The weekly spin: Building the ultimate climbing bike

Don’t miss out on the latest CyclingTips updates.

It’s happening.

The bike is built. The hard work has been done. I’ll be racing EF Education First manager Jonathan Vaughters up Flagstaff Mountain in Boulder, Colorado, some time soon — likely in November. Now we’re just trying to nail down a date, and a few other aspects to keep it entertaining.

I’m excited to share the details on my Factor 02 VAM climbing dream machine, below. I’m excited to ride it more as well.

But first, a little context.

As you may have read in a previous column, or heard discussed on the CyclingTips Podcast, last winter I challenged Vaughters to a two-man battle up Flagstaff Mountain.

It’s something he and I have discussed here and there for the last decade. It all began back in 2008, after I spent time riding with the Garmin team in Girona, Spain, just prior to the Tour de France. Though I’ve never been a particularly talented cyclist, I was an amateur racer then and moderately fit. Vaughters, once a prodigious climbing talent, had been retired for several years and wasn’t riding much at all, opening the door for a fair bit of friendly smack talk. I bet I could beat you up Flagstaff, I said, or something along those lines. And I never fully let it go.

Why Vaughters? He and I are the same age, 46, we live near each other, we’re more or less the same weight, between 160 and 165 pounds (73-75 kilograms). But let’s be very clear — one of us set a record on Mont Ventoux, the other has never won a bike race.

For Vaughters, 165 pounds is 30 pounds over his former racing weight; for me, it’s what I weighed when I was a junior in high school. Vaughters began racing in high school and retired from racing at 30; I entered my first bike race at age 22.

Somehow this idea came up again late last year. After becoming a father, followed by a series of minor injuries, I was as unfit as I’d ever been and was looking for something to get me motivated. I suggested we bring back the Flagstaff Challenge, and somewhat to my surprise, he agreed.

On one side, talent; on the other side, training. Let’s see which gets to the top of the mountain first.

THE CLIMB

Flagstaff Mountain, from Gregory Canyon at the bottom to the mailboxes at the top, is a 7.4km climb averaging 8%, with a few sections at 16%. SuperFlag, as it’s known, is steep at the very bottom, levels out with several switchbacks, and then gets steep again near the top on a section known as “The Wall,” averaging 14% for 500 meters.

It then eases up for a minute or two, and finishes with one final steep S-turn. If you’re gunning for a new PR, you’d pace the entire climb at threshold and give it what you’ve got in the final 500 meters. If you’re racing to beat someone, you’d attack on the Wall and then try to hold it for the final 1,500 meters or so to the finish.

Flagstaff Mountain was used at the 2012 USA Pro Challenge, though that route stopped halfway up the climb, before the Wall; Australian Rory Sutherland won the stage, 20 seconds ahead of Fabio Aru, while American Levi Leipheimer took 29 seconds from Tejay van Garderen and moved into the GC lead. Total vertical gain to the mailboxes at the top is 1,978 feet, or 603 meters; elevation at the top is 7,697 feet, or 2,346 meters.

The current Strava record of 22:47 was set by Tom Danielson in August 2015, with a VAM of 1,588; remarkably that performance came at the end of a 160km training day that totaled almost 5,000 meters of elevation gain. (VAM is the acronym for the Italian term “Velocità Ascensionale Media” used to measure average ascending speed.) Danielson’s time is 21 seconds faster than Lachlan Morton’s best, set in May 2018, and 58 seconds faster than Sepp Kuss in November 2017.

The Holy Grail of the SuperFlag leaderboards is to complete the climb in under 30 minutes, requiring a sustained effort of roughly 4 watts per kilogram (combined weight of rider and bike) for a 1,200 VAM. I’ve never come close to that; my best time is 33:48, almost exactly 11 minutes slower than Danielson’s. I’ve only ever ridden above 4w/kg for over 20 minutes at sea level; otherwise I’m pretty consistently a 3.5-3.6w/kg rider.

At different points Vaughters and I discussed doing this in June, prior to the Tour de France. Then it was pushed back to September. Now we’re looking at just before Thanksgiving. While I’m tempted to blame the delays all on Vaughters, I’ve had some scheduling conflicts as well. The reality is that is he’s managing a WorldTour team and just published an autobiography, which he’s now promoting; I get that our Flagstaff throw down slots in somewhere below those.

