Shimano Gravel Alliance member Ben Pickel may not be the fastest rider in the group, but he is the funniest. Always ready with a joke and always bringing smiles to peoples' faces, Ben doesn't take cycling too seriously, and he's here to share a few ways to have more fun - no matter what bike you ride or where you ride it.
I'm not here to lay claim as some sort of innovator or tastemaker in the sport of cycling. Like most of you, I see something dope and incorporate it into my personal style and give it a spin to make it my own.
My first introduction to the Rad Life, came years ago when I saw video footage and photos from the early days of mountain biking. Tom Ritchey, Gary Fisher, and the other hippie athletes ripped down singletrack and logging trails in Marin County. They'd ride their military-grade single-speed klunkers and cut-off shorts, and you could see the joy and freedom in their smiles and the wildness in their eyes. I knew I wanted that feeling when I went out on my own (although much tamer) two-wheeled adventures. But it wasn't until I found gravel that I could really experience the Rad Life to its fullest.
My background as a cyclist is not all that extraordinary or interesting. I was a runner for most of my life and took up mountain biking in the early 2000s because it looked cool, and people I thought were cool were doing it. It was recreation and nothing I ever took very seriously. I remember my early MTB outfits were camo cargo shorts from Old Navy, and the idea of lubing a chain didn't even occur to me. That was the bike shop's problem. Like most hobbies, my interest in cycling evolved, and I found myself also riding skinny tires and joining Physio Racing - a Denver-based cycling team complete with matching lycra kits.
Sometime later, gravel cycling came onto my radar, and I was immediately hooked. No longer were my poor technical skills on a mountain bike an issue, and no more fighting for my life on paved roads. Gravel met me where I was as a cyclist, a little bit strong but terrible at bike handling and group ride strategy. It wasn't until I survived the infamous "mud year" at Mid South on my geared bike that I decided (around mile 65) that I would add a single-speed bike to my quiver. While I didn't have any mechanicals at the race, I did feel the draw to a simpler setup. Since then, 60-70% of my rides have been on my single-speed gravel bike, with my geared bike coming out on big climb days or when I want to ride with friends.
As for the fashion side of my cycling existence, for me, it was the moment I saw Ryan Standish ripping the XC World Cup in a pair of Handup jorts that it all came together. I finally found the perfect blend of badassery and apathy that could be a physical manifestation of the duality of emotions I felt about cycling. I could rip when I wanted to and push my physical limits without having to take myself seriously. So long matching bibs and jersey, hello sexy Rad Life.
The Rad Life, although not new, is an emerging trend in the gravel cycling scene that encourages personal style and fun on the bike, no matter how fast or slow you ride. Brands like Handup and Ripton have several performance jorts options available, and the number of single-speeders attending events like Unbound Gravel, Mid South, and many others is on the rise. These events are prime single-speed territory in part due to the slop fest many of these courses are known to provide, but I also want to believe in part because of the unincumbered sense of freedom a single-speed bike offers. This past year there were 88 male and 14 female finishers in the single-speed category at Mid South - up considerably from 2020, which had 37 and 7 finishers, respectively.
Think the Rad Life might be for you? It's not all sexy time at the single cog café, so here is a brief pros and cons list to help you decide:
Single Speed Bike
- Simple and elegant and has a throwback vibe. Rock drop bars or flat bars.
- No matter what speed you are riding, geared cyclists will be impressed at how badass you are.
- Fewer mechanicals and roadside repairs. Bonus is you don’t need to have any mechanic skills since there are very few things that can go wrong.
- You will pass everyone on uphills.
- The ride is quiet and peaceful. You can let yourself get lost in the sounds of your surroundings.
- Everyone will pass you on the flats and most descents.
- Harder to ride in a group or with geared friends. You rarely get to sit on a wheel, but everyone will sit on yours.
- Steep climbs suck and you may end up walking a good number of them. I find anything over an 8% grade quickly gets painful.
- Fun and sexy and totally functional on the ride.
- Goes with anything. You can pair it with your team jersey, a dope button-down, or play it ultra-cool with a V-neck t-shirt.
- Simplify your wardrobe. Wear your jorts for a few days as your everyday attire, and once they get a little grungy, they are ride ready. So much less laundry.
- You don’t have to change into jorts for the podium. You are the real deal!
- Passing a group of riders in matching kits while wearing jorts and pretending to be all casual about your ride will fill you with a sense of pride that is hard to match elsewhere
- It’s an extra layer and not nearly as breathable as bibs.
- Thick chamois do not fit well under jorts. You are better off with a bib liner with a much thinner chamois.
You don't have to wear jorts to ride a single-speed, and you certainly don't need a single-speed to ride jorts. But if you have that inner child or hippie athlete somewhere inside of you, maybe let it out occasionally in your own wild way. Some may call it a costume, and maybe it is, but so what. You’re living The Rad Life.