporting Leftys. The big C-dale was definitely the brand of choice with TBelles race support on hand.
Throughout the 464km (288 miles) of fully pinned racing the Scalpel was almost faultless. I say almost as I did have to get the hydraulic remote lockout bled after the first stage. Not because it failed to lockout, but rather it wouldn't release to allow smooth fork compression. But that was quickly and easily handled by the hard-working TBelles wrenches. Outside of that small hiccup, the Scalpel and the SRAM XX1 11-speed drivetrain did everything I asked. Much to my surprise I didn't even puncture, although I was running a few extra PSI due to the non-technical conditions warranting not much grip needed.
I know it's a tired cliché, but the Scalpel is aptly named. It really is a precise tool for slicing and dicing. On the few technical bits of the race there were numerous times I was able to take the inside line and pass other riders getting blown out wide. The frame and fork stiffness encouraged pressing hard into terra firma and leaning the bike and cutting the sharp line. The taut 100mm travel is matched brilliantly front and rear for a feeling that's far from plush but rather responsive and eager, less baja truck with big movements, more rally car with a 'stuck-to-the-ground, stay-pinned' attitude.
Even with the tight, short travel I was pleased from day one to have full suspension simply because any ride that goes over three hours can make my back a bit tight. Having a little squish to damp the hits kept me feeling fresh and riding pain-free over the 15 hours and 45 minutes of racing.
Things I would possibly change include running two rings up front. I saw a number of competitors rolling 2x setups and felt a tinge of envy. My XX1 11-speed's 10-42 cogs and 32t chainring were fine most of time, but I was definitely spun out quite a bit. On the flip side, some of the climbs had me grinding what felt like a 45rpm cadence just to keep inching forward. I would also likely swap the thin grips for something softer, and likely swap the saddle to a bit wider perch.
Calm and welcoming
The whole trip was a surprising, yet wonderful contrast in experiences. On one hand I was there racing a discipline that admittedly is not my favorite, going absolutely full tilt and pushing well past redline in certain spots on dirt roads. All in conditions that were about polar opposite to my high altitude, bone dry, rocky home. It was life at max speed, pushing harder and faster while my body was in mini-crisis mode wondering why it was so hot and nothing dried.
On the other hand was the overall experience of Cuba. Mellow doesn't begin to describe the way of life. It was hugely refreshing to have (I'm pretty sure) my every single "hola" and wave met with the same. From little kid to grandparents, the kindness and quickness to smile was something I loved and wish was the standard everywhere.
In addition to the positive politeness, the calmness that permeated every interaction was simply incredible. I dare say the mellow attitude even reflects in the lifestock, as we passed numerous goats, oxen, horses, and even wove through a herd of cows. I know how powerful these animals are, and the damage even one kick can do, but even the beasts were peaceful. Cuba is a beautiful island and the people are amazing. If you have the opportunity, don't hesitate, go!