I had an epiphany and learned something pivotal this past weekend… It’s not about what you can’t do, it’s about what you CAN. How can a 36 mile winter fatbike ride be more difficult than a 100 mile winter fatbike ride? Soft snow and one gear.
When I had my 29er with Snow Cats, I challenged anyone to show me a place they could ride a fatbike and I couldn’t ride my fat 29er. For a long time, I could hang with anyone, anywhere. That was until we went and rode a dry creek bed in the Alaska Range. 29ers can do smaller-sized cobble, with a lot of effort… but fatbikes can do almost all of it, with ease.
So, I bought a fatbike and built it as a single-speed.
Of course, I challenged anyone to show me a place they could ride with gears that I couldn’t ride with my single-speed Pugs. I dominated hills, topping out first, always. I powered through rough terrain with dripping testosterone. I raced the White Mountains 100 and finished in just over 16 hours, beating A LOT of other bikers, although I didn’t even have 100 miles on my bike before the race start that winter.
Once again, I could hang with anyone I had ridden with, anywhere. But, again, that was until I rode with Kevin Breitenbach on Saturday, who’s fresh off his first place ride in the Arrowhead 135 and second place finish in the Susitna 100. Last year, on the White Mountains 100, he took second place, finishing in 10 hrs 15 mins.
So, big question is, could I hang with Kevin in the White Mountains?
Soft trail conditions slowed us both down, making me feel better about riding with such a capable biker, but it also brought down one more thing… The gearing he pedaled in. I was not so fortunate to be able to downshift, which meant I was pedal-mashing while he putt-putted along, spinning in low gear. It was the first time I realized I needed gears.
By the time we got 20 miles into our 36 mile ride, it was starting to impact my riding ability, right when the trail got worse. I was in too high of a gear ratio to be able to spin freely and keep my balance, riding slow on the poor trail, which meant riding a straight line was really difficult. Second time I realized I needed gears.
When we hit uphills, Kevin downshifted and I cranked harder, exhausting myself in the soft snow to the point where forward motion stopped. Then, I’d get off and push… and here’s the biggest thing I learned: Until then, everyone I had ever biked with, I could keep up with going uphill when I was pushing and they were riding. But Kevin is strong, obviously. He pulled away quickly and I had no chance of keeping up. Third time I learned I needed gears.
Because I could keep up pushing while others rode the uphills, I had always thought I was giving myself a break from biking, using fresh walking muscles to go up the steeper sections. This may be true in the middle pack of riders, but not up front.
Towards the end of the ride, my muscles were spent from 30 miles of cranking hard and pushing a bike uphill in soft snow, both of us struggling to keep forward momentum on FLAT ground. I told Kevin, with five miles left, that I’d meet him at the trailhead because I was going to push the final uphill sections, knowing he’d ride them all. Fourth time I realized I needed gears.
When I got back to the trailhead, he had been there about 25 minutes. He gained that amount of time in the final 5 miles, since we separated, all because he could downshift and ride uphill. That hit me hard – 25 minute lead created in only 5 miles.
Then, Kevin told me (again) I needed gears. That was the cherry on top of it all, to hear him say that I did at the end of the ride, when the experience is complete and you hem and haw over what worked and what didn’t. He also said if I had gears and raced, I’d place in the top 5 finishers every time, after seeing what I actually WAS able to ride on my single-speed and reflecting back on my 16 hour finish in the WM100 race.
It was satisfying to hear that I was capable of all that, but also saddening to know that I was stupidly being stubborn and riding single-speed simply because I liked it and thought it was really cool, not because it was a good idea for the type of riding I like to do. Gears for winter riding and racing are a good idea, when the snow is soft and it’s simply challenging to pedal uphill, unlike summer, due to the snow. Less time out on trail, less energy spent so less is needed in food calories, less sleep deprivation, etc. Single-speed is for summer trips or when you’re just cruising, where simplicity, durability, and reliability are more important, not so much speed and the ability to ride everything you might encounter.
Quite the change for me, as I will actually need to learn how to ride a geared bike again. Strange.
Don’t worry, I’m keeping the single-speed Pugs. That will never go away. But I can’t put gears on a horizontal drop-out bike, so in my sights is an aluminum Fatback, because they ride so beautifully and I have to keep it Alaskan.
Anyone want to sponsor me, so I can keep up and race with Kevin?
This story can also be viewed on Josh’s website at www.joshspice.com