Sunday, January 13, 2013

Why Singlespeed?

Why this?

This week, I was asked the same question on two separate occasions. I was talking with a co-worker about training on Tuesday when it came up, and then again Thursday night in the parking lot at Valley Green after I finished my ride in Philly. The question itself is pretty simple ... why singlespeed?

The answer? Not so much. In fact, I was kind of caught off-guard both times and just kind of shrugged and said something like "I don't know ... why not?"

As I was driving home Thursday night, though, I started thinking about it a bit more. It just didn't seem like a very satisfying answer. I mean, I actually do know the very specific reason why I started riding singlespeed: I've always been really rough on parts, and I figured that the fewer parts I had to break, the more time I'd have on the trail. Basically, as I saw it, one gear = more miles.

Rough on parts? Yeah, I'm that.

And that works up to a point, but that's not all there is. I know it isn't because the last thing on my mind when I'm struggling to keep my legs moving on the backside of the old Blue Marsh Ski Area is how happy I am that I'm not risking a broken derailleur. And I still reach for the Misfit just about every time out, even though it's not the only choice I have and even when I know there will be lots of, say, vertical punishment involved. It seems to me, then, that there must be something more than less overall maintenance playing into that.

So what is it?

To be perfectly honest ... I'm really not sure. I mean, I can think of a lot of reasons why I ride single speed, but it just seems that any single one of them would be incomplete. That's because, in listing them out, I realize that they kind of encompass a whole continuum of what riding is all about ...

  • Ego. Riding one gear will both feed your ego and rip it to shreds. Usually, it rips it to shreds. Both make you better. No matter how strong you may want to believe you are, steep climbs and lots of miles are stronger. And nothing brings that into sharper relief than having only one gear to work with. Having no shifters to put off the inevitable, it's really rider against nature, and you have to learn to accept that in that match-up, nature always wins. It's impossible to get too big a head on one gear. But just when you start to think it's all just pointless suffering, you go by another rider out on the trail and they refuel your legs and ego by saying something like, "Wow - I don't know how you do that on one gear ..."After three years of riding singlespeed almost exclusively, I have to admit hearing that gives me a feeling that never gets old. 
  • Flow. Riding on one gear forces you to find flow on difficult terrain. It's an ongoing battle, and for me personally, one I lose more often than I win. But it's absolutely necessary (perhaps even more so if you also happen to ride rigid) because without the ability to flow over rocky, loose terrain, you're in trouble with only one gear. Singlespeed forces you to confront the need for flow and, often times, your own limitations in that regard. It forces you to develop a more organic riding style. In my opinion, the ability to find that flow is one of best reasons for anyone to at least do some time on a singlespeed, even if it's only to make them better and faster when they go back to their gears. 
  • Power. This one is easy - one gear takes away the bail out option of a granny ring, or a 28t cog. There is only one way up that hill, and it's on you. Have at it. Get stronger. It'll take time. And it'll never get easier. But you will get stronger. Guaranteed.
  • Experience. I could just say SSUSA and that would be enough in terms of experiences, but there's more than that. For my two cents, everything about it just ups the ante from a regular ride ... the people are cooler, the rides are more memorable, the legs are more wiped out at the end of the day, and the rewards of putting in a crazy effort are more immediate if only for the instant feedback of metallic taste in your mouth and no hope of heart rate recovery just five minutes into a ride that starts on a leg breaking climb. There's an utter ridiculousness to the very concept of singlespeed that makes it impossible to take it all too seriously, and because of that you learn to have more fun every time out, chill when you need to, and still get all the benefits (mental and physical) of playing on bicycles in the woods.

So there you go ... a few reasons that probably better answer that question of "why". I'm sure I could come up with a few more, and for all you who choose only one gear for your rides, I'm sure you could create your own personal lists that include many more than these.  For me, I suppose in the end I'll go with this: the real reason I ride singlespeed is an amalgam of all of the above and maybe a whole lot of reasons I'm not articulate enough to capture here, but in the end none of it matters. Because whatever the reason, I just find that I'm generally happier because I ride the way I do than I would be if I didn't ride at all.  And that's a pretty good reason, don't you think?


