Do you remember the first time you saw someone riding a singlespeed (SS) mountain bike? I bet your first thought was “what do they think they’re doing out here without any gears? Don’t they know they have to ride up hills?” I also bet you were immensely confused when they rode away from you on a climb – I know I was! After my first SS encounter I walked away with the conclusion that you must have to be a beast to ride a SS MTB – I mean, it’s gotta be really hard, right?I’m going to let you in on a secret: singlespeeding isn’t nearly as difficult as you think. Heck, I rode almost exclusively on a SS for over a year, and trust me – I’m not that strong.

I wanted to do a post that might convince some of you to give singlespeeding a try for yourselves. There are already tons of blog and forum posts on the interweb about the benefits of SSing (light, simple, quiet, builds strength, etc.) soI decided to do something a little different. I lent my 29er singlespeed to five non-singlespeed riding buddies to get their thoughts. These guys and gal are normal riders, they’re not slow, but not that fast either. They might do a race or two every year for fun, but they primarily ride because they enjoy it. That’s what it’s all about after all!


My bike, a Vassago Jabberwocky. 25.16lbs of steel-framed, one-geared, big-wheeled goodness. And yeah, it’s got a bell.

Rider #1 – BrianW

STATS Age: 40 | Years Riding: 19 | My Bike: Giant Yukon (hardtail, 26″ wheels, aluminum frame)

Thoughts on the singlespeed:

Within the first 2 minutes on the Keg Creek trail I was reaching for phantom shifters. The one thing that I noticed and could get used to was how quiet a singlespeed is. Just the tires on the dirt. Never knew how noisy the derailleurs were. Also seemed like as soon as I pushed down on the pedal there was power, no delay at all.

I was worried about two climbs: the first one, going up Boulder Creek, was a lot easier than I expected. On the steep rooty climb just after the “Bed Rock” crossing I managed to go up half way before losing momentum and walking the last portion. To be honest though, I struggle up this one even with a geared bike. Long ascents were not as bad – I got off the saddle a bit more than I normally would. Overall the climbs were not as bad as I thought they would be. I am also certain that given a few weeks on a singlespeed that the climbs would be a non-issue. It did seem that you needed to go a certain speed or cadence or else you might be walking.

The downside that I noticed was on long downhills – I wanted to put it into a higher gear to get more speed. Eventually I overcame this by picking up the cadence. I also rode a section of paved road from Keg to Bartram(in Wildwood) to see how I would like it. Again I was reaching for phantom shifters. And again I had to overcome by picking up the cadence. I believe over time these problems would be non-issues.

Overall I did not miss the gears and the quietness of a singlespeed trumped the few times I really wished I had them.

Less (complexity, noise, weight, parts, maintenance) is more (fun).

Rider #2: David K.

STATS – Age: 43 | Years Riding: 3.5 | My Bike: ’09 Cannondale Rize Carbon 1 (carbon/aluminum framed 5″ travel full suspension bike,carbon Lefty fork, 26″ wheels)

The ride: Rode at FATS – Skinny(ccw) -> Brown Wave(ccw) -> Great Wall (cw)
20.2 miles. 1:58 riding time (surprisingly, not slower than on my geared FS bike)
Met Paul F. in parking lot and we decided to ride together. He rode behind. I always ride faster/push a little harder with someone behind me. I rode every hill without stopping; even the 2-mile climb out of Great Wall (cw).

The experience:

