The Vasco Gravel Bike - Trial by Fire

Markus Stitz rides the Vasco GT 28 on the Orbit 360 Thuringia

We teamed up with Markus Stitz, founder of Bikepacking Scotland and accomplished around-the-world singlespeed cyclist to test our all new Vasco performance gravel bike on the Orbit 360 Thüringia track. Markus rode a pre-production model and gave us his report on the race and the bike below.

Riding the Tout Terrain Vasco on the Orbit 360 Thüringia

The Orbit360 is Germany’s first gravel series and ran for the first time between July to September of 2020. The concept was to create a series of 16 200+ km gravel routes routes, one in each of Germany's provinces. Riders can ride recreationally or race unsupported, competing for points by tracking their route on a personal GPS devices (via Komoot) and accumulating points for finishing time and each track travelled.

Orbit 360 Thüringia

Distance: 220km
Total Ascent: 4580m
Gravel: 54%
Asphalt: 38%
Singletrack: 8%
Rideable Time: 97%

 

World Class Endurance Racing

I met Raphael Albrecht and Bengt Stiller, the two faces behind the Orbit360, twice. Both times we met in pretty exotic environments. The first time was in Bishkek at the Silk Road Mountain Race. Before the start I shared a room with Raphael and our paths crossed a number of times during the race. Bengt was the motivation I needed when I pushed my bike up the Ton Pass, the highest pass of the race at little over 4000 m. Suffering from heat exhaustion and diarrhea I was close to scratching, but when I saw him sitting in his tent, staring at a bowl of chicken soup and not being able to move anywhere, I felt that I still had too much in me to quit. I was more than delighted that Bengt finally got better and crossed the finish line just before the cut off time.

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The three of us met again this February in Marrakech at the Atlas Mountain Race. Raphael and I took a selfie for the local newspaper in front of a big chandelier throning over the hotel reception. We were both born in Thuringia, so the local press took an interest in our bikepacking adventures. The shiny walls of the hotel were the opposite of what was to come. A technically challenging, at times brutal race that needed a lot of determination to finish. Like in any tough bikepacking race the scenery and people of Morocco made up for thehardship, but I can still vividly remember the last kilometres, pushing my bike through sheer endless sand in the dark.

‘There’s always one crazy one’ are the words that accompanied Bengt’s picture of me and my singlespeed mountain bike at the registration. The bike hadn’t changed much since I completed a lap of the world on it in August 2016. After a shoulder operation last September I had no intention of being as fast as in previous races, only to finish. I was the sole starter on a singlespeed. As long as I made it to Sidi R'bat, the finish, in the cut off time, I’d have accomplished my mission. And I did.

The Limits of Gravel Cycling

Pushing the limits of the human body

Although I wasn’t planning any bike adventures during a three weeks stay in Germany this July and August and left my own bike at home, riding a race that kept Bengt and Raphael busy in lockdown was just too tempting. A few days in, I organised a Tour Terrain Vasco, bags and lights and took part in the inaugural Orbit360. What I didn’t expect was to end up in hospital shortly after.

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When I see the fluid dripping into my right arm, I can slowly feel some energy returning into my body. Painfully I have recognised that after eleven years in Scotland my bike riding skills have vastly improved, but that I somehow have lost all ability to cope with summer temperatures in Germany. I sit in a hospital in Erfurt, a day after I have finished my first ever Orbit360, recovering from severe heat exhaustion.

Memories of the Silk Road Mountain Race come back, when I felt equally battered after enduring temperatures as high as 40C. Back then I didn’t get treatment, as in the Tian Shan medical provision is patchy. I carried on racing, although at a much slower pace than anticipated. In Kyrgyzstan I was by myself. Here in Erfurt I am in the company of my Canadian girlfriend and my family, and I feel selfish having pushed my body to the utmost limit, not being able to do anything but rest and occasionally eat for three days.

