ELEANOR, W.Va. (AP) — Brandon Doerner isn't your average, everyday mountain biker.

True, he spends a lot of his spare time pedaling a bike with flat handlebars and big, knobby tires along the dirt roads and forest trails of rural West Virginia. But that's where the resemblance ends. No matter how steep the climb or speedy the descent, Doerner never shifts gears.

He can't. He rides a single-speed mountain bike.

At its root, it's a lot like the BMX and beach-cruiser bikes most people rode when they were growing up. If Doerner wants to go faster, he pedals faster. If he wants to go up a hill, he stands up in the pedals and stomps down on them.

Most modern bikes have 21- to 33-speed drivetrains that allow cyclists to cruise along flats effortlessly, and to climb steep slopes without frying their legs. Doerner has a bike like that, too, but he chooses not to use it.

"I started out (on a geared bike) in 1996, when I was in college," he said. "I spent a couple of years having fun on it, and then I laid off from biking for a while. In 2009, I came back into the mountain biking world. A good friend, Wes McCoy, convinced me that I could develop my technical skills by riding a single-speed. I've been at it ever since."

Doerner said that when he rode a geared bike, he spent too much time thinking about whether he should switch gears or not. Riding a single-speed freed him up from that.

"I was finally able to focus on how the bike handles, how it feels," he said. "Without a doubt, it made me a better mountain biker. I got a lot stronger, and I was able to navigate tough terrain better than ever."

He quickly discovered that single-speed riding forced him to modify his pedaling technique.

"I had to learn to punch a little harder just before I got to the base of a hill, and to flow a little better once I got on the hill," he said. "I learned to find a little extra steam when I got close to the top of a climb. Sometimes it was hard to do. That's when the mental aspect of it came in. I had to compete with myself to reach the top without having to walk the bike."

Nine years of single-speed pedaling have made quite a difference. Doerner now flies up the same hills he used to struggle with. He swoops and glides over obstacles that once might have stopped him.

Doerner's job as real-estate developer keeps him busy, but he carves out enough spare time to explore the roads and trails near his Hurricane home. A couple of weeks ago, he and some friends put together a day-long, 107-mile dirt ride that wound through western Cabell County and most of northern Putnam.

"There's an abundance of good riding around here," he said. "Eleanor Park is a great place to ride. So are Barboursville Park and Kanawha State Forest. When I can, I also like to branch out and do a little bushwhacking into places like the Cranberry Backcountry."

Most mountain bikes have shock-absorbing forks on the front end. Doerner has a bike like that, too, but he spends most of his time on a Spot Honey Badger, a bike with a fully rigid frame and fat 29-inch tubeless tires.

"It's made to take a beating," Doerner said. "The frame's geometry makes the bike a real climbing machine, and that has really helped me navigate the hills."

To most people, the phrase "single-speed bike" means "cheap bike." Doerner said that isn't necessarily so.

"They can get expensive once you start to accessorize them," he added. "You absolutely can put a lot of money into a single speed if you want to."

Doerner has customized his single-speed with wider handlebars, a wider front tire, and heavy-duty, interchangeable cogs on the cranks and rear wheel. He switches the cogs to match the kind of terrain he plans to ride.

"I usually run a 32-tooth cog on the cranks and a 19-tooth on the back," he said. "Right now, I'm experimenting with a 34-21 setup, which isn't as fast on the top end but is a little easier to pedal uphill."

Doerner isn't alone in his fascination with single-speed riding.

"There aren't many single-speed mountain bikers compared to the number of geared mountain bikers, but there is a great core group around here," he said. "We have the guy that got me into it, Wes McCoy; Mike Boyes, who is kind of a single-speed icon around here; Dwayne Walters and Andy Cremeans down in Barboursville; and Andy Forron at New River Bikes."

While Doerner has raced on his single-speed, he mostly concentrates on recreational riding and "adventure-bike" trips that combine riding with camping. Doing them on a single-speed bike, he said, is always a challenge.

"I often describe single-speed mountain biking as like being a boxer without gloves," he continued. "You know it's going to hurt, but the freedom makes it worth it."


Information from: The Charleston Gazette-Mail, http://wvgazettemail.com.