Thursday, September 21, 2006

The Simple Life

I like things simple. Grape Nuts. Scotch on the rocks. The White Stripes. Once things start to get complicated, anything can go wrong. In the year 2005, the most popular candy was still plain M&Ms. Know why? It's because people don't like complications. Who needs to risk an allergic reaction to peanuts? Who wants to spend a hard-earned buck on a candy bar that's just mediocre? Not me. M&Ms are a sure thing.

That's why I like single speeds. No derailleurs. No complicated linkage. No surprises.

I used to only own a single speed; a Gary Fisher Montare slowly converted over the years as parts broke and bent and corroded under the strain of too much mud and too many miles. First went the big ring, then the small one. I used to ride for the University of Maryland and I raced with that set up for a while, coming to find that I didn't really miss those extra teeth all that much.

Fast forward to regionals at the UVA home course. It's been raining all day and the team's been cooped up in a couple dingy motel rooms. The wall paper probably hasn't been changed since the 70s, the carpet is the same hard, matted stuff you'd find in an office building, and the room is so sparsely decorated that we feel no remorse dragging our dirty, wet steeds in for a little work the night before. We set up a gypsy-town bike shop and true wheels, lube chains, and give derailleurs some much needed attention. I can never get the adjustment screws just right, and end up tensioning the cable instead.

The next day it's still raining and we're wondering if we'll even get to race at all. We get to the van and the tire's flat. Someone whips out a floor pump and we take turns. The rain starts to pick up. 30psi; Good enough. We'll have to stop twice more on the way to the race and inflate the tire again.

Part of me, the weak side, wishes it will be called off, so I can avoid the hours of riding over slippery roots and rocks, the burn of lactic acid accumulated with every pump of my legs, and the dirty water kicked into my eyes, mouth, and nose through every tight switchback. The other part of me, the competitor, wants to get out there and give it everything I have; hammering the climbs until my chest feels like it's going to explode, and railing the descents, systematically picking off every racer in front of me.

The race was on.

I'll leave the details of the race to the imagination. If you've ever ridden East Coast terrain during a thunderstorm where the trail turns into a churning, muddy river and every root and fallen log becomes slick as ice, you know what it was like. It was one of the longest 6 hours of my life filled with cramps, exhaustion, rain that chilled me to the bone, and lots and lots of mud. By the time I finished, my brake pads had been worn down to bare metal and of the 8 gears I had left, I could use about 3 of them.

And I wasn't the only one. The finish line is usually a happy place, but I'll never forget the sight as racers came in, jumping off their bikes and throwing them over their heads into the mud in frustration. Any other day the bike was their pride and joy; a shiny, finely-tuned steed. That day it was their liability; a mud-clogged wreck of a machine responsible for everything that could have gone wrong and did.

That was the last day I rode with gears for a very long time. Instead of fixing my derailleur, I stripped it off, pulling the shifter pod and cables with it. I picked up a Surly 1x1 hub and built up a nice single speed wheel. I was lucky; even with the vertical dropouts I didn't need a tensioner. At 32x16, it all worked out perfectly.

The bike became a lot simpler, and a lot more elegant, without all the cables, shifters, and derailleurs; a series of lines and circles. Riding too, became simpler and more enjoyable. Instead of constantly worrying about being in the right gear, single speeding allows you the luxury to take it all in. Riding becomes more about keeping momentum, reading the trail, and enjoying the form rather than a constant struggle against mechanics. It's liberating.

I rode single for a long time. The rest of my time in Maryland. When I worked in New York. On my biking trips to Fruita, Moab, and all around the East Coast. I even took a winter and built up a brand new On-One Inbred from scratch. Winters in California are different. They're not really winters at all. Out East all you can do during the winter is snowboard, drink beer, and kill time on cold winter nights when it gets dark even before you leave work. I spent a lot of that time searching eBay and online stores for the best deals on all the perfect parts for my new ride. Simple things; Bomber air fork? Check. V Brakes? Crank Brothers pedals? Check. By spring it was finally ready and I hit the trails with all the fervor and excitement as I did the first time on my newly converted Montare.

Later that year I accepted a position with Google and relocated to the Bay Area. Just as the winters are different, so is the riding. Out East trails have a lot of flow, there's a lot of ups and a lot of downs. Here it's one big up and one big down (and, maybe another up). I rode it single for a while and finally decided it was about time to venture back into the land of full suspension. (I owned a Klein Mantra for a few months back in the day -- it went on eBay almost as quickly as it came). It wasn't the long, grinding ups that bothered me... but I wanted to really hit those downs hard. They were hard-earned and with the brake pump from the Vs, I just couldn't enjoy it as much as I wanted to. So I picked up my 575.

Getting back into gears was a lot harder than I expected, and I almost gave up on the bike after the first ride. Even today, I'm slower on my Yeti than I am on the On-One.

The Yeti just got back from the shop a couple days ago. During our last ride the front brake started to lose pressure so I figured it needed to be bled. I don't understand hydraulic brakes. I mean, I understand them in principle but not in practice. Why they work fine one day and not the next is a mystery to me. I figured I must have knocked the cable against a tree which let a little air leak in. And that's all you need -- a little. But who knows, there are dozens of ways hydraulic brakes can fail.

So I drop the bike off at the shop and get a call later that day saying that the caliber assembly is cracked and needs to be replaced. It was probably a little rock, but they can't be sure. See the crack in the photo above? How about in this one? All you need is a little rock, a little crack, a little air, and there goes your ride, your race, or your helmet. It's all too complicated. You'll never lose your V brakes from a little rock.

The caliper assembly was going to take, at the earliest, 3 weeks to ship from Avid. Lucky Dave had an almost complete Juicy 7 laying around -- sans piston, a part which probably broke from some little rock and was going to take weeks to ship. Weeks he didn't want to wait for his only bike.

I'm torn with regards to which bike to bring to the race. Do I take the Yeti for comfort and practicality or the On-One for speed and simplicity? It's a tough call. I'm leaning towards keeping it simple, but I have a few weeks to change my mind.


ark said...

avid mechanicals baby! ride out a tacoed wheel AND replace cables and fix it on the trail!

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