All My Little Words

For The Love Of One: In Praise Of A Single Speed

Posted in Cycling by nickchristian on September 20, 2011

Last weekend I achieved the unlikely: I conquered The Beacon on a single speed bike.


To non-cyclists that won’t mean an awful lot, but to those familiar with the by-bike London to Brighton journey, Ditchling Beacon represents the end – either of the ride or of the rider. Rising 139 metres in just shy of a mile, while hardly Everest or even a Yorkshire Dale, it’s  pretty steep. Most riders can expect to reach in to their gearbox and be spinning on the biggest cog by about half way but on my single speed, my options were somewhat more limited. Prior to doing it I didn’t think it could be done and while I found that, in one go it could not be, in the end, after three evenly spaced 30 second pauses, it was. Still as I rested at the top, glad to have made it, I felt the achievement belonged to the bike.

People have questioned the logic of a bike with only one gear. Why, they wonder, would you deny yourself the advancements designed to multiply your effort on a downhill and save it when you’re going back up again? Is it a “hipster” thing?

While I can’t deny that my bicycle is very pretty or that he looks far more at home in the Old Streets and Hoxton Squares and Curtain Roads of Shoreditch than I do, for me, still, the function is all. Well, almost all. A single speed bike is a wonderfully simple thing: remove the gears from a bike and you remove most of what can go wrong or, at least, most of the bits that are tedious and difficult to repair when they do.

My old multi-geared bikes used to go wrong all the time and it was always in the gears. It would start with an annoying but largely cosmetic, rhythmic clicking noise, which would then progressing to a less than cosmetic paralysis of a chain ring, before ultimately leaving me with… a single speed bike.

The most complicated bits of a bike, not to mention the bits with the most perplexing nomenclature, are also all related to the gears: derailleur, cassette, bottom bracket, sprocket – while probably not as intimidating as they sound, none of those components do not do exactly what it says on the tin. Even it it did it would probably be called something else and you’d be far too embarrassed to ask for it anyway.

My new bike has none of those things and as a result there is nothing now, or very little, that I don’t think I can repair on my own. Replacing a chain is a relatively simple fix and the frequent flat tyres – a hazard – are a doddle. I may at some point have to replace a brake cable but given that it’s just a thing that pulls a thing that stops the bike I feel I understand how they work and how, with maybe some Youtubed tuitional assistance, I could do it on my own.

One other question which is always asked is: how do you get up hills? The answer to which, now, is like this:

ditchling beacon

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