by Scarlett Parker
In May, I'm attempting to complete a 100k off-road enduro. On a fixed gear mountain bike. In the Chilterns.
With this in mind, I found myself in dire need of some scorchin' practice. My only previous experience had been on a leisurely ride with my girlfriend in Epping Forest, buzzing along the bridleways on semi-slick commuter tires in a 68" gear. Hardly 'proper' mountain biking, but it still showcased one of the direct drivetrain's greatest strengths (and mine!) - climbing. I'll never tire of passing 27speed full-sussers on steep climbs at three times the speed.
A lot had happened since then. I had became a qualified teacher of English as a foreign language; I'd decided that I'd rather be a speech therapist; I'd ridden my first fixed medium gear time trial; I'd joined the Vegetarian Cycling Club; I'd started my second novel. But most notably and life-shatteringly of all, my singlespeed/fixed mountain bike frame had died.
It was a custom build that I'd never quite became accustomed to. The bottom bracket was too low, the geometry too roadie, there'd been several lengthy downtimes during emergency rebrazing. When the headtube flared, I caved in and swapped my bits and pieces to a cheap and cheerful On-One Inbred.
With the Inbred built up, a decent test ride was the order of the day. Will Meister of 63xc.com/Hubjub fame had kindly got me an exquisite 15t EAI cog on custom order, giving me a 65.2" gear according to the Right Reverend Sheldon Brown's online gear calculator. I went about affixing it to my Goldtec track hub, quickly discovering that track sprinters undergo rigorous weight training regimes for the sole purpose of being able to remove fixed sprockets.
I began to wonder. 65"... is that a bit steep for 60 miles in the Chilterns? What else have I got lying around? Well there's the 17t cog on my fixed road bike - that would give me 58" on the mountain bike. Hmmm, 58" or 65"?
Obviously a logical, unmasochistic approach would favour the 58". But that would involve a whole load more wrenching, wouldn't it? Perhaps I needed to take the 65" for a grind at some sort of local, urban, semi-technical mountain bike circuit...
The name 'Eastway' may be familiar to some of you. It's a purpose built cycling facility in Stratford, East London, on the site of what was once a landfill - or something like that. Apart from being a haven for wildlife in an area that's otherwise one big latticework of motorways and dual carriageways, it's a rather popular one mile concrete road circuit. Surrounding and intersecting the road circuit is a mountain bike course, venue for the infamous Beastway summer MTB series. There's a little bit of everything: a short BMX-style circuit, overgrown singletrack, short steep climbs/descents; and you even get to cycle under the base of a pylon, which is fun, if carcinogenic.
As it turned out, the first big challenge of the ride came before I'd even made it to the circuit. Life-threatening experiences in the saddle are fairly few and far between, but apparently there was one scheduled for me that day, on the stretch of dual carriageway that also bears the name 'Eastway'. Without going into too much detail, it involved a beeping horn close behind me, followed by a small lorry brushing my elbow before its tyres squealed along the kerb about five yards in front of me. I'm not sure if it happened because another lorry was forcing it across, or if the driver resented me not using the cycle lane on the pavement. Nor am I sure how I managed to stop and leap up onto the pavement without whacking my left pedal and crank into the kerb and bouncing under the offending vehicle. Whatever, I decided not to bother chasing him down for an altercation at the first set of traffic lights. It's usually a pointless exercise that provokes even more disrespect, so I gingerly hopped off the kerb and made my way to the cycle circuit.
Having paid a very reasonable £2.50, I set off on a gentle 10mph practice lap, following one of the Beastway routes. There's plenty of scope for 'randomizing' an off-road circuit.
First impressions? Excellent! Better than singlespeeding. You quickly learn the unfamiliar body English that's involved in pedalling downhill when you'd normally be coasting. I think the slightly bigger gear helped. I'm no stranger to spinning, and have clocked up 200rpm+ on rollers, but it's a bit different when most of your weight's pitching towards the handlebars, and the terrain is trying its damndest to throw you off-course. The slower cadence just helps to keep things tidy, and you end up with the backs of your thighs sort of resting on the saddle where your sit bones would normally be.
Next came the first big challenge that didn't involve large automotive vehicles messing with my funny bone. There's a short steep climb which always seems to be a dismounting station for riders during Beastway races. You bump along some singletrack that runs parallel to a canal/river at the back of the circuit, and then it's quickly upwards before turning through ninety degrees and then grinding up a bit further until you cross the road circuit. Most of the geared elite riders make it, but it's always touch and go for the rest. I've managed it once on my singlespeed during a warm-up lap, in a 54" freewheel gear. Today, however, I crested it in one foul swoop in a gear that was a whopping 11" bigger, and then proceeded to repeat the feat on the next two occasions I bothered trying. Excuse me a moment...
Fixed gear rocks!!!
...okay, where was I? Right. Then I noticed a visiting American mountain biker getting up the other killer climb from the other canal, a steeper, but much straighter affair that I've never managed to complete before. First time, I hit it too fast and drifted into some thorny creeping plants about 5 yards from the top. Still, if at first you don't succeed, risk more injury. I made it the second time, although there was a sketchy moment at the top where I stalled, rolled back a few inches, and realized I'd either have to propel myself forward the last few feet or fall a long way back, still clipped into my ATACs. Which reminds me: anyone considering off-road fixing will have to get used to some very awkward clipping out positions!
The upshot of all this: to hell with it - I'm going to do the 100k enduro in the 65" gear, unless it's been raining, and then I think the British mud will dictate the 58". I'd ridden two hours on an empty stomach and I didn't feel too knackered. Plus, I'd managed not to go over the handlebars thanks to my back brake, which allowed level-cranked downhill skids on the tougher descents. I paid due regard to trail erosion, naturally!
If you ride singlespeed, you have got to try scorchin'. Freewheeling is a kinaesthetic redundancy, an impediment to your pedals, a pawling nomansland between your most trenchant biking skills and the trenches along which you ride. Freewheels die, but fixed sprockets only fade away.
What's with all the WWI references? I don't know, I'm a pacifist. On the other hand, I do know that my long-deceased Granddad lost a finger in the trenches. If he'd been a cyclist, I think it would have been his shifting finger. He kept the bit of shrapnel that supposedly did the damage. Maybe I should get it melted down and machined into a chain-tug?
See you at the enduro.