There was talk of limiting the amount of training to a maximum of 10 hours per week, though we never agreed to anything. Other than a few sideways tweets, training time was never an issue, and I don’t think either of us has ever exceeded 10 hours a week. For what it’s worth, my training data is all available on Strava, Vaughters’ is not. I get the feeling he hasn’t been able to train as much as he would have liked, though it feels as though he’s been intentionally vague about his fitness. In all honesty, it’s a mystery to me, though I don’t think he’s had the time to properly get fit.

https://www.instagram.com/p/Bz_dLbnFzq0/

At the moment, we’re talking about the third week in November, once he’s back from a busy October on the road. By then, it’s possible there will be snow on the ground. I’m hoping he’ll solicit help from some of the local EF Education First riders who live in the area — riders like Alex Howes, Taylor Phinney, or Lachlan Morton. This may come as news to them; think of it as alternative racing, fellas.

I’ll be looking to CyclingTips colleagues Caley Fretz and James Huang to pace me up key sections of the climb. (Noteworthy: There are no set rules as to how teammates can be used.) We’ll have a video crew filming the whole thing, and you’ll be able to watch and read about it here after the fact.

No matter the month, the weather, or the climbing domestiques, it’s all going to come down to watts per kilogram. And on that front, I’m feeling confident.

Across the spring and summer, my training has gone well. I’ve set personal records on several local climbs, and put out better power to weight than ever, though not by a large margin. (Example: In July I set a new PR on Flagstaff, beating my 2013 record by just six seconds.) I attribute this primarily to better diet, more focused training, and no significant illnesses or injuries to speak of.

Last October I lost about 15 pounds (7 kilos) by changing my eating habits, and I’ve kept the weight off largely by steering clear of sugar and carbs. In particular, I’ve given up three former staples of my daily intake — chocolate, beer, and tortilla chips.

As far as training, I haven’t worked with a coach, or done interval workouts, or anything that sophisticated. Essentially I’ve just eliminated junk miles from my rides. I generally warm up for 30 minutes as I ride to the base of a local climb, ride to my threshold for 30 minutes, and warm down for 30 minutes on the way home.

It’s not complicated, but my rides all have purpose; it’s rare that I go for daylong jaunts across the Rocky Mountains the way I did before I became a father. If anything, I’ve made sure to stay fresh, and never dig myself into too deep a hole. For better or for worse, being a parent forces you to be as efficient with my time and energy as possible.

And then, of course, there’s the equipment.

THE BIKE BUILD

For this particular challenge I’ll be riding Factor’s new 02 VAM frame set with Mavic Cosmic Ultimate tubular wheels, Shimano Dura-Ace mechanical group set and power meter, and a Wahoo ELEMNT ROAM head unit to monitor and record power data. For kit, I’ll be training and racing in custom CyclingTips Champion System Apex Pro jersey and bib shorts.

In an era where aerodynamics has become the primary design element in modern road racing, Factor’s 02 VAM (a model that tech editor Dave Rome recently reviewed) is a nod to the ultralight race bikes of a decade ago. It’s lighter and more comfortable than an aero road bike, a svelte hill-climbing machine that comes with a “do not sit on top tube” warning decal. I’ve never been one for the aero tuck while descending, but it’s something to keep in mind at stoplights or while a buddy is fixing a flat.

The frame comes in both disc- and rim-brake versions, and either can be run with mechanical or electronic shifting. As the name implies, this is a climbing bike. The frame set weighs right around 700g for a size 56cm in rim-brake version, which I’m riding as the Mavic Cosmic Ultimate tubular wheel set only comes as a rim-brake wheel.

The Cosmic Ultimate has 20 bladed, permanently tensioned carbon spokes which are molded to a 40mm deep, 25mm wide carbon rim and bonded to a carbon hub. The only non-carbon parts on the front wheel are the aluminum axle and stainless steel bearings, while the rear hub is made of aluminum to handle torque. In total, the wheel set weighs just 1,250 grams before gluing a Yksion Pro 25mm GripLink tubular to the front wheel, and a 25mm PowerLink to the rear.

Factor doesn’t sell complete bikes, so I needed to pick a drivetrain. I wanted something light and dependable, so I looked to Shimano’s Dura-Ace mechanical group set, though I opted for the R9100P power meter crank, which reportedly adds 70 grams over the analog crank. I’m not sure what more can be said about the latest version of Dura-Ace; to me, it’s the pinnacle of mechanical group sets. My easiest gear for the steepest sections of the climb will be 34×30.

