About 75% of the people I tell that I have a fixed gear bike ask the question: “What use is a bike like that?” I believe they’re mostly asking why the second bike still looks like a road bike and not a mountain bike, a distiction that the average person understands. I came across the article by Patrick McCrann of Performance Training Systems and I think it really does a fine job of summing up at least the training aspect of the fixie, not entirely the fun or the awesomeness or the flow… but this is certainly an important aspect.
Single Gear Riding (SGR) is a powerful exercise in learning how to manage your effort level on the road. Instead of shifting gears to compensate for terrain changes, SGR teaches you how to use “internal” gears to deal with hills, descents and flats. This is an essential skill for Iron-distance athletes, as you will encounter a wide variety of terrain on race day – often two or three times depending on the number of loops on the course. Every small roller, false flat, and serious climb is a chance to appropriately manage your effort; SGR will give you a solid skill-set that will be incredibly useful come race day. This is not a time trial workout; I think of this as a variation on a weekly endurance ride of 2.5 hours (or more). SGR teaches you:
- How to “roll into a hill,” using momentum to start the climbing process . Climbing hills is hard work. The fact that we use our gears to manage the hill actually mitigates our true appreciation for exactly how hard it is to climb any given hill. SGR will give you a much deeper understanding of how tough any given hill is without a crutch to lean on. (yeah, Emily Murphy on a fixed gear is a rocking fun time!)
- The nuances of climbing seated regularly or on the back of your seat . One key way to manage your climbing is to maneuver your body into different positions on the bike to make the most of your effort. In the case of seated climbing, most folks can make it easier by simply sitting up. This opens their airways and facilitates quality breathing. As the climb increases in difficulty, some athletes find an advantage to shifting their weight back towards the rear of the saddle. This allows them to push the pedals forward and over the top of the pedal stroke.
- How to roll into a standing climbing position and keep your momentum . So many triathletes lose speed on each climb. And no, it doesn’t have to be a mountain to slow you down. If you have ever ridden with roadies, then you know that little “gap” that opens up every time they stand on the pedals. And if you have ridden behind a triathlete who stands up to pedal, then you are familiar with the jolt of adrenaline you get when their rear tire drifts back into your front wheel (yikes!). Learning how to keep your bike moving at the same pace is much easier during SGR as there is no sudden shift in cadence due to shifting. This allows you to develop the skills needed to keep your wheels turning without losing your momentum.
- How to pedal quickly . Lance makes it look easy, but for anyone who has tried to pedal at 110+ rpms, you know exactly how much coordination that takes. And not just on a physical level, but neuromuscular coordination as well. SGR will force you to pedal at a much higher cadence on some descents (hey, you don’t have to pedal over 28 mph!), teaching your muscles to fire more effectively. This work will make pedaling 95 rpms seem ridiculously easy.
- How to recruit different muscle groups . Working in a single gear will allow you to explore using different muscles at different stages of your ride. You can focus on the hamstrings pulling the pedals backwards, or on your hip flexors lifting the pedal upwards. You might try engaging your core muscles to aid you in a climb; or you can try relaxing one leg as you let the other one do a bit more work. Whatever you do, this recruitment process will make you a better rider simply by virtue of teaching you all the separate elements that work together to move your bike forward.
- How to manage your internal gears. This is perhaps the most important part of SGR. Riding without gear options forces you to learn when you should (and should not) pedal with force. On smaller hills, you might be able to roll up them halfway with your momentum and then soft pedal your way over the top. On the longer / bigger hills, you will be forced to learn how to provide an appropriate amount of force to the pedals in a consistent manner. Since you can’t shift, you’ll learn to moderate your effort based on the terrain, instead of just hammering your way through the ride. Your first attempts at SGR will be a bit rough (shifting is a hard habit to break!), but as you progress you’ll eventually erase the dead spots in your riding.