Bikes of the Bunch: Santa Cruz Stigmata CC gravel machine

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Just about every cyclist has woken up unreasonably early on occasion to head out for a ride. But for Nico Toutenhoofd, rolling out the door at 5am isn’t the exception; it’s the norm. And as he’s strayed further away from the beaten path, his choice in bikes has adapted to suit …


Toutenhoofd was like many avid amateur racers 12 years ago, cramming in as many hours in the saddle as he could in between running his own web development business and spending time with his wife. By his estimates, he logged 15-20 hours of training per week, mostly in the evenings after work and on weekends.

“I’d get on the bike at 5:00pm or 5:30pm, or sometimes get out of work early and do 4 or 4:30,” he recounted. “So I would ride until maybe 7pm or 8pm.”

But then he and his wife decided to have kids.

Santa Cruz Stigmata
Toutenhoofd says he does a lot of “long, short rides,” covering a relatively short amount of distance but a lot of climbing.

As any cycling parent can attest, raising small children and bike riding doesn’t exactly make for an ideal pairing. Toutenhoofd was nevertheless determined to maintain some semblance of his previous cycling life, but he also wasn’t willing to sacrifice his family time to do it. And then one day, in the early-morning hours as he was soothing his daughter back to sleep, the idea dawned on him.

“My wife and I had this routine where we would alternate who would get up with the crying baby,” he said. “If the baby woke up at 4am, I would just walk around the house and sing to her until she fell asleep, and then I was just awake. I couldn’t fall back asleep so I would often just work. At a certain point, I was like, ‘Well, I might as well ride now.’ I sort of just fell into the routine.”

Once Toutenhoofd could reliably count on his one, then two, young children sleeping for the rest of the night (there’d be no point in heading out for a ride at 4am if it just meant his wife still wouldn’t get any rest, after all), he started dabbling with that early-morning schedule — once a week, then twice, then three times.

Santa Cruz Stigmata
The meaty carbon fork boasts a 15mm thru-axle and post-mount disc brake tabs.

“I remember it being much colder than I thought it’d be, and I remember that my light was fine for going uphill — but nearly bright enough for going downhill — and I remember having this little worry the whole time that the babies were going to wake up while I was gone.”

Those solo pre-dawn rides quickly grew to a consistent group of three — all with similar situations at home — and what once felt ludicrously early quickly began to feel normal. When most people are just waking up in the morning, Toutenhoofd has already logged 1,000 meters of climbing.

It also didn’t take long before he realized that riding at that time of day was also much safer. Not only is there far less vehicular traffic on the road to contend with, but with lights blazing, it’s easier for drivers to see him — and for him to see approaching vehicles.

“A lot of people think it’s dangerous to ride in the dark, but I think it’s far safer. Cars see you better, and I can see a car coming from a long way away. People aren’t grumpy yet [at that time of day] — it’s the after-work or morning rush hour where people have road rage, and I miss both of them.”

Garmin Varia Radar
“I adore the rear radar. Ninety percent of the time I hear a car before it beeps, but that ten percent of the time that I don’t makes it totally worth it.”

As he increasingly relished that peaceful serenity, Toutenhoofd eventually replaced his faithful titanium-and-carbon fiber Ritchey Breakaway road bike with a Santa Cruz Stigmata CC gravel setup.

“It was two years ago that I got that bike, and it just removes all stress,” he recalled. “My goal is to have as little traffic as possible. I actually feel like I descend faster on it — the big tires at low pressure just feel so grippy — and I don’t worry about little cracks in the road when it’s dark. When I know a car is coming, I’ll often just go right off the shoulder whereas on my skinny-tired road bike, I wouldn’t tend to do that. I probably ride that bike five out of six rides.”

That switch to a gravel bike has also expanded Toutenhoofd’s repertoire of routes. While there are countless canyon roads that fan out westward from Boulder, many can only be linked by using non-paved connectors that were previously off-limits.

Teravail Cannonball
The Teravail Cannonball tires’ slick center tread and knobby shoulder works for the mixed terrain Toutenhoofd regularly trains on. “I’m a complete road tubeless guy now. I think I get one flat per year.”

“A lot of these things I maybe knew were there on my mountain bike, but I’ve learned many more. It’s a fun thing for me to go and use Google Maps to plot out a new ride and try to find dirt.”

It’s now been 12 years since Toutenhoofd embarked on his unconventional training schedule, and with his kids now demanding far less attention, it’s safe to say that he doesn’t have to continue on this path. But yet he does – to the tune of 10-15 hours per week – although for reasons that even cyclists without children can easily understand.

