Words: Alex Malone | Photography: Trent van der Jagt
The journey into off-road stage racing has been an exciting one for the team at Cyclist Australia/NZ magazine. Our primary focus has always been around road cycling but with the ever-increasing popularity around gravel and multi-surface drop bar riding, the gap to wider tyres and full suspension machines seemed just too close to ignore. So, after breaking into the scene with a debut ride at The Pioneer, the next off-road adventure beckoned.
The Crocodile Trophy happened to fall at a particularly interesting time of the year and so with a few months to prepare, we lined up for the eight-day race with a wealth of rookie experience to call upon.
Settling on the Merida Ninety-Six
We chose the Ninety-Six 9.7000 as our ride of choice. I say ‘we’ because we originally intended to race the Crocodile Trophy with a team of two riders, albeit as solo entrants. Apart from the major change of frame and suspension, much of our selections were guided by prior experiences and advice from experts like those who run this site.
Here’s a look at the custom-tuned ride that conquered this year’s 23rd edition.
Suspension for the Crocodile Trophy
I ran the RockShox forks and rear shock as fitted with the original specification. Up front, the SID RL Air delivers 100mm of travel and handlebar mounted OneLoc while the Monarch RT3 with three compression lever positions (open, pedal, lock) took care of the rear.
As per Mike’s suspension issues on Stage 4, I too encountered just a bit of grief from the cable remote lockout getting filled with sand and mud. Once dry and cleaned out, the switch returned to full function. I’m yet to do it but will be replacing the stock housing with a sealed system along with sealed ferrules.
After a couple of months of training, I received a message from one of the tech guys at SRAM Australia (RockShox) who suggested dropping a couple of Bottomless Tokens into the forks. Shaped like oversized wine gums, the Tokens screw into the top of the air cap and effectively reduce the air volume of the chamber. I tend to ride quite heavy on the front, especially when descending and so adding two Tokens helped to change the air-spring curve and reduce bottoming-out on big hits. My decision to run two tokens was in part due to the improved low-speed bump sensitivity and also from the ShockWiz recommendations.
The ShockWiz was used on the rear first before fitting to the front. Strictly speaking, it’s more of a technical product intended for mechanics and suspension experts/tuners but with a bit of reading and some patience, it’s a fantastic tool for getting your suspension dialled. There really isn’t any other price-friendly product readily available that can offer the kind of detailed analysis like the ShockWiz. My advice is to buy or even hire one from a store and get them to help you dial in your ride.
Current pressure settings are 117psi for the rear and 78psi for the front. The front suspension had originally been set at closer to 115psi prior to using the ShockWiz. At this pressure, the fork is super stiff on the smooth stuff and when using the lock out however, the small bump sensitivity really suffers. Following fitment of the Tokens and setting the rear to the appropriate pressure (it was already pretty close), I’m super happy with the suspension performance.
Drivetrain for the Crocodile Trophy
This is the same Shimano XTR Di2 groupset that took on and survived The Pioneer with just a few small changes made to suit the needs of the Ninety-Six.
With a little more fitness this time around, I decided to run a 34-tooth chainring for the entire race paired to an XT 11-46 cassette. I did however, pack a spare 30, 32 and 34t chainring just in case. The entire drivetrain (chain, cassette and chainring) was replaced a week ahead of the race. This gave me time to ensure it was all running smooth. I would however, consider using a double-ring setup for future stage races; to tackle some of the super steep climbs encountered at the Croc but also to allow a bigger gear for the flat.
It’s important to grease the spline of the XTR free hub body along with alloy chainring bolts to keep these areas from making any creaking sounds – something worth remembering ahead of your next big race.
A C-Bear ceramic bottom bracket was fitted during the initial build and has since endured numerous high-pressure cleans, drownings across creeks and rivers along with a healthy helping of sand, mud and dust. They are a snug fit to install but this is part of the C-Bear ethos and can be especially important when fitting into a carbon BB shell like the Merida. It continues to spin buttery-smooth.
