In the interest of full transparency, here is my email to the Executive Director of NICA, Austin McInerny.
I did my best to be concise and honest. We'll see how that works out for me.
I am writing to you in regards to rule 4.2 in the 2016-2017 NICA Rules and Guidelines.
2016-2017 RULE 4.2.NO SINGLE-SPEED BIKES Pushing big gears has been shown to be detrimental to the joints (specifically the knees) of young student-athletes. Bikes must have multiple gears including at least five cogs in the rear.
Myself and others have been looking for the studies and/or research that's been done to "show" that pushing big gears is in fact detrimental to the joints. Most of what we have found has been purely anecdotal or lumped in with things such as saddle height and poor bike fit. It is a belief that's been widely held for decades, but I haven't been able to determine if there's any true science behind it.
There have been plenty of cycling old wives' tales that have been debunked. There used to be a time when cyclists thought smoking helped "open up their lungs," and "knee over spindle" was the only way to fit a bike. We know better now because we've looked at the actual facts.
The inclusion of "... at least five cogs in the rear" makes the rule seem even more arbitrary. It's been decades since five speed freewheels were a thing, and the era of mountain bikes barely overlaps their existence. If there is any basis for making a rule about gearing in regards to knee health, the USAC "rollout method" at least comes closer to the mark, although there is no way to stop a young rider from mashing a 52X14 whenever they choose to do so.
I also find it peculiar that the wording of Rule 4.2 has been changed since 2015.
2015: 4.2. NO SINGLE-SPEED BIKES Pushing big gears has been proven to be detrimental to the joints (specifically the knees) of young student- athletes. Bikes must have multiple gears including at least five cogs in the rear.
We have shifted from "has been proven" to "has been shown." This leads me to believe that "proven" is too strong of a word, mostly because the proof isn't there.
But why all this concern on my part?
As someone who grew up in rural Ohio below the poverty line, my ability to obtain decent equipment for high school cross country was very limited. I had to make do, and when I was a struggling college kid who took up bike racing, it was very much the same. My $249 Yokota was the start of a lifelong passion, and it was worth every scrimped nickle and dime.
A trail-worthy single speed is much cheaper than its geared counterpart. There are also fewer moving parts to maintain, therefore it's cheaper to keep it on the trail. $100 here or there might not seem like much to those of us that enjoy our privileged lives, but it could be the difference between a kid pursuing a passion or sitting on the sidelines. Regarding the actual gear ratios that would be used to negotiate "terrain that can be completed by beginner riders" (Rule 5.1), I can assure you that a rider on a single speed will see a wide range of cadences, not 45-120 minutes of "pushing a big gear."
All of my arguments are perhaps moot tho, if there actually is some research and studies to back the claim that "pushing big gears has been shown to be detrimental to the joints".
Otherwise, Rule 4.2 should be considered exclusionary.
If our concern is truly for the health of the young riders' knees, they'd be better served with a rule that has them wearing knee/leg warmers below 60°, because there actually is proof that exposure to cold is detrimental to their health. No such rule exists.
So if a baseless rule keeps one kid from entering the sport through this magnificent thing that NICA has become, isn't that one kid too many?
I ask because I was that poor kid who had a difficult time chasing my dreams due to financial reasons.
I ask because I'm a father who's son enjoyed racing a geared bike as well as a single speed, because mountain biking is fun.
I ask because I've been delivering packages and commuting on a fixed gear bike and also racing a single speed mountain bike at endurance events all over North (and Central) America for more than twelve years now. My 47 year old knees are fine... of course that's only anecdotal evidence.
I look forward to hearing back from you and hopefully continuing this dialogue.
Executive Director of NICA, Mr McInerny has replied back to me. Basically, Rule 4.2 banning single speeds from competition was on the books before he became ED, so he's going to look into it and get back to me.