  • Several new variables with this bike: single speed, 29er, hard tail.
  • Frame might be too big, stem too long, and seat too far back. Overall though, it wasnt a bad fit.
  • Never stood and pedaled so much out of the saddle (i.e., climbing). On geared bike, I just sit and spin most/all hills.
  • Quiet. Although, not due to lack of gears but the lack of chain slap (I could hear the chain slapping on Pauls bike).
  • Going up hills was not nearly as punishing as I feared (I was very surprised). However, not sure if it was the SS, 29er wheels, or the knowledge that if I didnt get enough speed or pound hard enough I would get stuck? Knowing that there isnt an easier gear available is a great motivator for hills.
  • Im not that fast downhill so needing/wanting a higher gear wasnt an issue for me.
  • Its hard to qualify but, once rolling, there seemed to be more power to the wheels (lack of RD?) and more momentum when coasting (29er tires?).
  • Actually, I think some climbs might have been easier than on my geared FS bike.
  • I tried to shift with the dingle bell a few times (subconscious thumb movement).
  • Riding a single speed/hard tail probably makes you a better/stronger rider: standing and pedaling out of saddle, focusing on technique during turns or watching the trail ahead to maintain speed/momentum.
  • Here is a shocker: If I had extra money, I would think about getting a SS 29er. Mostly as a penance bike for the day after a bad ride or when I bag a ride due to laziness. No cheating hills with a single speed.
  • Wont give up my geared FS bike, but I can see where aSS might be nice to have for more variety (i.e., switching up trails and bikes) or for training.
  • A few times (long, slight uphill grade, seated) getting the bike rolling faster felt like moving a ton of bricks (might be that my legs were getting tired).
  • Most of the time though, once the bike was rolling, it kept rolling.
  • Really impressed at how (relatively) painless it was to stand and pedal those hills. I wouldnt have guessed.
  • My casual observations have been that most folks start off with a hard tail, move to a full suspension and, if theyve caught the fever, eventually get a singlespeed.Never thought of myself progressing to the third stage but this ride has me thinking.

No shifters makes for a simple, clean, uncluttered cockpit.

Rider #3: Tom Z.

STATS – Age: 44 | Years Riding: 10 | My Bike: 2001 Gary Fisher Tassajara (hardtail, 26″ wheels, steel frame)

I don’t know why I was so surprised at how much I enjoyed my trial singlespeed ride. After all, I spent the first 13 – 14 years of my life riding a singlespeed bike. And we rode everywhere then – through woods, fields, in the clay pit behind my house. Gears were something your mom had on her bike – a 3-speed cruiser. You were a sissy if you had a 10-speed (which the rest of us were secretly envious of).

So I chose the Turkey Creek Trail to ride as it is representative of 75 – 80% of the riding I do. It really didn’t take long to get accustomed to not having shifters. Maybe because I have been struggling with rear derailleur issues for so long, but it felt very liberating to ride without gears. The ride was definitely quieter. Yes, I had to come out of the saddle a few times more that I normally would have. I didn’t realize how dependent I had become on a geared bike – down shifting out of habit in the face of an obstacle rather than powering over or up it. The trail was very trashy from recent storms – a lot of trees and limbs down to climb over and around. Despite that, I thought my ride time was pretty good – 55 minutes in (7 miles) and about 5 minutes less out. On this trail, I found myself wanting a higher gear more often than a lower one. If I was slower than normal, I think it was on the flat and downhill sections when I normally would have pushed into a higher gear.

The bottom line is, now that I have a new geared bike (3 x 10), I convinced myself to convert my old bike to SS. I’m looking forward to riding it on some more challenging trails. Maybe my opinions will change when I have to do more climbing. Hopefully I will get stronger.

Trent rode the SS with platform pedals. Photo: Trent S.

Rider #4: Trent S.

STATS – Age:34 | Years Riding: 10+ | My Bike: 2011 Specialized Camber Elite 29er (full suspension 29er)

First impressions @ Skinny like most of the trails at FATS, Skinny starts with a long section of downhill and very, very quickly (within 50 yards of the parking lot) I ran out of spinning speed. I love going fast, so not being able to do so under my own pedal-power was frustrating at first. I caught myself trying to pedal a few times where I clearly couldnt match my rolling speed. After I accepted the fact that gravity and a light touch on the brakes would dictate my top speed, I got into it.

The first thing I noticed was that instead of barreling down the trail like I do on my 29er FS and grabbing handfuls of brakes moments before potential disasters at big hits or sharper-than-expected turns, I was rolling at a more leisurely speed and found myself enjoying setting up jumps and smoothly carving through corners. Sure the overall pace of the ride was slower, but it ended up being more enjoyable. Later in the ride, I also seemed to have more energy than normal. It could be attributable to knowing I needed to beat the rain back to the Jeep, but I like to think that it was due to the single speed. Normally I like rolling along in the big ring, pushing hard gears. With the single speed, I had no choice but to enjoy the ride at a more leisurely pace and it saved my legs for the uphill battle back to the parking lot. Normally at that point, my quads are starting to feel it and there are a few hills I dread. Now, even though I was climbing in a tougher gear than Id normally try to attempt, I had some reserves that pushed me through the steep spots.

