I don't consider myself in "amazing" shape by any stretch of the imagination, but I do compete on a SS against the local 1's and 2's with some success. All I can share is what I've figured out through experience as there's not really anyone else around me that I've seen racing SS against the geared guys (I don't live in a hotbed, a 10 person local field in the 1's 2's race is a large field). I think that's probably because everyone assumes that you're at a major disadvantage, but for a variety of reasons, I don't think that's necessarily the case.
Setup-wise, there's nothing exceptional about my bike, it's not even expensive (or that light). I've got a Specialized Tri-Cross Singlecross with the following modifications:
I run a 39x18 which is smaller than the SS hammerheads, but makes it possible to ride short or moderate inclines and in mud for an hour. Obviously I work on legspeed for the pavement sections, usually only an issue at the start, and rarely find myself unable to keep up.
I built some simple wheels (surly hubs laced to Open Sport rims) changed tires (panaracer cross-blasters are cheap, light and fast, though narrow, so watch out for those submerged rocks, Pinch Flatington) and will soon be replacing the V-Brakes, but that doesn't really have anything to do with it being a SS.
The other significant modification I made was switching from a 175 to a 170mm crank arm length. My SS mountain bike has 170's and I was used to it, that's why I made the change, but I think it helps with the legspeed thing, and makes it easier to get the crankarm up and over the weakspot in my pedal stroke when I'm really in the shit (like deep mud, 180 degree turns or hills). It also allows me more clearance in the corners, crucial since you're pedaling more and need to get on the gas earlier coming out of corners to get on top of the gear. That's another reason I run a 39 x18, I get up into the sweetspot of my powerband a lot easier and spend more time cruising comfortably than the 42x18 mashers.
The most important thing, though, is your mental state. That's where it's at when you have gears too, (clearly if you're thinking of going SS you KNOW the bike doesn't really matter that much) but it's even more important without them. When you pull up on the starting line, remember; your opponents think you're dumb, crazy, and possibly tough as nails. You want to encourage this thinking. I wear a camelbak during warmup because you wont be drinking for 60 minutes once it starts, no one else does it, everyone should and because it makes me look like I have no clue. I always keep it breezy in the start area, crack some jokes, make fun of myselfand wear outdated clothing. All of these things confuse your opponents and make it hard for them to know what to make of you. If they can't figure out why you dress/behave like you do, it'll be more difficult for them to factor you into their strategy or respond confidently when you attack (which you have to do at some point). They already know you're going to have to ride the course a little differently, but when you don't behave like they expect a "serious cross racer" to behave before you even start pedaling, it'll be even tougher for them to know what to do with you around the 50 minute mark.
Once the race starts stay relaxed. Smile. If anyone's acting sporadically or spazmatically, make fun of them a little. Serious cross guys (especially the roadie types) don't like to be made fun of by the weirdo on the singlespeed when they're getting all squirelly in the first 3 minutes. Spin circles, breath deeply, laugh out loud a little, make more jokes, pretend you're out on a frisky group ride. Observe how the geared guys approach the course. They'll slow down on the hills (it's natural to bail yourself out if you can) you slow down with them. When they go fast on the smooth downhill sections, stick right in there as if it's no thing at all. Tell yourself you can spin at 140 RPM "forever" and believe it. Pick your spots to make your moves but don't let on where you're going to crush them later by coasting past them, or punching it up a tricky short hill. Let them think you're just barely managing to stay with them. This of course isn't true because one speed isn't really slower. Stay near the front, pick your spot and break their hearts. Nothing worse than getting passed by a laughing, crazy, happy, lunatic going really fast on a singlespeed while you're turning yourself inside out. It's really tough to recover from an attack from a singlespeed at the 50 minute mark. Especially from a guy in Purple tights circa 1995.
Now, every other race, particularly ones with climbing, you will blow up and be an absolute non-factor. That's cool, you were on a SS in the Main Event, no one expected you to be a factor. Have a beer and congratulate everyone that beat you, that's part of riding with one gear too.
