The US cyclo-cross national championships in Bend, Oregon is coming at a good time for Todd Wells, who is showing excellent form late in the season with recent wins at the USGP in nearby Portland and the double at Jingle Cross Rock in Iowa City, Iowa. Wells will be seeking his third stars-and-stripes 'cross jersey this Sunday but after a team switch from GT to Specialized earlier this year, he'll now be doing it on a new carbon bike instead of his usual custom aluminum machine.
Specialized has supplied Wells with its top-end S-Works Tricross, whose highly sculpted form stands in stark contrast to his previous mostly-round aluminum frame. The top tube is wide and extremely flat for easier shouldering but also bowed to lend some vertical flex to the front end, and the wildly curvaceous seat stays closely mimic those of the company's road-going Roubaix model.
Up front, the matching carbon fork boasts an extra-wide stance and both the fork blades and seat stays are graced with gobs of mud clearance plus Specialized's unique Zertz elastomeric inserts to damp low-amplitude, high-frequency vibrations. Down below is Specialized's usual oversized integrated bottom bracket.
According to Wells, all of the various shaping isn't just for show, either, as he's quick to point out the notably smooth ride.
"The one thing I've noticed with the carbon is that it soaks up the bumps way more," he said. "I don't know if it's the way that fork is designed or the carbon frame but usually I get blisters at the beginning of the year like crazy on my hands and this year I've had no problem with my hands."
Wells' 58cm frame is bone stock but for a couple of subtle racer-only changes. In keeping with Specialized's versatile 'Freeroad' billing, consumer versions normally include water bottle mounts on both the seat tube and down tube plus fender mounts on the seat stays but both have been eliminated on his team-spec version.
Wells has had to make some adjustments for the non-custom geometry, though. Admitting that he could have fit either the 58cm or 60cm sizes, Wells says he ultimately went with the smaller of the two in order to get a lower bar height (the 60cm's head tube is 25mm longer) and indeed, there are just 10mm of spacers beneath his adjustable-angle stem, which is set to an aggressive -13 degrees. The smaller frame size also netted a top tube roughly 10mm shorter than before, too, but that was easily remedied with a longer 110mm stem and also brought with it the side benefit of faster handling on account of the correspondingly shorter wheelbase.
"I like the bike smaller for cyclo-cross," he said. "I feel like I can maneuver it better and jump on it easier so I went with a smaller frame and a longer stem."
The SRAM logo can be found on the shifter/brake levers and transmission and TRP supplies its popular EuroX Magnesium cantilevers but the Specialized moniker is again plastered on the ultralight S-Works carbon crankset, bar and stem, saddle and seatpost, and even the prototype tubular tires (Specialized currently only offers 'cross tires in clincher varieties).
The prototype tubulars are handmade by renowned tire maker FMB and feature an aggressive Specialized Captain tread hand-glued to a fat 34mm casing and further customized with shaved center knobs that he tediously cut himself. According to Wells, the combination gives him the best of both worlds: a fast roll with good drive and braking traction but also copious amounts of cornering grip. Not that the tires solely deserve the credit, but it's interesting to note nonetheless that he won both times that he's raced on them – at Jingle Cross Rock in Iowa and in Portland on Sunday.
"I like the file treads but I like the old [Dugast] Pipistrello ones that have the side knobs," he said. "Some guys don't mind the squishy feeling when you run really low pressure and then it doesn't matter so much what tread pattern you have because it's always flat on the ground but they're squirming around. I like to run a harder tire pressure [27psi front, 29psi rear] but when I do, in order to get the traction I need, I need the side knobs. I run these tires with the knobs clipped down when it's fast enough to run file treads but then it gives me some traction in the corners."
The Specialized name is even found on the carbon-specific brake pads, custom made for the company by SwissStop. Wells says they offer better initial bite than other pads he's used in the past, which better suits his size and weight, especially in wetter conditions.
"We switched the pads this pad weekend in Portland because they just weren't grabbing enough. Because I'm a pretty big guy, I feel like sometimes the carbon-specific pads don't give me the grab soon enough if it's cold out there or slippery with mud."
Sunday's race promises to be a technical rider's delight with its sinuous route along the banks of the Deschutes River and unpredictable snow-covered ground. Wells stops short of designating himself a favorite for the US title but admits that the course suits his strengths.
"I tend to like the types of courses like what we have here," he said. "It's pretty fast where you're not just slogging away but it's also very technical. You can't just stand up and sprint on it right now because it's very slippery and you have to keep your power efficient throughout the pedal stroke. Coming from a mountain bike background, technical stuff tends to suit me better than guys that don't race mountain bikes just because we deal with this stuff all the time."