Gears and Bikes

How do you know a cyclist is a singlespeeder? They tell you as soon as you meet!

Not always true. I’ve heard this same scenario about triathletes, vegans, crossfitters, etc. How do I tell people I’m a SSer? I rarely say anything, let them realize it on their own, sometimes they never know, or just don’t say anything, which is great. Even after over 10 years of riding nothing but single gear bikes, I admit I still enjoy the unexpected reactions when a rider notices my gear configuration. Usually pointing, with an open mouth, and no sound. I’m not doing anything amazing, I’m just riding bikes. In addition to being too old to be pro, my performance isn’t anything to be noticed; if I had gears I’d just be another rider in the pack, instead of near the back. But I’m not the dirt bag singlespeeder, you may imagine, I proudly wear lycra (MAMIL!).

One or many?

A few years ago, there was a rider writer, the self-proclaimed ANGRY SINGLESPEEDER. I never learned why he chose the title, and it made no sense to me, was he angry because he was a singlespeeder? Maybe he had a bad experience, or was angry at the world bike establishment for being more multi-gear oriented, and he felt ignored. I read a few of his stories, but walked away quickly from the one where he talked about a long ride on a geared bike. Had it been a contrast and comparison of single verses multi gears, it may have held some purpose, but otherwise it had no connection at all. And I don’t know if he was angry or happy, but it no longer mattered. It’s ok he rode a geared bike, but his icon, or public title, was betrayed.

The angry guy faded from my field of view about the time the “fad” of singlespeeding began to fade. Yes, I did say fad. But, don’t despair, fad in this use just reflects a diminishing notice by the mainstream bike industry. Calling anything a fad is always an insult to those deeply involved, it causes a feeling of loss of community and purpose. But unlike those parachute pants and Members Only jackets, single gear bikes are a history (and future) in themselves, and I don’t mean a few year span from around 1989 to 2014 when you could walk into any bike shop and find a selection of these real bikes, I’m talking the first bikes with drivetrains that weren’t Fred Flintstone powered. Many years ago, these were the only bikes.

snow tires
Studded Tires for the Winter 

As bikes progressed through the same upward curve of modernization as everything else in our world, we added a system to move the chain through a varied range of gears on the rear hub. This caught on! And just like changing gears in a car to keep from bogging or over revving, the cyclists could adjust their cadence to some degree, to keep it either comfortable or possible. And this is where it all went to hell! (Hang on! Don’t leave yet!)

sram 10 50 2

I don’t hate geared bikes and I’m not angry at all about the development of even today’s 12 speed rears. Unless I’m riding alone, I’m usually with geared bikers. Drivetrain development pushed R+D in other areas, I’ll bet. The complete drivetrain component string has gotten stronger over the years, and bottom bracket bearings have come a long way, even since my first real bike in 1985. But how did multiple gear systems change the future of cycling?

Eccentric Bottom Bracket from Wheels Manufacturing

I’ll speculate that providing a transmission of varied ratios increased sales of bicycles. A beginning rider, possibly with nothing but desktop fitness, will most likely use that lower end of the gear spectrum, and if not, their first few rides will be filled with huffing, then walking, then complaining; next comes the for sale ad, or the garage decoration. These gear options allow a beginning rider to climb many hills they would come to on the typical short outings; after many rides they’ll possibly ride further, and maybe more uphill. What if geared bikes had never happened and our bike shops only had singlespeed bikes?

Well, we singlespeeders would be in our place. And that alternate reality would probably have noticeably less bike shops, and possibly much less developed drivetrain components, suspension, pedals, etc. Not sure bikes would be as popular in that world. Not saying it would be terrible, just completely different from what we’ve grown into. Many of our one gear bikes would probably not be here today without the tech progress that came with the drivetrain improvements over the years. The “R” from R+D always happens, thinkers are always thinking!), but the “D” doesn’t come without money. Metal doesn’t flow from the stream out back into the machine shop, and the home tinkerer rarely makes a buck off an idea that either did work or should have worked.

2 ss
2 x 1 x 1

So that leaves a question- Why do we choose to ride a single gear bike? Especially when I could be on a mountain bike with a 28×51 low end? Many times when I’m about to break the frame in two twisted pieces of mangled tubes from rowing a steep climb at 1 RPM, I think about different ratios. I think about 1×1, and how great that would feel! The closest I’ve used to 1×1 is a 32×23, on my mtb, which feels really low until I’m standing and stressing everything from the bar to my knees, and I get off and walk.