I was riding platform pedalsagain. If the Jabberwockeys geometry were a little different, itd be a lot like riding my old BMX through the woods.

@ Canal trail Again, a single speed is best in the woods. It felt really slow riding through the neighborhood on the way to the trail. Reminds me of when I was a kid riding a BMX. The easiest thing to do is stand up, pedal as fast as you can for a few moments, then cruuuuise.and repeat. Once on the canal trailwell, I was concentrating more on getting back to the house in time for Stacey to pick me up for our trip to Beaufort to really notice many differencesexcept a whole new respect for single speed riders who fly through the woods. Dont know how they do it. There are so many spots on the trail where you could really pick up some speed, but I didnt manage to do that. Maybe Ill try again with clipless pedals.

Bottom line Id love to have one. As a second bike.

Rider #5: Stacey W.

STATS: Age: 30 | Years Riding: 2.5 | My Bike: Giant XTC2 (hardtail, 26″ wheels, aluminum frame)

The advantage of riding the single speed on a trail that Im familiar with allowed me to anticipate and better prepare for the climbs. For instance, when a tight turn came just before a climb (knowing I couldnt drop it down a gear to make the climb easier), I didnt wimp out by squeezing the brakes. I kept all the momentum I could, went wider and leaned harder into the turns, which is what I should be doing anyway! Its good basic training and brought me back to the fundamentals of riding (momentum, shifting weight etc).

The workout was more intense and I enjoyed the exertion I felt afterwards. Id love to have a single speed for a second bike! 😉

Stacey enjoying the ride to the trail. Photo: Trent S.

Told You So!

As you can see, everyone enjoyed riding the singlespeed, even if they didn’t think they would. The proof is in the pudding they say, so here’s my proof: BrianW, David, Tom, and maybe even Trent are all converting their old bikes to singlespeeds.

Keep an eye on the Singletracks blog – soon I’ll have a Tech How-To post showing you how to convert your own bike to a singlespeed! It’s a cheap way to try SSing without buying a whole new bike,it’seasy, and it is a great way to get your old bike out of the garage and back on the trails again.

Thanks to Brian, David, Tom, Trent, and Stacey for trying the bike and taking the time to write up their thoughts on it.

What do YOU think about SS MTBing? Ever tried it? Tell us what you think in the comments section.

# Comments

  • Bonsai-CP

    I grew up shredding, racing, and riding SS and had a total blast! Since then I have converted over to gears. After all these years of pushing my steeds (bikes) to the limit with gears, I finally started back in SS riding again and realize how much more fun it is besides being more healthy and a better workout, being on dirt or in the concrete jungle. The simplicity of SS is far better than anything geared and less costly to replace or repair in the long run.

    On my big DH/FR sled, I really only ride in 6 thru 9 for all around riding, and 7, 8, and 9 for all out shredding and FR with an 36T chainwheel, and 40T chainwheel for DH.

    But I have come to enjoy and respect the SS once more and is a more affective drivetrain for the freeriding.

  • sweetp

    I recently converted my ’98 Trek to a single speed and I love it. In the process I also learned how to work on bikes. I enjoy climbing much more on a SS, it is more rewarding and usually faster. Personally, I am trying to keep my quiver to one mountain bike only. One less complicated decision to make. I would highly recommend converting a bike over purchasing a new one. It is more fun and it recycles an old ride. Stay away from cheap chain tensioners (the surly works well in push-up mode) or build an ENO eccentric wheel. Its still cheaper than buying a new “blinglespeed”. 26 inch wheels work just fine, although I have never tried a 29er on the trail.

  • Danno#1

    Awesome article! I like that you lent out your ride to friend’s for them to make their own opinions vs. them just turning away from even trying a 1×1 because of what they “think” it’s like. I also ride a freshly built Vassago Jabberwocky single and I love it more then I thought I would to be honest. I’ve been riding for 10+ years and I’ve gone from 3×9 to 1×9 to convert the geared frame to 1×1. Now I have three dedicated 1×1 rigs, with one being a 26” custom belt drive (quite is an understatement) and the 29er Jabberwocky. For the Midwest riding I do, I don’t miss the gears.

