Friday, October 24, 2008

Cyclocross 102: SingleSpeed Cyclocross

As my pal Dean Vermeire says, “When your only tool is a hammer, the whole world looks like a nail.” My faulty logic was:
-I have a singlespeed bike
-I like riding it
-I’ve raced in one Cyclocross race on a Mountian bike:
THEREFORE I’m ready to race my 29 pound 1976 Schwinn Varsity as a SingleSpeed in the Boulevard Cup Cyclocross race.

That same faulty logic is what got (nee: Caleb) Major Major Major promoted to the Rank of Major in Catch-22.

First; why single speed bike? Let me count the reasons:
1. Simplicity—nothing to go wrong, nothing to break, nothing to shift.
2. Counter-intuitiveness: In cross, you have to run up hills often where gears don’t really help. Single Speed evens out those parts of the course.
3. Ego—sure it’s a part of the ethos: “You think the course was hard? HAH! I did it on a bike with only 1 gear!”
4. Stupidity—See # 3
5. Adventure-See #’s 1-3
6. See #4

Lessons learned:
Gears are good, but not where you think;
-On the sharp up-hills, I didn’t really miss the lowest gears, you just stand up and grunt through them. It helps being in a taller gear because you keep the momentum
-I really missed them on the long gradual up-hills, you really lost time when people could downshift and leave like you are standing still
-In the heavy grass—think of riding over Velcro
-Especially in the flats, where the geared guys could get in a bigger gear and out gun you.

The Bike:
I bought the Varsity in Oct 2007 for $40, turned it into a fixed gear/single speed by purchasing new 700c wheels, chopped and flopped the handlebars, and got ride of all the gears, shifters, derailleurs, detritus. It went from 42 pounds to 29 pounds.

Then I added fenders, rear rack and the best of all accessories, the bell to use as my commuter. Then I purchased from Harris Cyclery (RIP Sheldon Brown, you are missed) a new one piece crank that had 9/16th pedal sockets to put modern pedals on the bike. So far I’ve ridden it 51 times this year, 32 of those for commutes to work.

To turn it into a cyclocross bike, I changed the tires, changed the rear singlespeed sprocket from 16 to 18 teeth, had an old schwinn shop remove the kickstand with a tool that looked like a garlic press, and installed a new 36 tooth front ring to give me the elusive 2:1 ratio. It feels very solid, and yes-heavy.

The Race:
I started at the back of the pack around the guys riding bikes straight off the island of misfit toys (Or more accurately, misfit guys.) Several eyed my rig with incredulity, see # 3, but others eyed it with wisdom, see #4. We got out of the chute pretty fast on a flat, then a hard downhill left turn. My Varsity shone there—the combination of my weight (92Kilos) + it’s weight 29# and I was gliding along while all the skinny guys pumping away hard. I kept with them during the first set of chicanes and s-Turns.

Then we had the first long uphill, probably 200 meters of a false flat that turned into a sharp incline. About 100m into the area I understood the practicum of having no gears, after the theory of it wouldn’t be a big deal. It was a big deal, and it sucked. Only a quarter of the way into the first of 5 laps and the experiment turned into an ordeal. Maybe not epic, certainly not heroic, but now unavoidable. Crap. It was like the old song RPW loved, “I’m a rock and roll man fall in love with a disco girl”

The Issues:
When I would come up to a hill or muddy spot, and needed more uumph, I would stand up to mash the pedals, which put my weight more forward, which caused the rear wheel to have less traction, which led to my tire slipping/spinning out and me loosing momentum.

The Seatpost:
In the middle of the second lap, I was hammering on the pedals when my seatpost bent sharply back, causing my seat to no longer be level, but pointing up towards the sky like a bird dog sniffing the breeze. The picture shows the angle, but after the race I adjusted the seat to be relatively level so I could ride it to the beer tent.)The effect of not having a seat meant I had to crouch/stand the for the rest of the race, which led to traction problems. The few times I did try to sit down, I had to hang on for dear life like I was riding a bucking horse. Sometimes I looked like a bmx kid preparing for an ollie or whatever it is they do between bong hits.

The Reward:
My first ever blog post started with the immortal words of “he said there would be beer”. This proved to be prophetically true. As the picture of the SKC's JB shows the race was called the Boulevard Cup, they poured complimentary and unlimited glasses of Pale Ale, Wheat, and as I came to find out by some cunning, a hidden keg of Boulevard Saison from their SmokeStack Series. It was choice. Great folks from Boulevard.

Prosser and Hendry also raced. Prosser raced the real SingleSpeed Division, Hendry in the Cat 3-4 geared. It was fun to watch Prosser suffer much more than I did on his single speed for many of the same reasons I discussed, with one small difference. While my racing style approaches the edge of pain and engages it in a sissy-slapfight, he dives in with both hands, and knees/headbutts and eye gouges it to the bitter end.

The Results:
I came in 46th out of 52, so I beat 6 guys on geared bikes. See #3. And I lost to 45 guys on geared bikes, See #4.
I also came out with tremendous respect for the guys who really race single speeds competitively. As they say, it ain’t braggin’ if you done it, but the guys that are truly single speed studs don’t brag.

Ultimately that is what is so fun about cyclocross, everyone is out for a good time, races are competitive by being in the right class, the crowds are appreciative, and the after race camaraderie is fantastic.

What’s next:
Maybe, just maybe my next race will be on an honest to God, geared Cyclocross bike. And if I still finish with 85% of the racers beating me, I’ll know Lance Armstrong’s first book title is correct: It’s not about the bike.


brady said...

Cool! Another cross race experience under your belt. I'm enjoying living vicariously through your race (pain) in the comfort of my padded chair and a cold beer.

So the Varsity may withstand a nuclear blast, but its seatpost won't make it through a cyclocross race under Murphini. That's pretty beastly of you. How else did the Varsity come out? Any damage to the seatpost tube?

Next race on a geared cyclocross rig- are you hinting that there may be another bicycle added to your collection?

JB said...

OMG! you crack me up! Allow me to correct you and Mr. Armstrong. IT IS about the bike. EVERYTHING is about the bike. Just reading this post from you illustrates that.
I digress. SS racing either in CX or MTN bike races to me is a joke. It is like being an Independent. "What do you mean you don't know what party you belong to?" It is hedging your bet. If you race SS then you have a built in excuse. "Man, I sucked ass today." "Yeah bro, but you did it on a SS." Yeah, it was a tough course." -"Props". "Whew! I was really flying out there." "Dude, did you do that on a SS?" -"Yep". (instant hero) Win/win, lose/lose.
SS's are cool and all, but seriously, get over the "hipster" phase and imerse yourself fully into this most beautiful of discicplines. CX

Good job tho dude!

prossx said...

Oddly, what you saw was NOT ENOUGH suffering, as the bike was seriously F'ing up and I couldn't lay down the torque and really ramp it up. Massive chain skipping with junk parts... limped along and finished, cause that's how I roll. Cross demands a perfectly running steed for the full monty -- staying on the limit the whole damn time. As for any SS vs geared arguments...whatever...that's for people who actually give a (bleep) about that kind of stuff to argue about. I like it all and don't give it much thought. I will race SS again, but on a true SS rig w/ no tensioners, etc.

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