It’s quite possible that I have too much time on my hands, or maybe too many bikes? It doesn’t seem like either of these things is true, yet I seem to have hit upon a project that a lot of people find to be weird. Like most of my projects, I can’t remember why I thought of it or what on earth I was thinking when I decided to undertake said project. Actually I could probably suss out via rambling on about what gave me the idea for this project but you will be bored off your tits if I do that. Basically I decided to take my spare bike, my Titus Racer X full suspension mountain bike, and turn it into a single speed.
I was very enamored with this idea. I mean, I have three geared mountain bikes and a goofy monstrosity called a “road bike”. Why would I need four geared bikes? I don’t like the drive train on one of my mountain bikes so I figured I’d use the Titus drivetrain on my newer bike. Then I realized I could just make my Titus a single speed if I took the components off. Okay, so I just told you the reasons for my project just like I said I wouldn’t. Sorry about that, but it took less time than I expected.Anyway, so I was all jazzed about this project, and I brought it up at dinner at my friend Ted’s house. Now, Ted and his wife Moira had some other friends over, and in their defense they had never met me before, so when I brought up this project and one of the friends shook his head sadly and said “that will never work, you won’t like it,” he didn’t quite realize what a gauntlet he’d just thrown down. Ted tried to back him up but while I know that while Ted is mostly right, Ted is not ALWAYS right, so I have not given up my dream.
The guys told me that the full suspension single speed wouldn’t work because of a few reasons: the chain would break when my suspension moved, the pedal bob would eat up all my power – and that’s pretty much it. Well, I didn’t really understand the problems. What causes a chain to not break under torque on a geared bike? Answer: chain tensioner – and you can use your deraileur for that. OK, so what’s the big difference between standing up to crank in a highish gear on a full suspension bike and standing up to crank on a hardtail singlespeed bike? Answer: “You won’t like it and then you’ll blame it on the single speed.” The guys told me that the reasons for doing single speed in the first place would be rendered moot by the presence of a rear suspension.
That’s not really a good enough answer for me. Fault my Alaskan upbringing, but I’m not used to having my dreams dashed by other people. In Alaska, if you have a stupid or crazy idea, people will probably listen with enthusiasm, and possibly even come with with ways to make it even more crazy or stupid. They will usually not tell you “that won’t work, so don’t bother.” They’ll at least wish you luck and then tell other people at the bar about this crazy plan they heard. Chances are then someone else will decide to do it too, and then you’re in a race to see who will do it first. When you embark up on a truly amazing mountain bike trip, you know that immediately afterwards, someone else is going to try to do it too. It’s annoying in a way, but it’s also nice to not have your slightly-out-of-the-box idea trashed immediately by everyone around you. On the other hand, when you do succeed with your nutcase ideas, no one is particularly impressed about it because they heard an even crazier plan last night at the bar.
Basically I believe that one person’s reasons for riding a single speed do not have to match up with another person’s reasons for riding a single speed. I want to prove Ted wrong but I really don’t like wasting my time working on bikes, so I decided to embark on the Pseudo Single Speed project to find out the real answers to the two questions above and to also do some progressive training for my burgeoning single speed career. So I took one of my geared bikes and I picked a gear that I seemed to like, and I would not let myself shift out of that gear for the duration of my 7 mile neighborhood mountain bike singletrack loop which includes a lot of climbing. I wanted to find out what it would be like to ride a full suspension single speed bike.
My first ride was a little bit aneurysm-enducing. I’m not in possession of a lot of mountain bike “skills” per se, I just have a lot of time on the bike and that’s been spent utilizing the hell out of my grandpa gear when needed. So the new world order of standing up and mashing was really difficult for me. It’s definitely a technique all its own and until you learn how to do it right, you waste a lot of energy flailing around, throwing yourself all over your bike. I had to stop a bunch of times and gasp for breath on hills that I usually just spin right up. But I wouldn’t let myself slack; if I had to stop on a climb then I went back to a flattish spot, caught my breath, and tried again until I could climb the hill in the one gear. I never shifted my bike, not one time. And as it turned out, I never had to try a hill more than twice in order to get up the climbs.
I didn’t have any big problems with the suspension on the climbs. This isn’t a review or anything, but I ride Ellsworth bikes and they seem to do really well on climbs, without a lot of the bobbing issues I keep reading about in regards to full-squishy bikes. So either Ellsworth has it dialed, or…or…the masses of internet addicts who go on and on about mountain biking on all those daft forums are just completely full of shit. Meh, maybe it’s both.
