This past month I’ve ridden bikes with six inches of travel with cutting-edge carbon fiber frames that weigh five pounds (sub-2.3kg). A couple where the gears changed flawlessly and wirelessly and one of those extended the cable-free courtesy to the dropper post too. I’ve ridden tires so confidently traction-rich that I’ve had to reassess lines and braking points to more aggressive limits even though the weather has totally gone down the drain. I’m currently riding RockShox’s latest Flight Attendant AI suspension system that automatically and constantly adjusts to trail feedback, pedaling and body movement as fast as my own synapses. I’ve ridden in a different jacket every day, five different gloves (mostly in mixed pairs for direct comparison), four different boot/shoe/overshoe combinations (again in mixed and matching pairs), three different base layers, four different sets of bib tights and trousers and several different helmets. I’ve even used three different tubeless sealants and five different lights in the past few days too.
And while most of these items have been forward steps in the progress of bike performance and rider comfort, can you imagine how much buffering has happened while I’ve tried to work out what to ride in or on? Let alone trying to find it all, fit it and generally faff around with it while riding to try and find the sweet spot that suits that moment of the ride. Even on the Flight Attendant bike, I’ve still burnt a ton of time I could have been riding arsing about with what to wear and which positions the zips should be in for the next section of the session. I know full well that it’s impossible and straight-up ignorant to complain about what I’m lucky enough to call a job, but seriously, there’s so much choice and tech to deal with these days, it often feels like my mind is on dial-up rather than broadband.
It’s perhaps not a surprise that the rides that have given me the purest pleasure and trail connection recently have been on a deliberately, mechanically masochistic project build: a Salsa Stormchaser single speed gravel bike. I’m not trying to flex some kind of pedaling equivalent of the paleo diet here; even without gears and suspension, there’s still a lot of the latest goodness on my side. The Thomson Dirt Drop bars flare out to 570mm wide at the tips and I’ve fattened up the latest Schwalbe G-One R tires on 25mm internal DT-Swiss rims so I can run the pressures low enough to feel them bottoming out regularly without bursting them (yet). Not only is the Stormchaser a great example of just how good the best alloy frames feel now, but it’s also got geometry that would have been World Cup cross-country mountain bike standard a couple of years ago, so in gravel bike terms it’s pretty damn capable.
Being unable to change gear creates such a profound change in the way I ride, and I’m not just talking about the moments of knee-crushing, back-popping, brake hood-bending maximum strain when the last meters of a crux climb section seem to stretch into minutes. Or frantically spinning the 34 x 16-tooth gear and then sucking slipstream before blurring out again, while trying to keep up with a geared bike on the road. What I’m talking about is remembering how vital reading and exploiting every nuance of the trail becomes (I did, after all, ride and race single speed a lot in the last century). How crucial it is to accelerate well before the foot of each climb and then make the longest possible curve out of the entry corner to carry as much speed as possible. And how straying into even the smallest soft or sticky patch can slow your pedaling just enough to stall you out several agonizing seconds later.
But it’s also reminding me how slow-churning a gear through slop can give you incredible, intuitive feel for the grip of the rear tire. Taking that information and feathering torque to keep the wheel just about turning without ripping the grip away. How much I can still gain momentum and muscle up after removing any kind of gear ratio alteration equipment has been truly eye-opening too.
I’ve always been a “never go full Eagle” evangelist on tech climbs because a combination of 30/32 chainring and 52/50 crawler cog gives a speed so slow that you’ll struggle to steer on steep slopes, tires will spin far more easily, and you won’t have much meaningful momentum to hoik you over anything. But because I’ve been trying to curate a more efficient, ‘sit and spin’ pedaling persona recently, I’ve become pathetically lazy and limp when it comes to muscling a gear and all too often my thumb is surrendering me to that dinner plate gear. That inevitably cues me up for a dismal, apologetic dismount the moment my front wheel nudges a root or rock or the rear wheel slips at 2mph and I’ve no way to save it.
That means it feels brilliant to get back to the heroic idiocy of hurling myself at impossible slopes playing a game of ‘weakest link’ with every sinew in my body. Removing all doubt that I haven’t tried my damnedest and then limping home riddled with endorphins and remembering all those extra bits that hurt when you properly commit rather than winch and white flag. And when I do manage to crest out, the sense of smugness and long over-the-shoulder judgy looks at the geared riders far behind is megalomania gold. Those moments are happening more and more as my body gets used to the increased strains and stresses so it’ll hopefully really help as a training tool for as long as my back stays intact and my knees don’t pop.
It’s not just the silly moments that really make single speeding different either. In fact, the moments when you’re in the window of the right revs and effort feel absolutely amazing. Whether I can actually sense the few watts saved by a straight chain line and lack of jockey wheel drag is a moot point, but the quietness and directness certainly feels gloriously pure compared to a geared bike. Like stepping out of a storm into the shelter of a bothy, or just hanging on long enough on a rowdy descent to get spat out onto the smooth end section the right way up. It’s a properly righteous relief and you can’t help but really immerse yourself in the feeling of respite before everything ramps up again.
With no shifts to make or suspension to think about or tweak, I'm acutely aware of all the small things happening between me and the trail too. I find I can run lower tire pressures for grip because I’m naturally scoping the ground better to pick the line that’ll keep momentum whether I’m grunting or tucked and trying to hang on at speeds too high to spin. I can feel how stiff the bars are and how much wrench I need to put through the brake hoods to get them twisting. With much less load running through my elderly ride CPU it can almost feel like it’s my fingertips and feet that are pressing into the loam and grabbing onto each passing root for grip, not the tires. Even the brake feedback feels brighter, not least because I know any needless slowing down is going to cost me dearly on the next climb or if I can’t pedal fast enough to keep up. The whole ride experience is just somehow more vivid, more visceral, more rewarding and engaging and I love it.
And the great thing is that you don’t need to build yourself a single speed or a hardtail to get some of this simplicity and perspective. You just need to switch off some of the distractions between you and the actual ride. Try the next descent without pedaling. Don’t downshift for that upcoming climb. Flick your suspension to firm or locked (it’ll generally blow off if it really needs to) and take away some of that anesthetic that all the latest tech dulls our trail experience with. You might be amazed at how good it feels and how much you can still do and become a regular sado-masochist with a stripped down rig to match. Or you might realize just how much you take all the skill and fitness-flattering tech for granted and appreciate your bike more in the future.
All I ask is that you keep an eye out for an old fool on a gold gravel bike and give me some space if I come straining and struggling up behind you on a climb.