Experimental music, photography, and adventures

Shilo on a singlespeed

Tuesday, February 15th, 2011

On Sunday, I got out for my longest ride in weeks, and also my longest ride on the Little 500 bike to date. I had ridden it around my neighborhood and an adjacent area a couple of times, but my main intention is to use it is a singlespeed “country bike.” Since I had never ridden a singlespeed a significant distance, or in the hills, I wasn’t sure if I would find it (a) doable or (b) fun. I am happy to report that the answer to both questions is a resounding “yes!”

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Here is the route I rode.

I had varied terrain immediately and so I was able to get a good sense of how the singlespeed handles various situations. My first impression was that I was surprised just how doable most things were with just one gear. But, I had a strong tailwind, which made me wonder if I was feeling a little too confident.

The beginning of the ride involved a decent downhill, a climb, some flat riding, and a bunch of rollers. It was a bit of a grind up the first largish hill, but the bike handled the rollers impressively well. In fact, in some ways I felt it was easier to push over each hill. Rather than shifting extensively, I spun on the downhill until I couldn’t spin any faster, then hammered up the other side. This involved a lot of out-of-the-saddle climbing, more than I’m used to, but it was absolutely a blast.

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After a while I reached the first truly large hill, on Mount Gilead Road. The road dropped sharply some 200 feet. I went very slowly on the downhill; the rear brake felt a bit soft, and there was a lot of sand on the road.

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The moon was out and quite beautiful.

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Once at the bottom of the hill, it was flat for a bit. I found limits to how fast I could go on flat ground, but nothing that really bothered me. I’m no racer anyway.

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It was interesting to see how much snow the valley still had. It was around 50 degrees Fahrenheit, the warmest it has been here in quite some time. Most of the snow was gone, except in shady valleys like this one.

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Now I had a long climb. My first major climb on the singlespeed. I had to do most of the climb standing — which I don’t do often normally, but on the singlespeed there’s no other choice. I was pedaling really hard — feeling the pedal digging into my shoe, in fact — and it was more tiring than usual, but I did make it up the hill — possibly faster than usual. Since I didn’t have the option to put the bike in a super low gear and spin, I just had to grind it out in a much higher gear than I would normally use.

Frankly, I was a little astonished at how doable it was. I was surprised to realize just how little I actually need all those gears I normally use. There are bigger, steeper hills in the area, the steepest of which I might have to walk, but this hill was a good benchmark. Yes, I can ride in hills with just one gear.

Soon, I was on Tunnel Road, with some more flats and rolling hills. Once again there was a noticeable upper limit to my speed, but I got in a great rhythm with my pedaling, and I really enjoyed not having to think about shifting.

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I reached Shilo Road, which would give me two miles or so of twists and turns, mostly downhill, but with a couple of brief, sharp climbs.

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Occassionally I’d spin out or struggle up a steep climb, but mostly I didn’t think about gearing at all during this time. I just rode, and it was wonderful. With the sun on my face, the pavement faded away beneath me.

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I did have to watch out for sand. It was quite deep in spots.

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At one point along here, I reached the steepest climb of the ride. It wasn’t overly long but the grade reached into the upper teens. It took some extra huffing and puffing, but I made it, and cracked a smile as I did.

I stopped by a creek for a rest.

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Soon I turned into the wind. This part I was a little nervous about. The second half of my ride would be into the wind, and again I was nervous about lacking gears. I needn’t have worried. Apparently one gear is all I really need.

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I reached another long climb — long, but not too steep. I was getting pretty tired by this point, so I didn’t climb as vigorously as before, but I still managed to work my way up the hill. From there it wasn’t far back to town. I passed through a couple of parks along the way.

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And, rode on some cobblestones through part of campus.

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I followed one of my commute routes home. I felt great, but sore, when I got home. When you only have one gear, your body has to pick up the slack. It uses your muscles differently.

Bicycle thoughts

So far, I really enjoy my Little 500 bicycle. It’s fun to ride, and singlespeed simplicity is all it’s cracked up to be.

However, I do have some issues with it:

  • Only has one water bottle cage (and only one set of braze-ons).
  • Rear brake is not as effective as I’d like; front still shudders sometimes, though not as badly as before.
  • Stem is too long.
  • Brooks B17 saddle is not good for this semi-aggressive posture, with frequent high-cadence spinning. Need something else.
  • Platform pedals are OK, but I may go clipless on this bicycle for stiffer shoes and more pedaling power.
  • