Remove your cap, look to the skies, and salute, because a bird of prey may be flying over your head at this very moment:
I’m not crying, a bug just flew into my eye while I was riding, that’s all.
Speaking of riding, I consoled myself yesterday by reminding myself what fantastic bikes have, and by heading to The Trails Behind The Mall on what is in many ways the anti-Kestrel, but in other ways is very much like the Kestrel:
Basically it’s the anti-Kestrel because it’s got fat tires and no gears (well, one gear) and is only happy on dirt, but it’s like the Kestrel in that both bikes are purpose built for one very specific type of riding.
Before heading out I ditched the flat pedals:
And went back to the clipless:
Part of the reason I’d switched to flat pedals on this bike in the first place was that I was dealing with some weird tendinitis thing which I suspect was either being caused or exacerbated by this type of pedal. That has since subsided, and while in recent years I’ve come to embrace and prefer flat pedals for much of my riding, I do still like them for riding road racing bicycles and riding singlespeed mountain bikes. So I put them back on, and hopefully the problem does not recur and force me to admit I’m too old to be riding singlespeed mountain bikes.
If however I were forced to give up this indulgence (or self-flagellation, depending on how you look at it), I can look back upon my years of not shifting with fond remembrance. As someone who grew up riding and racing BMX bikes you could say I was not shifting since childhood, but in my adult years it began when I had one of these:
I don’t have any pictures of the actual bike, but it looked very much like that one, and after my derailleur broke during a ride and forced me to walk back to the trailhead I converted it into a singlespeed. This was a no-brainer due to the bike’s horizontal dropouts and my own lack of money, but I was also a no-brainer and so I had a mechanic do it for me. I realize this rids me of any shred of “OG” singlespeed cred I can pretend to have, but this was before I had drawers and drawers full of spare parts and tools, and I believe I was helping out in a bike shop at the time anyway, so asking for help was the most reasonable course of action at the time.
The Klein was already quite well used when I got it, and the first-generation XTR shifters were quite balky, so the first time I rode it in singlespeed guise I was delighted by how light, snappy, and quiet it was. Probably the second-most trite thing to say in cycling after “Riding fixed is a zen thing” is “Riding a singlespeed mountain bike makes you feel like a kid on a BMX again.” But I did feel like a kid on a BMX again. Shifting seemed silly when all you had to do was wind ‘er up and stomp your way to the top of the climbs. From then on I was hooked.
People like to say Kleins were ahead of their time, and it’s true in that many had annoying proprietary features like integrated headsets and press-fit bottom brackets long before they became (barf) standard. Thankfully the Rascal had a normal headset (one inch threaded to boot, I can’t believe I survived!), but it did have a press-fit bottom bracket, and after awhile it developed a great deal of play. By this Klein was just another Trek brand, and to get new bearings you had to get new aftermarket bearings and a special tool from some boutique company in like Germany or something. It all seemed really annoying, and so I sold the bike on Craigslist–it was purchased by a self-professed mountain bike collector who didn’t even test ride it since it was just going to sit in his collection like a Star Wars action figure.
This seemed completely crazy to me at the time. Mountain bikes were far from new at this point but unlike road bikes they didn’t seem nearly old enough to inspire nostalgia yet. But here I am now feeling nostalgic for that Klein, go figure.
By now singlespeed mountain bikes had become kind of a “thing” and you could actually buy them right off the rack. If you’re young it may be hard to believe, but back in the early aughts the hippest production bicycle company was Bianchi. These were the Sky Yaeger days, and in addition to the Bianchi Pista they also had bikes like the Milano:
[Photo: Classic Cycle, who of course had the best example of a Milano I could find.]
It may not look like much now, but casual cycling was still very much in the grip of the hybrid, and in America there was really no such thing as a comfortable, stylish townie you could buy in a normal bike shop. Sky Yaeger was also smart enough to know that the best thing about Bianchis is the color, and that it should not be reserved for their race bikes, especially since these were the Peak Aluminum days and no racer was interested in a lugged steel celeste Bianchi anyway.
