The Joy (and Stupidity) of Singlespeeding

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A little while ago, I read an article on the internet that infuriated me greatly.  Surprisingly, it wasn’t just pure clickbait fake news from the Murdoch press inciting against cyclists via facebook memes, but an article on Pinkbike: Riding Rigid is Ridiculous.

Putting my keyboard warrior posturing aside, the Pinkbike article makes a very solid point: in the age of technology advancements that make mountain biking a more pleasant and efficient experience over increasingly vast terrain, why would you choose to ride something punishing and limiting in its application?

My response isn’t one that can argue from a rational perspective.  Thinking rationally, the advantages of suspension and gears are overwhelming, especially with the considerable improvements recently in clutched drivetrains and platform-based suspension.  Where once, escaping the incessant chain-suck or slippage was a glorious dream, I’ll now admit with embarrassment that my singlespeeds tend to chuck the chain way more than my geared bikes, and the resultant stem to the knee / crotch results in defeaning howls resounding over the hills.

Singlespeeders of the World Unite! We have nothing to lose but our chains!!! ….. oh….

Therefore, in the true spirit of the post-factual age, my defence of rigid singlespeeding will be based entirely on washy sentiment and prejudice masquerading as reasoned argument.

Reason to Singlespeed 1: Making the Trails Great Again.

While modern suspension bikes are brilliant, a significant detraction is that they are so confident and poised that they make a lot of trails way too easy.   The flow track becomes a pedestrian plod, and the green loop around the local park is barely more exciting than a trainer session.

Wildly inappropriate bikes make everything difficult.  Every molehill becomes a mountain.  Every bump a rockgarden.  Every berm, a loose and dangerous liaison with the elusive limits of traction.  It’s like riding a BMX again, and throw in the ability to huck horribly off everything, and you have a surprisingly revitalised form of riding.  Throw in the added sketchiness of riding under lights, a good group on a winter’s night, and it’s a surprisingly addictive and refreshing form of riding.

Winter nights come alive…

With progression, harder and more diverse trails can be tackled.  I’ve always been surprised by just how much my rigid singlespeed can actually clear, if inelegantly, and how fast it can descend when the right lines are picked, and the bike bounces around surprisingly adeptly.

Boring trails come alive…

The point of this is that basic green trails are usually more accessible, especially for mid-week night riding, or for the time poor parent snatching a quick weekend session in.  Artificially enhancing the challenging while retaining the basic precepts of speed and fun can make the trails great again, conveniently and considerately achieving without bringing the world to the precipice of a nuclear apocalypse.

Reason to Singlespeed 2: More riding, less fixing

When the singlespeed movement kicked off circa 2007, it was a reaction to a generation of mountain bike gearing systems that were mostly a shoddy transposition of road drivetrains.  While they shifted nicely in the shop, they wore fast in poor conditions, could clog up in mud, ghost-shift on dual suspension bikes, slammed around like mad and dropped chains, and often detracted from the enjoyment of the ride.

With the singlespeed, this woes were conveniently forgotten, although unfortunately supplanted by a series of spectacularly bad singlespeed retention devices.  Highlights including cracking dropouts, eccentric bottom brackets that creaked more than a rusty bed, and frames that required the rear brake to be removed to remove the rear wheel.  However, these significant design flaws notwithstanding, singlespeeds are reliable, low maintenance bikes.

With a few luddite features like external bearing cups, external headsets, and no internal routing, you’re on track for a bike that can stand up surprisingly well to the very worst of winter, without the financial trauma of replacing fork seals, press-fit bearings, internal cabling routing, or entire drivetrains.

Reason to Singlespeed 3: That Insufferable Sense of Smugness

Early singlespeed hype waxed lyrical about the philosophical importance and the achievement of a transcendental state of zen.  In the true harsh fashion of cycling as a sport, these sentiments didn’t last long in the face of headwinds, hills and inclement weather – the unfortunate reality that cycling is actually a sport and not a fashion parade.

Singlespeed Worlds 2010 – Rotorua, NZ from Graeme Simpson on Vimeo.

However, one of the great appeals of singlespeeding has always been the sense of smugness when powering past people on a steep climb.  There’s no denying that lightweight and efficient bikes make devastating climbers just asking to be launched out of the saddle up a hill.  For that oh-so-sweet and impractically tiny range of gradients between spinning out like a medicated hamster and the abject misery and indignity of hiking, singlespeeding is pure, insufferable, and ineffably smug bliss.

While singlespeeding is, of course, a pursuit completely devoid of the vanity so prominent in cycling, there is no denying the satisfaction of receiving the admiration of surrounding riders as the singlespeed is slogged up the steep gradients at a startling pace (the emotional collapse around the corner hidden from view).  And, on the plus side, it means that your upper body actually does some work while riding, which may well assist with convulsion-inducing tinder profile pictures, should the young rider be so inclined.

Reason to Singlespeed 4: It’s Ridiculous

Perhaps the best answer to the riddle of a rigid singlespeed is not to fight the major impracticality – but rather, to embrace it.  It’s a long held quote that it’s impossible to take things seriously while singlespeeding, and this resonates for me.  When you can’t take the riding seriously, you can’t focus on your Strava, or your training, and sometimes, you remember riding for how great it is.

The comedy of slamming a big climb can then outweigh the suffering in sheer stupidity.  The rocky descent becomes fun in a perverse way that won’t stress you if you muck up every single line down it.  Spinning out like mad?  Sit up for a while, and enjoy the scenery.

Perhaps the impracticality and violence of the bike forces you to think about why you ride.  And in my case, it’s for the love – the love of singletrack, the love of exploring a beautiful world, the love of riding.

It’s never lost on me that, whenever I’ve lost my way with riding, it’s singlespeeding that’s brought me back through the dark winters.  Bombing around trails in the dark, skitting off rocks, grinding up climbs, and cruising down the descents – all in a way where I’m forced to sit back and appreciate the joy of mountain bike for what it is.

There are many things in life we have to be rational about  – and riding isn’t one of them.  I’ll always love a little bit of the ridiculous.

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