Is the creature of habit in me starting to rear itself in my cycling life? I've been signing up for the same rides again and again for years now. But when you consider what the Solvang Double Century has to offer (see reports from 2003, 2004 and 2005), it's easy to see why I've become so drawn to it - and why record numbers of other riders are catching on. Besides, despite a common route, the ride is always a unique experience each year.
The itch for a new challenge struck this year when I signed up to do my fourth Solvang Double Century in as many years. Since building up my fixed gear road bike in December, the thought of riding it on a double became more and more appealing. A little crazy and scary, but exciting. Certainly, it would make one of my favorite rides like a brand new experience. So when I packed up for Solvang this year, I decidedly left the gears and shifters behind. And one weekend later, I proudly realized I could... did... complete my first double century on a fixie.
It was like a really laborious out-of-body experience. So much so that I almost forgot that we also had to endure stormy weather for about three hours in the morning, with floods and cascading water on the roads of San Luis Obispo, and a pretty fierce headwind on the way to Morro Bay. Yeah, we were pretty dang soggy all day.
On one plane of consciousness, I still can't believe I actually managed to pull it off. I look back at the simple fact that I surely rode my fixed gear bike (a conversion based on a 1978 British Argos road racing frame) that day from start to finish on the same glorious course I know so well now from three prior experiences of this same event. And I'm baffled. I swear it was somebody else on the bike.
But on another level, I knew painfully well what it took to complete the ride. Over 54,000 continuous pedal revolutions: a fair number of which were probably turned with some reluctance. Of course, one doesn't keep count of them, but I was very much THERE for every one of them, as confirmed by one very sore bottom at the end of the ride, after 12 hours of saddle time.
Best of all, I finally understood not just whether it could be done, but how it's done. Lisa was extremely supportive of me in this pursuit, and despite being on the ride herself while battling coughing fits, she issued me a hall pass and urged me to ride as best as I could. She herself completed the ride with a new personal best time.
A "fixie", or fixed gear bike, is usually no different than most other bikes except for one notable feature: there are no gears and shifters, and thus only one gear (one chainring, one cog) that drives the bike. And like those used on track racing bicycles, a fixed gear wheel contains no freewheel mechanism, so you can never coast. If the rear wheel moves, the cranks move. If the cranks move, your legs move. So your legs are in constant motion. Try to stop moving them while the bike is moving and the bike will quickly tell you UH UH, no can do.
So why the hell would anybody want to ride a bike like that? Every person who enjoys riding a fixie will give you a different answer. Some are more training oriented ("Helps develop your spin", "teaches you control", bla bla bla). Me? I've grown to love it for the simplicity and fun of it (Adds spice and variety to your cycling life!).
So why the hell would anybody want to ride 200 miles in one day on a bike like that? Uh... cuz it... sounds like... fun?
There were 540 riders registered for this year's double century, a record high. 468 started the ride. 381 finished, an 82% completion rate. Of all the starters, there were just five (including myself) on fixed gear bikes, which I suppose granted me a certain status on the ride.
Riding a fixie on an event like this, let alone being noticed for it while on the road, had some interesting social impact. Many times, I was thrown back to my days as a high school freak - only this time a tad more respected. But, often, people on the ride spoke about me, referring to me in third-person, in my immediate presence. Yet, seldom would they actually speak TO me or make conversation unless I turned around and said hello. And even then, sometimes, they returned nothing more than doe-in-headlights expressions. But hey: they were doing a double century, too.
This actually happened a lot all day: at rest stops, on the road, by passing cyclists and wheelsuckers alike.
"Bro, check out the bike he's riding. It's got only one gear."
"Yo, that's the guy I was telling you about earlier."
"Oh dude dude dude, watch what he does when we start going downhill."
Sometimes, comments were whispered. Other times, they were heard across county lines. I found it neither annoying nor insulting. No. Just amusing. Depending on the tone and comment, I'd break ice and say hello. And when given the juicy opportunity, I really played up the stoicism. What fun. It took my mind off my aching ass.
But there were dozens of people who made the effort to give me kudos while on the road. Every instance of it was very gratifying and uplifting.
Other unique social effects were brought on by plain rules of biomechanics and self-preservation. I rode alone a lot. Even though I encountered several friends and acquaintances on this ride, as soon as the road would pitch downwards, they'd simply coast and let their ratcheting freewheels bid their sayonara. I was simply not able to keep up with many riders and pacelines on descents and long stretches of flat road. If I tried, it meant surely burning myself out after the first hour of riding.
For this reason, the limitations of riding a fixie on endurance events can actually (and conveniently) HELP you pace yourself for the long haul. You simply cannot go too fast. You find your rhythm rather quickly and the bike's momentum helps you maintain it. Remarkably, keeping the steady rhythm despite the inability to coast, helps preserve the condition of your legs for each following uphill assault.
When the hills do come around, everything changes. Without the ability to shift into smaller gears, you're left with no choice but to power up the hill, but simultaneously finding that overload/redline threshold and nestling into an exertion level just below it. Tricky, especially when mashing a gear you'd never choose to pedal up a hill on a geared bike, but it becomes easier with time and practice. Okay, "easier". All the while, you hope your knees don't explode like an over-microwaved burrito.
