52t chainrings and a CX resurgence - the British Gravel Champs' race winning bikes

Flat-out speed is the order of the day at the sunny, sandy - and almost pancake flat - 2023 British Gravel National Championships

Joe Blackmore's Canyon CF SL at the British Gravel Championships
(Image credit: Tom Couzens)

A sun-baked summer's day saw the third ever British Gravel National Championships take place in Bury St Edmunds this past weekend. Joe Blackmore (Team Inspired) and Xan Crees (Team Spectra Cannondale) won the elite men's and women's British Gravel Championships.

Both are known for their cyclo-cross skills and both were aboard cyclo-cross bikes for the gravel race - we got a chance to take a closer look at their race-winning machines, and the spec changes they made to suit the demands of the course. 

Xan Crees' Cannondale SuperSix Evo CX

Xan Crees' Cannondale SuperSix Evo CX

(Image credit: Tom Couzens)

The winner of the Women’s race was Xan Crees, onboard her Cannondale SuperSix Evo CX. With exactly the same geometry as the SuperSix Evo SE (Cannondale's gravel specific bike), one noticeable upgrade Creese had made to the Evo CX was the addition of SRAM Force electronic groupset. 

As standard, the Evo CX comes equipped with SRAM Force mechanical, but with the extra reliability and precision of shifting that electronic gearing brings it is no wonder Crees opted for this upgrade.

Handlebars of Xan Crees' Cannondale SuperSix Evo CX

(Image credit: Tom Couzens)

Tire choice is always a hot topic of conversation when it comes to both gravel riding and racing. With there being a fine line between grip and rolling resistance as well as puncture resistance the Schwalbe G-One RS was the tire of choice for Crees. 

With the lowest rolling resistance out of the whole of the G-One range the RS is very much suited to hard-packed and dry conditions, such as those of the Champs race. 

What was noticeable afterwards was the fact the front tire had been mounted the ‘wrong’ way, often an intentional choice made by 'cross riders to maximise grip. Maybe Crees was worried she would struggle with front end grip on some of the sandier, looser corners?

The choice between a hydration pack vs bottle cages is another hot topic, with the latter running the risk of bottles being lost. There were a lot of lost bottles around the course; but it was the latter option that Crees had opted for in this instance.

Front chainring of Xan Crees' Cannondale SuperSix Evo CX

(Image credit: Tom Couzens)

Single front chainrings are becoming ever more popular in the world of gravel riding and Crees was running a 40 tooth front chainring on her SuperSix Evo CX. With a chain catcher fitted to minimize the likelihood of a dropped chain over the bumpy gravel terrain, this again was an upgrade along with the groupset. 

Joe Blackmore's Canyon CF SL

Joe Blackmore's Canyon CF SL

(Image credit: Tom Couzens)

Crees’ cyclocross bike wasn’t the only cross bike to take first place with Joe Blackmore taking the title in the Men’s race on board his 2019 Canyon CF SL.

With both riders opting for cross bikes, another similarity between the two was the choice of wheels. 

Crees had opted for a pair of 35mm HollowGram wheels whilst Blackmore had decided to go with a slightly deeper 45mm set from the same brand. With a 32mm external width the HolloGram wheels do measure quite wide and have been reported to ‘squeeze’ the tire in ever so slightly. For gravel this can be advantageous as it can help to protect the tires from bulging over the edge of the wheel and being exposed to objects that could cause punctures. 

Front end of Joe Blackmore's Canyon CF SL

(Image credit: Tom Couzens)

Schwalbe G-One Allround’s were the tire of choice for Blackmore, as part of the same G-One series as Crees’ RS choice. The Allrounds offer slightly more grip than the RS version of the G-One, but this didn't seem to slow Blackmore down as the low tread profile is still able to maintain a pretty low rolling resistance. Running 29, 31 pressures to increase grip on the corners and sandier sections of the course, whilst not running so soft Blackmore would waste energy on the flatter, harder packed sections where the speed would be higher proved to be the perfect winning formula. 

52t front chain ring of Joe Blackmore's Canyon CF SL

(Image credit: Tom Couzens)

Again a single front chainring was another similarity between the two race winning machines with Blackmore opting for a fairly large 52 tooth ring. With only just over 450 meters of climbing in the 76 kilometer race there was no need to be worried about not having enough gears, and with an average speed of 36.6km/h the front of the race wasn’t hanging around. 

One of the most interesting components of Blackmore’s bike was what was hidden inside his bottom bracket. Coming from a mountain biking and cyclocross background, and this being his first gravel race, he had used his experience from these disciplines to pop three cable zip ties into the bottom bracket opening. The reason being that gravel racing can be so unpredictable you never know what is going to happen. Whether you snap a quick link or break a BOA dial on your shoe, a zip tie is always a useful accessory to have with you just in case. 

Purple jockey wheel of Joe Blackmore's Canyon CF SL

(Image credit: Tom Couzens)

SRAM was again the groupset of choice, this time Blackmore opting for mechanical SRAM Rival groupset with purple jockey wheels to add some color to what is a very stealthy looking machine. Although Rival is SRAM’s budget level groupset it didn’t seem to have any effect on the outcome of the race result. 

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Tom Couzens
Freelance Writer

Tom Couzens is a racing cyclist currently representing The Ribble Collective on the road and the Montezumas cyclo-cross team off road. His most notable results include winning the Monmouth GP national series race as a junior; finishing sixth in the 2022 British National Cyclo-cross Championships; and he was selected to represent Great Britain at the European Cyclo-cross Championships in 2020/21. Tom draws on his high-level racing experience and knowledge to help Cycling Weekly readers maximise their potential and get as much as possible out of their riding.