I often look at those mtb’s with those huge cogs, 42 and bigger, and wonder when those would be used by the average experienced rider; heck, even a beginner would have difficulty controlling the bike at those speeds. I look at road drivetrains and wonder why does anyone need 54×11?  Does the experienced mtb rider ever use that 42 cog, and does a fit roadie ever spinout their 54×11, other than in a race? Why? Where? At some point, on a trail, you downshift so far for a steep climb, it gets difficult to keep the front tire out of trouble and on the precise path you need, and keeping the rear wheel from losing traction takes a lot of fore/aft weight adjustment to find that perfect spot. And around this time is when it’s usually easier and more efficient to walk.

29 on trail

All those gears and you’re walking! With this comes the question- Why do you have all those gears? The answer is simple, current trends suggested all those gears. Road bike gears and off road bike gears at the typical bike shops are controlled by trends. Just like the fashion industry and clothing stores, that’s why you can’t find your parachute pants and Members Only jackets anymore! Trends are the result of market studies, sales data, and hopefully the positive result of all those advertising and R+D dollars! Don’t forget peer pressure! And If I own a bike shop, I have to offer the merchandise that sells, or I fail. How many singlespeed only bike shops have you seen that have been around for more than two years?

Why singlespeed? I get asked this question often, and I never have a good answer. I’m not anti gears or complexities with cycling, and I’m not trying to reflect traditions in cycling. It’s a difficult question to answer. Maybe the challenge of doing normal things abnormally, a self-inflicted challenge of sorts. Maybe simplicity. Challenge is exciting: climbing while standing for a few miles, rowing hard, spinning at too high of cadences trying to keep up with a group, and sometimes leading the group, given the gear choice before the ride started. All these unnecessary struggles make singlespeed riding rewarding, even if crossing the finish line last. But, from experience, that’s not the way it always goes. Many singlespeed racers are in the front or near the front, in many types of racing. (It does feel good make the podium in a state mtb championship, in your age group, while on a singlespeed!)

No Offense! Just a Pair of Socks.

Deciding the gear ratio has become a simple decision over time. And that gear ratio comes into question often on long rides, especially on long climbs at low cadence (Garmin doesn’t register below 25 from what I’ve seen). If I have decent route data, I’ll gear for the majority of the ride, and suffer the minority. Suffer means different things, from stupid high cadence and getting dropped, to sub-25 rpm, to walking. On my CX/RD bike, I usually run 42×18. Climbs start getting difficult around 10% of grade. At 15% I begin to think about gear ratios, crank arm strength, and the age of the chain. At 20% I begin to question the significance of the bicycle. At 25% I’m wondering why my Garmin begins showing 0% while I’m enjoying the view, walking up the hill. It’s physically and mentally difficult to stay on the bike when the route turns up like a skater’s quarter pipe.

Maybe walking is considered failure for many cyclists, and maybe that’s why the gear ranges are so lengthy now, allowing a high speed ratio on one end, and on the other, the ability to remain seated on a 20% climb. I always default to thinking I should just work on my fitness, get stronger for the climbs, but downshifting would be easier!

I currently have two bikes, both are great! The CX/RD bike, a conversion, is five years old, and the mtb, SS only, is approaching ten years. Of all the bikes in my SS years, 4 were SS only, 4 were conversions. I did have a downhill bike for a couple years, didn’t convert it to SS because I knew I would sell it before it aged too much. I spent a week on a geared road bike a few years ago, and broke my left hand starting a wheelie in the lowest gear (surprised me when it came up so quick, and over I went).

Sometimes a Singlespeed Bikes Gets Gears

In my little brain, the compartment that provides excitement about accomplishments, always gets a boost of stimulation when I pass a geared rider on a climb! It’s just an internal celebration, and probably completely unwarranted. That rider could be having a bad day, maybe they had a bad night of sleep, or maybe they rode hard the previous day. But no matter how you interpret that little bit of self-gratification, it always feeds my thoughts about the need for all those gears. Are they really necessary?

When riders comment with “How do you do that?” I usually respond with “You could do it too, anyone can do it.” Why don’t they try it? Anyone can ride a singlespeed bike. All that’s required is to push yourself to keep pedaling in low cadences on the climbs, stand when you need to, and spin those stupid high rpms on the flats. And remember to get off and walk if it’s too much, nothing wrong with walking. Remember, the slower you go, the more you see. And your view at the top of a climb is different when you walk there as opposed to pedaling right past it!

Enjoy your bicycle(s), no matter how many gears you have. Cycling is not defined by the number of gears, or the age of the bike, it’s defined by the enjoyment of riding, working hard, not working hard, but getting there, wherever there is, and being able to look at what you did that you thought you couldn’t do. And eventually you’ll be able to answer this question- How do you know a person is a cyclist when you meet?

*Rowing: Standing, pushing as hard as possible on the pedals, and pulling as hard as possible on the handlebar, much like trying to row a heavy boat that’s dragging an anchor.

*MAMIL: Middle Aged Man In Lycra.



































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