Thursday, February 11, 2016

My Gear, My One and Only

It used to be that when I climbed my thoughts were occupied with making it to the top, with worry over stalling out and toppling over, with whether I would outbrave the burn in my legs. Now when I climb, when I am on my own, I mostly daydream.

Even today, when I am weak and have what feels like the beginnings of pneumonia. My lungs aren't good; my legs have lost their summer muscle tone. And still I daydream and I don't suffer. And before long, I am at the top. I am not fast, but I am there, my breathing even, my face warmed by the sun.

These things I've learned since living in a place where every direction is up: Familiarity reduces gradients. As does muscle memory. As does the sheer repetition of it.

The hills which seem so formidable in their permanence when you first lay eyes upon them are really full of subjectivity. The hills are open to interpretation, negotiable. Who would have thought?

Certainly not I, three years ago, panting while ascending in my many-geared bicycle's granniest of granny gears.

"You need a sub-1:1 to ride here comfortably," I'd say to anyone who'd visit, asking me for gearing advice. And it was true. It was true two years ago, one year ago. It was true until - quite suddenly, it seemed - it wasn't.

It was just over a month ago now that I converted my fixed gear Mercian roadbike into a transportation bicycle with hefty front rack, flat pedals, a free-wheel single speed. My intention was to use it for my mostly flat, but very windy commutes, 7-13 miles each way. My intention had not been to take it up over the mountains. I'd never even meant to try; I'm not a masochist.

And then one day I went to visit an acquaintance. I had never been to the house before, and, based on the directions I was given, I misjudged its location - thinking it to be just outside the town, at the base of the mountain, or close enough to the base. I kept cycling and looking at the house numbers, checking the map on my phone in their absence, and still was nowhere near it.

The road began to rise. The address kept showing as further on ahead on my map. And so I pedaled on, the bicycle moving willingly enough beneath me although at a lower cadence. It was as if the pedals were taking their time, as I was, ensuring we did not miss the house, disguised perhaps by shrubbery.

Observantly and almost meditatively we pedaled as the road continued rising, until, after some time, the rising stopped. Before me, views of snaking rivers and the seashore and the neighboring counties spread in all directions. Snapping out of my vigilantly house-seeking state, it took me a moment to understand what was happening.

I had reached the top. Of the mountain. On a single speed bicycle.

In the first instance I felt alarm. That feeling, when a place you have come to think of as deeply familiar is suddenly not. It is disorienting. A panic sets in, a sinking sensation in the pit of the stomach, like falling. What's happened to this mountain? Did someone shrink it? Was it the wrong mountain? What I'd just done should not have been possible for me to accomplish.

The address I'd been looking for was indeed at the base of the mountain, only on the other side of it. Realising my mistake finally, I descended toward it and, after my visit, repeated the climb backwards.

That day, and for many days after, I felt as if I had attained a secret superpower. The superpower of not needing gears. With renewed wonder I studied the simplicity of my bicycle's drivetrain, with its taut chain, its single cog, its lack of pulleys and bolt-ons, its unadorned open dropouts. Can it be that, when push comes to shove, this is really all I need now?

It's you and me, my gear, as long as my lungs and legs will carry me.

40 comments:

  1. I think it's totally amazing how our bodies' adapt to use. When we're babies, walking is super difficult, then it's just something that we do. Then the next challenge, then the next...


    Get well soon.



    Wolf.

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  2. Thanks for this post. I went through a similar epiphany last spring after two years of riding and huffing & puffing my way up hills. In one shining instant, the hills suddenly looked a lot flatter. And they have stayed that way in the nine months since. It was amazing! Not sure I'm going single speed, though...

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  3. Do those flat platform pedals work o.k. for you on steep climbs? Please be careful of that pneumonia. That's nothing to take lightly.

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    1. These particular pedals do. Which is amazing, because I ended up with them accidentally (they were the only thing suitable my local bike shop carried). They are Giant Ultra Light pedals. I don't like to promote "big companies" but have to admit they are exceptionally grippy, more so than any other flat pedals I've tried so far. The soles of my shoes seem to stick to them, even in the rain and even when standing. No problems what so ever.

      I used to get pneumonia constantly. Now it is pretty rare. If anything, being outdoors and on my bike seems to nip it in the bud. Probably the fact it makes me take big breaths.

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    2. I've discovered it's more about the shoes than the pedals. Some shoes grip better than others on my platforms. Also, do you pedal out of the saddle on climbs with this set-up?

