One speed is all you need
A different take on the Durango single scene
written by Missy Votel
While the world of mountain biking surges ahead into the brave new world of air-loaded, spring-coiled, titanium-forged, ultra-lightweight technology, there is a small but growing counterculture of riders snubbing their knobbies at such notions and returning to the basics: a no-frills frame, two wheels, a seat, a chain and not much else.
“ It’s kind of an anti-trend, some would say,” said John Bailey, a wrench at Mountain Bike Specialists, who just so happens to ride – and win races on – a one-speed mountain bike.
Bailey is among a small contingency of local riders who have traded in their multiple chain rings and derailleurs for the simplicity of what is known in cycling circles as the single speed.
“ It’s pretty much my bike of choice now, I use it on my lunch rides and as my transportation,” said Bailey, who has been riding single speed for six or seven years. “It’s going back to the roots, that’s what a lot of people call it.”
As owner of the Durango Cyclery, Russell Zimmerman could have the pick of the litter of mountain bikes. Nevertheless, he prefers his Durango Bike Works hard tail single speed with 29-inch wheels.
“ I ride it predominantly when I have time to ride,” he said, “I love how quiet it is. No chatter; no clatter.”
Although single speeds are just now making their way into the mainstream cycling consciousness thanks to Web sites such as carsrcoffins.com and singlespeedoutlaw.com, they are nothing new, said Bob Gregorio, another local single-speed aficionado and Cyclery wrench to the stars, although he won’t admit it.
“ Ever since there have been bikes, there have been people riding single speeds, and there’s a reason,” he said.
And while anyone who has ever been passed by a superhuman single speeder may think it’s to remind the rest of us that we are mere mortals, all three insist riding single speed has nothing to do with machismo – the overdeveloped thighs and lungs are just a side effect.
“I ride single speed for its simplicity,” said Bailey.
Zimmerman, who has been working at bike shops his entire life, also touted the simplicity factor. “Basically, there are two parts to the maintenance: putting air in the tires and oiling the chain,” he said.
“ It’s so exhilarating, so pure,” echoed Gregorio, who admitted that nostalgia also plays a role in his choice. “Back when I was a kid, single speeds were all we had.”
A confessed bike junkie, Gregorio has a quiver of bikes but prefers his 1973 Shelby Eagle single speed, which he still races every year at the Road Apple. “It’s my old favorite,” he said. “I built it up with old parts. It really is what first turned me on to biking.”
And while many single speeders opt for the old school approach, Zimmerman said it’s not the only option. More and more manufacturers are coming out with conversion kits and single speed models, he said.
“ It’s definitely up and coming,” said Bailey, the most technologically advanced of the three with a Cannondale 1FG (“let’s just say it stands for ‘one fun gear’”) with disc brakes and front suspension. And while his single speed has a few more bells and whistles than most, he said without a complicated drive train and gears, it is still a mechanic’s dream.
“ It’s pretty clean and straightforward,” he said. “One thing about it that I enjoy is I never touch it maintenance-wise.”
But the beauty of the single speed goes beyond the grip of the bike stand, they say. Since most single speeds are geared somewhere in the middle, neither great for climbing nor downhill, and are outfitted with longer cranks and handlebars for more torque, they require different handling. “There’s a rhythm to it,” said Gregorio. “You have to look further ahead and keep your head up more.”
Gregorio also said riding single speed is not for the tentative rider or one who tends to be a little brake happy.
“ If you let your RPMs drop, it hurts more,” he said. “Momentum is your friend. You gotta hang it out on the downhill and throw yourself into the curves.”
Riding single speed also is a great way for riders to improve and concentrate on their form, said Bailey, a regular on the extreme adventure racing circuit
“ It teaches great technique,” he said. “You learn to work the terrain.”
Zimmerman said he likes single speed riding because it allows him to push the envelope.
“ You’re really exploring those outer fringes of cadence,” he said. “One time you’re going so slow you’re about to fall over and another time you’re spinning like a freak.”
While all that may sound daunting to a prospective single speeder, Zimmerman insists riding single speed eventually becomes second nature – much like, well, riding a bike.
“ It’s just a different style of riding,” he said. “You get more in tune with gravity and learn to pick routes that are less steep. You learn to gain momentum before you come into a climb. After a while it becomes instinctual.”
Nevertheless, the learning curve is not without its fair share of humility, he said.
“ The Meadow Loop takes on a whole new meaning,” he said, adding that he has yet to clean the top of Telegraph on his single speed. “I’ve come within diving distance,” he admitted.
He also noted it can be lonely at the top for a single speeder – once he or she manages to get there.
“ Single speed is not always the best choice,” he said. “Something like Kennebec can be a lonely experience with geared riders.”
However, when it comes to impassable climbs, Gregorio noted single speeds do have a slight edge.
“ At those points when you’re pushing your bike you still have an advantage because your bike is lighter,” he said.
Nevertheless, in true bicycle purist fashion, Gregorio noted that it’s not whether you win or lose – or even how you play the game. What matters most is that you’re playing, period.
“ To me there’s not a lot of difference between single speed and geared bikes,” he said. “It’s all just about rolling into the future. And if a single speed is the way you choose to do it, it’s a beautiful thing.”