Grinduro meets Stu Bowers from SRAM for a lesson in how to find the sweet-spot with your gravel set-up and the joys of segment style racing.
Stu Bowers is something of a polymath. The sort of rider you’ll be stoked to bump into on the transitions at Grinduro — and not just for his encyclopaedic knowledge of line choice and gearing ahead of the climbs. A former MTB and cyclocross international, he went on to join the pit crew as a team GB bike mechanic, then spent 16 years penning articles in the cycling media – most notably at Cyclist and as editor as Cyclist Off-Road. In 2021, he became the UK and Northern Europe partnership marketing specialist for SRAM, who are a long-term sponsor of the global Grinduro series. Here, he talks about why these days he cuts a different figure to Stu the racer, what he loves about segment-style racing, and what SRAM have in mind for the series.
Grinduro: What makes SRAM say yes to an event?
Stu: SRAM loves to be in the field. At an event like Grinduro, we get to ride with people and get direct feedback. Across the whole industry, it’s fair to say education is key – especially considering a lot of the products that are coming out now as everything becomes more and more advanced with wireless, electronic shifting and apps to go alongside everything. We don’t always have the ability to get the message across through marketing material in the way that we can do if we’re actually at an event talking face to face to people. And riders get more of a sense of the real company – SRAM is built of bike riders. Pretty much everyone who works here is passionate about bikes; we create a product that we really want to ride with and people see that in us at events.
Grinduro: What does SRAM bring to Grinduro?
Stu: At Grinduro specifically, we offer a really high level of technical support and service to all the riders. If a rider is out on a stage and breaks a derailleur or snaps a chain, we’re there to support and make sure you can still finish the event. We’ve always got the team truck there too — not the massive one that goes to all the World Cups — but a slightly smaller one, and all the tech staff on site too. We were really busy in Wales last year, sorting out people’s gears and bent mech hangers.
Grinduro: What is it about the Grinduro experience that personally excites you?
Stu: I love how it borrows the enduro format from MTB'ing in its own way so you get competition and social all in one long ride. You get your competitive head on as you enter a stage for whatever time it takes— 3 minutes, 7 minutes, you never know what you’re going to get at Grinduro— then you regroup with mates and ride at a steady pace. Awesome.
Grinduro: That answer gives us a clue to where you stand on the party-to-race ratio. We’ve heard a lot about your racing career. Is Grinduro a chance to revive the competitive spirit?
Stu: I’ve raced every discipline pretty much other than track, although I did do the hour record once, so I basically covered that even though it was as a journalist. My background was more off-road then on, but like anyone that races off-road, you spend half your life training on the road. Personally, I still struggle to let go of my old competitive instincts. Will I be the one dancing until the wee small hours and climbing tent poles? Probably not, but that’s just on a personal level. At SRAM, we want people to see Grinduro as a chance to be competitive but for it not to be everything. It’s not made for drinking your energy drink and hiding away in your tent.
Grinduro: So true. It’s all about balance, mindset and, of course – we’ve got to mention it – the right bike set-up.
Stu: I actually had a little bit of a steer on last year’s stage setup in Wales as we reccied the course ahead of time. Grinduro really brings a balance with what the stages offer: not too gnarly so people won’t be hanging on over white-knuckle stuff, but with a good mix of climbing, a range of surfaces and always with a technical element too. I think it’s good to test people a bit. Wales is probably amongst the gnarlier end of the scale for Grinduro, especially with the big gradients you get around there. Those steep, long climbs can really test people..
Grinduro: You never get tired of exhausting yourself on a climb?
Stu: Last year we actually had a Zipp-sponsored 1 km hill climb through the forest. But my days of being able to rip the tread off the field on a fire road climb are behind me – I’ve got a young daughter and a different life that means I can’t train that much so these days I fare better on the downhill stages than the uphill ones.
Grinduro: Aha, so you must have enjoyed last year’s final stage, the one that got people talking.
Stu: The final stage last year was incredible. I understand why it might have been on the limits to what some people understand as “gravel” because it was heavily downhill-orientated but it was an absolute blast.
Grinduro: That would be where you’d want some steezy bike handling skills then.
Stu: Exactly. I’m coming at it as a rider that’s got years of MTB'ing experience. You have to build your spec in relation to your skill level—and be honest about your skill level, too. This makes it hard to say the definitive best bike for Grinduro. It’s so varied that it really personifies what gravel should be. It’s about having versatility with a bike that’s capable of doing some pretty rough trails and rocky downhills but also capable on a fire road climb.
Grinduro: Sounds like you’re asking a lot from one set of wheels and a frame.
Stu: And suspension for some – you’ll get more grip, more confidence but you’re always asking yourself: is it enough of a benefit to drag the extra weight up a climb? The middle-ground is always a good place to start. You don’t want to go there with your 30mm superlight tyres and super rigid set-up because you’ll get beaten to pieces on some of the stages and risk puncturing. Equally you don’t want to go there with a full-sus gravel bike and a ton of bags and all the other stuff hanging off it because you’re going to find that’s going to drag you down on some of the climbs and you’ll be making your own life very difficult.
Grinduro: Gotcha, so what bike will you be on?
Stu: I’ll be riding something like the Salsa Warbird, a light carbon frame with the potential for wide tyre clearances – my preference is around the 42 mm width as that’s a good balance. I tend to run a multi-treaded tyre like the WTB Riddler as it’s fast in the middle but still offers good edge grip.
Grinduro: Nice choice. What will you choose for the rest of your bike build?
Stu: You want to be on the lower side of the gearing as you’ll find some fairly hefty climbs in Wales. I ran a 42 tooth chainring and a 10x36 cassette last year but that was before we launched the XPLR groupset, which is the ultimate sweet-spot with a 10-44 cassette. The alternative to that is what we call a Mullet set-up: where you use a MTB bike back end and a gravel front end to get a 10–50 or 52. That’s what the XPLR collection is all about: giving people choices. It’s not about us saying you need to use this fork, or this cassette, or this dropper, on your gravel bike. It’s so that you as a rider can say ‘this is my version of gravel’ because there is no single definition – it is what you make it.
Grinduro: Love that thought, Stu. It feels like the perfect place to leave this chat and say thank you.
Stu: Thanks, you too. Do come by in Wales – the SRAM booth always has great coffee, that’s a non-negotiable.