Project SingleSpeed Racer- Part Five: Riding Tips

Getting the most speed out of your singlespeed bike requires learning some new skills, and perfecting old ones. Well mastered basic skills for cross country mountain bike riding are essential to singlespeed riding. The nature of riding a singlespeed tends to magnify any lapses in your technique. With only one gear, there are also some tricks you can use to get the most out of it.

The basic skills for mountain biking include; riding technical terrain, cornering, descending, climbing, and pacing. When riding technical terrain, rock gardens, roots, and logs, it is best to try and maintain momentum and keep riding. On a singlespeed it generally takes more effort to recover from a dab, putting your foot down, than a geared bike due to the gear ratio. But, with no derailleur or shifting to worry about, it can often be faster in technical section. Make sure to keep your eyes focused ahead and enter a technical section at moderate speed, try and pick a line which will allow you to flow through like water. Picking the line of least resistance is the key, you want to let your bike roll as smoothly as possible, keeping your body loose. A common mistake riding in rocky sections is to try and pick a line between all of the rocks, sometimes riding over a larger rock is actually smoother. In rock gardens of 3”-5” rocks, more speed can actually help you avoid getting stuck between rocks. Always look where you want to go, not where you want to avoid, your bike will follow your eyes. The more you can conserve your momentum, the better, each time you brake and accelerate you are wasting energy. In roots, aim to cross a root at a 90 degree angle, or aim for a spot where two roots intersect. When crossing logs, practice bunnyhopping smaller ones, and bouncing off your front wheel over larger ones. When riding or racing with geared riders try and get into the technical sections first, you will likely be faster, and you don’t want to be stuck behind one when their chain drops.

The basics of cornering apply equally to geared and singlespeed riders, but once again maintaining momentum is critical. In a fast corner look forward through the corner and try to start wide then cut to the inside and steer through the apex. Brake before the corner, not during it, and accelerate out of the corner. Keep your outside foot down and push on that pedal. On tight corners you can sometimes toss the bike more side to side without moving your body as much from the center, this can be used to slalom through tight trees. On a singlespeed, keeping your speed up is critical, and make sure to power out of each turn. If there is enough pedal clearance keep pedaling through the turn, even while braking, this will speed up your acceleration out of the corner. The best way to corner faster is to follow someone faster, chasing Ed Bush (Bike Baby/ Wissahickon Cycles) through Belmont Plateau in Philly is my best practice.

Most aspects of going downhill fast are universal, singlespeeds are only challenged by lack of rear suspension. On a steep, smooth, descents there really is not much of a difference between geared bikes and singlespeeds. On rocky descents the lack of rear suspension on singlespeeds, or a rigid fork, can make it more challenging. Fast descending on a hardtail requires technique, rather than technology. You can’t just bash straight down the trail and expect things to come out well. Pick a line much like you would through a technical section and try to shift your weight to keep from hitting the rear tire too hard (see Project SSR Race Report #1 for how not to do this). Bunnyhop dangerous looking rocks when you can. 29” wheels and tubeless tires can also help smooth things out and minimize pinch flats.

Climbing is one aspect of riding where singlespeeds can excel. The combination of light weight and efficiency can be a big advantage when coupled with good training. On short, steep hills, start accelerating before you reach the hill. Hit the bottom at a high cadence and power to the top standing on the pedals. As your cadence drops, leverage with your bars and try and tough it out, even if your legs are barely moving you can often make it up steeper slopes then you imagine. Sometimes you might even need to ratchet your cranks to maintain good leverage. If approaching a hill you don’t think you can ride, dismount before reaching it and run/walk up. If you try and pedal it, and then have to dismount mid-climb, you are likely to snag your seat and get frustrated. On longer climbs try to pick a gear in advance that will let you pedal up it at 60-70 rpm. Climb as much as you can seated, using standing efforts sparingly. When you start to reach the crest, accelerate. Since you have been using more muscular endurance on the climb then the geared riders you can often transition to a higher cadence at the top, and get a jump on them. As in technical sections, try and hit the climbs before the geared riders, they are likely to slow at the bottom while shifting gears. Try and gain as much on the climbs and crests as possible to make up for any losses on the flat sections.

How you pace you race or ride is also very important. Geared riders will tend to go out fast, and then slow during the technical sections and climbs, while speeding up on the flats. As we mentioned in Part 2, this leads to a more uniform power output than when on a singlespeed. Singlepeed riders will tend to start a bit slower, due to gearing, but will be faster on the technical sections and climbs. Because of this difference in pacing, it can be difficult to ride with geared riders. In a race scenario, trying to ride on a singlespeed behind a geared rider can be frustrating and slow you down, this also happens in reverse. You are better off keeping a distance from them so you are not as affected by their changes in pace as they shift. Alternatively, you can pass them before climbs and technical sections, and then let them pass on flats. If you choose this option it helps to be courteous, and let them know you are on a singlespeed so they don’t just think you are an ass. When they pass you on a flat section, try and pull into their draft and hold on as long as you can. Sometimes the best tactic is to not be too concerned about a slower start, and just pick off geared riders as you go, always making sure not to get re-passed.

The best way to practice all of these skills is riding on a many different types of trails as you can, and seeing what works best for you. If you find yourself really enjoying a ride, and not dabbing or bobbling, then you are probably flowing well with the terrain. Fighting the trail is never as fast as trying to flow with it. Also try following a faster or more skilled rider and watch them carefully. Don’t be afraid to try new things while out on the trail.