by Todd Brown (Previously printed in Competitor Magazine)
After a 35-year span of racing and riding all sorts of two wheelers, I can definitely say that I still can’t get enough of the thrill I get every time I throw my leg over a seat. During the last 10 months , though, I have found a new passion on two wheels. This passion is based on a bike that is simple, light, and easy to maintain. It has one gear of choice, and that limited, narrowly-defined choice has remade the bike into a truly new passion for me.
What could be so engaging about a bicycle whose top claim is humility? And why would this old bike be the new favorite of a vast quiver? The answer lies in the gear choice – or lack of choice.
Because the bike has only one gear, I as a rider have to develop a wide array of different riding styles and techniques to accommodate changing terrain. These techniques are not limited to simply powering the bike because it also lacks rear suspension, so railing the trail has become much more than the point-and-plow used with today’s superior suspensions.
The single-speed bicycle has consumed my riding time because it has multiplied my riding styles. Today we hear so much about the magical car/bike/boat/ski/board with “Jekyll and Hide” characteristics that can do it all, and well. Refreshingly, my single-speed makes both Jekyll and Hyde out of me… now I’m the one who much do it all well.
Because the bike requires so much, my mind is completely free to explore the capabilities of my body and my body is free to explore the capabilities of the bike. Gone is that little voice that so often accompanies other less distracting workouts; there’s no time to chitchat with myself about the dilemmas of the day. I must focus, and the focus required is limitelessly liberating. It’s the same liberation I find when bombing across the desert floor on my 450, stepping off a cornice into free fall, or dropping in on a furious wave – and it can last for hours.
The nitty-gritty of riding a single-speed involves so much more of the human body than a traditional bike ride does.
On flat terrain, my leg speed is fast and the effort constantly refines my pedaling technique. A smooth pedal stroke vastly increases efficiency, so my legs learn to pedal in circles rather than just stabbing down.
As the trail tilts up a little, I settle in to the seated burn so common to riding bicycles. This seated power allows me to ride endlessly on my motor cycle and forever on my snowboard. With the lightness of an un-geared, un-sprung ride, I move along much faster than I would on a geared bike.
When the incline increases, I stand to stay on top of the gear. This next pitch, where I’m standing and my leg speed is still fairly fast, makes me feel like I might be actually be a Euro-Pro attacking the mountains for Europe. My upper body is engaged, my triceps and shoulders push the bike side to side, my head is high and my vision stretches far up the trail, all conspiring to get me on up and over. I feel fantastically fast.
The final climbing technique is the point when traction becomes an issue. I can no longer just pump hard; I must control the output or the rear tire will break loose and I’ll probably jam my knee into the top of the fork – it hurts, and bleeds, so I am definitely motivated to ply my skill. Still standing out of the saddle, I now pull on the bars rather than push. My torso is much more involved, working the core muscles. My biceps and lats combine to pull me on up. My cadence slows to 40, 30, maybe 20 rpm. I’m barely moving up very steep, dusty and loose trails. The total body strength needed is kept in check by the balance required to stay upright. My lungs fill and empty, sweat weeps from my brown and trickles down the lens of my glasses – it’s an all-out effort to keep from stopping, succumbing and waling. Honor and pride must be recruited to keep it all together.
Up these extreme pitches, my position vacillates between a squatted power lifter hunched over so close to the bars I could lick the sweat off my Garmin, and an erect deadlifter, with my arms exteneded and locked. I attribute these alternating techniques with keeping my back strong and trouble free.
At the apex, I relized the reward of a total-body workout that will transfer over to all the other activities I enjoy. Oh and of course, what goes up gets to come down.
Heading downhill, my legs speed up, spinning at rates only reached by track racers so fast they must unhitch and blow right through my hips. My butt remains glued to the saddle. Each ride I seem to get a little faster, a little silkier. Finally, I can no longer match the speed of my descent and my legs rest.
I’m heading down and I hear… nothing. No chain slapping because there is no slack in the chain, no derailleur clanking off the stays, and no long cables to accommodate suspension bouncing on the frame. Just silence, and the wind.
This is the bliss of a single-speed.