How to do it …with one gear !

9 09 2008

Some of you may have noticed me out on some of the Muddy@rse rides sweating my way up a hill, grinding away in a far-too-high-looking gear, as you glide past gently spinning in the granny ring. At the top (as I quietly collapse and die) you also may have noticed that I’d been riding a bike with one gear, known as a singlespeed.

I’m writing this with two purposes in mind. Firstly, to give you an honest view on what singlespeeding is all about (I don’t suggest to know everything, far from it, but I’ve been a singlespeed rider for almost a year now so do have some experience). Secondly to give a simple guide as to what you might need if you want to give it a go.

Ok – so what’s the point of giving up your gears? Well, there’s a number of reasons. Some you’ll like the sound of, and some you might not. Here’s the reasons I enjoy riding with one gear. It’s the honest lowdown…..

It’s a real challenge. The terrain you’re used to changes completely when you’re on a singlespeed. That easy hill you always ride in one go turns into a proper demanding climb that you may only ride without pushing when you’re feeling really good (or is at the beginning of a ride). Imagine suddenly making all the hills you ride a lot harder. That’s pretty much what its like. (I did say you might not like all these reasons J ). When I say challenge I mean mental AND physical. Mentally you’re often feeling you can’t go on further, then manage to do the next part. It’s a case of constantly having to fool yourself that yes you can keep going and that you do have the energy (which you do, you’ve just been spoilt rotten by being able to click that lever and make it ohsomucheasier). The upside is that mentally your rides become much more satisfying. Remember when you first cleared that hill on your geared bike and how good it felt? You get that all over again…

Riding a singlespeed is about commitment – you can’t sit up and spin for a while as you’d do a geared bike. If it’s at all hilly country then expect a challenge every time you go out. Many folk I know have a singlespeed as well as a geared bike. Easy ride with a hangover? Take the geared bike. Up for some fun and to feel like you earned that cake/kebab/pint/roast dinner ? Break out the singlespeed.. Of course if the ground is flat, or you’re happy to walk quite a lot then singlespeeds and hangovers do mix…

Physically, I’ve found that you’re working at a higher rate. My natural cadence is quite high – I like to spin the pedals quickly, so I find on the singlespeed that I’m going quicker than usual as I try and keep the pedal revs high (and working harder to so as a result). All this means that an evening 2 hour ride can be a real workout. The end result is that last winter I noticed my fitness improve significantly – boy did I feel strong when back on the geared bike. I’ve also read it does wonders for your technique too by forcing you to ride at a variety of different cadences. You also have to use your arms and shoulders a lot, so you get a nice upper body workout too. See? Two for the price of one! As pure exercise, singlespeeding is brilliant.

What else? Well, I mentioned winter, and a singlespeed is an ideal bike for the months when the mud and clag returns to our trails (and that isn’t far away). I get really fed up with the dreaded chainsuck and my bike stopping working after the first muddy section. You may remember (or have been there) the true mudfest that was the MA Bedgebury ride in January this year. We had a least one rear mech casualty and many more gear problems. With one gear there’s no rear gears at all and it just keeps on going. I loved that ride – a singlespeed is perfect for anything claggy and I look forward to really mucky rides. There’s also a super weight loss too – I reckon I lost 3-4 pounds of weight from my bike and I really notice that up the hills.

The purists amongst you should also love the idea of a singlespeed – the simplicity of it is wonderful. I had never noticed how much time and headspace I devote to changing gear, until didn’t need to. It’s wonderfully liberating not having to think “am I in the right gear?” and trying to anticipate when and where the next change should be. On a singlespeed its all about looking ahead and keeping your momentum up. It definitely improves your ability to read the trail and you find you can focus properly on the right line. You also have the spare attention to appreciate where you are.

This sense of “stop and smell the roses” continues especially on faster sections. It’s easy on flat or gently downhill trails to spin out one gear, and there’s not much you can do to go any faster. Depending on the gear, you get to 15-20mph and unless it’s a decent downhill, you can’t go much faster. It’s a chance to take it easy, look around and “smell the roses” (either metaphorically or in reality).

So, riding a singlespeed. A challenge, a workout, a satisfying and different way of riding a bike. A lot of fun too.

Alright, so you’re interested in trying it out. Maybe you have a hardtail bike that’s being used less and less since the purchase of a full suspension bike. Maybe you just like the sound of it and want to not be faffing with gears for the next 6 months as we get properly muddy again.

Ok, so here’s some ideas about how to do it.

The easiest way to see if you might like it costs nothing. All you need to do is not change gear (which sounds easy but is really hard). Remember, if you do lose your gears it will be a lot easier than this as you’ll have less weight, but for the moment this is enough to try it. Ok, so a standard gear ratio for singlespeeding is 2:1, or middle ring on the front (32T) and either 6th (16T) if you want to be a bit kinder to your knees to start with 5th (18T) (where 1st gear is the largest sprocket on the back). I currently run with a 17T on the back, but it does depend where you ride. Next, it helps if you can disable the shifters in some way. The temptation is pretty strong to change gear on the first ride. I’d suggest using a ziptie to lock the shifters, that way if halfway round you do get truly fed up/exhausted then you can use gears. Next, go for a ride. Choose local trails you know well, and I’d keep it pretty easy, maybe an hour or so? Off you go and have fun!

Now, either you’re utterly exhausted and hate me – or that was okay, actually quite a nice change and you’re intrigued. If you want to go to the next stage and singlespeed your bike then here’s what you need to do.

Firstly, take the chain off. Next, the front chainrings. Whip the chainrings off and save the middle ring. You will wear this out eventually, but for the moment it’ll probably do, assuming it’s not too worn out to start with. (N.b. there’s a variety of replacement rings out there, aluminium being cheapest and stainless steel lasting the longest at a greater expense). You will need some narrow chainring bolts. The ones that come off the chainset are too wide and won’t clamp one ring at all. I bought mine from Charliethebikemonger (do a google for him) and been impressed with the service. I suspect there are other places to get them from too. Next up, you need to take the cassette off your back wheel (using a chainwhip and cassette lockring removing tool). You’ll need a new sprocket for the back (16T is good place to start), and a few spacers to mount the sprocket. Again, either Charliethebikemonger or On-one sell these. Next, you need a new beefier chain (the standard 9 speed ones don’t fit singlespeed sprockets) and a chain tensioner. This takes the chain slack up – you could reuse the rear mech, but a proper chain tensioner is better and more suited to the task.

You can now take off the old rear mech and the shifters, fit the tensioner and chain and assemble it all together (get the chain pretty tight) and you’re off. You might like to weigh all those extra bits that you’re no longer lugging around too J.

To give you some idea of cost, assuming you already have the tools and your existing middle ring is okay, you can buy all the bits you need for less than 50 quid. Not a huge investment and remember you can always reuse/sell the bits you’ve taken off..

There’s a great video showing you this in more detail here http://uk.youtube.com/watch?v=93M9lvl8LM8

Here’s hoping to see more one geared bikes out there this winter! Rich F

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