Geared vs Single

I’ve been knocking this around in my head for a while, but never settled down to write anything about it, until Ari (of Slender Fungus) posted something about it recently.

Why is this? Why did I end the 200 mile ride on the singlespeed fresh?? Does not thinking of shifting have something to do with it? Does having only one gear  condition the legs to work with that gear alone???  Is it easier to ride a singlespeed in long distances???

That is, why does riding singlespeed (or even fixed) over long distances often feel less tiring in the end than riding geared?

It’s true that riding without having to shift requires less mental effort. You just go forth and pedal. But it’s unlikely that this is the whole story, or even a major factor in reducing overall fatigue. In part, this is because any cyclist who rides as much as we do doesn’t really have to think about shifting very often, if at all. But mostly it’s because all of the other things that you still have to think about are the same. Where the next turn is, whether to eat the last mini-burrito now or save it for later, if there’s enough water left in your bottles, why your left pinky finger has gone numb again, that your ass hurts after 150 miles in the saddle. And on.

Here’s my theory for why I think singlespeeding is less fatiguing–at least in the right circumstances–than riding a geared rig. My body–and probably human bodies in general, since I’m not in any way unique–doesn’t groove on sameness, whether it’s the sameness of sitting in an office chair all day or the sameness of riding at roughly the same cadence, at roughly the same effort level, and in roughly the same position.

Riding geared lends itself to sameness, while riding singlespeed lends itself to difference. I reckon this is true in at least three key ways.

Cadence. When riding geared, I tend to use the gearing to keep my cadence relatively steady and within a relatively narrow band. On a singlespeed, my cadence varies by a much greater amount–perhaps 3-4 times as much. What’s more, it tends to shift back and forth much more frequently.

Effort. Riding geared, largely because the gearing is able to stabilize cadence and compensate for incline and wind resistance, tends to keep effort level within the same relatively narrow band that cadence does. On a singlespeed, the effort level tends not only to vary by a greater amount and more often, but also in how it stresses my body–that is, whether it’s primarily cardiovascular, primarily muscular, or both together.

Position. I tend to stay in the saddle much more when riding geared, often to the point where I have to remind myself to move around a bit to relieve bodily tension that arises from riding in a single position at a steady cadence with roughly the same level of effort. This just isn’t possible when riding singlespeed, because the changes in cadence and effort–especially when incline, wind resistance, or speed variations cause them–require me to ride out of the saddle or move back and forth on the saddle to change the angle of attack on the pedals. This not only gives my body a break from one position by moving into another, but it also actively engages more of my core and upper body, instead of leaving them static.

The bottom line: it’s about variety.

I’m much more likely to get more physical variety when riding a singlespeed than I am when riding geared. And I’m much more likely to need that variety, and benefit from that variety, when riding long distances on paved or gravel roads. My legs stay fresher because they are sometimes pedaling fast, sometimes slow, sometimes hard and sometimes easy. My entire body stays fresher because it develops less tension from remaining in the same position for too long.

Now, does this cause less fatigue, or is it merely less perceived fatigue? I have no idea. And thinking about it just makes me tired.

5 thoughts on “Geared vs Single

  1. Very interesting post. I have never had a single so I have nothing that I can personally offer. It’s fascinating that you suggest being perhaps “less” tired over a long distance ride. Now you have me curious! AND your reasoning seems to me … well … reasonable. I am presently trying to figure out how to buy a Sturmey-Archer S2 hub (let me tell you, it ain’t easy) which is a 2 speed kick-shift hub. I like the minimal look and the IGH for winter commuting but even this is a compromise I have made preventing me from going fully single. I will look for others replies to this with great curiosity. Thanks for this creative post.

    ~Wilson

  2. Fascinating. I think you are on to something. Without going into details, I’ll just say I’ve experienced similar perplexing questions about fatigue and overall speed. I like your theory, but would also add a layer; singles allow your mind to recognize limits. But I’ll keep pondering on that.

  3. SW says:

    One of the reasons I like riding SS/fixed is the different mental side of the game–though I didn’t really address it in this post, since it was mostly about the physical side of things.

    Specifically, that riding SS (or fixed, for that matter) is interesting from a mental and experiential point of view because it involves some pretty well-defined constraints (one gear, perhaps two if you have a flip-flop hub or a dingle-speed setup). One must then embrace these constraints. It’s oddly freeing to have one gear which is never quite the right one.

  4. SW says:

    Not a phrase that I can take credit for, unfortunately. It’s a pretty common notion these days in some parts of the software development and tech world. I probably heard about it first from Getting Real.

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