Yesterday we went on a good long bike ride. The route is from the BTA book Rubber to the Road, Volume Two; it’s ride #12, “Infinity and Beyond.” It is a ramble through rural Clark County, Washington, listed at 38 miles with “rollers throughout.”
Including the 20+ mile round trip to the route start, this made for our first 60-mile day. The “rollers” turned out to be some of the more challenging hills we’ve seen. Along with the mileage, I think this is also our hilliest ride yet. Turn on the elevation in Gmaps pedometer and check out mile marker 25. Gee, I remember that hill. I had to stop in the middle and catch my breath. Lordy.
Also, it was our first trip across the Columbia and into Washington. The bike path on I-205 is pretty neat! Not the prettiest stretch of road, but it is fun to ride along in the middle of the freeway lanes, with big river views on either side of you. The descent into Washington goes from concrete ramps to sudden pastoral, tree-lined path. It was a fun part of the ride.
I cycled this route on my Trek, but instead of the usual fixed gear, I had it fitted out as a singlespeed, 42×22, giving about 51 gear inches. I thought a low-ish freewheel gear would be an improvement over a 60-inch fixed gear, for the obvious reasons — a lower gear for climbing, and a freewheel for coasting down the hills. All this was true, but the fact is I found the freewheel to be at least as much of a liability as a benefit. I can’t say what riding that route would have been like with my usual 60″ fixed gear, but the problems with the freewheel were significant.
Since I didn’t have to spin down the hills, I descended coasting at a great speed.This might seem like a huge advantage over fixed-gear riding, but actually, I like pedaling down the descents. It’s kind of like skiing. Anyway, because I was coasting so fast and in such a low gear, as I approached the next hill, I had difficulty pedaling to start the next climb. For some reason it is really hard to spin the cranks when the freewheel pawls are not engaged — I think this was part of the reason my knee was sore afterward. Instead of just spinning up to the speed of the freewheel, I could only manage to jerk the cranks around in a very uneven motion. When I ride fixed, I hold back my speed on the descent until I near the bottom of the hill, and then I let gravity do its thing and start pedalling like a crazy man, which gives me a nice push up the next hill.
On the flat, as I pedaled along, I did not receive the benefit of riding fixed on the flats — the way that the wheel’s momentum pushes the cranks for you, allowing some of the momentum to push the pedal stroke. I was telling Todd about this afterward and while telling him, I realized that it might be nonsensical — wouldn’t the fact that I had to keep pedaling cancel out any benefit of the wheel pushing the pedals for me? I don’t have any proof either way, of course. But a year of solid fixed gear riding has made me understand that “pedaling all the time” really isn’t that hard. The hardest part is spinning down the hills, but even there, it’s simple enough to let your legs go floppy and pseudo-coast.
Mostly it was a feeling of a lack of control over the drivetrain; a feeling that I don’t get with fixed gear, nor with a standard multi-speed bike. Also, though, and this is a bit metaphysical, I didn’t feel like I got a sense of the terrain in the same way that I do when riding a fixed gear bike. It’s all about terroir with me, you know.
I would go back and try this ride again with the fixed gear, just for comparison, but, to be honest, we found this patch of rural Washington to be somewhat less lovely than our usual patches of rural Oregon (thank you, urban growth boundary!), so we’ll probably stick to Washington County rather than Washington State.
Anyway, my plans of riding the Trek as a singlespeed camping bike are no longer. I’m building up an old (lugged!) Peugeot mountain bike for loaded touring and bike camping, and the Trek is going back to fixed, 42×19, 59.7″. I’ll use the Trek for day rides like this one, some trail riding, and of course just tootling around town with a pannier full of library books.
–> UPDATE, 7 Jul: This morning we went on an all-too-brief 15-mile ride. We went up Tabor, then over to, and up, Rocky Butte, then back home via Hollywood and 28th. So. Two big huge hills. I was riding fixed-gear, and using a higher gear than usual (63″). It was so much better than singlespeedin’. The hills were hard, up and down, but somehow everything felt more whole. I felt totally grounded and in control of the bike. I don’t get it, but I don’t suppose I have to: I know I like riding fixed-gear better than singlespeed, and that’s that!