SingleSpeed :: Riding and Racing on One Gear

My interest in singlespeed mountain biking began a few years ago when I borrowed a Cannondale 1FG (yeah, 1 f*&%^*$ gear) for a ride. (A singlespeed mountain bike is just that: a mountain bike with one gear.) Instantly I was intrigued, hooked. There was something so cerebral about the experience which challenged not only my physical body, but my complete thought process on the bike. I no longer had the option to ride and choose a gear as the hills steepened or slackened. I no longer had the option to go big ring or stay in the middle and spin, or to choose a granny gear when my power ran out. The mountain didn’t care if my gear was too tall. It was all one. And I might have to walk.

Singlespeed riding is akin to ordering Prix Fixe- no substitutions. And while I prefer to have choices in life, there are times when too many choices degrade the experience of life. Are 32 flavors better than 31? Or how about this: tonight’s flavor is chocolate. Love it or leave it. Ride it or walk it.

Riding a singlespeed can be fun, but the walking of the singlespeed is trying. The act of walking a singlespeed takes me back to my early days of cycling, when the impossibility of pushing my weight up a hill was a way of life. The flashbacks alarm my fragile sense of self as I realize where I came from as a cyclist. It’s humbling to remember the days when I spent more time walking than riding up hills, and at once refreshing to see a transformation.

Earlier this year I began dabbling in singlespeed mountain bike racing, finally. I have been threatening to race my single for years. But the excuse train always pulls into the station– I’m not prepared, I’m not ready to race, there is something wrong with the HeadShok, the entry fee is too high, I don’t feel like it this week, my tires are bald, the bottom bracket is creaking, the chain is old and stretched, the race is too far from home, the prizes are lame/there is no cash prize. So it has taken me several years of excuse trains stopping at my station to toe the line with one gear.

There is little difference between riding and racing a singlespeed. The choices are few when it comes to speed– you’re either moving or you’re falling over. The terrain and your gear determine your speed for you. You may choose to pedal faster in a race, a plan that will surely backfire if you emerge from your Lactate Threshold in order to do so. Alas, you walk as your exploding legs scream and cry. Run? Doubtful. In a race you may push a little harder to limit time spent on your feet for the sake of a few seconds, but during a ride, you do that as well.

When riding a singlespeed, the descents are always a game of momentum. A slight tap of the brake can kill an entire run. Once momentum is lost it is near impossible to get it back without the help of a steepening downslope or a little uphill to allow you to pedal and gain speed. The idea of spinning and tucking– legs wildly spinning followed by a super aero tuck followed by more wild spinning followed by another tuck– doesn’t always work. In a race, you may be more willing to spin and tuck. It depends though, doesn’t it? If on a group ride and trying to keep up with gears, you do the same.

Take for example Rim Nordic ski area, where I “raced” last weekend. I use the term race with hesitation since I was the only femaleĀ  singlespeeder or Pro female at the race, however I did get to race with the Expert women who gave me a run for the money. And while it is impossible to compare a geared racer to a singlespeed, there is still fun to be had. A long stretch of the trail is a slight downhill of singletrack– too bumpy to pedal too much, and not enough speed for a tuck to even work. I sat upon my saddle helplessly wishing I could go faster. Yet the power of the mind is not strong enough to cause and increase in velocity. I hit the brakes in one of the corners on the first two laps which caused a sure demise. The third lap I knew better, and knowing the course, I didn’t let that blind corner stop me. Even so, I still had trouble keeping speed on such a flat section as this. A mistake on a singlespeed bike can cause a minute, rather than just seconds.

In the end, after spending 2 hours on a singlespeed, whether riding with friends or racing, the body is destroyed. Jello-legs, arms cramping, dehydration, a salt-lick for skin, mentally wasted. In the race, you may hallucinate more than a ride as you never stop to take a break. Perhaps a major difference between racing and a group ride.

The singlespeed throws your weaknesses in your face, and even if you close your eyes, there is no escape. You cannot hide on a singlespeed. You can’t slip into Granny Gear, you can’t power over the Big Ring, you just are. One gear. And if your legs are not strong enough to climb the hill, everyone sees. If you lose flow and rhythm on the singeltrack, you can’t pedal out of it. Everyone sees. And you see. You see your weaknesses. You face your fears. You have no choice, but one gear. And in the end, you realize your humanity, your mortality, your twisted pursuit of self knowledge, your weaknesses. Yet you ride on.

In the end it is all one gear.




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