It’s been about five years since I bought my first singlespeed mountain bike, and with the exception of a week or two have not been without one since. They’re fun, and it’s worth discussing the circular nature of that journey.
First, I should talk about riding this past weekend. I snuck in a short (2.5 hour) ride before the wedding on Saturday, and felt cooked well enough after that I haven’t gone on a real ride since. It was crazy hot over the weekend, and sitting out for hours during the ceremony and reception drinking beer didn’t help, but mostly the last two weeks caught up to me earlier and more thoroughly than I thought. The riding in Sun Valley (Ketchum is a fiction) is awesome, if prone to egregious displays of moon dust, gravel, and moto braking bumps, and I wanted to ride more of it.
Back to bikes. That first single was a Gunnar Rockhound conversion, seen at Rasmussen Bikes in Des Moines. It was bright yellow, and built up with a 44:21 gear and as many load compenents as the owner could find (red bars, purple rims and hubs, pink housing, etc). I don’t think it was for sale for all that much, and while some of the components weren’t so good, it was a great deal, and an even better intro into serious mountain biking. I started cronically messing with parts and configurations, riding almost daily, and the one definitive sign of bike obsession, created an MTBR account. A year later the bike had a new rattlecan paint job, and most of the original components had been either broken and replaced or replaced out of ennui. And it looked like this. The Karate Monkey looks, as it sits right now, ready for the Butte 100 Saturday, like this:
The similarities might be more salient than the differences. Big tires, for one, though not the massive knobby 2.5 Timberwolf I had on the Gunnar. I’ve come full circle to Oury grips as best for singlespeed riding. The same is the case with a riser bar with moderate sweep. I do like a wider bar and shorter stem now (760mm/90mm versus 660mm/140mm). I still prefer square taper bbs and 5 bolt, compact cranks. Gearing is almost identical then and now. The big changes are a suspension fork (though I usually ride the KM rigid), 29 inch wheels, a front disc brake, and clipless pedals.
The most interesting question when comparing these two bikes, and the considerable amount of money spent journeying from one to the other, is the extent to which my improvement as a rider has been facilitated by the technology. I’m certainly a much better rider in all respects now, though rolling that log/boulder on Jedi with platforms and the steep HTA would still be pretty proud today. Most of that improvement has been due to the riding I’ve done in the last five years, which has been helped along a bunch by the new bikes. Still, I look back at some of my best moments riding, and many were done with bits of technology I’ve since given up on as unsuitable. In the end, it’s too easy in cycling to focus on the gear, and too hard to admit how little difference it makes.
One area I have improved upon enormously is maintenance and mechanical skills. I broke plenty of stuff during my teach-myself phase, and spent lots of hours doing things the hard way. This afternoon, it only took me 20 minutes (and only one curse-laden hunt for escaped ball bearings) to completely overhaul the bearings and freehub on my Shimano rear wheel, despite having never done so before. Not impressive in the grand scheme, but good for me.
(Two pictures of sunset and moonrise on our camp near Galena summit.)
I still love riding my singlespeed, the presumption that I’d like the simplicity and aesthetic demands of riding one was indeed true. I like my Karate Monkey better than the Lenz, mainly because it makes such a good singlespeed. The direct engagment with the terrain, the harshness of the feedback on your fitness and attitude on any given day, and cheapness and ease of maintenance, the fundamental absurdity of coasting slowing down a gradual descent, all seem to reflect and distill more fundamental things that appeal about mountain biking.
I don’t see myself not riding a singlespeed mountain bike. Ever.
In vaguely related news, I made another pack.
It’s a cross between a ULA Conduit/CDT, a Talon 33, and the REI Flash line of packs. The later was the inspiration for the beavertail and mesh pockets being integrated, and cut to leave plenty of room for stuff. I’ve been doing so much straigh backpacking lately, that a new design was called for. As much as the sandwich/harness design appeals, my try at it proved that in application it’s just too fidgety. A proper pack is easier to use, and thus faster.
The neat thing about this was that total expediture on materials was $0. Stuff sacks, scraps, and other things I had laying around let me put it all together for free, and my growing experience made the process take less than half of that which I put into the original All-pack last year. I’m psyched to race and suffer this weekend, and I’m also psyched to do more backpacking, and soon.