In any case, besides the Pista, and the Milano, and eventually cyclocross bikes and all the rest of it, Bianch had a whole line of singlespeed mountain bikes. But while such bikes were a “thing,” they weren’t much of a thing at all here in New York City, so as I recall I was able to get one of these pretty cheap at the shop:
I liked that it was steel, and I was the first person in my (admittedly very small) riding circle with disc brakes, which ironically made me an early adopter, if you can believe it. The bike served me well for quite awhile, and even appears in my first book:
As you can see, I made several modifications designed to stretch myself out as much as possible:
As we all know, there’s always some (barf) “game-changing” development in mountain bikes, and around this time all the talk was about 29ers. “They roll over stuff better!” “But but isn’t that big wheel slower to accelerate?” “You get fewer pinch flats!” “But what about tight singletrack?” And so on.
One reason it took a little while for 29ers to catch on was that they hadn’t figured out how to incorporate it into a suspension platform yet, and of course mountain bikers love their suspension. But as someone who was only interested in riding rigid bicycles the idea of a larger wheel seemed pretty sensible to me. So I sold the Bianchi and got this:
It has a derailleur and suspension fork here, but I initially built it as a singlespeed and rode it that way for years. In fact it was during this time that I became the 183rd-fastest singlespeed mountain biker IN THE WORLD:
Of course after putting gears on it I needed another singlespeed, so as a stopgap I bought a cheap Bikesdirect singlespeed 29er that like an idiot I immediately proceeded to rebuild, and that I recently resurrected for my elder son:
Here it is in action several months ago:
I was also a world famous semi-professional bike blogger and author by now, so I placed an order for my one and only fullly custom bicycle, which I finally received in 2011. Here it is before I even picked it up:
[Photo: Engin Cycles]
I became familiar with Drew and Engin from racing cyclocross; he was just getting started as a framebuilder and was making bikes for his team. A group of us toured his then-nascent workshop, and a friend of mine ended up getting a singlespeed 29er, of which I was immediately envious.
Would I get a custom bicycle today? Probably not. There are so many bicycle out there both new and old to discover that in a way it seems kind of silly. I mean sure, you can order a custom road bike, but you can also try an old-ass Kestrel on a whim and discover you love it. Bikes are funny that way. And if I did order a custom bicycle today, it wouldn’t be a singlespeed mountain bike. I mean I love riding bikes like this as much as ever, but obviously if you live in a city like I do you don’t get nearly as much use out of one as a bike like, I dunno, the Homer, which you can use for almost anything.
And yet every time I ride it I’m extremely grateful to my younger, more profligate self:
It’s sprightly nimble:
It’s surprisingly comfy:
It’s got some nice details if you get in close:
It has a custom stem and seatpost, which nobody needs, but which is pretty classy:
I don’t know if the Seat Cluster Freds will approve, but I like the one on this bike:
It has quick release axles, which in this application have no drawbacks whatsoever that I can discern, and generally make life easier:
It has an ingenious chain tensioning system and I’m sure I could get a dropout with a derailleur hanger with Paragon if I were so inclined:
I don’t even remember what gear I’ve got there at the moment, but it gets me to the trail and up the hills just fine:
Every so often I consider doing some “dinglespeed” thing with a to-and-from the trail gear and an actual trail gear but then I remind myself it’s a singlespeed and that the whole point is to ride it instead of fussing with it.
Being a singlespeed, Drew built it with fat chainstays, I guess for POWER TRANSFER:
Whether or not I have enough POWER to need them is doubtful, but they’re there and they look cool anyway. They’re also crimped for what in those days was considered wide clearance:
Perhaps most importantly, it’s a bike built in the northeast for riding in the northeast, so it’s got a high bottom bracket for riding over roots and rocks, a feature that as far as I can tell has pretty much vanished from mountain bikes. Despite the lack of gears I love climbing on it; it’s precise, and it doesn’t feel all floppy like these slack bikes all the kids are riding today.
Would I be faster on a bike with gears and suspension and all that stuff? Probably. Maybe. I dunno. But who cares? It’s fun going down on this bike:
And it’s fun going up, too:
Sure, I didn’t make it up this today, but as rusty as I am I doubt I’d have made it up on anything:
You’d think more equipment would help as you get older, but I suspect it only becomes more irrelevant.