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While I sit here waiting for the fluid to slowly drip into my battered body, I have plenty of time to think. I think about the term gravel. And gravel bikes. I have ridden a route that packs in 4,580 m of climbing into 220 km. The Thuringian route is the hilliest of 16 routes, which doesn’t come as a surprise. Looking back on my round the world trip, which had me cycling the equivalent of more than 38 times up Mount Everest on a singlespeed, the hilliest day of all was crossing the Rhoen and Thuringian Forest. There are no high mountains here, but there is an abundance of valleys and smaller hills, which add up to much more climbing than the long and gradual climbs in mountain ranges like the Alps, Rocky Mountains or Andes.

Pushing the limits of the gravel bike

I am one of the first riders that has put the Vasco through a proper test, and a ‘performance gravel bike’ is certainly needed for the Orbit360. More than once I thought that a lightweight hardtail mountain bike would have been the more sensible choice for the route. I have spent about 26 hours completing the route, with a few hours of sleep and a few breaks in between. It was a challenge with pretty strenuous cycling and I was glad I took my cross training shoes as walking was certainly needed. The point where I had a serious sense of humour failure was at 5 am in the morning, bumping my way down three kilometres of rooty singletrack in the dark, desperately trying to find a line that would be sensible to ride on 40 mm tires. Although the bike handled the conditions fine, I could constantly picture myself propped against one of the trees.

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While gravel bikes are nothing really new, I have certainly seen much more people riding them in the last two years. With an equal increase in the popularity of bikepacking bags, it’s tempting to think that gravel riding has, at least to a certain extent, replaced mountain biking.
 
While the lines are pretty well defined with anything that involves suspension, like enduro or trail mountain biking, they have been more blurred between cross country mountain biking and gravel riding. At times I feel that gravel is used as a buzzword, and increasingly used for the wrong type of races and routes.

That was the case in the Atlas Mountain Race. I was more than happy about flat bars and wide tires. Nelson Tress, who organises both the Atlas and Silk Road Mountain Race, apologised for billing it as a gravel race afterwards. While riding the Orbit360 memories of the tricky descents in Morocco come back, but this time it’s the climbs that are mostly beyond the abilities of both bike and rider. It strikes me that whoever scouted the route, rode it in the opposite direction. My thoughts are later confirmed by Raphael.

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Yes, there will always be ‘nutters’ with excellent riding skills and undestroyable bodies that ride whatever you’ll put them on. When I was riding around the world on a singlespeed bike I was one of them. But the large majority of people will suffer from too much type 2 fun at some stage, and I include the current me in that. If you take a challenging route, little sleep and almost tropical summer temperatures in Germany, you’ll suddenly understand that it’s not just my adopted Scottish temperature perception, but a cocktail of things that has got me here, into hospital.

Concluding Thoughts

Reflecting on the Orbit 360 Thüringia

By and large the Orbit360 route in Thuringia was enjoyable. I loved the concept of the race. In times of a global pandemic Raphael and Bengt provided 16 different routes that could be ridden in a two-month time frame, socially distanced. Ranging from 212 km in Saxony to 323 km in Germany’s smallest federal state Bremen, it’s fair to say that the length of them provides a challenge to even the most experienced riders. The rules are similar to other bikepacking races: Once started, the clock never stops. And while there is a classification, the real race is against yourself, not anyone else. Perseverance is the biggest skill needed, and to follow the golden rule of bikepacking: Never scratch at night.

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It’s the social aspect and discovering new cultures that makes travelling the world to race bikes fun, but in times of a global pandemic neither travelling or meeting others are sensible choices, so the Orbit360 fills the gap nicely. Looking at the website it was Thuringia that immediately caught my eye. While the flattest route, again in Bremen, equates to less climbing than riding across the Nullarbor Plain in Australia, the route in Thuringia packed in more climbing than an average day in some of the hardest bikepacking races in the world like the Highland Trail 550, Silk Road Mountain Race and Atlas Mountain Race.

