Why everything you think about singlespeed is wrong

It's the 21st century; we have gears now

I never know quite what to make of singlespeed reviews. Normally, the process is simple: reviewer tests Thing X, lays out the pros and cons in text that everyone ignores, and finishes with a score that everyone argues is wrong. See? Simple. It’s how the universe has always worked.

Whether Thing X is a mountain bike, a thermonuclear weapon or a wrist-mounted canister that can trap and cryogenically store clowns* (to name the first three things off the top of my head), reviewing remains simple: how well does Thing X do what it sets out to do? 

But it’s only simple until you get to singlespeed mountain bikes.

The problem here is, if you review a singlespeed as a mountain bike, it should get a terrible score – no matter how well it’s built. That’s because it’s a terrible mountain bike due to having a 3mph operational window on purpose

Yet nobody reviews them that way, despite many SS bikes combining the ability to be in the wrong gear almost all the time with an inability to soak up bumps, on account of having no suspension, either. Apparently this atavistic approach is all very pure. Strength through joy, and all that. Hey wait, that SS moniker is starting to make sense…

That’s not mud. That’s where the rider burst
That’s not mud. That’s where the rider burst

On the other hand, if you accept that this bike is a singlespeed, and review it purely on those terms, it should still get a terrible score – because a singlespeed is a terrible mountain bike. After all, that’s still its intended use. And it’s still much, much worse at doing that job than anything with a derailleur. 

Now that the singlespeeders have scrambled to the comments to melt down like their own thigh muscles on a gentle slope, I should point out that I like singlespeeds. Granted, I like them most for riding around Amsterdam, where it’s flat and the simplicity is a big benefit, but I can totally see the appeal. 

Lots of room for mechanical doping, for a start
Lots of room for mechanical doping, for a start

Their extreme simplicity makes them attractive as winter bikes, with the common justification that ‘there’s nothing to go wrong.’ This is true – assuming you’ve never heard the saying about a chain only being as strong as its weakest link. In this scenario you, of course, become the weakest link. Get out there on a long, muddy ride and nothing on the bike will break. Because you will instead.

Still, you’ll be saving the gears on your regular bike from wearing out in the mud, so it makes financial sense. That’s the lovely drivetrain you could replace in its entirety for less than a singlespeed bike costs. Again, though, I accept the thinking. It’s self-evident that the number of bikes you need is n+1, where n is the number you own. That’s just maths. Beautiful maths.

$1600 for an almost unusable carbon-fronted wonder? You’d be crazy not to
$1600 for an almost unusable carbon-fronted wonder? You’d be crazy not to

Singlespeed bikes’ extreme simplicity also makes them hardcore, and that’s attractive too. Who wouldn’t want a bike that’s going to boost their skills, their fitness and their social standing all at once? I’m going to play Devil’s advocate and say that people who don’t have ship engines for legs won’t want them.

Singlespeeds are terrible in the way the smoking room in a Zeppelin is terrible

I’m going to further play Devil’s advocate by saying you won’t gain these mythical silky-smooth skills on an SS – even a super-ultra-core rigid one – unless you’re willing to hurt yourself for a prolonged period of time. And if you’re OK doing that, you already have the willpower necessary to become a great rider.

Then again, if you like the hardcore angle, you can’t seriously argue that singlespeeders aren’t terrible on purpose (they are!), because otherwise they’d be easy to ride and, thus, not hardcore. QED.

Of course, lots of people ride singlespeed mountain bikes. Lots of people enjoy them. Well, not lots. But there are undoubtedly some extremely fit and talented riders who could whip me on one, even if I had 33 gears, an electric motor, and a scuba tank of Lance Armstrong’s spare blood (2005 vintage – the best). But so what? That’s all about the rider. It’s not about the bike, as Lance himself said, and that guy never lied. The bikes are still terrible.

Bored designers have plenty of time to think about pretty colours
Bored designers have plenty of time to think about pretty colours

Singlespeeds are terrible in the way iron tyres on wooden wheels are terrible. They’re terrible in the way the smoking room in a Zeppelin is terrible. They’re terrible like old British money, which was all like “That’ll be 3/16ths of a bob, nine shillings, a half-crown, a florin, 4d, six sovereigns, 240 pennies and thruppence… and there’s no use trying to load that flintlock pistol, sir. I’m closing up in 30 minutes.”

These things are all terrible in that they simply don’t need to be that way any more. Nowadays we have inflatable tyres, commercial jets and simple cash. We have the technology to change gears.

My problem is not that singlespeeders exist, or that people like them – like I said, I get it. I live on a Welsh hillside and my garden’s full of kneecaps from passing singlespeeders (I’ve grown quite fond of the sound as they pop; it’s like champagne corks). My problem is purely that, whenever we riders come to judge one, we all ignore the elephant in the room and quietly start pretending it’s 1817 instead of 2017.

OK, I live in the middle of nowhere so on some days it still is like 1817, but that’s not my point. My point, if you remember, was much more simply that I’m right.

*“The CryoNix Tears Of A Clown bracelet is comfy on the wrist and stores up to eight clowns, but several defrosted prematurely and now they’re under my bed. Help me. Two stars.”

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