Single speeding

Single speed riders tend to get a bad rap. They’re often viewed as the more fundamentalist type mountain bike riders in a world of touchy feely democracy. If you tell people you ride a single speed the first and only question from them is usually “what’s a single speed”? After you carefully explain the principles involved they generally back away slowly looking at you as if you’re crazy.

So what makes up a single speed? Well, that depends a bit. A few years ago Keith Bontrager wrote an article about how to make a single speed on the cheap using the bike you already have.

Keith Bontrager’s version of a SS basically consisted of pulling the big chainring off the crankset, taking the cassette off the rear hub and spacing out a single cog in its place so the chainline from the chainring to the cog is pretty straight. After this you’d use an old rear derailleur as a tensioner to ensure the chain doesn’t fall off.

At the other end of the spectrum there are a whole host of SS specific frames and components now available to slightly reduce bicycle weights and substantially reduce wallet weights. For an example, check out the sweet custom Ti frames built by a guy named Matt Chester ( who claims to be be the frame builder operating from the highest altitude in the US. Then of course there are the Phil Wood SS hubs to complement that perfect frame you’ve just had built and maybe you could run a Morati Ti rigid fork. All very porny (and expensive) pieces of kit to be sure. And, core SS’ers don’t run ANY components from Shimano, it’s just the vibe you know…

The beauty of SS is there is barely any maintenance to be done. Cables don’t stretch or get gunky giving dodgy shifts, you only have to lube that chain when you remember and a really light SS can be built up fairly easily – 19 pound SS bikes aren’t all that uncommon.

What is a SS bike like to ride? Well, the really full-on retro grouches go with a rigid fork but most use suspension. Suspension forks are probably a better option as they allow you to bomb through most things on the trail, and maintaining momentum is a very important skill on a SS. As is…

Cadence. Riding a SS will definitely give your knees a work out, so if you have dicky knees it might be better to stay away. I was doing a 35km round commute (plus whatever off road rides came up) when I had mine, and pedalling away on a 32×15 gear was great for my spin and smoothness. It’s a pretty zen way to ride a bike too, you’re pretty much limited in top speed by how fast you can spin so it’s best to find a comfortable cadence and then
work on increasing that bit by bit. Long gentle downhills are the best for working on your spin.

Riding that bike off road was an interesting experience though, small mounds turn into challenges and big mounds turn into lots of hard work. Many riders use a wide riser bar to get increased leverage, but a flat bar with bar ends gives probably more leverage when standing out of the saddle to get up those seemingly enormous ‘burgs.

Keith Bontrager recommends running a granny ring. This can be done if you use a derailleur as a tensioner, and it makes climbing easier. Of course, the fundamentalists won’t treat you with respect but if you’re pedalling and they’re walking who cares.

Should you become a SS disciple? Well, if you’ve been riding for any length of time you probably have a multitude of parts laying around to build up a bike in the Bontrager way. They’re fun, teach you a lot about riding and pain and make ideal commuter bikes due to their lack of required maintenance and percieved minimal value to thieves.

Winter is the best time do do it, you can even make a coherent argument that by running a SS you’re saving all those expensive bits of derailleur and cassette that quickly get ground down by rain and mud.

In fact, I’ve even heard that a well known Pilot has almost finished his work
of SS art, Mig…?


Ed: Mig and the SS life did not mix. He was last seen pushing, in more ways than one, a retro techno geared beast.