Some sections were an absolute blast on a gravel bike, and it was then when the Tout Terrain Vasco exceeded expectations. With a 48-31 double chainset on the front and a 11-34 cassette on the back the bike is different from what I normally ride. While I still love riding singlespeed bikes, I have also learned to appreciate the convenience that gears offer, but stuck to one chainring on the front. Cruising along the wide and smooth gravel tracks on the Rennsteig-Radwanderweg (Rennsteig Cycle Trail) from Blankenstein, a bit more than halfway into the route, I really appreciated having more than one ring on the front. I got the same enjoyable feeling at the beginning and the end, cruising through the beautiful Schwarzatal (Schwarza Valley). But my excitement was dampened when the route suddenly left a wonderful trail to climb up yet another hill on a tiny track, or took me to each and every single bay of an artificial reservoir.

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So while the overall concept of the Orbit360 series is great, and I really hope it continues fro years to come, the scouting of routes needs more finetuning. Climbs up to 42% are beyond any bike’s ability, no matter what gear ratio or tire width. And while a short section of singletrail will be enjoyable on drop bars and 40 mm tires, kilometre after kilometre on technical singletrail after multiple hours in the saddle made me question what I am doing. The Tout Terrain Vasco handles most terrain exceptionally well, but in the end it’s a gravel bike, not a mountain bike.

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Reflecting on the Tout Terrain Vasco GT 28

I am left to ponder what the term gravel, especially associated with the term bike, really means. If I would have to choose a bike again for riding around the world, it would most definitely be a gravel bike like the Vasco. For simplicity my choice would be a single chainring on the front, with one less cable to break, but there wouldn’t be much more to change. It is not really a surprise that, since providing me with this pre-production model, Tout Terrain has added 1x gearing equipped models to the Vasco family.

The words exploration and all-road are what spring in mind when thinking about the Vasco. Living in Scotland I have long shelved the skinny 23 mm tires that I used on my road bike. But I also learned that riding a large section of tarmac on a fatbike with 5 inch tires is a waste of time and effort. There are bikes for pretty much every terrain these days, but there are few bikes that are enjoyable on multiple terrains, and gravel bikes are.

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Riding bikes will always be a compromise. When I cycled around the world in 2015/2016 gravel bikes were just surfacing. While I spent most of my time on tarmac, I didn’t want to limit my choices, so my choice was a 29inch mountain bike. In one instance I cycled almost 3000 km off-road on the Tour Aotearoa in New Zealand, which would have not been possible on a road bike. While there are a few tarmac roads that are near empty and highly enjoyable to ride, I would count the Eyre Highway in Australia as one, in most countries roads mean mixing the pleasure of cycling with cars. And that’s where the fun ends.

I look at most routes more critical than others, as I have carved a niche for myself in Scotland, making a living from developing long distance cycling routes through Bikepacking Scotland. There’s an abundance of heritage paths like coach roads, drove roads and military roads, but a lack of cycle paths. Most roads have become too dangerous to cycle on at certain times. Once enjoyable singletrack roads in the Highlands are swamped by motorhomes and sports cars in summer, with little room for slowly moving bikes. But the off-road possibilities offered by the network of historic paths are almost endless.

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And that’s where I think a gravel bike like the Tout Terrain Vasco will deliver on most fronts. It’s fast and enjoyable on tarmac. The steel frame and carbon fork make it comfortable on wide forest roads, and the bigger wheels make it easy to handle on more technical surfaces. For Scotland I would swap the 11-34 cassette on the back to something with a bigger top ring, but that’s an easy thing to change. The drop bars are super comfortable and provide a mixture of seating positions for long days in the saddle. The Vasco is one of the few bikes I tested that comes with the same comfortable Brooks saddle I chose to cycle 34,000 km around the world. For longer trips there are enough mountings on the frame to attach things. The bike is very suited to strap bikepacking bags on it, but most enjoyable if you reduce your luggage to as little as possible.

It’s a bike which is fun to ride where the road starts, but even more fun to ride where it ends. And while the brief visit to the hospital is something I could have lived without, experiencing a new race like the Orbit360, with all that comes with it, on a new bike, is something I would definitely do again.

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For an overview of the new Vasco models, see the blog post The New Vasco: Performance Gravel on Any Terrain

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