I admit it. If I were allowed only one bicycle, it would be a single speed mountain bike. Though the geared majority may see this as a perversion, my single speed bretheren would surely agree.
Though their visibility is on the rise, the cycling community doesn’t seem quite sure what to make of single speeders. The common perception is that single speeders are beer guzzlin’ tattooed cretins, hell bent on mischief and mayhem. Others view single speeders as industry insiders with a hidden agenda – namely, to convince consumers that they need yet another bike to stay fashionable. Roll up to the starting line of a mountain bike race on a single speed and note the reaction of your fellow racers. At very least, you can expect other racers and spectators to gawk at you like a side show freak. But don’t be surprised if you hear muttered comments such as “What’s the point?” or “That’s just dumb”.
In reality, most single speeders have no other agenda than riding their bicycle, plain and simple – with the emphasis on plain and simple. Approach any single speeder and ask them about their one geared perversion. You are unlikely to find a bugger intending to make a grand political statement or a two wheeled activist at the vanguard of a value-laden crusade against the geared majority. You are likely to find someone who is riding their bicycle for many of – and perhaps the same – reasons you are. Should one’s preference for a single speed be viewed any differently than that of someone who chooses to rip it up on a dual suspension bike? Remember, it’s all about the ride.
Machismo is inherent in mountain biking. Single speeders, like free riders and trials riders, take it to the next level. How else can you explain someone’s choice to forgo a granny gear bailout option during an ultra endurance race or eight hour epic ride? Ah, but single speeding goes way beyond machismo and testosterone fueled one-upsmanship. Let’s take a closer look…
A look back at the origins and initial development of the bicycle reveals an absence of multi-geared contraptions. The earliest bicycles – high wheelers – featured no drive train and one gear. As the bicycle evolved and became the primary mode of transportation in many parts of the world, millions of people began using single gear bicycles to commute to work, go to the market, visit their sweethearts and explore the world outside of their neighborhood or village. In the early 20th Century, six day races - featuring racers on single gear track bikes - were among the most popular spectator sports in the Unites States and Europe. And as cyclists began to discover the joys of off road riding, the early mountain bike pioneers were bombing down the side of Mt. Tam on converted beach cruisers with no derailleur to speak of.
The single speed legacy of our founding fathers continues today in the 21st century. Millions of cyclists in every corner of the planet continue to labor, learn, laugh and love on bicycles sans shifters. Though six day races aren’t nearly a popular as they were at the beginning of the last century, the UCI continues to crown World Champions who earn their rainbow jerseys on single gear bikes. Yes, some of the fastest cyclists in the world – track and BMX racers – spin to win on bicycles with exactly one gear.
Still skeptical? Don’t see the connection between the history of the bicycle and the trail ride you have planned for this weekend? Would you rather leave the thrills and spills of track or BMX racing to the next generation of competitive cyclists? Perhaps you’re asking yourself “What relevance does the single speed bicycle have to me as a recreational off road rider?” Well, consider the following:
Riding a single speed will help improve your spin and develop a good power stroke. Since single speeds are significantly lighter than geared bikes and have higher clearance (remember – no big ring!), they offer an advantage in developing and mastering advanced bike handling skills. Those of us who race single speeds must learn to master cyclocross dismounts, running with a shouldered bike and working the terrain to our advantage to be competitive with those who have the luxury of shifting. If you’re more interested in exploring the backcountry than developing bike handling skills, a single speed may be the bike for you. No shifters, shifter cables, front or rear derailleur, big ring, and cog set equals less opportunity for mechanicals. Set up a single speed with a rigid fork and you’ll have a bike that will withstand anything short of an avalanche or tsunami.
Though skeptics may outnumber true believers, the single speed movement continues to gain momentum in the off road cycling community. Bicycle industry behemoths and small employee owned and operated frame builders both offer stock single speed frames. Over the last few years, a number of small companies have sprung up offering single speed components. These companies are doing more than selling their wares - they are spreading the gospel of single speeding to the uninformed and uninitiated. Single speed frames, conversion kits, and single speed specific hub sets and chain rings are now routinely available at both local shops and through mail order outfits. At the races, top mountain bike pros and local expert racers can be seen competing on their single speeds at local, regional, and national championship events. In what is often considered the lunatic fringe of the mountain bike racing – 24 hour and endurance races – there are an increasing number of racers who are competing on single speeds. Over the past year, a number of single speeders have won or finished on the podium at well-established 24 hour and single day ultra endurance events. Similar to free riders and trials riders, these single speeders are redefining what is possible on a bicycle.
The raw, uncluttered purity of the single speed ride is incubating a paradigm shift. Many off road riders are rethinking their need for a geared bicycle. Some predict there will be widespread abandonment of derailleur equipped mountain bikes - essentially, a backlash against the bicycle industry for continually pushing technical “improvements” on jaded consumers. Others opine that weight weenie and techno junkie types will become enlightened to the fact that a single speed set up will shave pounds (not ounces) off their bikes while still allowing them to lead out the Sunday morning group ride.
So, are single speeders a bunch of inked up chuckleheads or do they represent the future of off road riding? Saddle up on a single speed and decide for yourself. Yes, it is true that a tattoo is top prize at the Single Speed World Championships, but how many pairs of handlebar grips do you really need? And does the relationship between mountain biking and beer drinking need further discussion?