by Sasha Magee
As I hit the steep rocky drop-off for the fourth time today, I (for the first time) successfully resist the urge to try to set up my pedals to clear the granite bits embedded in the narrow trail. Instead, I prepare for pedal strike as my back wheel skips from rock to rock. I can’t set my pedals up because I’m doing something kind of dumb – I’m riding a mountain bike race* on a fixed-gear cyclocross bike.
I’ve been riding my ’cross bike fixed a fair amount this summer, but only for casual road rides and training. In fact, it’s only been in the last couple months that I’ve gotten up the nerve to ride fixed offroad at all. In that time, though, I’ve gotten comfortable with the concept, which means getting used to only occasional traction in back and a whole lot of pedal strike.
I’m not going to claim that riding fixed ’cross means anything as metaphysical as becoming “one with the trail,” or that I can say anything about it that includes the word “zen.” Instead, I think you end up with a tolerance for all sorts of stuff that can freak out less foolhardy riders. Pedal strike? No problem. I’ve left Candy prints on rocks and roots all over San Francisco (and despite the criticism they sometimes get, those pedals have held up remarkably well to my abuse). Dubious rear traction? Sure. Adding one more variable (am I pedaling? How fast?) makes it remarkably more difficult to stick the back tire, particularly on the loose rocky downhills that permeate the Bay Area’s wilder spots.
*It may not be fair to call this a “mountain bike race.” It’s an underground, unsanctioned, casual race in one of San Francisco’s less-trafficked parks. It’s not exactly NORBA standards of seriousness here, either. To successfully complete the race you must ride five laps and complete two challenges, one of which involves shooting a slingshot at a cutout of a dinosaur while drinking a margarita. Still, the trails are narrow and rocky, and they demand some pretty sharp bike handling. When the leaders lap me, I note they’re all riding mountain bikes. And not slowly, either.
If singlespeed cyclocross is, as one Cyclocross Magazine forum member described it, “a cult within a cult within a cult,” fixed-gear cyclocross would further subdivide that into one more cult. That’s not really surprising. Unlike with a regular singlespeed – where in a B field, I, at least, compete nearly as well on a single as on a geared bike) in technical terrain – fixed gear racing’s almost always slower. Dismounts are particularly difficult. You need to align your dismounts to the pedal angle pretty carefully – no coasting into the barriers here! It’s not impossible, and I’ve seen people do it pretty successfully, but it’s certainly still marginal indeed.
When proper racing season starts, will I ride fixed? Probably not. When my competitive juices really get going, I don’t think I’ll be willing to give up as much advantage as I’d be conceding. It’s also all too likely I’d screw up a dismount and end up plowing into a barrier or clipping a pedal on a road turn. That’d be dangerous to me, but also to other racers. Still, though, if you see me on the trails in one of San Francisco’s parks as the summer ends, you’ll likely see me spinning madly downhill, hoping to keep my rear tire on the dirt and my pedals out of it.
I charge in to the finish somewhere in the bottom half of the pack, spinning madly as I grab a finishing card. It’s not one of my better finishes. People I beat normally have already grabbed a cup and are lining up at the keg. As we spend the next hour grilling and sipping, I try to resist the temptation to explain my performance away by calling attention to my lack of freewheel. I’m mostly successful, although I do occasionally feel compelled to mention it. After the awards I head home, empty handed, dirty and bruised, but satisfied that I achieved something very few other people would be silly enough to try. Which is as good a description of cyclocross as any, isn’t it?