I have to admit, when I first started riding mountain bikes, the concept of a singlespeed was a little odd. Gears seemed natural. We had come up with the idea to use different gear ratios to make going uphill easier and to maximize speed on the downhills. Why throw away this technology? Why make anything harder than it has to be? Why limit yourself to one gear when you could have a whole range of options?
But a lot of the people that I rode with swore by the singlespeed, and it wasn’t long before I tried it myself.
Yes, it was hard. Climbing really sucked sometimes. But a little part of me also became intrigued. Maybe I’d give this whole one gear thing a chance. One more ride and I was hooked. At that time of my life, I was fresh out of college, totally broke, with no money to buy a bike. Luckily, I was becoming part of a riding community who was happy to lend me mountain bikes to ride, so I rode whatever I could get my hands on, and oftentimes, they were singlespeeds.
I loved the purity and simplicity, but when it came time to get a bike of my own, I opted for a 1×9 setup instead. I didn’t feel like I was strong enough yet to ride a singlespeed on tougher terrain, and thought it would only result in a lot of frustration when I was still very new to the sport.
I got used to gears. In the back of my head, I knew I would be a singlespeeder at some point, but I kept putting it off, because I also knew that it would mean getting used to something new again, and probably feeling like I was starting back at square one.
Now, three years later, I finally converted my steel 29er into a singlespeed, ready to put all the reasons not to ride one out of my head and instead embrace the reasons to do so.
1. It’s a new challenge.
On my first ride on the “new” singlespeed, I did one of my favorite local loops–a gradual gravel road climb followed by a gradual descent on rocky, ridgetop singletrack, about 10 miles in all, easily done in a little over an hour. Usually, I just sit and spin my way to the top of the climb without much difficulty.
Until I tried it with a 32×18 gear ratio.
I found myself stopping halfway up to catch my breath and let my burning thighs recover. “This whole singlespeed thing is going to be interesting,” I thought. I was definitely humbled, but also excited for the new challenge that presented itself. Every now and then I feel like my mountain bike skills hit a plateau, and I need a new goal to jump-start that learning curve again. Which brings us to reason number two…
2. It makes you a better/stronger rider.
Luckily, as with anything difficult, the challenge of riding a singlespeed is not without gain. Only having one gear makes you a better rider in a variety of ways. The most obvious one is that it makes your legs stronger because you have to crank up hills in a much harder gear that you otherwise would.
But it also makes you more efficient. Riding a singlespeed means that you need to plan ahead. You need to read the terrain, and decide preemptively to gain momentum to get up a steep rise. This might mean bombing down a hill or around turns faster than you would otherwise, ultimately making you more confident.
3. There are fewer things to break.
A broken derailleaur puts a damper on any ride, and it can also be one of the more complicated issues to fix trailside. Eliminating that piece from the equation means eliminating the potential for that type of mechanical to happen. Obviously I’m not saying never use a derailleur because it might break, but sometimes it’s nice to not have to worry about or deal with such things.
4. It’s lighter.
I’m not a hardcore gram-counter, but I won’t argue that lighter is nicer, and all those gears add up to a substantial amount of weight. Yes, you have to work harder on a singlespeed, but the weight difference is definitely noticeable too, and I personally enjoy the snappy feel of a lighter rear end.
5. It’s quieter.
Though derailleurs have gotten much better at tensioning, eliminating chain slap, and riding more quietly than they used to, a singlespeed still has them beat.
6. It’s simple.
While I certainly appreciate and take advantage of the technology that has become such an integral part of mountain biking, such as suspension, derailleurs, and dropper posts, I sometimes find myself getting overwhelmed by all the stuff–all the levers on the handlebars and cables going every which way. One of the things that I find most appealing about a singlespeed mountain bike is that it takes away yet another distraction. You don’t need to worry about when to shift–you just need to think about when to pedal harder, which allows for more brain space to think about what line to take through that rock garden. I’m sure most of us can relate to being in the completely wrong gear going into a section of trail, and getting screwed up as a result. On a singlespeed, there’s no such thing as a wrong gear. Just muscle through and keep on crankin’.
There are plenty of reasons and excuses to not ride a singlespeed, and for some people, having one as their only bike may be more limiting than not. But there are also a lot of reasons to ride one. Once you give it a shot, more than likely you’ll be hooked, as were Dustin’s “test subjects” in this article, and Erica, much to her chagrin. I think everyone, even newer riders, should at least give it a fair try with an open mind. You might be surprised at how much fun it really is. If and when you’re ready to convert a geared bike into a singlespeed, check out Dustin’s article on how to do so!
Your Turn: Do you ride/have you ever ridden a singlespeed? Why or why not?