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Single minded

18 June, 2013

Iain Treloar finds three reasons to switch to a singlespeed this winter.


Electronic shifting, 11 speed drivetrains, internal hub gears – in the dizzying whoosh of technology, bike componentry has become ever more sophisticated. However, gears continue to be one of the most complex, likely to mess up, and expensive-to-repair parts of the bike.

With the mucky winter roads ahead, now is an ideal time to consider an alternative to a conventional geared drivetrain – the singlespeed.

Before gears were a technologically viable addition to a chain-driven bicycle, necessity dictated that riders manage with whatever single gear ratio they had. The inaugural Tour de France, held in 1903, was won by Maurice Garin on a fixed-gear singlespeed, demonstrating just how far people can push themselves when there’s no other option. Gear ratios on these singlespeeds were designed to make it possible for riders to handle the majority of terrain they would encounter. Of course, on extreme gradients (both up and down), this one gear proved challenging, requiring frenzied pedalling at high speeds and an agonising grind at low speeds, and with the march of progress, geared bikes soon took over.

The renaissance of the singlespeed occurred when bike couriers developed a defined sub-culture. With durability, reliability and affordability all vital requirements for courier steeds, the singlespeed re-emerged in the form of the ‘fixie’ as the ideal choice for their use. As Andy White, proprietor of Fyxomatosis, explains, “When I started as a courier in London, I was riding on a geared MTB with disc brakes. Repairs cost $300 per drivetrain… That was how I got into fixies.”

With a mythology quickly growing around bike couriers and their daredevil city riding, the singlespeed was all of a sudden both practical and cool. For all of the same reasons that singlespeeds appeal to bike couriers, they may be worth considering for your next bike too.

Cheaper to buy                                          

Whilst it’s possible to drop some serious money on a classic Italian or Japanese track frame and custom build, singlespeeds are on the whole more affordable than their geared counterparts, especially in recent years. Anyone with an eye on the bike market will have noticed the increasing proliferation of low-cost singlespeed bikes. They have become synonymous with hipsters, and web-savvy companies like Jellybean, Mojo and Reid have sprung up to meet the needs of this market in a way that the traditional bicycle industry was slow to adapt to. By correctly identifying that new riders, students, and those with low disposable income would be attracted to something cheap to buy and maintain, these businesses have flourished.

Although it may be slightly harder work, the reality is that for a typical gently rolling commute, the difference in times on the same commute from a geared bike to a singlespeed will be negligible…

Although such bikes are sometimes maligned by more snobbish riders, they play an important role in getting more people riding. All three brands have options to get you on the road for under $500, in Reid’s case for as little as $199. Another popular and more sustainable option is to rebuild an old or second-hand road bike as a singlespeed, replacing the rear derailleur with a chain-tensioner and spacing out the rear hub to get the correct chain-line.

While a new or reconditioned singlespeed can make a great first bike, their affordability also makes them a sensible choice as a secondary, wet-weather bike. Why expose your pride and joy to the rain and mud when you could save it for the weekends and have a singlespeed workhorse for the really grim days?

Cheaper to maintain

When riding in winter, your drivetrain is highly susceptible to increased wear from water and road-grit, which will quickly compromise your shifting if your bike is inadequately maintained. This, paired with the added friction of jockey wheels and angled chain-lines, means that chain and cassette wear is highly likely.

By contrast, a singlespeed is optimised for a straight chainline – the lack of angle at which the chain meets the sprocket dramatically reduces wear. Furthermore, all the drivetrain components, which are fewer in number and cheaper in cost, can effectively be ridden to destruction. You don’t need to worry about missed shifts, slipping chains and clunky changes – as long as the chain tension is okay, you are too.

At the end of a winter of riding, when it’s time for your bike to head into the workshop for a spring-clean, many will have experienced the bill shock that a new drivetrain can bring. Consider a daily all-weather commute of 20km return, on a bike equipped with the common mid-range Shimano 105 groupset. In this scenario, it would be reasonable to expect to replace chain and cassette annually, which doesn’t come particularly cheap, with a 105 cassette retailing locally at $109.95 and a chain at $69.95. If chainrings are required, one could expect to pay another $100 or more – and then, any labour charges to get all of the above installed and tuned up.

Compare this with a singlespeed chain, at a cost of around $30, or a complete (albeit basic) singlespeed bike for $200, and the cost benefits quickly start adding up. In essence, a singlespeed drivetrain inherently lasts for longer to begin with, doesn’t need replacing with any great urgency (even if the chain is badly stretched) and is far cheaper when you do.


Singlespeed-hubThe third reason why some choose to go for a singlespeed is a little more difficult to quantify, and frequently dismissed by sceptics as pretentious. Nonetheless, many advocates of the singlespeed are attracted to what they view as a ‘purity’ in their ultra-simple set-up.

This perspective is two-tiered. It’s both a technological response – singlespeeds are lighter weight with no gears, and aesthetically cleaner – and a psychological one, with a singlespeed conjuring some sort of bike-zen. Bike riding is fundamentally you and your bike versus your surrounds; singlespeeding heightens this challenge and really forces you to really engage with the terrain. Without gears to cushion the experience, the steep bits are steeper and flat bits more nuanced, leaving you more aware of your surroundings and in tune with both body and bike. Although it may be slightly harder work, the reality is that for a typical gently rolling commute, the difference in times on the same commute from a geared bike to a singlespeed will be negligible, and with a heightened sense of engagement and achievement as a bonus.

