I had an epiphany and learned something pivotal this past weekend... It's not about what you can't do, it's about what you CAN.
How can a 36 mile winter fatbike ride be more difficult than a 100 mile winter fatbike ride? Soft snow and one gear.
When I had my 29er with Snow Cats, I challenged anyone to show me a place they could ride a fatbike and I couldn't ride my bike. For a long time, I could hang with anyone, anywhere. That was until we went and rode a dry creek bed in the Alaska Range. 29ers can do cobble with a lot of effort... but fatbikes can do it with ease.
So, I bought a fatbike and built it as a single-speed.
Of course, I challenged anyone to show me a place they could ride with gears that I couldn't ride with my single-speed. I dominated hills, topping out first, always. I powered through rough terrain with dripping testosterone. I raced the White Mountains 100 and finished in just over 16 hours, beating A LOT of other bikers.
So, big question is, could I hang with Kevin in the White Mountains?
Soft trail conditions slowed us both down, but it also brought down one more thing...
The gearing he pedaled in. I was not so fortunate to be able to downshift, which meant I was cranking hard while he putt-putted along, spinning in low gear. It was the first time I realized I needed gears.
When we hit uphills, Kevin downshifted and I cranked harder, exhausting myself in the soft snow. Then, I'd get off and push... and here's the biggest thing I learned: Until then, everyone I had ever biked with, I could keep up with going uphill if I was pushing and they were riding. But Kevin is strong, obviously. He pulled away and I had no chance of keeping up. Third time I learned I needed gears.
Because I could keep up pushing while others rode the uphills, I had always thought I was giving myself a break from biking, using fresh walking muscles to go up the steeper sections. This may be true in the middle pack of riders, but not up front.
Towards the end of the ride, my muscles were spent from 30 miles of cranking hard and pushing a bike uphill in soft snow. I told Kevin, with five miles left, that I'd meet him at the trailhead because I was going to push the final uphill sections, knowing he'd ride them all. Fourth time I realized I needed gears.
When I got back to the trailhead, he had been there about 25 minutes. He gained that amount of time in the final 5 miles, since we separated, all because he could downshift and ride uphill. He told me I needed gears. That was the cherry on top of it all, to hear him say that I did. He also said if I had gears and raced, I'd place in the top 5 finishers every time, after seeing what I WAS able to ride on my single-speed and reflecting back on my 16 hour finish in the WM100.
It was satisfying to hear that I was capable of that, but also saddening to know that I was stupidly being stubborn and riding single-speed simply because I liked it, not because it was a good idea. Gears for winter riding and racing are a good idea. Less time out on trail, less energy spent so less is needed in food calories, less sleep deprivation, etc. Single-speed is for summer trips, where simplicity and durability are more important, not speed and ability to ride everything encountered.
Quite the change for me. I actually will need to learn how to ride a geared bike again. Strange.
Don't worry, I'm keeping the single-speed Pugs. That will never go away. But I can't put gears on a horizontal drop-out bike, so in my sights is an aluminum Fatback, because they ride so beautifully and I have to keep it Alaskan.
Anyone want to sponsor me, so I can keep up and race with Kevin?