That's where gear choice for a fixed gear bike becomes crucial. I've still got a lot to learn about gear choices, but this ride surely taught me a whole lot more. Like the gear I'm pushing right now is just too tall for all day riding. 48-tooth chainring and an 18-tooth cog, to be exact. 72 gear inches (70.3 by the more accurate Sheldon Brown convention). Most guys I see who are clearly experienced in ultradistance fixed gear riding choose much smaller gearing: 66 to 69 gear inches. But they also have the skills and ability to maintain a much higher pedaling cadence on the descents and flats.
Gear choice then boils down to trial and error, and the endless search for truth behind the following dilemma: Would you prefer to spin your brains out when you don't wanna, or reduce your knee tissue to mashed potatoes?
I actually managed the climbs and rollers throughout the day pretty well. And many times after crossing the century mark, I found myself eager to arrive at the foot of the next incline after every long section of flat road. The hills automatically gave me a reason to pedal out of the saddle without having to deliberately slow down.
But I paid the penalty for poor gear selection dearly when I got to the last climb of the day up Drumm Canyon, at mile 170. I knew from the very beginning that this would be the biggest challenge of the day, if not the very bumpy and technical descent on the other side of that ridge. I don't know how the heck I got up that hill, really. I swear my cadence was down to something like 15 rpm, and I could barely turn the cranks over with all my force.
For the first time in three years, I managed to crest and descend Drumm Canyon in daylight. And for only the second time in four years completing this ride, I finished before nightfall. The only other time I had been able to do that was when the ride was blessed with tailwinds all day long. This year, we had a rainstorm and soggy duds.
Do I owe the advantage I enjoyed this year to my 28-year-old bike? In some ways, absolutely. Incredibly.
A MORE ANECDOTAL ALTERNATE TAKE:
This year's Solvang Double-Cee was my fourth in as many years, my first in wet weather, and my first double on a fixed gear bike. Lisa was there too (on her geared Landshark), gave me a hall pass to do my own thing, and under the influence of pneumonia set her personal best finishing time in 3 Solvang doubles.
I rode a fixie conversion that I built up last December based on a late-70s British Argos road bike. Gearing: 48x18 (72 gear inches, or 70.3 by Sheldon Brown convention). I had not ridden this bike, nor any fixie more than 75 miles previous to the event. In fact, it was just one week prior when I did, using Butters, Redwood and Calaveras as a test to determine if I'd rack that bike up for the trip. In a sense, deciding to give it a shot was wild and care-free.
And I'm really glad I did. I had a blast on it. My ass, however, begged to differ about a thousand isolated times from mile 130 to the finish. Made it easy for me to forget about the rain and wind we encountered in the morning. Priorities.
For my $75 event fee, I consumed the following from Planet Ultra's stash: 3 whole PB&J sandwiches, 6 ounces of Hammer Gel, 1 Subway sandwich, 1 cup of Top Ramen, 2 Oreo Cookies, a fistful of tortilla chips, 1 banana, about 120 oz. of tap water, and fuel to transport one small bag containing extra drink mix (I carry my own) and a Payday bar to RS4. Two Clif bars I carried in my pocket were, as usual, excess baggage.
The comfort of knowing a team coordinated by Deb Caplan and Brian Bowling would support me well if I got into trouble was well worth what I didn't actually use up.
My only real gripe was that the route sheets were printed on red paper. Hmmm -- less contrast means... harder to read! I admit: graphic designer's pet peeve. Aside from that, Lisa says a key turn in San Luis Obispo was poorly noted (a right turn to Hwy 1 aka Santa Rosa in that neck of the woods). I myself took 3 wrong turns, but have only myself to blame for not consulting the route sheet on those occasions. I gave up on seeing red -- whatever.
There were four other fixie riders I encountered that day: fellas on a Bianchi Pista, a Rivendell Quickbeam, a classic Austro-Daimler conversion, and a Steve Rex conversion. All but the lattermost sported smaller gearing than I, and outpaced me. I, of course, was outclassed anyway.
I rode alone a lot. So I enjoyed every instance of riding with somebody to yap with. The longest instance happened to be between Guadalupe and Los Alamos (RS4 to RS5), when my friend Doug chose to hang with me. We pulled a string of four riders for 25 miles while talking smack. Doug and I, we like to talk smack during the 3 or 4 times we see each other each year. But smack talk started to get a little testy. Who's to blame? He's like that when he needs a banana. I'm like that when I've got an ass that's yelling "Stop it now, you stupid fuck!"
Just then, we both witnessed an awesome mid-flight dogfight between a crow and a hawk (wait a minute... DOGfight?). I mean talons out, dat-all-U-got-bitch serious. Then Doug and I forgot what we were BS'ing about last. Then my ass complained again. Los Alamos took forever to appear on the horizon.
All in all, it was great fun for me. I love coming back to this ride year after year. It's different and special each time. Certainly THIS time.