Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Changing gears

Just got this in my inbox from the Utah Avalanche Center:

We have ended our avalanche advisories for the season.

This does not mean that there will be no more avalanches. It just means that we have run out of money and our forecasters are heading off to their summer jobs, with a short vacation in between.

I knew it was coming, but the email message brings a sort of finality with it. Dug mentioned that he needs RAWROD to get him to put the skis away and get out the bike every spring. The timing of this message seems to confirm the rightness of that change.

Now that I’m on the bike, I’m happy to be there. It’s been a fantastic ski season—a 10—a happy welcome back to Utah.

But now that I’m on the bike, or more precisely, now that I’ve spent 12 hours on one bike, I can’t get a certain thought out of my head. As Aaron and I were chatting with the Samurai on Friday morning, they both commented that my rigid single speed was sort of like telemark skiing—it’s a choice of equipment that makes the task more difficult than it needs to be.

Don’t get me wrong—I enjoy riding the single speed and find certain benefits to it. But it definitely is one of those things like making drop-knee turns: it’s not the most efficient way around the mountain.

At first I thought the cure to my ills was just a suspension fork, and that once my delicate wrists were spared the abuse of riding rigid, all would be well. But coming across White Rim on Saturday, spinning a cadence as high as 125 and as low as 30 when I’m most comfortable between 80 and 95, the tradeoffs of riding just one gear became all the more poignant.

So I guess the easy solution is to ride my geared, front-suspended 29er more often. Except I don’t like the geometry of that bike and the fork could use some TLC.

The fact that I don’t have enough space in a three car garage suggests I have too many bikes anyway. So I’m pondering thinning the herd. But I’m still left with the problem of what constitutes a bike I would be happy with. And since this is my blog, and I am not without opinions on the matter, I’m going to ramble on a bit.

29ers: Big wheels ride smoother—they’re worth about 20-30 mm of suspension. But they’re also heavier and don’t handle as well at slow speeds. They can improve traction, but no more than an active rear suspension that keeps the tire in contact with the ground. And contrary to what anyone tells you, the size (I didn’t say shape) of the tire’s contact patch is no different than that of a 26” bike running the same tire pressure. It doesn’t matter how wide your tires are or what diameter they are, a 180 pound bike + rider running 30 PSI will have six square inches of rubber touching the ground.

Full Suspension Bikes: I’m a dirtbag and hate dropping the cash for a full suspension bike, since that’s a big up-front cost and a whole host of moving parts that need to be maintained, even if they offer certain advantages that I won’t get into here. I’ve owned two and would likely buy another if money were no object. In fact, if money were no object and I had a four car garage, I would have a 7 inch travel freeride bike that would only ever go downhill.

Single Speeds: Riding a single speed is fun and a great way to get a good workout in a short amount of time. It forces you to do intervals when you may have been too lazy otherwise. And intervals do, in fact, make you faster. But single speeds aren’t inherently faster bikes. If you cover a certain amount of ground in a certain time, it requires a certain wattage regardless of which gear you were spinning. The only way to go faster is to increase your output. And last I checked, single speeds couldn’t do that for you.

So what’s the right answer? For the mostly not-very-technical trails I spend most of my time riding, a geared 29er with a suspension fork. But if you see me riding my rigid single speed again, you’ll know this was just RAWROD talking.


  1. Mark, I don't want to pass judgment... but I think you have made the wrong decision. Skiing this week has been pretty great. But hey, enjoy your bicycle efficiency dilemma. I am sure that is just as much fun as what I did this morning -


  2. so, i was just (about 30 minutes ago) returning from park city by the southern route, which afforded some pretty spectacular views of the back of timp.

    dude. that east ridge looks totally filled in.

    i'm just sayin.

  3. Good points on bike selection - and a lot of factors most people miss but turn out to be big deals down the road.

    I'm torn. My full suspension 26" bike is a good all-arounder. But this 29er hard tail has really grown on me - it's been fun to ride a different style of bike.

    I did OK on RAWROD on the hard tail, but I took more of a beating than last year on the full suspension bike. And I used more energy - I was out of the saddle a LOT more. To me if you want to have the easiest RAWROD, a full suspension bike is the obvious choice. Yeah, you'll feel those extra pounds on the steep climbs, but that's only 3 miles out of 100.

    That said, I'm not selling my 29er hard tail (yet?). It's fun for the local trails and short 1-2 hour rides.

    If I had to pick only one bike, it would be a full suspension 29er. Why not have it all?

    There is a way to get full suspension cheaper - buy used. I watched and waited and bought my Prophet for $850. But new, you're right, that's big money for a bike.

    And our full suspension bikes have been not been appreciably more hassle to maintain. Shocks get rebuilt after 3-5 years, check the air every 3 months or so, I've never hassled with the pivots.

  4. Dug, you should read the Samurai's latest installment about the East Ridge.

    Kris, I tend to think full suspension 29ers are overkill. 29ers give you a good compromise with some of the smoothness of full suspension without giving up hardtail efficiency. If I've got a full suspension bike, I'd rather have 26 inch wheels for the better slow speed handling and faster acceleration. But that's just me. I've also only ever ridden a full suspension 29er once.

  5. Kris, the other thing is that Rawrod always makes me think about my bike, but it's only one ride a year, so I'd never buy a bike just for that event.

  6. I've got a 29er HT hanging up if you wanna give it a go.