The Rapha Cross Prestige is a series of unsupported, long distance, cyclocross events that traverse a mix of roads, bridleways, gravel tracks and singletrack.
Along with Joe, Reuben and Josh, I was invited to the Cannock Chase edition of the event and as the most #hashtag savvy members of the BikeRadar team, we set out from an excessively rainy car park in Staffordshire with the full intent of taking the highly coveted, ‘best social media’ prize for the day.
- The horse: Custom Engineered Bicycles Zondag cyclocross bike
- The course: Rapha Cannock Chase Prestige
- The equipment goal: A speedy CX steed for a quick time around an 80km gravel loop
The bike I had originally hoped to ride for the event fell through at the very last minute, so in a fashion not entirely untypical of myself, I had a panic filled afternoon of calling about trying to secure something else for the day.
Mercifully, Engineered Bikes of Bristol had a beautiful, iridescent ‘cross bike that was up for grabs (thanks guys!) for the day and they agreed to let me use it for the 80km ride.
Pretty in pearlescent
Engineered Bicycles is a custom bike outfit that specialises in steel and — rather uniquely — alloy road and cyclocross bikes, all of which are produced in Italy.
The Zondag is Engineered’s cyclocross bike and it presented a number of firsts for me as the only bang up to date, modern ‘cross bike that I’ve ridden for any length of time.
To start with, the geometry of the bike differed considerably from the plethora of bodged together, long and slack, gravel shred-venturers that I’ve previously spent plenty of time on — Engineered defines the Zondag as a “competition-focussed… frameset which blends a classical European approach to geometry with innovative engineering-solutions.”
For those not privy to the definition of what a Euro ‘cross bike is, these tend to have a shorter wheelbase, higher bottom bracket and steeper head and seat tube angles than their gravel-bashing cousins. In practical terms, this means that handling is sped up a touch in tight and twisting terrain, but won’t feel quite as stable in high speed situations.
Another first for me was the build as on the road I always ride with tubes and this was to be my first ride on a ‘cross bike set up sans-tubes — yet I can’t recall the last time I (willingly) rode a mountain bike with tubes.
Likewise, although I’ve been running a 1x drivetrain on my fat-tyred bikes for a few years now, this was my first foray into single chainring territory on a 'cross bike.
The muddiest day of our lives
Cannock Chase is a favourite among mountain bikers because its sandy soil reputedly drains easily after rain. However I saw no evidence of this claimed hydrological characteristic of the area and within the first 10km of the ride I’d already ridden through a puddle at the edge of a field that was close to crotch deep, setting the soggy mood for the rest of the day.
Following a thread of a GPX trail on my woefully mud-caked Garmin, we continued along a series of narrow, high hedged farm roads and field boundaries until a short asphalt section led us to the first section of canal towpath for the day.
While I like to think that I can carry momentum and maintain my line quite well on a cyclocross bike, when I’m asked to do this along the edge of a canal on a perilously narrow and slippery slither of turfy singletrack, my confidence is somewhat diminished.
My confidence was also shaken by the diminutive size of the 31mm Vittoria tyres that the bike was supplied to me with. Even though I was running them at a relatively low 30psi, at both the front and rear, traction was hard to come by with such skinny rubber and I would have preferred something a little more plump on the day.
These sections along the canal were among the most exhausting of the ride because it was impossible to relax on the bike as a combination of sticky mud and a thick carpet of leaves, hiding said mud, made the whole experience of trying to avoid a chilly dunking quite stressful.
Mercifully, towards the end of the canal was our first checkpoint of the ride where a selection of cakey delights and hot coffee were on offer, which fuelled us for the next section.
The following 40km took this wet and weary four through a mix of flooded country lanes and gravel tracks, mixed with the odd dash of singletrack before we entered Cannock Chase proper by its most south-westerly point.
If you ask me what the best way to cycle between two points in my native Scotland is, it’s pretty much a given that I’ll have at least a rough idea of what would be the most scenic and traffic free route. I also self-identify as a massive gravel nerd and said route is guaranteed to include at least a small section of asphalt-free adventuring. Not only do these detours get you away from traffic, but they are also often a helpful shortcut that will get you to where you want to be in a much more direct fashion than by roads alone.
However, Cannock Chase, through fault of geography rather than poor route planning by Rapha, has no direct through-routes that could ever be described as shortcuts, meaning that our suggested route was circuitous to say the least — in other words, very difficult to navigate in the misty gloom that characterised the day.
To add to this, we had a few moments, caught up in a maze of singletrack, when we were unsure whether or not we were on the right route due to the technical nature of the riding — the fact that a ‘gravel’ ride included so many sections like this was a pleasant and spicy surprise and the swift handling Zondag managed these sections with ease.
The largely flat riding through the woods was interjected by a number of horrible, steep and sandy climbs. And although I don’t mind hoofing it up the odd steep gradient, if the ride had been any longer I think my meek and milky legs would have preferred something slightly easier geared than the supplied 42x30.
Other than the hard man’s gearing, I had no complaints with the performance of the 1x11 SRAM Force groupset. My shifting was pretty sluggish by the end of the day, but this is more of a reflection of how poor the conditions were rather than a fault of the groupset.
We eventually left the woods via a terrifyingly steep, 100m long and dead-straight track, which was set within a gloomy sunken trough. Due to the funnel like nature of this trail, a cascade of water had flowed through it and made short work of the sandy soil, exposing roughly a zillion head sized rocks in its base.
Approaching this chute with youthful reckless abandon — or, unchecked and irresponsible speed due to the diminished power of my sand-eaten brake pads — I skittered over the rocks with little composure, assuming that either I or the bike would come to an abrupt stop against some solid block. Mercifully, I made it down without incident and only my insides felt a little shaken by the experience.
On this occasion, and on many more during the day, I was impressed by the smooth handling of the Zondag. Alloy bikes get a bad rap for being harsh compared to their steel and carbon counterparts, but I never found the Zondag to be overly jarring, even while hurling myself down some stupid rock strewn gradient.
At the bottom of the chute was the last checkpoint of the day where we all indulged in more cake and a touch of whisky before tackling the last, largely tarmacked section back to base.
Crossing the line after roughly four and a half hours on the bikes, our team was treated to beer, pizza and our hard earned social media prize. Socks galore!
Big thanks to Engineered for sorting me out with a bike at the last minute and Rapha for inviting us to such a great event!