Anyway, I was greatly encouraged by that first ride. I was also surprised and stoked by the quad fatigue, which I haven’t had from biking in YEARS. I decided to continue my experiment by leaving that bike in the same gear for the next day and trying to ride the loop again without shifting. As soon as I could ride the entire loop without resting, I’d shift up to the next higher gear and start it all over again. Progressive strength training, yo. It’s my own special singlespeed training program. I figure when I finally do get a real single speed, it will be so much lighter than my geared pseudo single-speed that I’ll have an inherent edge built right in. Oh, but then I’ll have to learn to ride a hardtail and knowing my friends Ted and Travis I will then have to learn to ride a 69er so…er…first things first.Today I set out to ride the loop in all my geared single speed glory. When I hopped on my bike and rode across the flats, I accidentally and reflexively shifted because the gear was just too easy. Whoops! I shifted back and just dealt with the spinning and coasting. When it came to the climbing, I’m not sure what it was, but it was way easier already, not even a few days after starting my experiment. I was able to climb much farther without resting. Either I’m getting stronger quickly or I’m getting the technique down; probably a bit of each. In any case it was a lot of fun to have to think about how to work the trail without having to think about how to shift and when. It was still pretty hard and I still did do some gasping and my legs burned in a quite new and painful way, but I had tons of fun. I even added some trail to the loop (although I studiously and purposefully skipped part of the extended loop that I knew would be way too hard). I think that I will be ready for a new and harder gear in the next few rides.
I did have some trouble on my extended loop with a very steep section (ergh…had to walk, but it was only 10 meters) and was brought to a standstill on a climb by an obstacle the likes of which I’d ordinarily just roll over (how DO you get the front end over a ledge when you’re standing up with all your weight on the handlebars to keep from popping the front wheel off the ground?) but given the fast learning curve, I’m sure I’ll have those skills figured out soon. In the meantime, those little problem areas are only on the “extended” part of my PSS training loop so I’m under no obligation to do them perfectly just yet. And Ted – we’re building the FS single speed, OH YES WE ARE.
I’m really stoked about my project and I think it’s really fun. It gives me a new way to think about riding the bike and is forcing me to develop a new set of skills (and muscles). Because I am a little bit subversive, I also like doing things that are generally thought of as not “right” by the bike industry. One of my beefs with cycling is that it’s so conformist; you have to ride this way and dress that way and carry things this way and not do this and not do that and make sure to do this and never do that other thing. That never really works for me so I don’t mind doing something a little bit out of the norm. In Durango there are a hell of a lot of people who really know what they are doing on a mountain bike so I feel quite self conscious in a way I’ve not really experienced before. Knowing my social circle here, every new person I meet is some sort of world champion of something involving a bicycle so it’s quite likely they know far better than I, but you know what? Sometimes “better” might not be “right.” Or rather, it’s both “better” and “right” but just not “what I’m going to do at this point.”And that is my lesson for you for today, and it’s not restricted to cycling. The outdoor industry as a whole – and by that I mean EVERYONE; the teachers, the NOLS people, the manufacturers, the professionals (maybe not? they seem so reasonable), yes, even the bloggers – sometimes get a little too hung up in opinion and aren’t being clear about what is a “must do” for safety and what is a “generally better to do” for silly little things like efficiency and fashion. Sometimes, it’s fun to just do. And that’s what’s great about the backcountry; you can do it just the way you like it and no one can tell you otherwise. If you don’t like that other people are there, doing things differently from you, then don’t go out there. Or, just laugh at them openly, like the freeride crowd did to me last year at Crankworx when I showed up in my spandex shorts and X-C type bike; either way. I’ve found that being different sometimes makes you stand out just enough that you meet fun new people and have a blast. Other times it leads to open ridicule from that day’s woman’s downhill champion, but you can’t win ’em all.
As of right now I have a great excuse to go mountain biking (gotta work on that project!) and a perfect reason to hang out at my friend Ted’s house, drink beer, and work on bikes. I say that is a win all the way around.
Bonus content: Annoying and pointless hand held POV camera of me following Geardog home on the flats. It looks like I fall down halfway through but that’s just me flipping the camera upside down because I suck at taking pictures AND video. Go figure! Not responsible for any nausea caused by viewing the following content.