What is it about singlespeeders, and singlespeeding, which is so linked to mountain biking? James Wilson was never quite sure, until a chance to borrow a mates singlespeed bike showed him the way.
Words: James Wilson
When you hear the words “singlespeeder,” do you immediately think of beards, tattoos and craft beer? Or when you think of singlespeeds do you think of simplicity and getting back to the roots of mountain biking and cycling?
While there are many singlespeeders who do fall into the stereotype of having a beard, having some tattoos or who even drink craft beer, you may be surprised at the diversity of those who ride with one gear.
My fascination with riding with one gear was birthed when I was working in Canberra five years ago. I was keen to ride all that Canberra, had to offer and I contacted the Canberra Off Road Cyclists (CORC) and spoke with the President at the time to see if there was any chance of borrowing a bike. Not only did I get to borrow a bike, I was introduced to one of the regular groups of mountain bikers and ended up riding some amazing trails in Stromlo, Majura Pines and Kowen.
What I remember most about the group is that 80 percent of the riders were singlespeeders – apart from their friendly welcoming community vibe, was that they were first to the top of all of the climbs, usually waiting for the geared riders (including me). These mountain bikers had a fresh approach to riding that I wanted to be a part of, the culture and the riders were welcoming and inclusive.
During these rides I started planning a project to build a singlespeed from scratch. I learnt some lessons along the way including gearing ratios, chain tensioning options, frame material as well as suspension versus fully rigid.
Riding singlespeed as an adult has helped me to appreciate getting back to the roots of mountain biking. It has also helped me learn skills that riding my dual suspension geared mountain bike made me unlearn, correcting some bad habits. Staying off the brakes, carrying momentum through corners and reading the trails for better lines... stuffing a pinch climb on a geared bike is easier to fix than on a singlespeed.
A singlespeed is very quiet, so I am more aware of my riding experience. I hear the sound of crunching soil from tyres on the trail and the sound of rustling leaves. These are the sounds that are part of the experience of riding singletrack - the sound of a derailleur changing, a shifter clicking or a chain moving through the gears drowns them out.
Fast forward five years and it should bring you to the Singlespeed World Championships (SSWC) held in, Woodend, Victoria. The last time Australia hosted the SSWC was thirteen years ago. Over four hundred singlespeeders converged on Woodend in the Macedon Ranges to celebrate the awesomeness of riding your mountain bike with one gear. The SSWC has only one rule – the winner of the Men’s and Women’s races must get a tattoo to get the title of SSWC Champion. No tattoo – no title. If you don’t want the ink, don’t race to win.
Everything over the weekend was pretty loose including challenging the conventions of most cycling races. Everyone who entered got the same race plate – that was, the Number 1. There was no timing to the race. After the men’s and women’s winners were decided everyone else placed equal second. There were a multitude of side events during the event including riding the singletrack in the Wombat State Forrest, there was a fancy dress CX Race hosted by Dirty Deeds CX, the World 16 inch Championships were held and won, the Huffy Toss competition, the running of My Mechanics Rules as well as a series of challenges to determine the host for 2017. Did I mention that there was some beer consumed over the weekend? This was supplied by the Holgate Brewhouse.
The social ride through Wombat State Forest included an eclectic bunch of riders on a diverse group of bikes from exotic titanium custom built frames to mass-produced carbon frames. The bikes had a huge variety of wheel sizes and widths – all bikes shared one similarity - one gear. Despite the chatting from the riders it was a relatively noise free ride, which was highlighted on a slow eight percent climb. There wasn’t the usual sound of gears clicking through the cassette, but rather the sound of breathing from the motley crew as the climb intensified towards the top.
So in an era when we have some many of categories of racing – downhill, XCO, XCM, Stage Racing, Enduro, club racing just to name a few - there is still singlespeed mountain biking. You may think that this single speed thing is some fringe cult, however the strong attendance at the SSWC demonstrates that singlespeeding still has traction as a legitimate expression in cycling.
Next time you want to get back to your roots, ride a singlespeed; it may give you a new appreciation for our sport. Hopefully the simplicity will refresh the joy of cycling and shed some new light on riding singletrack.