  • brianW

    A few weeks after, and with the help of dgaddis, my ’91 Trek 830 was converted to a ss. Have taken it out a few times and love it. Great way to ‘recycle’ an older bike that would normally collect garage dust. I mean really trail dust looks a lot better on a bike.

  • trek7k

    Question from Facebook: what gearing were the testers running?

  • dgaddis

    The gear is a 32×18 which is a common, if not somewhat tall, gear for around here, I know some fast locals that use an easier 32×19 or even a 32×20. Trent complained about having too short a gear, but he tends to push a taller than normal gear – which is why he had more energy at the end of his ride: spinning an easy gear is more efficient. Going 12mph @ 90rpm takes less effort than going 12mph @ 50rpm. Since the SS forced him to pedal at a higher cadence than normal he had more energy left at the end of the ride.

  • BikerPanda

    im worried that if I turned my Haro into a SS then hubs, wheels, and accerssory-itis will kick in. My Haro is entry level so it probably wouldnt hurt to freshen it up.

  • CaptainBrock

    INTERESTING! Yeah, I see these dudes up where I go. I know they have really strong legs. To me they seem to be showing off, and I can’t believe they don’t break the chain.
    I invented the single-speed, by the way, in 1981 when I acquired a free junk 10-speed, and could not afford to replace the gear cluster or fix the deraillers. My next build will be a 1×7, but I may have to wait until this SS thing blows off before I can find a frame. I fear the disc brakes are here to stay, so I will have to custom fabricate a frame with V-brake bosses. Right now I am still so happy with my 26″ Dean Scout Ti 8-speed with the weenie gears down to 22×32. A nod to all riders; keep on crankin’

  • seenvic

    Funny story. This youngster (DGaddis) moves to Augusta and hits the trails and forums. On the forums, he seems like a eager tyke. Me and a friend of mine end setting up a ride with DGaddis. We show up, both on SS hardtails, while DG is on his Giant FS. I am DG’s dad’s age and my buddy is a few years younger than me. I didn’t know it at the time, but later DG told me he thought “this is going to be a long day of dragging these two old farts around these trails. And their on steel hardtails. With one gear. Idiots”.

    Then we commenced to ride away on DG on the first climb.

    I wouldn’t remember any of this had DG not recently reminded me of the day we met and this story. Then I read this post on here and gotta smile.

    I am damn glad DG is our youngster. It would be fine with me if he went back where he came from and brought 10-20 more people just like him.

  • dgaddis

    @seenvic – LOL, that was a learning experience for sure. It was my 3rd mtn bike ride, and I was on my shiny new full suspension mountain bike (the most expensive thing I had ever bought at that point in my life), and I got my butt kicked by two old guys on steel (!!!) bikes with no rear suspension or gears.

    It was the first of many humbling mtn bike experiences!

  • seenvic

    Another SS story. Partner in trail biz was down working on FATS phase3 and had no bike with him. I lent him my 26er SS and he rode the original 4 loops at FATS on it. It was the first time he had ever ridden this bike and the first time he had ridden a SS more than just tooling around on it in a parking lot.

    He came home that night and told me that he broke his PR on those 4 loops by 10 minutes. He was shocked. He kept saying how the bike would just go and once you get it to speed you hold it there and never let up. So there ya go.

    I now have a 29er SS (same one as DGaddis) and love it. I’d recommend it, highly.

    Last comment. I only see 29er SS at the big events now. I never 26er SS anymore (at the races). A friend on f88me.com just said he did a SS race in NY and was on the only 26er SS of 13 in the race.

  • trek7k

    Yeah, one of the guys I ride with (Nico) still rides a 26er SS but he seems to be one of the few remaining holdouts. Then again it must work for him – GA SS champ a couple years ago and won the Cohutta 100 singlespeed division this year.

  • GoldenGoose

    Dgaddis, or any other SS for that matter, does having to keep the RPMs up cause you issues when spinning through techy uphill sections or rock gardens? I’ve always wondered how riding a SS would affect riding technique in sections like that. I used to try to spin through spots like that with a quick cadence but I’d end up getting bounced around and ultimately stall.

