Small wheel turn by the fire and rod
Big wheel turn by the grace of God
Every time that wheel turn ’round
Bound to cover just a little more ground
-“The Wheel”, The Grateful Dead
Middle aged people like me lament the passing of the good old days when kids walked to and from school, carelessly, possibly for several miles, and maybe even uphill both ways through snow. I remember those long gone days.
One day, when I was seven years I old, I was doing just that, walking home from school with my friend Celeste. Though I didn’t remember this part of the story, at my 20th high school reunion, she felt the need to apologize for telling me that on our walk home that day, there was no such thing as Santa Claus. My reply, which I’ll stick to, was “then who bought me my Space Invaders Bike. My parents couldn’t afford that.” That Atari themed Huffy with the banana seat was the seven year old equivalent of a Cadillac. Just a little bit cooler. I could not accept that such an awesome bike came from anywhere else but that wonderful man who came once a year and dumped all the stuff my parents would never buy me on our living room floor.
I think one of the things you’re supposed to learn as you “mature” is that material things like toys or bikes, which you love so much as a child; are not the most important things in life. In fact, that lesson presented itself pretty soon. Despite my true and what I intended to be endearing love of that Space Invaders bike, it wasn’t long before I was eying the cooler BMX bikes; sans banana seat, that the other kids were riding. The thrill of a new toy only lasts so long.
And I’m still the same way. Now it’s mountain bikes. It seems like a I fall in love with every new toy that the Mountain Bike Industry pumps out of their magical workshop. I’ve been dreaming about a new 29er trail bike with Boost Spacing and modern geometry. Sounds like something not even Santa could come up with.
I do ride my bikes a lot. Yes, bikes. There are two. Currently only one of them works, which is a main reason I have two. Well, two mountain bikes anyway. Mountain bikes break. It’s part of the deal. In addition to “normal” wear and tear on parts like brake pads and chains, sometimes tires get slashed; derailleurs get bent and broken, and pretty much every part on the bike has the potential to be deformed or destroyed when gravity goes wrong.
A few weeks ago, I went to grab my one functional bike to go for a ride with some friends. In preparation for the ride,I began lubing the chain. Instead of the desired smooth sound of the chain softly rattling through the gears, it was slipping and popping and wouldn’t advance into to the lowest gear. The rear derailleur, the part responsible for massaging the bike chain through the pyramid of easy to harder gears, was broken. The “B” screw had bore through its stop, or in other words, I wasn’t going to ride this bike.
So instead of ordering up a new derailleur on Amazon, I decided it was time for me to take a simpler approach. The necessary parts were in my part bin already, and i decided to go ahead and convert my bike to a Single Speed. What this means, is kind of what the name implies. Instead of having a 10, 12, 20,etc gears to choose from, you only have one. And you live with it. A simpler solution from a simpler time.
In fact my old Space Invaders Huffy only had one gear, and that never slowed me down. Assembling the bike back together wasn’t the most complicated job, but I wasn’t going to stop there. I had to read everything I could google and watch everything I could YouTube on Single Speed Mountain Bikes. Believe it or not, it’s a thing.
A quieter ride, fewer parts that can break, and a straight, more efficient chain line were some of the popular benefits that the internet professed. Sounded good to me.
So that afternoon I spent a few hours putting together my single speed bike. For such a simple solution, it took a really long time to complete. I could have skipped a few steps, but if you’re going to ride a single speed bike, even for a short time, you might as well remove all the extra parts you are no longer going to use like shifters and derailleurs. Especially a broken one. You also have to take some time to make sure the one gear you do use lines up right. This reqires a trial and error process of shuffling aluminum spacers around so that the the big chain ring in front that the pedals turn lines up with the gear on the rear wheel. You do this so that you do, in fact, have a straight chain line.
Otherwise the result could be a dropped chain, which becomes much trickier to fix on a single speed than on a bike with gears. Apparently when it comes to Single Speed Mountain Bikes, simplicity isn’t so simple. It would have taken a lot less time to replace the broken part, although I would have had to wait at least 2 days for Amazon Prime, or drive to the bike shop who most likely wouldn’t have the 10 speed derailleur I needed.
But eventually I got it all together and went for a quick ride. A quick spin around the paved roads in my complex proved the bike still worked and it was indeed fun to have a new ride experience and a fairly cheap new toy.
It was a good enough experience that I woke up the following morning and went for a quick ride before work. Riding a mountain bike with only one gear is hard. No duh, right? Small hills become epic climbs and rocky sections of trail that require careful pedaling become momentum killing mine fields when you can’t down shift. It’s fun though. I’m not sure why. Maybe it’s just a fresh take on something that I just realized was getting kind of humdrum.