“My goal was to take as little time out of our family life as possible, and I don’t have to do this anymore, but I actually prefer it. I find that the later in the day I say I’m going to ride, the less likely I am to do it. When I wake up at 4:15am, I’m tired; coffee is my carrot to get me out of bed and then I’m like, ‘What else am I going to do?’.

“That’s the whole reason I got up, so I always go ride. If it’s one of those things where I have a flexible Saturday, those days I might only be 50/50 as to whether I ride. When I have a really short window, then I always get it done.”

https://www.instagram.com/p/_Hb2rTq8jH/?taken-by=toutenhoofd

And Toutenhoofd certainly is getting it done. He won the prestigious Mount Washington Auto Road Hillclimb in 2010 (other winners include Ned Overend, Phil Gaimon, Tyler Hamilton, and Tom Danielson), is a perennial favorite at local masters events, and is the current US masters national team time trial champion. Perhaps not by coincidence, two of those teammates are regular partners on those early-morning training rides.

There’s even one additional bonus that perhaps transcends all the other benefits of Toutenhoofd’s regimen.

“I get to see pretty much every sunrise, every day.”

Want to see some of those sunrises through Nico’s eyes? Check out his Instagram feed here.

Santa Cruz Stigmata
The bright paint job absolutely pops against the blue Colorado sky – but ironically, this bike doesn’t see much daylight.
Santa Cruz Stigmata
This bike regularly sees more use before dawn than most bikes see all day.
Santa Cruz Stigmata
Santa Cruz primarily bills the Stigmata CC as a cyclocross bike, but it still works well as a gravel machine.
Santa Cruz Stigmata
Underneath the bright paintwork is a straighforward frame design.
Santa Cruz Stigmata
Most of the tubes have slab sides on the Santa Cruz Stigmata.
Santa Cruz Stigmata
Off in the distant background is where this bike plays most often.
Santa Cruz Stigmata
The Enve M50 carbon wheels are intended for mountain bike use, but with easy tubeless compatibility, good durability, and very low weight, they’re an easy pick for a high-performance gravel setup.
Garmin Varia headlight
Toutenhoofd adores the Garmin Vario headlight, which adjusts its intensity based on speed information provided by the Garmin Edge 520 computer head.
Selle Italia SLR
Toutenhoofd dabbled with ultralight componentry before, but now opts for more dependable gear.
Santa Cruz Stigmata
The drivetrain blends parts from Shimano, SRAM, Quarq, and Enduro.
Quarq Elsa
A Quarq Elsa power meter helps keep Toutenhoofd’s training goals on track.
Santa Cruz Stigmata
Shimano R785 Di2 levers are mounted to Zipp’s carbon fiber Contour SL handlebar. “There was no Dura-Ace Di2 hydro when I bought the bike, and the existing Dura-Ace at the time could only officially handle up to a 28T cog in the rear. The recently announced Dura-Ace 9170 hydro, which officially goes up to a 30T in the rear and will likely work with a 32T, is on my shopping list; it’s just not available in stores yet.”
Shimano Ultegra Di2
“Shimano doesn’t make a lightweight 11-32T [cassette]. They make an Ultegra 11-32T, which in all honesty shifts better than what I have, but SRAM’s 11-32T is way lighter.”
Shimano R785 disc brake
Finned brake pads help shed excess heat on Colorado’s long downhills.
DT Swiss 180 hub
DT Swiss 180 hubs anchor both wheels.
Enduro TorqTite
Enduro’s TorqTite bottom bracket helps keep creaking at bay.
compact chainrings
Casual observers might be surprised to find such low gears on a bike ridden by such a talented climber, but Toutenhoofd says it’s the best option for the type of riding he does. “On steep paved roads, I am fine with a 34-28T as my low gear, but that’s mostly because I can stand up if my cadence gets too slow. On dirt, however, standing up generally makes one’s rear tire lose traction, so sitting down with a lower gear means I can ride up crazy steep dirt roads and trails.”
Santa Cruz Stigmata
The Garmin computer mount looks a bit chunky, but it’s the cleanest option available that works with both the Garmin Edge computer and the Garmin Varia headlight.
Schmolke seatpost
The only questionable component on the bike is this ultralight Schmolke carbon fiber seatpost. But Toutenhoofd says it works fine in this application, plus he already had it in his bin of spare parts when he purchased the frameset.
Santa Cruz Stigmata
Toutenhoofd uses 140mm-diameter rotors at both ends.
Look KeO Blade
Gravel riders will often use mountain bike pedals, but seeing as how Toutenhoofd is rarely on foot when riding his Santa Cruz Stigmata CC, his usual Look KeO Blades work just fine.
Blackburn Camber CF
The matching Blackburn Camber CF bottle cages are a nice touch.

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