Thursday, October 07, 2010

As if cycling wasn't hard enough

I was finally able to go for my first "run" since the Bear 100 — about an hour, mellow page, on smooth dirt singletrack. The plan was to test my right foot for impact pain, but I was too busy focused on complaints from other body parts to really make an honest assessment. Tired quads. Aching shoulders. Shredded abs and hip flexors. All common maladies of a brand new singlespeeder.

I can't say I completely understand the appeal yet, but I will say I have a whole new respect for singlespeed mountain biking. It demands nothing less than full attack mode on uphills and hip-flexor-tearing RPMs upon descent. More experienced singlespeeders tell me one-gear Zen requires patience more than power, but whenever I set my feet to my rapidly spinning platform pedals, all I can see is red. It doesn't help that the Karate Monkey is the only bike I've ridden this week, and some of those rides were really ambitious — climbing 5,000 vertical feet on Lolo mountain, for example. No wonder my abs hurt.

I decided to take a break from it all with a mellow road ride after work on my commuter, which is a fixed-gear bike. That bike's single gear is quite a bit taller than my mountain bike, but I've only ever ridden it on the meandering bike path into downtown, and a few roads here and there, and once on a gravel rail trail, so I never had any real comprehension of how my fixie could be more work to operate than any other bike I own. I spun easy toward Hellgate Canyon and started cranking harder as the grade turned slightly higher than flat. Missoula's endless availability of quality off-pavement riding has spoiled me to the point that I find riding with traffic to be completely intolerable, so I took the first opportunity I saw to turn off the main road — Marshall Canyon.

The road grade shot skyward and I stood in the saddle, pressing hard on my sore quads and straining my aching abs for the torque I needed to continue moving forward. It was hard singlespeed work again, but it felt really good, moving up a steady grade on a smooth surface. I worked harder. Sweat poured down my neck and drenched my jeans. When it came time to turn back, I took a break to catch my ragged breath and look with satisfaction far down the canyon and all the elevation I had gained. And then I started downhill.

At first, the road grade favored my desired speed, but the descent quickly took a turn for the steeper. The pedals churned faster and I touched the front brake ever so lightly, loathe to resist any free distance that gravity was perfectly willing to provide. The bike simply responded by charging faster, yanking my knees up and down with revelry as I strained my oh-so-sore quads against the pedals' care-free spin. I squeezed on the brake harder and braced my leg muscles more rigidly, but momentum was winning. My hip flexors responded angrily ... "We thought you were done with this nonsense." "It's not my fault," I muttered feebly. I fought an urge to take my feet off the pedals — fixie coasting — but resisted because I had no idea what lie around the next canyon bend and how fast I'd have to brake to avoid hitting it. So I just gripped the front brake, ducked in, and let the pedals rip my legs to little shreds all the way down to the relative peace of Hellgate Canyon.

I have GOT to get at least one of my geared bikes repaired.

On the bright side, I really think my foot is well on the mend. I am looking forward to running again, which will probably feel easy in comparison.


  1. I'd never take a fixie up in the mountains for just that reason. That descent sounds like hell, and descents are supposed to be all about the fun. Be careful that you don't blow out your knees...

  2. As a youth I spent thousands and thousands of hours on my single speed bikes. When I got my first geared bike, I thought I'd died and gone to heaven. Since then, I've never had any inclination to leave heaven! I don't understand the single-speed appeal anywhere, least of all in the mountains. But to each their own...

  3. Until I blew up my knees (arthritis in both of them-missing the ACL in one of them) a few years ago....I loved single speeding.

    It makes you way better on the bike.

  4. Jill-I stumbled over your blog the other day and am so glad I did. I can't stop reading! I'm originally from Connecticut, have lived in North Carolina for the past 3+ years and am thinking about making the move to Alaska (thus the discovery of your blog) in another year or two. I haven't been on a bike in years but reading about your experiences has totally gotten me thinking about wanting to hop back on one soon. And, of course, your amazing and fun tales in Alaska have only inspired me that much more to seriously consider moving North. :)

  5. How many of those gears do people actually use? I know when I do ride my geared mtn. bike (which occurred only 3-4 times this year) I only used about 4 gears. Seems like a lot of extra weight for no reason.

    SS riding does make you a better and stronger rider. The other benefit is far less maintenance and cleaning. Plus, I hate all those extra cables.

  6. I love single-speed bikes on flat trails like the Tammany Trace in Louisiana. But I admire those of you who can handle mountain bike terrain on a singlespeed. You are definitely a hearty breed.

  7. Do you mind if I live vicariously through your blog?

  8. Do you mind if I live vicariously through your blog?

  9. "Taking a break from it all with a mellow road ride" - on a fixed gear! Congratulations - you have just morphed your blog into a humor blog to rival Bike Snob! Sorry to laugh this hard at your pain (not really, but it sounds good), but thanks for the lift. Val

  10. I love my SS MTB and Road bike, but I won't do the fixie thing.
    I ride too many hills and downhill on a fixie just looks too darn painful!

  11. Let's be honest, if no one is watching and you just have a few hours to ride by yourself, which bike are you going to choose?

    I built up a fixie a few years back and it lasted 2 weeks. I converted it to a singlespeed since and that hasn't gotten much use either.

    Maybe I don't have enough "tude" or tats to hang with the fixie crowd and it is hard not to notice them scoff at my helmet and spandex every time I pass. Singlespeeders are only slightly less condescending. I just want one of them admit that it isn't about one gear, it's about image (gasp!).

    And here's another missle, steel sucks compared to carbon fiber (there I said it, let the arrows fly)

    Gears are a beautiful invention, let's all embrace them (even if 30 gears is 20 speeds too many).

    Jill, don't give into your subconcious need to belong to the single speed subculture! You are to self aware and honest part of you craves those gears. Lactic acid is way over rated.

  12. SS bikes and fixies make you neither better not stronger. At best, they won't ruin your knees.

    I realise that in today's fad-driven world, calling out fixies and the like as the useless throwback junkers that they are qualifies me as a dork; but I am a dork whose pain comes from being out of shape, not from the knees straining to handle immense forces on the climbs and crazy RPMs on the descents.

    If repairing your bikes is the only issue, contact me: fk -at- I can help. (Oh, and as far as I am concerned, slapping gearing onto a fixie or SS is also a repair.)

    Come back from the brink!

    Yours faithfully,


  13. I love Single speed mountain biking. I go slower on a geared bike and usually don't ride as long either

  14. I ride a single-speed/fixed gear (flip-flop hub) for commuting and shorter rides (less than 20 miles), and have played with it on the trails a bit. It makes me hyper-aware of my surroundings. Kind of like the way biking on a road instead of driving a car on the same road makes a person more aware of everything around. I love it. And I go back and forth between fixed and single-speed, depending on my mood. It's simple, very little maintenance, and I love the way it looks, so clean and sleek with no cables or gears. I also own a geared mtn bike and a nice road bike. I love all my bikes, but have to admit to a special fondness for my Bianchi Pista. I probably look like a dork no matter which bike I ride, so there is certainly no snobbery involved. Glad to see you are experiencing the full range of bicycling options, and that you enjoy them all, too. That's what it's all about.


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