Now that I have recounted, in short, my efforts to get back into the realm of bike racing, I thought that I would share my reasons and experience with choosing the Gary Fisher 29er Rig as my bike of choice.
I guess it really all started with Charlie Lamb. I met Charlie at Buck Hill on my first night racing there. First of all, he did really well that night and I enjoyed how he and some of the other guys were willing to share some of their tips, tricks, and experience with me. What really had my head spinning, however was when I saw that Charlie only had ONE gear! Now, I had ridden and experienced single riding before...like when I was 10...but I could not imagine what it would be like to ride that course with access to only one gear, but he had not only done it, but he had done very, very well. It was intriguing to think about and I began to watch him and the other single speed riders with great interest.
I wanted to learn how they managed the course and tried to understand what inherent advantages and disadvantages they would have on various trails, and then compared it to what I believed is my own preferred riding style. I learned that especially on the tight, rolling singletrack that is home to much of the riding and racing in the Midwest, a single speed bike is often not a bad choice, and it compliments my riding style very well.
Good single track riding is often a matter of not only excellent bike and body handling skills, but also a solid mix of acceleration and fine speed control. I saw that in the singletrack, I rarely
shifted up OR down, and simply found my ideal gear, only considering shifting on climbs or downhills. I began to ride my bike as if it only had a single gear, in training and in races, to learn and see how I would manage a course within that limitation, and later that week, I placed 3rd in my division at the Dirt Spanker. I began to realize that when I was "freed" from the idea of shifting, it made me consider the course and my line through it a lot more carefully, instead of seeing a incline or rock pile and shifting in an lazy attempt to make it easier. With only one gear as an option, I realized that I had to "power" my way through obstacles and quick uphills...that momentum was my friend and brakes were meant to only moderate my speed, not eliminate it. It suddenly made sense to me and I saw myself carrying more speed through courses.
Of course, long climbs and long downhills or flats are not a strong suit for a singlespeed, but climbs can be still cleared with good momentum management and strong legs, and downhills/flats can be "spun". You will use more energy climbing a long hill, but you will also be going faster than the "granny spinners" and be better prepared at the top. (since you do not have to shift. You will also use more energy on the downhills/flats, but even if you are a big guy like me, you were not likely getting a long enough downhill to be spin out a big gear.
So I had made up my mind...I wanted to ride a single speed and see what it was like. Then I learn about the "other" debate...26 vs 29!
I had been hearing about the 29ers since the day that I began going to Buck, and had even had a few guys tell me that I should consider it due to my size (6'4''). They told me that a 29" wheel would provide me with an easier time handling rocks, trees, etc without raising my center of gravity. This was attractive to me and I began researching the 29'ers and trying to see, again, what type of advantages and disadvantages that wheel size would have for me. Boy, was I confused quickly. There is so much contradicting information out there pertaining to the advantages/disadvantages of 29ers, especially when I compared to 26" bikes. I learned that the information on the web was one part "fan propaganda", one part marketing propaganda, and one part hater propaganda...so very little honest, informed, and critical analysis.
The real problem was that everyone was so intent on "proving their point" that they, for the most part, forgot to acknowledge the fact that so much of a bike's performance is based on the trail that is ridden and the rider's ability and talent to take advantage of the differences between two bikes. They would forget that when you are used to riding a 26'' bike on a particular trail, that a major change like going to 29'' wheels (including the geometry changes) was going to feel "different". One ride would not likely give any rider a complete bead on how the handling characteristics have changed, or how to be efficient with those changes. Looking back, how I have shifted to a 29er myself, I learn something new about how to handle the bike every time I ride it, so really, the more telling information would come from those who allow themselves to ride a 29er for an extended period of time before making their analysis.
So, being frustrated at not being able to find any reliable information regarding the actual advantages/disadvantages of a 29'' wheel, I decided to take it upon myself and just ride one and see what it felt like. I went down to Penn and test rode a Gary Fisher 29er geared bike down there and I was INSTANTLY amazed at how it handled! I was very pleased that I did not feel any higher on the bike, yet the tires "felt" bigger on some of the rocks and logs that I found on my little trail by my house. Convinced that a 29er would ultimately be the wheel size that I would enjoy the most, I decided to begin looking at 29ers that were also single speeds...and that led me to the Rig.
I quickly realized that I did not have the money to purchase this bike brand new ($1299), so I began scouring Craigslist for options, and found some one in Fairbault selling an '06 Rig for $800.00 with only 30 miles on it, and the stem, bars, seatpost, and wheels upgraded to Race Lite! I quickly pulled the trigger on the deal and bought it. I was going to race at Buck Hill the next day, so I got my shoes for the clipless pedals (another new thing) and had took it for a quick "get to know you" spin....I was very happy with how it responded, climbed, and handled. I knew almost immediately that I had made the right choice.
That next night at Buck, I took a crash course (literally) on the finer points of racing with a singlespeed bike, 29" tires, and clipless pedals. I felt great on the first lap, climbing the front and back climbs well and making a fairly smooth transition from sitting and spinning on the hills, to jumping out of the saddle and "cranking" up the hill. The second lap, however, began to get a little sketchy as I began to tire, and the Advanced guys began to lap me.
I always get a little nervous when the Advanced guys are coming through, mainly because I do not want to be in their way, or cause an accident. So when poor Sam O. caught up to me, I had already jumped aside for Moore and Fisher, but I was still getting used to getting out of my pedals (they were set too tight) and so when I called out and I went to the side to stop, I panicked when my right foot didn't come loose and it kicked my rear wheel out...wiping out Sam! He was a bit miffed at me, and I was embarrassed, but in the end he was okay, and I caught up to him after the race to check on him and apologize. He was very nice and I was glad to see that no lasting grudge would be kept. Anyhow, I learned that I needed to get my proficiency with clipless pedals back fast, and learn how to better manage my momentum...but after the race I knew that I had found the bike for me.