Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Do You Single Speed?

So what is it that is intriguing about riding a single speed?  Is it the simplicity of having only one gear?  Is it the clean look with no derailleurs, shifters or cables?  Maybe it makes you feel nostalgic, bringing you back to the days of your youth or perhaps it is the lack of maintenance required.  Regardless of what drives someone to ride a single speed, we all see them out on the trails and most of us have praised a rider as we ourselves are gasping for air at the top of a tough climb, "Wow - that guy just cleaned that section on a single speed!  He's hardcore!" 

Improving Efficiency

As I am building up my first single speed mountain bike and getting in the mindset to pedal in just one gear for the first time since I was riding a BMX in 1992, I can't help but look for the benefits that riding a SS will provide me when racing my geared bike.  Single speeding forces you to work and improve on areas where you can 'cheat' with a geared bike and still remain competitive in a race. 

The first thing that comes to mind is the increased strength required to ride a single speed as you can no longer drop your gears and sit and spin up the hills.  You better get out of the saddle, mash your pedals and start tossing your bike side to side if you are dreaming of making those tough climbs.  I think I have that part down.  I prefer to stand up to climb and I typically try to push one gear under the tallest I can handle.

Another key to single speeding is carrying momentum.  The more you can maintain your momentum, the less you need to accelerate.  Less braking into the corners will reduce the amount of hard pedalling you need coming out of the corner to get back up to speed.  I have been working on this, but there is room for improvement.  For me, this comes down to trusting that my tires will hold.  I had my front tire wash out on me a few times last year trying to increase my speed this way.  I have since changed my front tire from a Kenda Karma 1.9 to a Maxxis Aspen 2.1.  With a little bit more bite on the side lugs the Aspens have helped me keep the rubber side down.

You also need to carry more momentum into hills otherwise you will burn yourself out on the climbs.  This means you will need to pedal hard into the hill as well as hard up the hill.  This is definitely something I don't do.  I generally try to recover going into the hill and then start hammering when I get to the base of the hill.  This worked well for me as I usually passed quite a few people (in my category) on the climbs around Edmonton, but I am certain carrying more momentum into the hills will only make me faster. 

The big change for me will getting out of my comfort cadence zone.  I typically ride with a cadence between 80 and 90 RPMs.  I have no problem dropping to 50 RPMs and powering up big hills, but where I fail miserably at is on the flats trying to pump out a cadence of 110+ RPMs.  My heart rate skyrockets and breathing gets out of tempo, which is a real bad combination.

Taking it To the Next Level

It's bad enough that people think that trail riding on a single speed is fun, but then there are those who take it to another level: racing.  That's right, people purposefully choose to handcuff themselves into one gear that is rarely going to be the most efficient ratio for the circumstance that they will be in.   Races can be short with XC races being 1.5 to 2 hours, or considerably longer with a marathon race such as the 24 hour solo events.

In case you don't think it's difficult, here is a graphic quote from a single speed racer:
Single speeding is the art of harnessing desperation. You are constantly backed into a gear ratio corner, down to your last match; wolves of anaerobic threshold, mockery by your peers, and personal defeat constantly circling. The gnawing oxygen debt, the vacuous gasps of one's lungs, the sudden deafening roar of gravity and the heaviness of everything without air. Breathe like your car has plunged into a lake and hopelessly sealed inside you gulp vast breaths, each fearing to be your last, that each might be the one breath you will have to bring you back to the surface.

You must learn to claw, eyes bulging, lungs aflame, raw metallic taste in the back of your throat to the top of climbs, and make all these things secret. The world at large must only see a crazy man, a mutant, a cyborg atop a bike with only one impossible gear. And they will stare and shake their heads and wonder how you got to the top first, never knowing, never understanding that it was the only way up, that you could not have made it any slower, that all the drive train handicaps they presume you to burden yourself with are the very advantages that have made you fast and hard as coffin nails.
Sounds like good times, sign me up!  Others who race single speed don't think it is quite that difficult.  For every one person who feels like racing a single speed is death on two wheels, you get other people like this:
I’m a fraud. I’ve been riding and racing a single speed mountain bike for many years and thinking I’m pretty cool. I’m not.

I’ll be the first to admit that I love passing someone on a geared bike and having them say, “Damn! Dude, that is hardcore.” It feels great. there is no denying it. Here’s the thing though, it’s not hardcore. I have suffered way more on a geared bike than I ever have on a single speed. Yep, it’s true, single speeding is easier than gears. You get more breaks and recovery time on a single.

It’s time to abolish the single speed category at all mountain bike races. I think you should race whatever category happens to be your ability but race it on your single speed. There doesn’t need to be a separate class for single speeders. It’s not a handicap nor a badge of honor. We need to get over ourselves. It’s fun and we know it's special but we don’t need our own class. That’s just dumb.
And this:
Pretty much every race I’ve ever raced, a spectator or fellow racer will comment on the fact that I’m on a single speed. I just kind of smile and cruise on by. It makes me feel cool and like a fraud all at the same time. The dirty little secret is that in a lot of situations it’s actually an advantage to be on a single speed.
Maybe it's not that hard?  Now I'm confused.  I plan to try my hand at racing my single speed in one of the local Tuesday races but I already think the first quote is more likely to be what I will be feeling rather than the latter two.

Races to Keep an Eye On

The upcoming season will bring the spotlight to single speed racing in my neck of the woods as Edmonton will be hosting the 2011 Canadian Single Speed Championships, which will be a part of the existing Edmonton Canada Cup on July 23, 2011.  The Edmonton Canada Cup is already a hugely successful event organized by Mike Sarnecki and Evan Sherman of Alberta MTB Racing and it attracts many of our country's best XC mountain bike racers.  The addition of the Canadian Single Speed Championships will only enhance the excitement on that day. 

The cream of the crop for those who race with only one gear is the Single Speed World Championships (SSWC.)  This is not a sanctioned event but there is a lot of pride in winning this race.  But this is more than just a race, it is an annual party on two wheels where shortcuts are available if you chug a beer and the winners are scarred for life, literally.  The winner is actually tattooed with SSWC, the year and a design chosen for that year.  This fits perfectly into a quote from The Replacements, "Don't do anything great if you can't handle the congratulations."  There are some familiar names sporting ink work due to winning this event, including Carl Decker, Adam Craig and Heather Irmiger.  Check out the results and highlights from the 2010 SSWC and you will see just how much fun the SSWC is.

1 comment:

  1. Really great & well balanced article Gord. I was on a ss mtb & cross bike all fall & most of the summer. I plan on often going back to ss for the benefits you stated above. Above all-it's FUN. Unfortunately it's NOT fun being dropped on a ride... because of being too slow on the flats which I've learnt is the lame part of SS.