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    3. I've ridden this bike with most pairs of shoes/boots I own at this point. Granted I don't own that many. But enough to know the effect is coming from the pedals. The surface must be treated with some weird coating, because it really almost sticks to the soles. And yes I can pedal standing on climbs with this setup. In the rain, too.

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    4. So you're not going to bend on this, uh? Okay, I must have shitty shoes that do not play well with some pedals. Seems like I've tried them all, though, (pedals, I mean) and have concluded it's like everything bikey….there's nothing that works for everyone…..Things are always complicated in interesting ways, or maybe I just over think everything. I'm a sensitive soul ;)

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    5. I have just a few pairs of shoes, all with what i think of as 'sticky' soles, which grip pedals well, however on my new mountain bike I found my feet 'dislodging' over rough terrain. I purchased a pair of Da Bombe pedals and they are fantastic, thin, super grippy with a larger platform that is very comfortable. I think both shoes and pedals are important but the pedal is the governing factor for me every time.

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  4. Well, you've never been shy about sharing your newly acquired superpowers after each discovery and revelation. Indeed, things get easier when repeated and the process simplified. Now that's the beauty in bikes. Remembering your earlier iterations of bikes with the lugs, paint jobs, bling, customizations, and thoughts about a different bike for every terrain, every distance, and every day. It's now nice to hear a perspective derived from more riding which involves surprise and freedom from prior ways of thinking. Btw, I, too, love a simple drivetrain with no derailleurs and a beautiful, straight, chain line and find that, like Willie Nelson's guitar, a bike I've made my own will take me anywhere.

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    1. Oh this bike has the luggiest of lugs. One gear, many lugs.

      I still feel that a bicycle optimised for terrain and purpose is ideal, especially once distance is added to the mix. My point was not than a single speed is superior, but that it's possible - in a way that before, for me, was not.

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  5. I had a climb like that on my way home from school when I was younger (19) when I first started riding my bike to and from school I would be walking up the last 50 yards or so, after 6 months I could make it to the top without much difficulty, after a 9 months I was riding up it quite easily and after a year or so I would attack it, full out of the saddle, bike rocking from side to side as my legs pumped madly at the pedals and I would time myself to see how fast I could get to the top! Youth! Those days are long gone! LOL
    -mas

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  6. i always found climbing a bit easier in a fixed gear. The descents, however, can be very interesting!

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  7. I'm not surprised. Single geared bikes were all our ancestors had and they toured the world on them, then came 3 speeds - again, used all over the world to haul people and their heavy loads. A single speed must be the most beautifully simple bike to maintain and keep in repair. I've never fancied a many geared bike with its complicated, crashing, grinding noisy gears, I love the simplicity of the hub 3 speeds, and I'm seriously considering buying a single speed next time I'm in the market for a new bike. What I can't ride, I'll happily get off and walk! A great blog post thank you, it has cheered me up to see someone enjoying their beautiful, simple bicycle!

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    1. There is a tendency among people to go with the highest possible level of options when buying things like bikes.

      I used to. More recent acquisitions have tended toward simplicity. As V says here, in the end those rare occasions perhaps a few more gears might have helped pass quickly.

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  8. Impressive however one deconstructs it. Oh, how far you've come and the bars you've crossed! Real inspiration for we still huffing rather than chuffing up the interminable grades. Thanks for this shot of exhilaration. Jim Duncan

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  9. Is is déclassé to inquire as to a lady's gear ratio?

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    1. Oh man. I should know this by heart by now, but I don't. It's around 68 gear inches.

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    2. So about a 40x16. Sounds good to me! We should all return to single speed on a regular basis if we don't already, even if only briefly, to keep us honest and in touch.

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    3. Last a closeup was published the Mercian still had a 49T chainring. For reference 49x19 is 69.6 inches. 49x20 is 66.1. Inches. 49x21 is 63 inches. 49x22 is 60.1 inches.

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    4. Depending on actual diameter of tire...

      (not to be any greater pedant than necessary)

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    5. Merci!

      It is 66.1 inches then on the free side.

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  10. I hope you permit polite disagreement. Is there subjectivity to the hills? It might seem so, but physics and physiology telle us that this cannot be so.

    I suspect in reality you have a mental image of yourself from a decade ago, but in truth your body is in far better shape. There is a disconnect between this image and your present reality.