And while the 02 VAM frame and fork can handle up to 30mm tires — Factor’s North American manager Jay Thomas regularly rides the disc model with 30mm tires on gravel in Nebraska — the Dura-Ace direct-mount brake calipers are limited at 28mm tires. The 25mm Mavic tires makes this a non-issue on this build, but it’s nice to know what’s possible. Given that I’m running 25mm tubulars and this bike is meant to be as light as possible, I haven’t ridden it off road.

To keep the weight down, I went with the extremely minimalist Selle Italia SLR C59, weighing in at just 61 grams. There’s no leather, and no padding, just shaped carbon fiber that is somehow surprisingly comfortable. The saddle is so bare that it’s not suited for off road use, and is limited to riders weighing under 90kg, or 198 pounds.

For the first time, I’m using a Wahoo head unit, and I have to say, it’s been love at first sight. CyclingTips tech editor James Huang had long been espousing Wahoo’s ease of use — “it just works” — and after setting mine up using the smartphone app, I have to agree. The closest thing I’ve done to structured training is using the Strava Segments feature, which compares your current pace with your Strava PR and lets you know if you’re ahead, or behind, your best time.

(Also, I’m pretty sure the missing “E” in the ELEMNT’s name helps keep the weight down, and when you’re climbing all out for over 30 minutes, every gram counts.)

I called on VeloFix, the mobile bike shop fleet, for the initial build; their rate for that is $329. In the weeks that followed, Jim Potter, owner and head mechanic at local shop Vecchio’s Bicicletteria, has helped me out with a minor tweaks and adjustments, as well as glued the tubulars.

For the super geeks out there, here’s the full build, with MSRP.

Frameset
Factor O2 VAM Chassis: $5,500
(Factor Chassis includes Factor 02 VAM frame and fork; Black Inc integrated handlebar/stem; Black Inc seatpost; Black Inc computer mount; Ceramic Speed bottom bracket; Ceramic Speed headset)

Wheels and tires
Mavic Cosmic Ultimate tubular with Mavic Yksion Pro tubular tires: $4,500

Components
Dura-Ace R9100-P Power Crankset, 172.5mm, 50/34 chainrings: $1,517
Dura-Ace CS-R9100 11-speed cassette 11-30T: $278
Dura-Ace ST-R9100 STI mechanical shift levers: $550
Dura-Ace FD-R9100 mechanical front derailleur: $120
Dura-Ace RD-R9100 mechanical rear derailleur: $230
Dura-Ace BR-R9110 direct-mount brake caliper set: $397
Dura-Ace SPD-SL PD-9100 pedals: $280
Dura-Ace CN-HG901 11-speed chain: $50

Saddle
Selle Italia SLR C59: $600

Computer
Wahoo ELEMNT ROAM: $380

Miscellaneous
Black Inc Bottle Cage: $65

Total MSRP: $14,467

That’s right, I’ll be racing Jonathan Vaughters up a 7km climb on a $14,500 bike. Given that the bike weighs in at exactly 14 pounds or 6.35kg — well below the UCI weight limit — this amounts to just over $1,000 per pound. Something for me to think about when considering that scoop of ice cream.

A WORTHWHILE EXERCISE

After a handful of trips up and down Flagstaff on the 02 VAM, I can say it performs very much how you’d imagine a high-end race bike would feel. It’s quite stiff and extremely responsive, yet somehow feels significantly lighter than my 18-pound (8kg) daily driver. It’s right at home on the climbs, especially out of the saddle, and corners confidently.

I’ll admit that after several years of road riding exclusively on disc brakes, descending on rim brakes with carbon rims took me a few rides to get used to, especially on such a light wheel set. The wheels roll fast and the tires are supple and smooth. Fortunately the Mavic-branded SwissStop Yellow King brake pads perform reliably mated with Mavic’s laser-machined braking track, even in wet conditions; my second ride on the bike was in the rain, because Colorado summers.

I really don’t know what to expect come race day. I know what I’m capable of, and I know the climb well. I don’t know what Vaughters’ training has been like, or how seriously he’s taking this. I don’t even know the exact date we’ll be racing up the mountain, or what the conditions might be like. I do know that no matter what happens, I won’t be able to blame the bike.

More than anything, this whole exercise has served a bit of motivation to pressure two unfit cyclists in their mid-forties to get back into reasonable shape, with the added bonus of building up a dream climbing machine. I’ve gotten to test out some killer gear, and I’m even thinking of rolling this fitness into some cyclocross racing this fall, for the first time in years. So from that perspective, it’s already been a worthwhile exercise.

Let the climbing games begin! May the best middle-aged man win.

Editors' Picks