Di2 wiring is always a little tricky with dual suspension bikes but having learned the hard way during training for The Pioneer on the Specialized Epic, I’ve since found the most secure and reliable routing methods. From lever to BB is a breeze however, one should take particular notice of how and where the junction wire leaves the main frame and eventually joins the rear derailleur. For the Ninety-Six, I piggy-backed off the hardy hydraulic hose before sticking close to the chain stay (with extra protection) and with some additional Gorilla tape near the short section between rear axle and derailleur. Given the reliability of the groupset, it’s about the most full-proof method you can get.
What bike should I get for marathon and stage racing?
I suffered one crash during the race and subsequently broke the rear derailleur. With a bit of bush mechanics I was soon-enough on my way and eventually crossed the finish line with a single speed setup. A spare derailleur was fitted that afternoon and I was back in the game for Stage 6.
Rolling stock at the Crocodile Trophy
In similar vein to the groupset, these are the same XTR M9000 carbon tubeless wheels to what I used at The Pioneer. I took a spare set fitted with 11-46 XT cassette just in case. As it was, they only served to ensure a real case of weight-limit anxiety during airport check in.
Following advice from a number of experienced XC racers, I chose to run a pair of Maxxis Ikon 2.2s. I used Maxxis tyres a lot back in my downhill days and felt confident they would be up to the job. They might not be the lightest going around but with zero flats, cuts or signs of significant wear, they are definitely on my favoured list.
Just like the old days, I chose to run the front Ikon in reverse to the recommended direction. I loved it. Both tyres were filled with Joe’s No Flats Super Sealant. A week-long race throws up more than a few challenges and so I went pretty generous on the dosage. As it was, both tyres were near empty on return. This is something that I will, moving forward, top-up after a few stages.
Braking for the Crocodile Trophy
Shimano XTR 9000 Race levers and callipers took care of the braking during the week while sintered and finned pads ensured reliable performance in all conditions.
I arrived at Croc without changing my pads however, a quick inspection ahead of Stage 4 revealed the need to change the front. The pads would have been fine for a dry stage but this day’s forecast was grim. I swapped them out for a pair of fresh ones and they are still being used now. This can be a quick job depending on how worn your pads are during replacement time. It’s worth carrying a small amount of mineral oil to help lubricate the pistons before pushing them back into the calliper. This resets the position for the new and wider spaced pads being fitted.
Cockpit setup for the Crocodile Trophy
This was the first time running the PRO Tharsis carbon bar and XC stem combination and I found the combination stiff and reliable. I decided to run the Di2 shift lever wire inside the bar and out through the stem while the integrated headset adjuster was used purely as a headset spacer. I prefer a standard stem cap and bolt for adjusting the headset. It may be a little heavier but reliability and adjustability (on the trail) is key for a stage race. Small weight savings in this department are not necessary.
The Stealth saddle might be targeted at the road market but it’s my saddle of choice for the road. The Stealth sits upon a zero-offset PRO Tharsis set post. This also houses the Di2 battery, just like my road bike. If it ain’t broke…
PRO Silicone XC grips slide on and stay put without glue or hairspray but I did find them a little thin towards the end of the week. I may look at something a little thicker and perhaps firmer for next time.
Spares at the Crocodile Trophy
The Ninety-Six can accommodate two bidon cages but I’m not a fan of the underside mount. Instead, I was happy to run a single bidon in the mainframe and a Shimano Unzen 2L pack for each stage barring the first and last.
The bulk of my spares (tube, Co2 x 2 plus chuck, lever, tyre boot) were carried inside a large Ballistic model Speedsleev with hand pump and other small spares inside the hydration pack.
Maintenance at the Crocodile Trophy
Croc organisers provided a place to clean bikes each stage but it was DIY cleaning. I thought the single can of Finish Line Speed Degreaser would be enough for the week but this stuff is addictive. I ran out with a few stages remaining. The degreasing, cleaning and lubing pack needs to be tuned ahead of the next stage race outing.
The main consideration in this regard is keeping the weight down. Cans of cleaner, brushes and bottles of lubricant all add weight to the baggage total.
Apart from the derailleur replacement mid race, there wasn’t much else to do but wash down, polish (with the sweet Finish Polish and Protect) and lube after each stage. I thought about replacing the chain mid race but it just didn’t get the same flogging as experienced during The Pioneer, when multiple creek crossings were encountered every single day.
Tyres needed a little top up for most stages but that was more out of habit than anything else.