Cole Paton had big goals for 2023. As one of the Giant-sponsored privateers focusing on the Life Time Grand Prix series of gravel and marathon XC races, he knew the competition would be tough. He was facing 30 top pro men in the running for the series, selected by race organizers and all chasing a $250,000 purse. To be among the top contenders, everything would have to be perfect, including Cole's bikes and gear.
The series is unique in that it includes wildly different styles of racing. With a mix of mountain bike races like the Sea Otter Classic in California and Leadville Trail 100 in Colorado, plus grueling gravel races like Unbound in Kansas and Big Sugar in Arkansas, it takes competitors all across the U.S. From singletrack trails at 12,000 feet of altitude to gravel roads in Midwest farmlands, it tests riders and their gear in myriad ways.
Throughout the season, Cole raced and trained on three different Giant bikes. With four of seven Life Time GP events being gravel races, he spent the most time on his Revolt Advanced Pro, a lightweight composite machine with a D-Fuse seatpost for smooth compliance and a flip chip on the rear dropout to adjust the wheelbase and tire clearance to match the terrain.
For XC marathon races, Cole relied on his XtC Advanced SL 29, the lightest hardtail frame produced by Giant for a combination of off-road control and efficiency. He also spent plenty of time on his Anthem Advanced Pro 29, which pairs a lightweight composite frame with FlexPoint Pro rear suspension for more technical terrain. That's the bike Cole used to win the USA Cycling MTB Marathon National Championship—not part of the Life Time series, but one of his main goals this year.
“This year I rode about 5,000 miles on my Revolt, 3,000 on my XtC and 3,000 on my Anthem,” Cole said. “With the structure of the Grand Prix being four gravel and three mountain bike races, I would switch bikes for training blocks throughout the year. I like to do my preparation before an event on the bike I’ll be racing, especially because my riding positions are different between my gravel and mountain bikes.”
Cole got off to a strong start in the series when he finished on the podium at the Sea Otter Classic in April. “The XtC was an absolute rocket on the hilly, fast trails,” he said after his third-place in that 70-mile XC race. “It’s insanely light for the climbs and super stiff and nimble to pump over all the high-speed water bars.”
The low point of the year came at the second race of the Life Time series, the famed Unbound gravel race in Kansas. “I came into that race overtrained and consequently picked up a virus,” he said. “With it being so early in the series, I had to salvage the best possible result to remain competitive in the overall. In hindsight I should’ve let my body rest, because racing 200 miles with an illness was torturous.”
Cole was able to recover and bounce back at the next round, the Crusher in the Tushar gravel race in Utah, where he scored his second podium, this time on his Revolt Advanced Pro. From that point forward, he was back on track.
The entire season was a learning experience when it came to training and preparation. “To be competitive in these longer events, my training volume has increased substantially,” Cole said. “This year, I’ve leaned into developing my mental strength. I work closely with a mental performance coach and have felt tremendous growth in my mindset as an athlete and individual.”
While the training is often very structured, Cole says he also makes time to put in the types of rides he loves. “For my soul rides, I love taking my Anthem deep into the woods,” he said. “Some of my favorite rides this year were in Girona, Spain; Downieville, California; Leavenworth, Washington; Durango, Colorado; and Bentonville, Arkansas.”
One of the high points of the series was a top-five finish at the legendary Leadville 100 on his XtC Advanced SL 29. But Cole's proudest moment came at the final event in Arkansas, the Big Sugar gravel race. “Although it wasn’t my best result of the year, Big Sugar was the highlight of my season,” he said. “I had a unique bike setup and it allowed me to race aggressively and animate the race from the start.”
That performance at Big Sugar, where Cole finished fifth to secure his third place overall in the series, showed what a major factor the bike and gear can be on race day.
“The setup on my Revolt at Big Sugar changed the game,” Cole said. “The sharp rocks there are notorious for shredding gravel tires and blowing the race apart. The Revolt has a flip-chip that extends the wheelbase for more stability and also provides more tire clearance. This allowed me to fit larger tires and I opted for wide, high-volume tires with increased sidewall protection.”
That decision paid off, and Cole said it did not go unnoticed by his competitors.
“Not only was I able to go faster through all the chunky sections, I was able to ride different lines and roll over the rocks with ease, recovering more frequently,” he said. “It allowed me to carry momentum where others couldn’t and control and animate the race. The Revolt is one of the very few gravel frames that can clear tires this size and it played a huge role in my performance. It felt like an important performance because my bike setup clearly had an advantage and will more than likely change the way people set up their gravel bikes in the future.”
With the 2023 season wrapped, Cole is now taking a break before the serious training for next year begins. The 2024 Life Time Grand Prix kicks off with the Sea Otter Classic next April, and there will plenty more bike and gear choices and developments before that first start gun goes off.