Single-Speeding On a Trail Near You

There's a new steed in the stable. It arrived two weeks ago and although I really never thought I'd want a single-speed, that's precisely what it is. It's a purple Kona Unit 2-9 with a RockShox Reba 80mm front fork and Avid mechanical disk brakes. I won an auction for this brand new bike on Ebay for a price of $813. It retails for $990 at the local shop, and that is with a rigid steel fork and not the suspension fork mine came with. The fork is a good $400 upgrade and is just a slightly inferior model of the one I have on my Mooto-X YBB. Yeah, I got a good deal.

The bike arrived just a few hours before one of my weekly Thursday night training rides and when I pulled it out of the box, my first thought was "Where's the rest of the cockpit?". Oh yeah, no shifters. &#$@! While I stumbled a bit with putting it together, my friend Doug Carrol was willing to torque everything properly and even swapped out the 18-tooth freewheel the bike came with and leant me one of his spare 20-tooth freewheels and a larger chain (far too hilly around here for a beginning single-speeder like me to ride a 32-18 setup on a 29er).

So how was it, you ask?

Painful. But fun.

The ride begins with a 3.5 mile jaunt down the flat, paved Sammamish River Trail in Redmond and my thighs were burning from trying to keep up with everyone. Normally I'm in the big chainring and pushing a pretty tall gear at 22mph or so down this stretch. Not this time! I was spinning my legs like a crack-addled gerbil in a wheel and barely keeping up. It was like those damn Spinervals videos all over again, except even faster. I never thought a flat, paved trail could bring the pain, but oh yes it can!

We eventually got onto the switchbacking climb up the Powerline Trail, my first big test on a single-speed. I climbed the switchbacks alongside single-speeding veteran Kevin "hophead" Axt without having to get off and walk. But doing so left me pretty fried for the upper portion of the climb and I was thankful for the long wait at the stoplight. I drifted off the back of the pack on the Powerline Trail to allow my legs to relax, but Kevin waited to give me some pointers for making the transition a bit more comfortable. For starters, I was wrenching my back pretty hard with each pedal stroke. As soon as he pointed this out and advised a straighter back, I began to feel better. He also recommended staying seated for as long as possible before having to get out of the saddle. I have to work on this some more.

The rest of the loop went well. I had to get off and push up a portion of horse-pasture hill, which I fully expected. But this brief buzz-kill was quickly replaced with glee. Carelessly rolling along through the Redmond Watershed at night, alone, on my new single-speed made me feel like a kid again. While I don't ever have to "think" about my gear choice on my other bikes, I must admit that there was an innocence and a very enjoyable simplicity of riding the single-speed. It also thrilled me to be back on a hardtail. I love the 1" of cushion on my Moots -- don't get me wrong -- but this felt like going home again. I still think riders who entered the sport on a full-suspension bike are really missing out. I don't know how I went the past couple years without a hardtail in the quiver.

Anyway, the final climb up last-lonely-hill was painful, as I knew it would be, but I surprised myself and pedaled it all. And although it wasn't anywhere near as fast as my lap times from mid-summer when I was in great shape, I rolled back into the Redhook Brewery parking lot 2 hours after setting out on my first single-speed ride: a 20-mile loop with 1780 feet of climbing. And the porter flowed freely...

That was my Thursday ride. I'm also once-again meeting up with the "Tuesday at Tolt" group pretty regularly too. Erik has done a great job in leading that ride over the years and has gotten it to a point where the ride moves along at a nice, steady pace with few stops. It used to be pretty commonplace for my heart-rate to drop below 70bpm at least a dozen times during that ride because of all the standing around and waiting, but not anymore. Hell, if anything, my recent vacation from all-things-bicycle has left me being the one looking forward to the occasional rest.

Anyway, thanks to me forgetting to set my office clock back, I left for last Tuesday's ride an hour early. And rather than turn around and go home, I decided to stop at the Snoqualmie Brewery for a couple of beers. After all, the first tip Mr. Hophead gave me when I showed him the single-speed was that I had to now become an "abject alcoholic" to complete the single-speeder transformation. That's not in the cards, but I thought he'd be proud to know I was going to indulge, if only a bit, before the ride. After all, he is the one who towed a trailer full of margaritas onto the trail one night. I was going to stick to the Nitro Pale Ale, but their Brewer's Special was an Imperial Stout they made for Halloween. It boasted a 9.69% alcohol content and only came in schooner-size glasses, which is a good thing because a full pint would have left me in no shape to ride my bike nor drive to the trailhead.

As for the ride at Tolt, it went well. The climb up It's-a-Bitch lived up to its name and I did have to walk a small section in the beginning where it is steepest, but the single-speed seemed perfect for the trails on top of the plateau. In fact, I can't imagine ever riding another bike there again. It was the perfect gearing for a perfect network of rolling moderately-technical trails.

If you're wondering why I would buy this bike after raving all year about having bought my Moots, the reason is simple. It's because of the Moots that I bought the Kona. Winter conditions in the Pacific Northwest are wet, slippery, and sloppy and both Kristin and I thought it made more sense to put me on a much cheaper bike -- a single-speed no less -- than risk ruining the expensive drivetrain on my other bike. The bike repairs to my Giant NRS C2 last winter were not cheap, I can assure you. And as it turned out, on that first foray at Tolt, I caught a very long 1" thick stick that went straight through the chain and freewheel and into the wheel of the bike. It pulled the chain off the cog and, according to the guy behind me, there was no way I wouldn't have lost a rear derailleur had I have been riding my other bike. So already riding a single-speed saved me about $200 in repairs. And it's only November.

I didn't only buy the bike for financial reasons though. I also got it to get stronger. Riding a single-speeed is like doing a blend of high-speed spinning/cadence intervals mixed with slow-speed strength training. That flats are brutally hard on your thighs as you spin at 120rpm to go anywhere and the hills make your calves scream as you grind your way upwards. There's no way I won't get faster if I continue riding this all winter.

Oh, and speaking of winter riding, I am definitely NOT starting up a training plan again the week of Thanksgiving like I did last year. I completely burned out this past summer by the end of June and don't want that to happen again next year. I'm going to continue riding 2x a week through the end of the year (and running once a week on the weekends with Kristin) but am not going to crank up the training again until January. By then I should be good and hungry and really anxious to start upping the mileage. Can't wait!

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