Monday, December 08, 2008

The (Totally Subjective) Truth About Single Speed Cyclocross

If you are new to Cross or a certified moron, it is the way to go, you don’t have to think about shifting into an easier gear when approaching the barriers so you won’t get catastrophically bogged down coming out. The only thing you have to worry about is technique…and you better get good quick, cuz it’s all you got Spinny.

You’ll end up running more, that is if you run a gear that allows you to stay in contact with the other riders on anything like flat ground. You have to get your bike up to a higher speed before you remount or again – bogged down. This also helps you out because you’ll never even attempt to make an early remount when it’s questionable, you’ll be running by the guys spinning out on slippery surfaces, skipping gears, or getting (I’m going to say it again) bogged down.

It’s cheaper to set up a pretty nice SSCX bike and you won’t have to replace anything all season except maybe, I say maybe Brake pads and cables.

It’s going to hurt, Cross hurts, that’s most of what it’s about when it’s done right. It’s just going to hurt in new and different ways. People who say “We’re just having fun out there” are either full of crap or true masochists.

Run a bigger gear than you think you should. I run a gear that I wouldn’t even ride on the road on my fixed gear with 700 X 23c tires, that’s the actual Chainring/Cog combo not accounting for the much larger tire which increases the gear ratio significantly as well, not to mention the added rolling resistance due to the knobs and lower pressure and softer riding surface…and you thought single speeds were simple.

When you’re commuting or riding around town you aren’t redlining and droolingly anaerobic/anaerobically drooling (at least I hope not). Trust me, you’ll be able to turn over a bigger gear than you think. Remember you’ll be drafting off other riders (if you don’t get spun out and dropped on the first lap) and running anything like a hill. If you’ve built your bike with quality parts it should be pretty light compared to your geared bike, so less to carry. Which is nice, if anything about running up a hill with a perfectly good bicycle is at all nice.

If there is an actual climb in the race which is at all steep you are pretty much screwed unless you can run like a cheetah on amphetamines strapped to a V-2 missile. Luckily most proper Cross course designers turn hills into run ups.

You’ll be a shameless wheel-sucker (drafting off other riders without pulling through), if someone wants to force the issue and make you pull through they will instantly regret it as the pace drops to sloth-on valium-speed. They’ll only make that mistake once.

Start like a BMXer or 4Xer, throwing the bike side to side elbows flying, this is your only hope of getting a good position at the start. It’s easy to get up to top speed, once you get there, well, that’s it, better hope you’re close to the hole shot.

Gearing. This is a very personal area. Like how many shots of espresso you take in your coffee (I like four). Some folks rely on lungs, others on legs, if you can draw on both you may actually be competitive versus the geared guys. I’d say go easier at first (But not as easy as you think) so you don’t blow your knees out right off the bat and ease on up into the bigger gorilla gears. Single-Speeding is a full body effort, you need to adapt to it.

My first race I ran a 34 X 17 (the thing they like to call “two to one”), my first race was Gloucester, King of the grass crits. It was a joke. Think of a hamster glued to a ceiling fan. Then the glue lets go, dashing the poor lil’ guy to the wall. The second day of Gloucester I ran a big 34 X 16, still ridiculous. I ran the same gear at the Catamount non-UCI races a few weeks later. less of a joke because it was actually a mountain bike course with five inches of snow on it, they literally had snowmen lying on the course. Not a good indication for what a decent Cross gear should be.

Theoretically a Single Speed would be the thing to have while racing in inclement conditions, unfortunately the two seasons of Cross I raced in New England (other than Catamount) were incredibly mild so I never experienced this first hand.

Throughout the 2006 season I gradually upped my gear from 34 X 17 to 38 X 16. I concluded the season thinking that if I were going to be at all competitive in the 2/3s I would have to up my gearing further still. At the 2007 edition of Gloucester I ran a 42 X 16, things went much better but I still found it an impossible course to gear for on a single speed. After that I ran a 39 X 16 at every other race, adopting a “Go with what you got” mentality and not sweating it, just “trying to have fun out there”. Sometimes it sucked, sometimes it worked out. It was a happy medium gear-wise. If you want the no-brainer “Dur, what gear should I start with?” answer, 39 X 17 or 18, then go up or down from there.

Cross is about transitions, not just on and off the bike but between pavement and grass and mud and god knows what else; a single speed just makes these transitions more “noticeable” than on a geared bike, it makes you push the technique. When you’re starting out with Cross that’s really the fun part, learning how to dismount in all the various ways, how to pick up and hold your bike, how to run with it, how to clear the barriers, how to remount smoothly, the single speed allows…er, forces you to work these aspects.

What an incredibly persuasive piece of writing. Next up: “How To Scalp Yourself Before Succumbing to Blood Loss or Shock”.


fixedgear guy said...

Its all about the PAIN

No Pain No Gain

gewilli said...

hamster ceiling fan...


rick is! said...

good stuff, makes me wish I still had my single speed van dessel. I outfitted it for cross but never actually did a race.

dicky said...

I think I'm on a 42X15 when I race cross (like twice a yr) mostly cause it's all I got.

Winning is for losers.

dicky said...

Oh yeah, I'm limited cause I'm riding it fixed, and I ain't gonna pony up for another ring or cog.

Lee said...

46x 20= bext combo yet. trimmed it down to 42x 18 for some versatility but haven't tried it yet. soon...

Booksy said...

SSCX is where it's at. I think you gave up too soon. Here's my thoughts: