What is it exactly that’s so great about riding a singlespeed? What draws people to it, and what makes them abuse their own knees like that? I’ve built and ridden a couple of singlespeeds recently, and I’ve been thinking about what makes them so much fun.
Part of it has to be nostalgia, of course. Most of us have fond memories of a particular bike from our childhood, and chances are pretty good it was a singlespeed (if not a fixed gear). For me it’s the tiny yellow Pegas from the ’80s that I first learned to ride on. In my mind’s eye the bike is pretty and shiny and cool, but in reality it probably looked more like this by the time my turn came to ride it. What I remember best is rear-wheel drifting in the thick dust in front of our apartment building (no fancy paved street for us back then), but some of my fondest memories go even further back than that. I remember bumpy rides on the rear rack when my father and I went fishing, watching the steam rise from the stacks of the steelworks on our way to the canal. There is nothing but ruins left of the steelworks now, and in my melancholic moments I see the sad fate of my entire hometown in them.
Technical simplicity is another reason to appreciate singlespeeds. Less moving parts means less maintenance, and less stuff that can break down. This makes it cheaper, too; slap new brake pads and a new chain now and then, and a singlespeed will last years and years without significant investment. Even after I learned how to fix anything on a bike, my admiration for the simple, pragmatic design of the singlespeed has only gone up.
But there’s another aspect to simplicity, and this I believe is the true reason people fall in love with singlespeeds: mental simplicity. This may sound odd to you if all you’ve ridden are geared bicycles, but there’s a cognitive load that comes with shifters (even 1x builds) that you don’t even realize is there until you remove it. There’s a moment of clarity that comes when riding a singlespeed for the first time that I can only compare to the experience of switching from a car with manual transmission to an automatic, and realizing just how much of your background processing power was being used for this single task (a link for you to tell me how less of a man I am for driving an automatic is at the bottom of the post). It’s a freeing experience that gives you more opportunities to appreciate and enjoy your surroundings (and of course more time to huff and puff as you’re struggling to climb even a moderate hill, but that’s just building character, so I chalk it up in the plus column).
So, yeah, give singlespeeds a try, they might just surprise you. This ’90s Nakamura Escape conversion was a very fun little project that also came out looking great. The frame has vertical dropouts so I had to use a chain tensioner, which is the only detail I’m not 100% happy with, but hey, such is life. Enjoy the pictures!