  • dgaddis

    If I’m going up a techy climb, I won’t be going fast enough to spin quickly lol, so it’s not an issue. Havin the strength to get up steep low speed stuff is the challenge. Like creek or ditch crossings where you can’t carry much momentum, that can be tough.

  • Slee_Stack

    The consensus appears to be that SS is appealing for a SECOND bike.

    While not an exact duplicate experience, everyone can get an idea of the feel of SS by keeping their geared bike in one ratio for the entire ride. In the back-of-the-mind you may have that switch gears ‘bail-out’ temptation, but tape up the shifters if you don’t think your self-control needs work.

  • dgaddis

    Riding a real SS is a totally different experience than simply leaving your geared bike in the same gear the entire time. The derailleur causes a lot of drag on the chain, makes a bunch of noise, all the weight is still there, it’s just different. A SS is way smoother feelingoutbid so quiet, you just can’t get that feeling with a geared bike.

  • maddslacker

    @dgaddis, have you looked at doing a belt drive SS? I mention it since you seem to be into how quiet it is, and the belts are even quieter.

  • dgaddis

    Nah, not interested in belts. Way expensive and forces some design constraints on the frame. has to be stiff to keep belt alignment perfect and the big pulleys require long chainstays and/or limited tire clearance. They also require really high tension that wears stuff out faster (hub and BB bearings). The new centertrack belts are suppose to be better, needing less tension and not so perfect alignment, but they are even more expensive. I’ll stick with chains for now.

  • dozzerboy

    For belts drives, don’t you have to be able to break the frame? How else do you get the belt inside of the frame?

    • Zachary Abelardo

      Yes, the frame needs to be strategically “broken” to fit a new belt. No thanks…

  • sweetp

    In response to the “techy” sections. I have found riding rock gardens not to be much harder. Riding rocky uphills have been pretty much impossible for me thus far. The only way I see it happening is building some momentum, bombing through it, and hoping for the best. Being able to track stand helps too. I also find myself doing a lot of short back pedaling in technical sections to adjust for the SS gearing. It’s a fun challenge.

  • Jared13

    Just picked up an older model Trek (820?) and I’m going to slower convert it to SS 😀

  • bwellisley

    i started racing SS on a scalpel using a singulator in 2003. since 2005 i’ve been riding/racing a cannondale 1FG 26’er. still dominating the race scene, started out in MI now racing in the se living in NC. recently won the overall at a 4hr enduro in greensboro. i’ve been debating getting a 29’er, but not sure about how the higher center of gravity and handling in tight singletrack would be. i can tipically drop the guys on the tight technical stuff, and runnin a bigger gear ratio i can outrun them in the flats as well. for the 4hr i ran a 36/16 and was able to have enough power at the end to still get all the climbs (except for the heat stroke that was created!). i plan to get a new hardtail 1×9, but i think i’ll keep racin the SS. currently lookin at a new bike, as i’ll possibly switch over to trek. (but may keep my ELO-carbon-ti Lefty!) 🙂

  • ofrdbykr

    I started trying out a SS by just stopping to shift my regular 5″ bike – I selected middle ring (32T) and 5th in the back to start with. Took some getting used to so that I didn’t accidentally shift, but found that I liked the way I had to ride my regular trails changed them up quite a bit. After that I wanted to build up a SS, but only had an older 5″ single pivot frame lying around – so I found a chain tensioner from YESS that would work with this design (and most FS designs up to 5″) and built up a FS 5″ SS Trail Bike. It is a bit heavier going up (around 24 lbs), but a blast coming down.

  • jaredmcvay

    This SS idea has been on my mind as of late, and I am glad I hit this blog. I was curious not only why but how people do it. It causes me to have even more interest. Given the opportunity, I’ll hit it up one of these days. Thanks.

  • drbyers

    Just bought a used 26″ SS redline monocog and I LOVE it. I’m sure 29″ wheels would be better to keep up momentum up taller climbs but I manage and can ride away from my friends usually.

    The thing about SS bikes is that it’s pure cycling. You pedal and go.

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