With new gravel events popping up all over Europe, when we got the invite to head to the 3T Jeroboam Challenge, noted as an extreme gravel event, we smiled wryly and happily accepted. ‘Come on, how extreme can gravel get?’ was our thought, 150km with 3500m of climbing certainly fitted the definition of challenge, so what better a place to test ourselves, our bikes and our definition of gravel than Italy in springtime?
The road steepens again and I try to shift my weight further back. After the long climb the thought of the respite of a descent was nice, but there is little if no respite to be had here. Cobbles the size of melons pave this old mule track, pushing my gravel bike and my arms to their limit. Yesterday’s pre-event briefing rings in my ears” ‘this event is extreme gravel.’ I grit my teeth, attempt to relax and long for the next climb. The Thömus Sliker X that I am riding feels at its limit (with its current more cyclo-cross focused setup) seeing my inner defeatist wishing for some plush front suspension.
Regular readers of GRAN FONDO will know that gravel is a current buzzword within the world of cycling, and a new, sub-discipline of road riding that we embrace. Opening up new frontiers for those who have previously been locked to riding on tarmac, this is a speciality in its infancy. But gravel is rapidly moving forward and out of its awkward adolescence, where it is rebelling against the early days and experimenting to create a firmer definition of who it is. Both event organisers and bike creators are pushing the boundaries of what we know as gravel, with bigger tyres and stronger frames leading to more extreme riding. Having launched their Exploro adventure bike last year and now created this event, 3T can arguably be seen as being at the forefront of pushing these limits.
Hours earlier as the sun was barely breaking the horizon, we rolled from our hotel to the start, unsure of what lay ahead. There was a pre-dawn chill in the air as we headed from our lakeside hotel to the small town of Erbusco in the centre of one of Italy’s most iconic wine-producing regions. The roads were dead apart from a handful of revellers from their Saturday night celebrations, leaving an out-of-town night club in a state of intoxication that saw them clearly longing for their beds. Yet as we moved further away from ours towards a long day in the saddle, it was an interesting juxtaposition as the nightshift crossed paths with the dayshift – although we are sure that those leaving the nightclub did not really notice us as we glided past in the early morning light.
On paper, the Jeroboam Challenge was going to be a challenge; our Magnum (or medio) event was ‘only’ 150km while the Jeroboam (or lungo) measured an eye-popping 300km, so we certainly felt that we’d chosen the easier option. Starting in the Franciacorta region of Northern Italy, just south of Lago d’Iseo, our medium route did a full loop of the lake, taking us from the flat plains to the mountains and back. Our bike to take on this challenge was the Thömus Sliker X. A lightweight, carbon gravel bike created by the Bern-based company. After chatting with the guys from Thömus before the event, (having skim-read the description of the course), I opted for a 2x set up (50/34 at the front, 11/32 at the back), running 700c wheels with 28mm x 1.3 Schwalbe Racing Ralph cyclo-cross tyres. This was certainly super fast on the flat roads and big climbs, but I rued the decision to skip the 650b wheels with fatter tyres on the first descent. The great thing about this Swiss brand is their ability to fully customize the bike’s build – just pick wisely.
The Jeroboam Challenge consisted of three big climbs and three equally as big descents. Created to share 3T’s ethos of exploring on gravel bikes, the route is unmarked, leaving riders to rely on their GPS units to navigate. As the route looped from the lake edge and up into the mountains we were treated to the best of Italy. Small, leg-burningly steep mountain roads meandered their way from tiny village to tiny village. From the vineyards of the Franciacorte area, to open pre-Alp mountain summits, olive groves and lush pastures, this route had it all.
Having it all was also the claim of the Thömus Sliker X, as Bern-based Thömus were immediately keen to hear about what set-up we would need for the ride. Their Slicker cyclo-cross bike is designed to be pretty versatile. From super fast cyclo-cross genes (our set-up) to a lightweight commuter or a gravel bike, the Slicker has the potential to suit all riders. The fault clearly lay with my vague event description, I reasoned, while shouting profanities at the tyre choices on the descents. Fortunately, the anguish was alleviated by the Slicker’s speed on the flat and climbs, which certainly showed the bike’s capabilities.
Nimble and responsive on the steep climbs, the Slicker is a bike that urges you to push the pedals harder. But this speed does come at the cost of a little compliance. We found that the fork was super stiff, which made for razor-sharp handling, but also meant a lot of feedback from the trail on the descents – though we’ll put our hands up and say that most of this feedback was the result of our over-optimistic tire choice.
The interesting idea behind the Jeroboam Challenge is that it does really cater for all riders. With the 300km route tempting in a hard few with a hunger to explore, our 150km route was ideal for the solid everyday rider, and the shortest 75km event was an appeaser for everyone. Both the 300km and 150km events are non-competitive, focused on the journey, whilst the 75km opted for enduro-style timed sections, 2 of which our route would follow. The first one was a descent that we hit late into our ride, and even overshadowed our earlier moaning: Running through a wet and rocky gulley, it pushed both rider and bike to the limit. I had to nurse my Slicker with its 28×1.3 tyres down this section, riding lightly, taking care and threading my way around the sharpest rocks. The combination of Ultegra disc and DT Swiss RC 28 wheels meant I had plenty of brake to keep things under control. And even though I was certainly dreaming of more tire, the Slicker got through this descent unscathed – we later found out it is a common section of a local mountain bike enduro race. As tame as it sounds, the theme for the day was relief at hitting the flat at the bottom of the descent.
With the majority of our clockwise loop of the lake over, we exited the pre-Alps and returned to the plains where we had started many hours earlier. Moving away from super steep, long and rough gravel descents, we cruised into more ‘classic’ gravel riding as we hit the final 30km, which took us through the riches of Franciacorte’s vineyards. With 7 hours in the saddle I was surprised that even with this extreme route, I was still comfortable and smiling, thanks to the position of the Thömus Sliker X.
As we threaded our way to the finish, the bike’s handling and speed came into its own. And even though my body was flagging I was still able to tow my ride partners along the flats. This more mellow gravel was certainly where our setup of the Thömus Sliker X was at home, helping us tick through the final kilometres and the cold beer in Erbusco’s central piazza that was waiting for each finisher.
Like the early days of mountain biking, gravel is certainly going through a rapid change at the moment, as different bike companies and event organisers strive to define and find the limit of what is both possible and enjoyable on a gravel bike.
With technology’s support, boundaries are being pushed, which means that bike setup is key to enjoyment. The Thömus Sliker X certainly put a smile on our faces at the Jeroboam Challenge. Super lightweight with a solid finishing kit, it is clearly a versatile machine, confirming the strength of Swiss Engineering. And even though our more cyclo-cross setup was far from ideal for the ‘extreme gravel’ of this event, the fact that both rider and bike could stubbornly prove those naysayer of the day before the event, with their 650b wheels and 2.2 tyres wrong, proves that the Thömus Sliker X is hugely capable bike. Just next time, we’ll spend a bit more time researching the event to make sure we can have the right setup for the route.
Thömus Sliker X in detail
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Words & Photos: Phil Gale