Current US national cyclo-cross champion Tim Johnson (Cannondale-Cyclocrossworld) has a new carbon fiber race machine this year that's not only substantially lighter than the aluminum models he's used in the past but according to him, also notably sharper and just flat-out faster than before, too.
Cannondale's claimed 1,400g frame and fork weight for the new SuperX indeed undercuts the old CAAD9 aluminum model by a whopping 450g (nearly a full pound). Naturally, the total bike weight has dropped roughly the same amount as well – to a road racer-like 7.19kg (15.85lb) – though Johnson is quicker to praise the new chassis' more capable handling and more unified behavior.
"It's like getting on shaped skis for the first time – you just lean over and it just carves right through the corner," he said just hours before boarding a flight to Switzerland for this season's first UCI World Cup round. "'Cross racing in the states has a lot of corners and full acceleration as opposed to the prototypical Euro muddy course, which is more just slogging through the deep sections and the difficult ups and downs. This bike is born and bred for the quick and dirty 'cross racing that we have here."
Cannondale borrowed much of the SuperX's tweaked shape from its Flash carbon hardtail, including the pinched lower seat tube, flared top tube-seat tube intersection, and flattened SAVE chain- and seat stays that were designed to soften the ride of rough courses. Interestingly, Johnson says he doesn't notice the softer ride relative to his old XTJ signature model as much as he does the newly tapered front end, which pairs with the far broader top tube to noticeably suppress front triangle twist, especially when ridden hard.
"It's the front end," he said. "When you're on a CAAD9, the Easton fork wasn't nearly as stiff as the frame. The SuperX overall is more precise. When I ask it to turn, it turns in right then and instead of skittering across a bumpy corner, it just does it. That fork is pretty beefy and it goes into the really big head tube and it's a pretty direct feel."
Johnson's build kit retains most of the key components from the previous season, including a SRAM Red group, Zipp 303 carbon tubulars, and supple-riding Dugast tires – with the occasional special tread glued on for good measure depending on the course. However, Zipp has now also stepped in as the seatpost, handlebar, and stem supplier for this year – outfitting the team with its latest Service Course collection of alloy bits – and SRAM now provides its new Shorty Ultimate cantilever brakes, too.
Johnson and his Cannondale-Cyclocrossworld.com teammates Jeremy Powers and Jamey Driscoll currently dominate the US domestic 'cross scene but while they all run the same basic machine, it's interesting to note how each rider's style still plays out in their equipment setups. Case in point was the recent US Gran Prix race in Wisconsin where the three riders – who of course all tackled the same course in identical conditions – ran completely different tires.
"Each of us has a different level of needs for tires," Johnson said. "Jamey doesn't really cut the corners – he flows more through them so he doesn't need tires with a lot of bite. I'm more of a rudder guy. I'll put a lot of weight on my front wheel and lead with my body so I had a Rhino front on because some of the corners were loose but they still had bite. So I just put all my weight into the Rhino and let that be my grip. And then Jeremy stuck with the double Typhoon."
Similarly, differences in personal preference put the three teammates on different pedals, too, with Johnson and Driscoll on Shimano XTRs and Powers on Crankbrothers Candys.
"They're the best I've tried so far and I've tried all the other pedals," Johnson told us. "They give me the best feel on my foot when I stand up; there's no float, there's no wobble, and my feet don't slide to the end of the pedal. I really like the way that they feel."
Zipp's latest 303 carbon tubulars have proven themselves tough enough for the arduous Spring Classics and are now also a favorite among 'cross racers not only for their strength but also the wider and more supportive tire bed.
Johnson says that mud hasn't been an issue with his Shimano pedals, either, despite other designs offering more open architectures.
"I've never had a problem with my pedals in the muddiest races I've done in the states – and we're talking ten years of racing. You get in right away, you start fast, you get in and out of the barriers fast. There's nothing they don't do well."
Likewise, while much of the industry is still awash in currently fashionable wide-profile brake arms for greater mud clearance, Johnson and his teammates prefer to run their brakes in the lower-profile, higher-power configuration for more control.
"Yeah, I use my brakes a lot," Johnson admitted. "I use my brakes to control my speed going in but also while I’m in the corner. So I probably use brakes more than nearly any other guy out there just because I’m always adjusting. I remember using the old-school wide-profile brakes and I just never liked them. Plus when you have the setup like we do with team manager and Cyclocrossworld proprietor Stu Thorne in the pit for me and I can switch every half lap, that need for the wide-profile thing doesn't happen anymore."
Perhaps not surprisingly then, Johnson is keen to see his equipment adapt to the recently lifted UCI ban on disc brakes.
"I'm looking forward to it," he said. "I don't mind advancing technology and like I said, I'm definitely a braker and I'm looking forward to having different types of brakes available. I've seen some examples of it and they definitely need a lot of refining but if we can get to the point where we can have a disc on the front of the bike that weighs nothing and I can run through 3-6 inches of mud and not have to worry about it, I'd be pretty psyched."