Why singlespeed?

It’s the time of the year when one part of the cycling season (what we around here call the “end-of-the-warm”) is drawing to a close, and another part — the colder, wetter, winterier (is that a word? it is now) — starts to ramp up. It’s also the time of year that we start planning for, scheming about, and perhaps even training for next years events. And, it’s the time of year when I spend more and more time riding alone, or with only one or two people.

Each of these things have me thinking about single-speeds. As it gets colder and wetter, which all eventually just turns into downright cold and hopefully snowy, I ride single-speed more and more often. My winter bikes are all single-speeds. And, I prefer to do certain kinds of riding — gravel races, early spring road rides, rail-trail riding, urban riding — on a single-speed. In fact, I’d probably ride single-speed (with the occasional switch to fixed-gear for variety) most of the time, if it weren’t for two things: my at-times questionable climbing fitness and the desire to stay with the group I usually ride with.

I mentioned my affection for and obsession with single-speeds to one of my co-workers the other day, and I was met with the usual combination of disbelief, suspicion, and mild shock. The notion that I might choose, of my own free will, to ride a single-speed for long distances, especially over routes that contain non-trivial hills, beggars comprehension — at least for some people.

I could just trot out some of the same bullshit that piles up many of the online forums (and I took a look while writing this to make sure nothing’s changed; it hasn’t) that are devoted — or at least spend a good deal of time talking about — single-speeds. That it’s pure and elemental and zen, that it will make you one with the bike, and that single-speeders are stronger, more manly, and have more body hair. But let’s all all that nonsense where it belongs: in the forums where people talk about riding.

So why do I do it then? The bottom line is that in most situations, I just like it better. And when I like it better, I ride more and farther–and have a better time. There are reasons — most of which are reasonably objective and pragmatic — why I like it better though:

Simple. There are far fewer components involved. Less to install, maintain, and fix — and all of it is easier (at least for me). This allows me to do less wrenching and do a better job of it. Less wrenching = more riding.

Lighter. Without derailleurs, multiple cogs and chainrings, cables and housing, shifters, and more chain, the bike just weighs less. A lot less, actually. It’s the only way that I can afford lighter bikes — and it mitigates the beer weight that I often carry, a little.

Quieter. Even the quietest, most finely tuned derailleurs are louder than the total fucking silence of a perfectly tuned single-speed drivetrain. I like quiet. I want to hear the natural world, or the thoughts in my head, not chain-slap or a clicking derailleur.

Different. In most contexts, single-speeds are a minority. And I like doing things differently. Sometimes I’m just plain bloody-minded. Conventional wisdom often sucks. Single-speeding lets me do it my way.

Easier. Besides the ease of maintenance, single-speeds are just easier to ride. No need to think about shifting, or what gear your in. You just pedal until you can’t. And then you either pedal some more, or get off and walk. Sometimes I hammer the hills, sometimes I walk.

Harder. Some things are harder: going fast downhill or on a long flat, climbing very long and steep hills. This has also taught me patience: coast down the hills, and don’t worry too much about going fast on the flats — though trying to does improve your spin.

Faster. One gear requires that you make the most of it, that you conserve your momentum: taking good lines, attacking at the base of a climb, and climbing past the summit. In other words, it forces you to become a better, stronger rider — up to a point.

Slower. Sometimes, it’s just plain slower — and that’s when riding a terrain where the geared riders aren’t coasting but you are under-geared. Descending a false flat, perhaps, or riding to the trailhead on your single-speed mountain bike.

Descending. Often a little slower, since it’s all coasting after a point. According to my friend Michael, coasting is his favorite part of cycling; I’m coming to agree.

Climbing. Often faster, until it gets a lot slower. That is, you have to keep your speed up and the pedals turning over, or you’ll stall. And that’s it gets slower — when you start walking. And sometimes it’s good to stretch the legs, have a bite to eat, and drink something in a leisurely fashion.

Oh, and I just like it. So there.

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