Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Singlespeed Zen

I took this photo of the San Francisco skyline from a ferry on Monday afternoon. I went to the city to meet my college friend Anna and her 3-year-old daughter, who were visiting from Utah, and this is what they wanted to do — "boat ride." It's humorous how stressed out I become about these sorts of activities. Anything involving large crowds, confinement and schedules causes anxiety. (I've long believed my own private Hell would be a lot like a Vegas-themed cruise ship. Or the Badwater Ultramarathon.) But I rallied, and it was great to see Anna again. Visits from long-time friends is one of the benefits of living near a big city. And a beautiful city at that. I'll probably never be a city person (see causes of anxiety above) but San Francisco would have to rank as my favorite urban area. Seattle and Vancouver B.C. are up there as well.

Today I went mountain biking with my singlespeed. It wasn't a structured ride, nor did I attach any agenda to it. I was just going to ride and see how I felt. I should know myself better than this by now — that if I set out for an open-ended ride it is probably going to turn into a long ride. I actually had a long list of things I was going to do today, but ...

I have a dynamic relationship with the Karate Monkey; one might call it a love-fear relationship. I love this bike because of our history, because of its blingy new parts, and because, for reasons that are mostly unknown to me, I really am a better rider on this bike. (My theories attribute the 29" wheels and the long history that increases comfort levels.) I fear it because it weighs more than a modern snow bike, retains a few old parts that have more miles on them than the average Prius, and has this frustrating singlespeed tendency to turn difficult climbs into pure pain.

And yet, there is something about this pain that is so, well, purifying. I began the ride with a ten-mile climb on pavement and gravel. I pounded up the first several steep sections until hot blood was coursing through my entire body. My legs begged for rest but the singlespeed would have none of that whining; the grade steeped and I had no choice but to respond with even more intensity. At the crux of the climb, about halfway up the mountain, I could only manage a rotation every two seconds or so. I was out of the saddle and hunched over the top tube in perfect L form, death-gripping the handlebars, gasping and sweating and probably even drooling. A roadie pedaled beside me several seconds later, took one look at my twisted face and sped up. I showed him, though, as I ended up shadowing him about 200 feet back for the entire rest of the pavement climb. I didn't chase the roadie on purpose; I was already cranking my slowest possible speed. The only way to achieve a lower gear was walking.

Similar to my run two days ago, I arrived at the top of Black Mountain feeling physically spent. But as I launched into the singletrack, a strange sort of relief washed over me. My mind went blank, my fatigue subsided, and I simply flowed with the trail. I can understand why Beat enjoys singlespeed riding so much, and also why I both love and fear it — singlespeed mountain biking is similar to running. By removing the mechanical advantage of shifting, I find myself using my body more dynamically to respond to the terrain. Huge bursts of power on climbs give way to high-cadence "speed" movements on flatter ground, which give way to gravity relief on descents (however, singlespeed bikes actually coast, as opposed to runner coasting, which runners seem to enjoy but I haven't found it to be much like coasting at all.)

I became caught up in the moment, almost mindlessly moving with the landscape. When I came to the end of one trail, I crossed the road and linked into another, which then linked into another, and before I even realized it several hours had passed and I had connected a surprisingly large loop around Skyline ridge, almost entirely on trails. And if I hadn't run out of daylight, which is what finally chased me home, I could have expanded even farther. I ended with 37 miles and 5,286 feet of climbing. Just a short ride. Oops. (Map here)

But I have a feeling the Karate Monkey will be receiving much more love in the near future.