by Todd Schlemmer
"Ruin is formal, devil's work, consecutive and slow..."
I have always assumed that one slips into mental instability via a slow progression of small disasters that eventually add up to insanity. Indeed, I have met a few crazies in my work, and they appear to be the products of forces moving at glacial speeds, not catastrophic high-speed train wrecks.
The first inkling of my own slow slide was when I found an interest and passion for singlespeed bicycles. This occurred more than twenty years ago, in college, when I converted a Fuji tourer to s/s. I eventually traded up to a first generation Stumpjumper, but the madness was just biding its time, like a tumor slowly perking in my brain, waiting for the right combination of free time and disposable income to resurface. It manifested again in the 90s as a Basso track bike converted for the road, until a spectacular crash involving a peeled tubular tire put me into remission.
Then, a year or two back, I built up my first purpose-built singlespeed mtb. A thousand miles later, I purchased a fixed-gear commuter. I started perusing fixedgeargallery.com and 63xc.com. I had some s/s wheels laying around, along with most of the makings of a bike. I ordered a titanium cog that bolts onto the ISO disc rotor mount... I bought another 1x1 frame... I played it down as an experiment. I said I could quit at any time. I put a high gear and slicks on the resulting bike, "for the road". I was in denial.
So today, when I found myself riding the 'Tapeworm' on a fixed-gear mtb, in a hail storm, alone, I wondered if I had finally and irrevocably crossed the line of insanity. I drove through a horrible squall on my way to the trail, a little voice telling me to turn around and go out another day, but the skies were clear when I arrived.
The storm caught up with me though, and ice poured from the skies as soon as I hit the trail. I dimly remembered learning that lightning often accompanies the same atmospheric instability that produces hail. I wondered if someone would find my burned, smoking, and exploded body in the woods. Would some CSI team try to piece together my demise, wondering at the waste of life until someone spotted the obvious? "Fixed gear mountain bike? You want my diagnosis? Insane, suicidal, crazy."
I worried that I would have to bail somewhere in the ride, unable to negotiate the twists and turns, the ups and downs, on a fixed gear. The same worry I felt the first time I rode this trail on a geared bike, and then, later, on a freewheeling singlespeed.
My usual strategy in this twisty trail is to brace a shoulder against a tree to bounce through a tight turn or just to rest for a moment. It's not really a dab if your feet stay on the pedals (right?), but every time I did this, icy slush would shower from the bare branches overhead. Periodically, I would have to remove my helmet and shake the ice from my hair.
Just to remind you: a fixed gear works like a singlespeed on the ups, but like a unicycle on the downs. Unless you detach your feet from the pedals and spin willy-nilly down the trail, your speed downhill is limited by your ability to spin and your comfort with that out-of-control windmilling of your legs. (Serious thought: if we ever win the right to ride mtbs in the 'wilderness' perhaps it may be due to the inherent handicaps of a fixed-gear bike. It's hard to achieve the hiker's nightmare of the Mountain Dew-crazed biker when you're clipped in on a fix.)
A certain freewheel habit I have is to ratchet my pedals backward. This is handy when momentum and torque evaporate and you need to get some mojo to that back tire. Just backpedal a tad to maximize the force the pedals transmit to the hub. Impossible on the fixed gear- this was impressed upon me several times, and I think the only remedies for this are speed-speed-speed, a gear too low to be practical, or the cultivation of a not-of-this-earth level of finesse.
The disc brake on this fixie (dixie?) squeals like the proverbial pig (I'm not saying, but rhymes with "dope"), and, on a few downhills, is doing a lot of work. The banshee wailing of the brake pads in the gloom felt appropriate. Most of the time, pedals alone seemed sufficient to control speed. I walked one section -- the same uphill I walked the first time I ever rode the Wurm on a s/s - and that's because the trail was too loose. I didn't ride the drop stunts. Or the (newly rebuilt) teeter totter.
Getting over the few logs was mostly easy - a little hop-scrub lines up a pedal to avoid striking. Think of how you unconsciously place your foot when stepping up a curb and you understand how to line up your pedal to avoid striking a log. I did ride some of the 'Parasite' trail, and I worked on that hop-skid thing.
I never even thought to bring neoprene booties, and I was driving home when the circulation finally returned to my feet. I pulled the car off the road, wondering if I might be reduced to wracking sobs from the pain. I took off my wet shoes and socks and let the heater blow warmed air over my toes and I managed to maintain my cool.
I normally ride the Wurm in less than 25 minutes. Today, on the 'White Stag' MTB fixie, it had taken 40 minutes. But this isn't an apples-to-apples kinda thing. Fixing is different. Those of you with some sense have already moved on, gone to Google for "hybrid bike" or "rail trails". but... Maybe some of you are a wee bit curious, almost ready to reject the freewheel...