With each revolution, the lactic acid increased exponentially. Joints compress against cartilage from even the slightest pebble impact – need to choose lines a little more carefully. Sweat beads erupting faster than I can wipe them away, and my lungs found new limits of expansion. And I passed somebody. Then I passed another somebody – both with more gears than one probably needs to negotiate our trail.
On climbs, I almost NEVER pass anyone. As much as I dig my love/hate relationship with climbing, I suck at it, and my smokers lungs don’t make it any easier. But today was different, as it was my virgin single speed trail ride.
I do own a fixie, and commute on it, and have commuted on a different singlespeed mountain back when I lived in Columbus. But I never really took the chance to ride one off road before. Today was an experience, for sure. And it was only a short ride home from work via an inconvenient detour to Horse Gulch.
For those who are already hip to this facet of cycling, you probably don’t have a reason to read on. For those who still get by with all their gears, read on, I’m preaching to you.
I’ve heard/read all the comments and opinions about the singlespeed; zen like riding experience (much like a fixie), simplicity, nostalgia, and on and on. I guess it’s all of these things, and none of them. All I can say is it’s different. As I was being bounced around the trail, I had visions of my first mountain bike, an entry level Alpine Stars, purchased at Cosmic Cycles in Flagstaff. Rigid steel, rigid straight forks, and lots of gears. I remember bombing trails along side the Grand Canyon (illegal now, probably illegal then too) at eye watering velocities. What I don’t remember is how damn bumpy and rough it was. I don’t remember being kicked around by every little rock and bump, I don’t specifically remember the direct connect feel to the ground, and I don’t remember my hands going numb from white knuckling downhill sections.
I don’t remember missing full suspension either – as the height of technology at the time was the unicrown Scott forks, almost no rake, and filled with bouncy springs.
As I started up the trail today, I didn’t really know what to expect – and what I experienced was nothing I could have expected. My gearing is pretty easy, at 32-18, and the upwards path was still pretty difficult. At first, I started climbing in a seated position, but after about 300 yards, I had to stand if for no other reason than for leverage. Momentum is a huge thing with singlespeeds. Difficult as it was, I was taking the trail faster than I do with my geared bike. Then I passed the first geared rider (in their granny gear) – and sort of experienced a shot of adrenaline, and went a little faster. This is when I noticed that you really have to pay a lot more attention to the trail on a fully rigid set up. Don’t matter if your tire pressure is on the lower side (it does help though) – every little nuance of erosion in transmitted through the tires, frame, bars, seat, directly to your person. At first, it was almost taxing trying to pay so much attention to were I was going, and prior to this ride, I was pretty confident in my ability to “read” a trail. Just last week I was really starting to feel “one” with the full suspension bike, trails were flowing by very fast, and hitting a speedy flow through the trails was becoming a second nature thing that required little concentration.
Not so with the singlespeed. I felt totally green, like a newbie. The cockpit on my bike is on the short side, and my stem is deliberately shorter than normal because I don’t like hanging my weight over the front axle, for some reason it bothers me, probably a bmx thing. When I made a slight steering error, the feedback is almost faster than instantaneous, the domino effect sets in and you end up fighting just to get back on the trail. I’m riding 2.3 tires, at the lower end of recommended pressure, and the bumps were still incredibly jarring, literally bouncing me from my pedals several times (I installed my clipless pedals when I got home!). The back end does not hug the trail at all either, although it does follow the path of the front wheel a little more accurately.
Power transfer is amazing. Each crank, you can feel your power transferred directly into forward/upward momentum. And, if you can manage to keep your momentum, you end up riding a little faster than what you’re probably used to. And again, this makes choosing/seeing lines all that much important.
I noticed on turns, at least at higher speeds, the front end was a little loose, tended to under steer and felt as though it wanted to wash out. I’m sure some of this has to do with the short stem and the resulting weight distribution, and also the fact that I was still trying to ride like was on a full bouncer. After a spell, I got used to it, and was able to tame my attack accordingly.
Steep, technical uphills are a little more do or die, once you lose momentum, you either have to employ cat like reflexes, the balance of said cat plus use the experience of a seasoned trials rider, or you fall over. Did I mention how important choosing lines is?
Coming down technical stuff, again I had to tame my attack, but I found I took different – but equally as challenging lines as I do on the full bouncer. Even though I took these sections a bit slower, I felt I was riding a more surgically precise and cleaner path. Like going from trying to cut a tough steak with butter knife, and then switching to a freshly sharpened Ginsu.
Braking is also very dissimilar on a rigid bike. I’m running regular rim brakes on the rear, and big disc in the front, but even brake forces are more… solid. Direct. Wheels seem to lock up quite a bit easier, and I found myself skidding a lot more than usual.
During a particularly swoopy section of trail, I encountered a near miss with an oncoming rider – it was a flat section, so the uphill/downhill unwritten code of the trail didn’t really apply to either of us. He skidded to a stop, and steered just a bit out of my way. I chose not to brake, and swooped up the right side of the banked trail, sort of like a mini wall ride, and didn’t even come close to him. He probably didn’t even have to stop. Were I on the full suspension, I’m not sure I could have reacted with such a quick response and tight line. It was pretty keen.
I could go on for quite a while comparing the differences, and won’t summarize the single speed experience as better, more hardcore (it is though, really!), harder, or whatever. It’s just different. It’s a whole ‘nother way to experience mountain biking. For me, it was entirely positive. It was also entirely difficult – I learned today how much I’ve come to take my fully suspended rig for granted. And maybe I appreciate it a little more. I can see a single speed really improving any riders basic skill set. I gained a little more educated respect for those that ride one exclusively. I also gained a little respect for my past self, who in the early 90’s took all the qualities of a rigid bike for granted – even it was the only set up available at the time.
And, I realize, this probably is not for everybody. It is punishing – both in a cardiovascular sense and pure power out put, at least at first – while one figures how out to smooth out their ride. But I can see how people with knee or back issues would find this a bit harsh. I might just end up being one of these people eventually, who knows. For the first time also, I see 29’ers in a new light. Until today, I sort of figured them just a fad in the evolution of mountain biking, and maybe for larger riders they make sense. But, as far as a single speed goes, I can totally relate now, how the larger wheels would really improve the experience.
And suspension forks would really smooth things out a bit, too. But, I’m thumbing my nose at them – at least for now. I don’t pretend to be a changed rider now, and won’t swear off my full bounce rig. For now, the singlespeed is great diversion, and a chance to explore my own abilities – as well as hone some skills that I thought were pretty well tuned. I can’t say a singlespeed will change your life, it’s not a bike epiphany or anything. But it is different. And if you know anybody that has one – I would say you owe it to yourself to give it a try. Not just a spin around the block, but take it to your favorite trail and give it a spin for a few hours. If nothing else, it will make you appreciate the technological level that mountain bikes have reached today.
I plan to spend the next several weeks solely on this rig, and will probably strip down the Diamondback and give a fresh coat of paint and new stickers. There’s no doubt that I’ll still ride it, as there’s places and line I can take with it that are inappropriate for the rigid bike. But with the singlespeed, I don’t only feel like I have new bike, but a whole new riding experience to explore. Try it, you might like it…
~Thanks for looking~