The practical and natural simplicity of singlespeeding

This post is for Ryan, who seems to be going through a cycling phase and first wrote about the distinction between practical and natural simplicity.

To summarize, though you ought to read the aforementioned post, practical simplicity is about results, while natural simplicity is about process. They’re both concerned with experience but go about affecting it in different ways.

A bicycle itself is a sublime example of both practical and natural simplicity, under certain contexts. If the problem is the inefficient nature of walking from one place to another, a bicycle can be a practically simple way of getting around faster: it’s cheap, easy to learn, and can go places cars cannot. When it comes to longer journeys this is no longer the case, and while a car may be the most practically simple way to travel on an interstate, the experience of driving is quite lacking in natural simplicity. The act of riding a long distance can often be the epitome of natural simplicity, with enough mechanical aid to allow the focus to be on the journey itself, but slow and basic enough to not interfere with the environmental vicissitudes of the trip itself.

For those cyclists who think about such things and ride on dirt, singlespeeds are an inevitable draw. Seven years ago, in the infancy of my bike-geekery, and while the wave of singlespeeding fashion was first cresting, a mountain bike with only one gear captured my attention immediately. There’s not much use in elaborating on particulars here, the appeal is either immediate and obvious or absent and mysterious. A singlespeed has abundant natural simplicity, the lack of mechanical fidgeting, both in the near and longer terms, contributes to this; but the most precious part of the experience is the mental and tactile intimacy with the terrain over which you’re riding. Gains and losses in efficiency compared to a geared bike can be argued all day, but the experience of riding a singlespeed is hugely different.

On a practical level a singlespeed is simpler, especially under conditions which are traditionally bad for drivetrains. Yet when I got my first proper singlespeed, the Karate Monkey pictured above which I still ride today, one of the first things I did was fiddle with ways to make it not quite a singlespeed.

There are plenty of riding conditions where a singlespeed is just as practically simple and efficient as a geared bike, but there are plenty more where it is absolutely not.  Flat pavement commutes (either to work, store or trailhead), gentle downhills of all kinds, and huge but not egregiously steep climbs at the end of a hard day with a heavy load come to mind.  The first one was my initial concern; I had only one bike and wanted to be able to ride to the singletrack without spending an unnecessary 20 minutes doing so.

My first attempted solution was a single front ring, friction shifter, and three cogs with big (7 tooth) jumps.  I had a road, trail, and climbing gear with quick access to any of them.  Alas, a bit of wire in the ditch took out my RX100 derailleur and every replacement had lower pulley cages too fat to accommodate such tooth spacing without rubbing against the next cog up.

My second solution was the venerable dinglespeed: two cogs and two rings, each with the same tooth count.  In my case, 30 and 34 rings and 20 and 16 cogs.  Shifting was accomplished by flipping the bike, loosening the axle bolts, moving the chain, and retightening.  With track ends and a rear disk brake the approximately equal chain length made this fairly quick and reliable.

Another solution, similar to the dingle, is in use on my fatbike at the moment.  Two rings, a dual freewheel, and a derailleur shifted via a bit of cable and the barrel adjuster.  This works really well, and gets practical simplicity points because it gives me access to multiple options without tempting me to fiddle with and purchase new parts.

The same cannot be said of the current solution on the Karate Monkey; two rings, five cogs, and a full complement of derailleurs and shifters.  Beyond basic cleaning I never have to change or futz between commuting to work and evening singlestrack rides (a rear friction shifter is helpful here), but the rig just doesn’t make me happy.  Practically simple in many ways, but not scratching the natural simplicity itch.  So I want to change it, yet again, for something which does both, at least a little bit.

As Ryan writes; For gear to be heralded as having both practical and natural simplicity, it must:

1. Be light in weight;
2. Be efficient in performance;
3. Be easy to use;
4. Offer tactile benefits during use; and
5. Increase your connection to the natural environment.
6. Have a design that reflects aesthetic simplicity.

Increasingly I think that, for most applications, a single middle of the road gear might be the best available blend of practical and natural simplicity.  Not long after the first picture was taken I bought a second bike, and the Karate Monkey was obliged to stay as a singlespeed because the new rear wheel took a freewheel and thus prevented me from futzing so much.  I ran 30:18 for the next several years, doing the best climbing, technical riding, and racing of my life to date on that gear.  It was often a bit tall going up (though I almost cleaned Hardscrabble going CW), and often slow on the flats, but always brought me back the basics of just riding, and that the only real way to make hard mountain biking easy is to be in good shape.

Gets me thinking about buying a few more components to swap back..


One response to “The practical and natural simplicity of singlespeeding”

  1. […] its worth on brevets, group rides, and lite tour duty… but lately I miss the simplicity. Dave wrote up his thoughts a bit, and I am intrigued with his Mukluk drivetrain. Not sold on ditching all the low gears on the […]

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