    This might not be surpising. You have alluded to some knowledge of the behavioral sciences. You know that our minds are imperfect calculators. The only way we can achieve our potential is to try to surpass it - you have done this and it is difficult for your mind to see this still.

    So, congratulations

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    1. You are right. I was being metaphorical and a bit tongue in cheek.

      The terrain here is tough, and the windy conditions make it tougher still. After 2+ years of commuting and recreational cycling, I have grown a lot stronger than I was when I got here.

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    2. Along the same lines, we can often endure what we think is not endurable.

      In candor - I knew you knew. I think I just wanted to offer a compliment. I like reading your blog. It brings insight and joy.

      Be happy.

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    3. Ah but did I know you knew that I knew?
      I don't know!

      Thank you for reading, and same wish to you.

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  11. Cool. Now convert it to fixed and the climbing will be even *easier* as the wheels push your feet around. Descending does take more effort than on a coasting bike, but it can also be great fun and don't forget that you can and should use your bike's brakes in addition to resisting with your legs. i.e. Don't try to descend like Emily! at least not for a few years!

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    1. I've flipped it between fixed and free a few times now, but find that it is ultimately more useful and versatile as a freewheel single speed. On flat or rolling ground the fixed is more fun. And climbing is definitely easier in fixed mode. But descents of any duration are a nightmare with the fixed drivetrain; I don't seem to be making much progress on that end and it's just too stressful. Maybe in another couple of years...

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    2. I've never tried fixed with flat petals. I ride fixed with SPD pedals all the time, I think that's part of the trick to descending a fixed gear quickly. You don't have to work at keeping your feet on the pedals you just need to relax and channel your inner Emily.

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    3. Don't even try to descend faster when it's excessively stressful. You need to be calm and relaxed when descending.

      Bike riding is easy. Descending is easy. If it's stressful something is wrong.

      I've ridden fixed in company of riders so differently abled they were using fixed because without it the pedals were equally likely to go backward as forward. Once those riders had established balance the only problem was keeping them away from the bigger hills. Once they had a taste of the slightest declivity all they wanted to do was to spin out downhill. As in 24/7 downhills were what they fixated on. Some of those riders made it so far that there was no longer any way to consider them as anything but normally able, in or out of the saddle. Underlying pathology remained but did not much express itself.

      Anyone at all can do descents and do them on fixed or free wheels. There's nothing special or exceptional or difficult about it. You have an obstacle in front of you that you can't see. I could point it out to you and you still wouldn't see it. One clue. Every bike I've ever been on is stable and steady as a stadtfiets. So are all your bikes. Until you figure it out for yourself, be safe. Descending is not about heroic feats. Discretion is the better part of valor.

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  12. Funny thing is, you may now find you only want to ride your single speed. That's what happened to me about five years ago. Along the way I realized that I could use at least one down shift. Your review of the BSA two speed hub, with the selectable fixed/freewheel initiated a search for a reliable two speed fixed hub. What I found and am enjoying is a Bendix two speed hub which has been modified to be fixed. All the simplicity of a fixed gear with a low gear to help deal with head winds and step up hills.

    Thank you for the post,
    John

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    1. Ooohh! A Bendix 2spd. fixed conversion! More info please, I have a small litter of those hubs looking for work...

      Spindizzy

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    2. Hello Sindizzy,

      This is the Bendix 2 speed fixed review that got me interested in this hub modification,

      http://63xc.com/genng/bikesmith.htm

      I found a professional welder who welded the drive screw to the hub shell, he charged me $40. Next I purchased a bike that had 120 OLD, a Rivendell Quickbeam. A friend built the wheel. I then used a Campy down tube shifter and Campy cable guide but any friction shifter will do since the shifting is from one gear to the other. Things to consider; the hub is about 3 pounds, you can only down shift when your cadence/speed is low since it's fixed, no freewheeling, it's about a 25% down shift from your cruising gear, it's has an 18 tooth cog which can not be changed, changes to the gear inch must be made with different chain rings, the hub is easy to take apart, clean and lubricate which should be done on a regular basis since the bearings are not sealed, cruising gear is direct drive, no lose in efficiency for it, minimal back pedal movement, very robust but the rod which moves the sun gear is the weak link in the design. Otherwise it's great fun. I can do a longer hilly/windy ride with it than I would on a single speed fixed gear.

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    3. Thanks John! I am SO going to try this...

