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In praise of single speed

Single speed chain
Trevor Ward
8 May 2015

It's always good to try something new, so we've learnt to love the single speed bike.

Tour de France founder Henri Desgrange famously banned geared bikes from his race until 1937. ‘I still feel that variable gears are only for people over 45. Isn’t it better to triumph by the strength of your muscles than by the artifice of a derailleur?’ he wrote. So I felt suitably heroic when I recently acquired my first single-speed bike. After years of being cosseted by shifters and derailleurs, it was now just me and a single sprocket versus the world.

It’s called for a complete rethink of the way I ride. Topography and meteorology demand greater respect when you’ve got only one gear. You can’t simply spin up a hill or against a headwind. There can be no equivocating about cadence. It’s all or nothing. As Tim Williams of Perfect Condition coaching told me, ‘I expect you’d find your useful limit on a single-speed or fixed pretty quickly, but you definitely need something in the way of ups and downs. And a headwind. Otherwise you’ll want gears to generate some resistance.’ So instead of my usual there-and-back route consisting of a long, relentless drag into the prevailing headwind followed by a fast, wind-assisted return, I’ve now opted for a twisty circuit full of short, punchy climbs.

The parameters of my potential have been reset to 46-18. That’s 68 inches of gear in old money. Or 5.2 metres of forward propulsion with every revolution of the cranks. That’s a whole new world of pain on some of the steep slopes I would previously have spun up. (It also means, frustratingly, I spin out at 35kmh on the descents.) Yet improving my performance wasn’t the main motivation for buying my steel-framed single-speed machine. I opted for it because I’m inherently lazy and mechanically inept, and wanted to have as few moving parts as possible exposed to the slush and salt of a winter on Scotland’s roads. Job done.

Single speed wheel

And I drew the line at going the whole hog and buying a fixed-gear bike. Call me old-fashioned, but I thought if I was going to pedal up steep hills in just one gear, I deserved the right to freewheel down the other side without having to worry about having my legs ripped off at 200rpm. Plus, being neither a hipster nor a racer, the training benefits of a fixie would be limited.

‘If you race, you can really improve your bike-handling skills at speed on a fixie,’ says Williams, who coached Olympic medallist and world time-trial champion Emma Pooley. ‘Say you’re riding in a group when you come to some tight corners, potholes or another obstacle – when you’re riding fixed you have to keep pedalling, and that’s very useful training. ‘Another aspect of good pedalling technique is being able to rev up quickly. You could always do that on a geared bike by forcing yourself to stay in a low gear, but the fixed wheel makes you do it – you either learn to do it or get left behind.’

An earthly connection

Fixie riders often claim to feel ‘at one with the road’. I believe I experience something similar on my single-speed, though my connection is more earthly than spiritual. It’s a matter of assessing every lump, bump, twist and turn for its potential to assist your forward momentum, particularly when an upward slope is fast approaching and you don’t have 21 other gears to help you out.However, even greater than this is the connection I feel to the machine I’m riding, an affinity I never felt with my much more expensive and hi-tech geared bike. The sound and feel of a smoothly shifting derailleur is no match for the pure elation of getting up a 12% drag through your own unadulterated exertions. A single sprocket contains no artificial additives.

According to sports scientist Mark Walker, who coached Alex Dowsett for his forthcoming Hour record attempt, riding a single-speed or fixie can have more tangible benefits too. ‘It’s forcing you to train at different levels of cadence and force production,’ he says. ‘The force-velocity characteristic of your muscles mean that when the velocity is low they can produce a lot of force. As you start to pedal and the cadence goes up, the amount of force you can produce starts to fall. If you’re riding a single or fixed-gear up a hill, you slow right down because of the resistance of gravity and you have to produce a lot of force. When you go down you suddenly have to pedal really fast, but you’re not producing a lot of force.

single speed crank

'Research has shown that riders who do lots of heavy strength training or standing starts get very good at producing lots of force, but their peak pedalling speed suffers. Equally, if you do lots of high-speed pedalling, your force production suffers. Potentially, why a single or fixed-gear might be beneficial is because when you go out on a ride you have to do a bit of everything.'My single-speed was only ever intended as a low-maintenance bike to see me through the winter, and yet such is the attachment I feel to it that I’m already contemplating using it as my year-round bike. But before I get too carried away, Williams advises caution.

‘One of the reasons for having so many gears on your road bike is so that you can be in the right gear as much as possible,' he says. 'Therefore if you’ve got only one gear, you’re probably not in the right gear for much of the time. For little hills, there are arguments for powering up them. On the other hand, just spending all of your time over-gearing up hills can just get you into a rhythm of pedalling slowly. There’s a risk you are overloading: you are turning your aerobic exercise into anaerobic and giving your knees a hard time. You might get more benefit from structured training using a bike with gears.’

In other words, for all the added ‘zing’ it’s given my training over the last few months, my single-speed should be used sparingly. Which is a shame, as I can honestly say that the last 1,000 miles of cycling – despite the relentless wind, rain and snow of another attritional Scottish winter – have seen me rediscover the thrill of the ride. Monsieur Desgrange would have been proud of me.

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