Wednesday, 12 February 2014

Why one is fun...

I ride a singlespeed. There, I've said it. I know what you're thinking; cut-off handlebars, low slung jeans, wispy moustache, hipster. While I must confess to a penchant for posh coffee please banish all other preconceptions from your mind; I do not have a chain dangling from my jeans and never smoke or wear headphones whilst riding (do such people even still exist?)

As a general rule of thumb any underground cycling subculture ceases to be cool at the precise moment that Specialized tries to join in. They released the Langster in 2004 and so presumably the 'Hoxton Massive' were already moving onto other things in 2003. Incidentally I note that Specialized have now brought out a fat bike. If you already own one of these bastard progeny of mountain bike and space hopper it is time to sell up and buy something else; for what it's worth my money is on offroad recumbent tricycles being the next big thing.

The author winning hipster of the year 1983

No, my choice of singlespeed steed was not a slavish following of a fashion long past. After an expensive winter of commuting on a mountain bike three years ago I decided that I needed a hack bike with lower running costs. The way ahead I thought was either singlespeed or hub gears and so arranged a test of the geared and ungeared versions of the Genesis Day 1. The Shimano Nexus hub offers a good range of gears but it weighs about as much as a suckling pig . Because of this riding up hills on the hub geared bike was a chore, easy but unrewarding. The singlespeed version on the other hand felt light, frisky and eager as soon as the road turned upwards. Such was its infectious enthusiasm for climbing I felt impelled to get out of the saddle and sprint up hills. I was smitten and bought the singlespeed on the spot.

Like most people I had assumed that riding up hills on a singlespeed would be extremely difficult. In actual fact singlespeeds are ideally suited to going uphill; many hill climb specialists opt for a one gear set-up partly to save weight and partly because that plumb straight chainline and lack of extraneous cogs, springs and other gubbins ensure that every ounce of your strength is being used to propel you up the hill. One of my favourite local hills is Wilson Avenue,  a long slow drag uphill from Brighton Marina to the racecourse at an average gradient of 6%. On the singlespeed shod with 35mm tyres the ascent takes me about 6 minutes. It was one of the first hills I tackled when I bought my new racing bike a couple of years ago. I was rather distraught to discover that the lighter weight and the advantage of twenty gears had made me a full 45 seconds slower. I rode the hill again the following day on my singlespeed to see whether it was due to a lack of fitness, but once more I made it to the top in about six minutes. This is not due to any magical quality of the bike however; with just one gear I was simply being forced to work harder. On the racing bike I thought that I was going flat out, but in actual fact was taking it pretty easy.

Obviously any gear that will get you up a 20% gradient will be a bit spinny on the flat. I ride a 42:18 which, as the internet will tell you means that I need to maintain a cadence of 110 rpm to ride at 20mph on the flat. This feels very odd at first but you soon get used to these higher cadences. With practice 140rpm can be maintained for quite some time but you do look a bit ridiculous. All of this means that switching to a singlespeed has surprisingly little impact on average speeds. I have a favourite 25 mile loop which takes in Devil's Dyke and Ditchling Beacon and my times on the singlespeed and racing bike are almost identical; wind strength and direction will make a bigger difference on any given day than choice of bicycle.

If you are still dubious you don't need to take my word for this - take a look at the average speeds recorded in the Tour de France. Until 1937 gears were banned. In 1936 the winner (Silvère Maes) completed the race at an average speed of 19.3mph. In 1937 the winner (Roger Lapébie), using derailleur gears for the first time completed a race of similar length and difficulty at an average of 19.7mph. Obviously Lapébie wasn't rocking a 22 speed Dura Ace setup but it does show that gears do not offer the startling speed advantage that natural prejudice would lead you to expect.

There are of course other advantages to a singlespeed other than being almost but not quite as fast as a geared bike. Over the last three years the singlespeed has saved me hours of time and no small amount of money that would have been otherwise wasted on overhauling a bike with gears. Every year or so I buy a new chain. Every now and then I adjust the brakes, pump up the tyres and oil the chain. That's it - my bike is ridden through all weathers, off road and on, is rarely washed, never mollycoddled and it just keeps on going.

The bike has also undoubtedly made me stronger. If you have lower gears to help you up a hill then sooner or later you will use them. With a singlespeed there is no option other than an ignominious trudge up a hill. I tend to wear road pedals and cleats to make this option even less attractive. As a consequence I ride up the steeper hills muttering 'in these shoes? I don't think so...'.

There is also pleasure to be gained from the simplicity of a singlespeed. With no gears there is no noise other than a soft mellifluous chatter from the chain. There are no niggling obsessive thoughts to clutter the mind too; no shifting repeatedly up and down to find the perfect gear, no need to pre-emptively change down for the hills, none of the graunching that ensues when you forget to do that pre-emptive gear change, no wondering whether you are in the big or the small chainring when riding in the dark and consequent worries about chainline. Best of all there is no grinding and clattering emanating from your maladjusted gears.

As the rain continues to fall on diluvian Britain, now is the time to admit that the Shoreditch fakengers were onto something. Grab yourself an unwanted hipster sledge from Ebay, fit some proper handlebars and a brake or two and take it into the hills. If you find yourself struggling meditate on rule number 5 and quit your whinging.


  1. A well reasoned case for single speed but questionable spelling of tyres!

  2. Oh dear, have gone a bit American there haven't I. I shall correct before anyone notices...