Of course none of this applies if you're trying to race against National pros. Those guys are just damn fast. Semi-regional too. Cat 2 is going to pit you against the big guns in local races (we have a 1,2 combined race here) and allow you to be competitive at the bigger National-type races (in the 2,3 category). Can you imagine trying to ride a SS against Tim Johnson? That would be ugly. I'm dumb but I'm not delusional and I wouldn't bet on a SS against TJ if Lance himself was riding it with a head start.
When you're on a SS, your bike is more efficient and gets more efficient as the race wears on and mud accumulates. You're forced to ride as efficiently as possible for the sake of momentum. I've never dropped a chain, never been in the wrong gear, never even had to devote one iota of mental energy and focus (at a premium in a 60 minute session) to deciding what gear I want to be in, I just pedal as efficiently as possible and stay on top of the gear I've got (which, you'll find, is going to make you ride pretty fast around the course). SS has it's advantages; use them to yours.
You also will want to make sure that being extra uncomfortable is something you're into because 60 minutes against the fastest geared guys around isn't going to feel very good until it's over.
There is so much useful info in this post that I am near tears. Thank you!
For myself, I run one bike for both short-track and cross, and I let my knees tell me what gearing to use: For short-track usually 32 x 17 or 18. For 'cross, especially if muddy, I'll go as low as 32 x 20 if I need to. I'll never win, but I'll keep my knees longer and at this point that seems to matter more. Even finishing in Dead Effing last, I could not believe how many cheers I got for racing on a singlespeed against all those geared bikes in beginner class. I expect the cheers to die down a bit now that there's a Womens' SS category at short-track and I was crazy enough to -- gulp! -- cat up to be in it. Thank goodness my short-track races are only 30 minutes. (My cross races will be 45. Yikes.)
Wow.. fantastic advice. I too race a Tricross single-cross. But my set up is FSA carbon crank, ISIS Ti BB, Velocity track hub laced to Open Pro rear wheel, Shimano 105 18 spoke front wheel, FSA OS99 stem, FSA compact AL bar, TRP euro brakes, Sram carbon levers, Specialized Phenom saddle, 41 Tooth C-ring, 18 Tooth freewheel, and new Panaracer tires on order. 17.1 lbs
I love this bike.. and I just moved to Cat. 3
Can't wait for first race on Oct. 3rd
I can't even begin to get close to Booksy's amazing post.
All I can say is, while those other guys are thinking, thinking, thinking about what gear to be in, when to shift, whether they are in too high or too low, and all that noise - you'll simply be riding "in the moment" - at one with your bike, the course and the CX oversoul that unites us all.
I (kinda) second the gear choice - when I was racing SSCX, I tried a lot of different combinations and settled on 38x18. You take what it gives you, as Booksy says. I always got big props for slugging it out on 1FG.
Can't speak for every bike, but here are my upgrades (from stock parts on my Monocog):
1 - Truvativ Stylo cranks 170mm length; Surly 32t chainring; Truvativ GPX external bottom bracket (external bottom bracket was a real upgrade from the stock square-taper cartridge BB and probably took off half a pound from the bike!). Not sure if the 170's are still available new; I got mine on ebay. I agree that 170 is a better choice for all that crappy terrain and off-camber corners.
2 - Continental tires: for short-track, "Explorer" 26 x 2.1; for cyclocross, "Cross Country" 26 x 1.5 (used these last year and they were really an excellent choice, especially in mud). If you're only doing 'cross and doing it on the absolute cheap, the Club Roost "Cross Terra" tire is Merely Decent, though not spectacular; and comes in both 26" and 700c sizes.
3 - Misfit Psycles "FU-2 Bar" - for those who prefer flat bars, put these on and see if your wrists hurt less or not at all. Plus, they give you excellent leverage when climbing.
Future upgrades, when time and budget permit, will include a lighter set of wheels. The stock Redline wheels are pretty heavy.