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  13. I have been commuting by bike since the middle of last year. I'm in Brisbane, Australia which is a pretty hilly city. There are hills that I could not ride up when I started that don't even need my lowest gear now.

    Just yesterday, I tackled a hill that I had only ever attempted once before. That time, I failed. Yesterday I rode all the way to the top.

    Today, I am going to attempt another steep hill near my house that I have never tried before. After that, who knows!

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  14. Ain't climbing ss (even better, fixed) fun? And yes, the first time you ride up a hill in a 6X" gear, you do so with trepidation. After that, it's easy. In the past few months I've climbed our local hill, Tramway Boulevard, on my 68" fixed Dahon Hon Solo and, more recently, on my Rivendell custom gofast in the 76" -- down to 30 rpm on the steepest part, but not at all bad -- pacing is everything. And I'll never see my 50s again.

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  15. I recall a post about your having learned the joys of barbell squats and other weight training exercises. Is your sense that this has contributed a lot to your superpowers versus cycling the past 2 years in such hilly terrain?

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  16. As a comparison to some of the gear ratios reported here.

    At the Montreal World Championships, 1974, Eddy Merckx dropped the field, excepting only Raymond Poulidor, when he shifted to 42x15 (75.6 inches) ascending Mont Royal. The Côte was a hill, not a mountain, about 1.8 km at an 8% grade. The final ascent Eddy shifted to 53x17 which immediately dropped Pou-Pou as well. This was almost 42 years ago, I have not seen or heard of a similar high gear feat in all those years. There are none in the current pro peloton who could come close.

    Richard Virenque, seven time TdF polka dot jersey, did all his climbing in 42x19. He didn't care if it was a 5% climb or a 15% climb, 42x19 was his climbing gear. That's 59.7 inches. He was most always on a higher gear than anyone else on the mountain. Of course Virenque was notoriously assisted by jet fuel.

    Interesting that readers of this blog should be able to match the gears of the stars. The biggest stars.

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  17. Chain should not ever be taut. Some slack is required. Lift the back wheel and spin the crank. There will be a tight spot, the chainring is not perfectly concentric. Combine that tight spot with some frame flex that tightens the chain further and you have a problem. No taut chains.

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  18. It's easy to forget that a bike only needs one gear to be complete and perfect.

    11 cogs on the hub is never going to be perfection to anyone, too many for some and not enough for the ones who figured out how to get em' all on there in the first place. They're striving for a perfection that isn't about the bike. Roll out from the basement door with one cog, fixed or free, and you have exactly the same opportunity to have the best ride of your life as the folks with 30.

    Sometimes in the morning I'll leave the bacon out of the omelet to keep the pan slick enough for the eggs to slide, not because I'm too lazy to clean the pan between frying the bacon or unwilling to use two pans, just because there's a nice rhythm to throwing the eggs in the hot pan, quickly chopping some onion, tearing up the spinach and tossing it all in just in time to flip it all upside down at precisely the best time to grate a little cheese and grind a bit of pepper before sliding it off onto the plate. No wasted moves, no standing by the stove as extra seconds slip by, but one focused, satisfying exercise in "just enough, just in time". Singlespeeds are a little like that. Just get on with it, you know?

    That day back in 1969, when I got rolling under my own power for the first time, the thrill wasn't less coming back up the lane than it was going down even though it was more work, the effort just was part of the whole Marvelous Festival Of Awesome.

    Spindizzy

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  19. At different times in my life I've done work that made me rather strong. As a simple example I could once move pianos solo. The little ones are 300#, I've carried a 600# upright up a steep narrow stair to the fourth floor. This example is maybe a little deceptive, as skill and balance play a bigger role than most imagine. Still, six hundred pounds is a lot. Carrying that piano down the stairs is even harder. What you have done on your mountain strikes me as rather more difficult. And to do it without even being aware is just astonishing.

    I always noted that when work made me that strong the bike riding suffered. Bikes reward agility and nimbleness more than strength. When musclemen try to join a club ride they are routinely surprised that skinny little dweebs dance away from them. Musclemen are only slightly more fitted to cycling than they are to running marathons.

    Being strong brings certain rewards. Muscularity is popular. Walk around looking fit you'll always have a fan club. The positive reinforcement is endless. However, past a point strength is not conducive to learning bike. It is somewhat remarkable that our blog host should perform feats of strength yet be unable to do other basic tasks on the bike. And continue to self-report as rather slow. Remarkable but also connected.

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