By week three of single speeding, I was making it up hills I hadn’t been able to during my first attempts, and had even hit a few Personal Record Times on trails I ride regularly.
I even took my single speeding to a couple of my regular group mountain bike rides. First I went to Case Mountain, a popular trail system in central CT for the Thursday night NEMBA ride. The Thursday night ride is a fun opportunity to ride while getting a great workout. It’s an everybody knows your name type of feeling that is welcome after 80% of a grueling work week.
The camaraderie was not affected by switching to a single speed bike. The ride, well, that’s a different story. Single speeding is all about momentum. You need to make sure you are going as fast as possible when you start a climb. Even when you’re not climbing, you want to keep moving. If you slow down too much, you’ll get stuck.
When you are climbing up a hill on a geared bike, the required harder push on the pedals creates force on the bike chain and gears. Shifting gears under this additional load of force is not good. If gear change is possible at all under this load, the additional force could damage the gears or even break the chain. Therefore, you want to shift before you start uphill so that the gear change occurs while there is less force on the moving parts.
So, when you’re approaching a hill in a geared bike, and you downshift, you slow down. If you’re on a single speed bike, following someone on a geared bike, or a group of people riding geared bikes, you have to slow down too, which is the last thing you want to do when riding a single speed bike. Riding a Single Speed is all about momentum. And, there goes your momentum, and you come to hault. And everyone in back of you has to either go around you, or stop as well.
The Thursday night group had three groups; A, B, and C, each riding at a different pace. I tried riding with each of the three at one point or another, and didn’t mesh well with any. There were parts of the ride where I gelled harmoniously with the pack. And there were times when I clunked out of sync like a warped harmonica.
I also had an issue with my rear wheel coming out of alignment. My bike has sliding dropouts, which allow the wheel to slide back and forth horizontally. The design allows you to dial in the tension on the chain, by adjusting the distance between the two wheels. They also allow the wheel to slide back and forth if the axle isn’t properly secured, in this case, while I was riding. No bueno. Regular geared bikes have dropouts that hold the axle securely in one position. I have since seemed to figure out how to secure the wheel better, but again simplicity of the single speed may not be so simple. At least for me.
Group ride 2 was mechanical issue free. There were, again, a couple steep climbs I had to walk my bike up. However, on one of the not quite as steep climbs I had my fastest time ever. I felt like I was improving. I wonder if I stick with it, if I could in fact ride all the trails I usually ride and be able to make it up all the steep climbs.
There is certainly a specialized skill required to ride a single geared bike on trails. Instead of remaining seated in the saddle, and making nice, round, even pedal strokes, or “sitting and spinning,” which is the most efficient use of your energy on a geared bike, you have to stand up and mash hard on the pedals. You need to engage your hips and core to balance yourself so that you can apply force on the pedals. You also need to mentally separate the motion of turning the pedals with your legs and balancing the rest of your core, back, and shoulders to negotiate rocks, roots, and uneven terrain. As stated earlier, the feeling of doing something new and progressing quickly is something I have enjoyed.
Maybe I’m wasting my time and money keeping up with the newest gear and latest releases from the mountain bike industry. Maybe I’m just like a kid falling in love with a new toy, only for that feeling to go away and leave me feeling empty when something new catches my eye. Maybe it’s time to grow up and focus on more fulfilling things in life than toys. Do I really need the newest technology to enjoy riding my bike?
I think that like the Single speed itself, the answer isn’t quite so simple. It’s true that 30 years ago people rode bikes on trails with less sophisticated technology. I wasn’t there, but it sounds like they had fun doing it. But at some point they decided they could improve it. Along came suspension forks, rear shocks, disk brakes, and dropper seat posts. Each of these enhancements really changed what mountain biking is. Riders now can go faster, stay in better control, and have more fun.
I look back at my childhood as a simpler, better time. In elementary school I walked to school with my friends and no one thought twice about it. In high school I walked through the woods on my way to school. But just because things were simple doesn’t mean they were better. They were different. Though walking to school is a fond memory, it was also when Celest told me there was no such thing as Santa Claus. That was not so good.
I also remember my awareness of the looming possibility, as a young child, that the world could, at pretty much any moment, enter into nuclear war. I knew that as a CT resident, our sub base might be a likely target for Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles and we’d at least be poisoned by nuclear fallout if we weren’t obliterated in the initial explosion. Not to say there aren’t threats today. Today is different. That doesn’t mean yesterday was better.
So I’ve been enjoying the simplicity of the single speed mountain bike. I’ve been riding it for about a month now. But I’m also back to dreaming about the 29er trail bike with the Boost Spacing. Actually, I’m eyeing one with Super Boost Plus, whatever that is. Maybe I should grow up and stop getting excited about new toys. Provided that nuclear annihilation holds off a few more years, maybe I’ll get around to working on that.