Single Speed 101. Also known as “My Lessons on a Single Speed”.
Team Colin got schooled at last weekend’s Homage To Ice, the first of four in Dan Marshall’s Substance Projects XC Marathon. It’s my fourth year racing, and it was my fourth time doing the H2i, so I knew exactly what to expect.
No I didn’t. I didn’t have a clue. Aside from the fact that the course, trail conditions, and weather have been entirely different each time, this year I tried something new. I raced a single speed. To be more precise, I raced a single speed with a rigid fork.
I placed last in the single speed category (7/7), and 74/100 overall.
It was, by far, my worst actual race placing ever.
And despite this, the 2016 H2i was also, by far, my best ever actual performance ever. Ever.
Really, I didn’t even choose to ride a single speed. I didn’t even consciously choose to buy a single speed in the first place. I just did. As with most other things riding, it just happened organically.
Rewind to last year, when the universe conspired to put me on a bike with no gears. First, my riding buddy rides a single speed and always says they make better riders. It’s easy for him to say, he’s already a better rider. Second, two close friends of mine are avid single speed riders, and raced single speed exclusively for years. They love single speed bikes. By the way, they’re also better riders. Finally, in the late fall, I took my family to the York Region Take Your Family Mountain Biking Day. We won a $20 gift card for Spoke O Motion, so I thought I’d visit the shop on my way home, to support them. A Cannondale Trail SL was sitting on the rack outside the front of the shop. It was calling to me. Beckoning to me. Screaming to me. Also, it was half price ($699). A few days later, after conferring with the guys at my local bike shop, I bought it. Then it sat in my garage for two months because I was scared to ride it. True story. I bought a bike that I was terrified to ride. No gears? What the hell kind of torture is that. In late November, I met my friend, John, in Durham Forest for what we thought would be our last ride of the season. After packing my usual bike and gear, I put my single speed in the back of my van. Just in case. We rode for a few hours on our bikes with gears. You know, because gears make riding easier. Then, when we were cooling off, I said “Hey John, Do you think we should do a quick lap on my new single speed?” John never says no to a ride. So we did a quick lap on my new single speed.
It. Was. Awesome.
The weather held out for a few more weeks, and I had my new single speed out on the trails three more times before the snow fell. Each time, I loved it more. I didn’t love it enough to race, and it wasn’t like riding my Revolver–which is like poetry–but it brought a new dimension to the sport for me. Cool.
Fast forward to last Thursday. The H2i was sandwiched between the Steaming Nostril and Paris to Ancaster. Both of them are sort-of CX races, so I put thin CX tires on my Revolver (a 29er with gears). I could have changed back to my MTB tires for the H2i, but the CX tires were so hard to get on the first time…
And that was it. My Revolver was out of commission, so I got my single speed ready to race. My coach didn’t tell me to do it—mostly because I don’t have a coach, my friends didn’t tell me to do it—mostly because they’ve seen me ride, and my shop didn’t tell me to do it—mostly because they’ve also seen me ride. I was nervous, I was terrified, but I figured I was ready for a new challenge. Single Speed School was in session, and I was about to get a crash course.
Race Report: Homage 2 Ice (April 16, 2016)
Two 15k (or so) laps for a total of 30k (or so) of sweet single track that was mostly quick, sometimes spongy, a little icy, and always awesome.
But no gears? Or suspension! (NOTE: For $699, even when the bike is half price, you don’t get front suspension.)
The race started with lots of spinning on double track, and I was kind of annoyed. Everybody just took off, and I was left behind, spinning like I was in the wrong gear. But then we got into the single track. Boom. It took about 30 seconds before it hit me in the face: Single speed bikes are wickedly cool. With no gears to think about, and no shifting to fiddle with, I felt connected to the trail. Connected to the ride. Moreover, without a suspension fork, every bump was mine—but in a good way. I felt like I was a kid again, bombing through trails on my old BMX. I never chose the wrong gear. I never lost a pedal stroke while shifting. I didn’t bounce around. I just rode. And that’s what it’s all about: The ride. Let me circle back for a sec. Actually, I bounced around. A lot. Without suspension, my deltoids (I think that’s what they’re called) were flapping so much, I thought I was going to take flight, but I was bouncing along WITH my bike. I honestly felt like I was one with my bike. Super cool.
Two laps: the same bloody giant hill twice; the same log overs; the same twists and turns; and the same connection to the trail. It was a game changer. I was schooled in the art of single speeds, and by the end of the race, I graduated to the league of riders who don’t need gears. And even though I finished last, I finished with a smile, and hard earned aches and pains. But none of it mattered because I knew I gave it all I could, and left nothing on the trail. It was all me and my bike. It’s never been about placing–only about riding. And I rode the H2i as hard as I could.
I don’t know whether I’ll race my single speed again, but I know that if I want to, I CAN. And that’s one sweet lesson.
As an added bonus to the day, two of my friends from Joyride150 raced. Trish and Erin embodied the spirit of Dan Marshall’s races, and the cool atmosphere got that much cooler with their presence. I even guilted my bike shop manager, Matt from Cycle Solutions, to race. Sweet.