  1. I'd love to hear the flip, why someone would argue that riding a geared bike is the 'better' choice.

  2. rigid really adds even more to SSing, but I wouldn't do one without the other, SS rigid all the way!

  3. I was inspired to try my hand at SS after reading your posts. I bought a rigid 26" SS from CL and rode that for a few rides and was amazed how it improves your geared bike riding. So when I saw the opportunity to pick up a rigid 29er for (relatively) cheap, I bought it, stripped off the gears and now have two SS rides! :)

    Although, I still do like riding geared bikes too. :)

  4. Brandon - I could not agree more! I went rigid a year ago and even when I had to have suspension on for a brief time int he fall when I was recovering from an injury, I hated it. I couldn't wait to get back to the Niner fork.
    Josh - That's awesome! What's the make on the 29er? I've been wanting to get a second SS for a while now, but I'm not sure what I want. I'll always have my Misfit (even when I eventually have to swap out the frame, I'll just replace it with the same one) so I was thinking my second one would be something different.

  5. Joanna - YOU tell ME why geared is better ...

  6. Well, as you know, I don't have specific experience with riding single speed mountain bikes. But I do have a few years experience racing a fixed gear bike at the velodrome. Those bikes are about as pure as a bike can get - one gear, no coasting, double-clipped feet, NO BRAKES! Sure, the terrain is my case a composite material similar to cement, a fixed length (333 meter oval) and a fixed angle at each end of the oval (28 degrees). In order to pick the correct racing gear you have to factor in wind conditions, race type, race distance, fellow racers, etc... You have to use momentum to get going fast, but you have to fight that momentum to slow down and/or stop. That can be challenging. And the accidents can be horrific. I personally know someone who shattered her collarbone, collapsed a lung, and spent a week in the trauma unit with a chest tube, only to get back on the same bike 2 months post-op and continue racing her bike. (Cheers to you, LG!). Track cyclists are BADASS!

    As for geared bikes - mountain or road - you have options. You can always go hard, but you can also relax on the flats, stall before a climb, change gears to accommodate that climb. You don't have to fight the terrain and grades the same way you would on a single speed. Is there anything wrong with that? I understand that maybe you won't realize your true bike potential if you give into changing gears simply because you have the option (and probably tendency) to do so. But I would argue that going on a geared bike ride doesn't have to be easier than going on a single speed ride. Lots of things factor into each ride. And I would submit that there are many 'cool' people who ride bikes with gears.

    All of your points above are valid. I personally can't say one type of bike - or one type of rider - is better than the other. I suppose the best bike is the one that's ridden. Not sitting in the garage or basement collecting dust.

  7. I bought a 2011 GT Karakorum 1.0 from ebay. Turns out the guy works at Merck (but lives in northern PA) which is right next to me so we met up after work to complete the transfer.

    It already had a Niner CF fork installed and an upgraded Shimano wheelset with a Thompson stem. I stripped off the gears and installed a raceface ring on the crank. I figure for the price I paid, I got a free frame! Admittedly, it's not the greatest frame but it works well enough for me.

    Rode it down at White Clay a couple of weeks ago and it was awesome. Are you on G+? I'd love to follow your posts if you don't mind.

  8. I can say I am on my third frame from Raleigh XXIX after 1.5 seasons, beware if it's in your mind.

  9. Josh - I think Google owns Blogger, so a blogger ID is a G+ id, so you should be able to track it that way (???) White Clay is a great place for SS -- it's all flow (a little muddy this season, though -- was there a week ago and it was really soft.

    Brandon - I will bear that in mind. I have a friend who rides a Raleigh FS and he loves it - recommends Raleigh to everyone. I'm debating whether to build it up myself again or go stock, If stock, I might do a Salsa or a Niner. Not sure.