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.
The 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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