Without gears, you become more aware of your pedaling technique. On hills, the explosive out-of-the-saddle efforts required to maintain momentum up a rise are a great workout. And working to maintain a constant cadence even on undulating terrain is a good way to liven up a commute and build a sense of challenge into any ride, instead of just clicking through the gears to keep it as easy as possible.

Although they won’t suit every rider, singlespeeds are a lot more versatile than they may initially appear. If you’re curious, on your next commute see how you go not shifting your gears to see if it’s achievable. If it is, a singlespeed might just be the perfect low cost, low maintenance, all-weather option for you.

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10 Comments leave one →
  1. John Andersen permalink
    10 July, 2013 4:44 pm

    Awesome content guys thanks. So proud of the OGE team in Tour de France. Do any of you know where I can but the kit so I can sport the colours riding in Johannesburg. 🙂

  2. 10 July, 2013 4:51 pm

    It’s all nonsense of course. Courier may have started it, but its just fashionable now. Hipsters ride the, as the go with tight trousers.

    Cheap? They aren’t. You can buy nasty cheap single speeds. And nasty cheap geared bikes.

    Need them for winter? Ridiculous. Last longer? Anyone’s who’s got a foxy ain’t going far. That’s why the don’t break down.

    I bought my ten speed when i was 21. Am 55 now. Still riding it to work.

    Purity? Zen? Bugger off. Stop reading other yuppies blogs.

    Bikes are bikes.

    Get out and ride what ya have.

    If it brakes, fix it yourself for less than $50.

    The end.

    Ps. Do I ride fixed too? Yes. But all that stuff above is self justification.

  3. Kowalski ona Masi permalink
    10 July, 2013 5:12 pm

    I have been an SS commuter for many years. I am not a hipster (no tatts, no beard!) nor am I inclined to subscribe to fads. I will say to those who have not tried a SS, don’t be too quick to judge. As Ian points out, they are cheap to buy, cheap to run (which is the real reason I started riding them) and the whole Zen thing really rings true, they are pure, uncomplicated and stealthy quiet. I will never go back.

  4. Longfellow permalink
    10 July, 2013 9:18 pm

    You can’t re-invent the wheel. Old guys in the 50’s & 60’s (UK) used to ride single fixed throughout the winter then kicked arse on the early season time trials. A sub group of the Noosa (Queensland Australia) Raw Riders triple F use single fixed for their Monday recovery rides. This group is known locally as the OFOF boys! (Old Farts On Fixies) sadly now too old to kick anyones backside but still feels great to spin up the old legs at least once a week.

  5. Kingerz permalink
    10 July, 2013 11:34 pm

    Ten minutes riding, or probably pushing, a fixie around my house in the Dandenong Ranges will confirm that gears are a great advance in propulsion technology.

  6. Geoff permalink
    11 July, 2013 9:34 am

    If you are serious about commuting, it makes sense to replace components like chains and cassettes yourself, and to buy online. You can easily get a 105 cassette for under $60, and a 105 or equivalent KMC chain will cost between $25 and $35. If you replace your chain when it reaches 1/16″ wear over 12″ (24 links) of chain, chances are you won’t need to replace your cassette with each chain. – I expect at least 10 000km from a cassette.
    The chain whip and cassette removal tool you need to do the job are not expensive.
    I will probably go through 2 chains over the winter, but I consider them sacrificial in order to reduce wear on more expensive components like chainrings and the cassette.
    For cassettes, there is probably also no harm running a Tiagra cassette which is slightly cheaper than a 105.
    When we start getting the Spring winds in the Western suburbs, I am glad to be riding with gears!

  7. Lele permalink
    11 July, 2013 10:00 am

    I found it a real struggle for the first couple of weeks tying to get used to commuting fixed, but now I love it. I’ll admit at first I thought all this talk about a more “pure” ride was just a way of glorifying making cycling harder than it has to be. However, once I got used to standing up on the hills, spinning fast on the descents and remembering not to freewheel, it has become a lot more simple way of riding. Now I really enjoy not having to worry about changing gears, I can just focus on the traffic, gradient of the road and overtaking my geared counterparts.

  8. 11 July, 2013 10:47 am

    I’ve just “downgraded” from a bike with 21 gears to one with 14, and I agree with Kingerz. And I don’t even live in the Dandenongs.

  9. J-Lo permalink
    18 July, 2013 12:48 pm

    No need to worry about hills when riding your SS, East Brunswick is dead flat….

  10. Kieran permalink
    23 July, 2013 9:31 pm

    I rode my single speed cruiser from Glenroy to Collingwood for up to 4 days a week for work. I loved the style (Poor man’s Harley), fat seat, wide bars and the excellent mud guards. But I would have loved just just a 3 speed hub to shorten the flat stretches and give me a break against the north wind. Lost a bit of weight riding it, though.

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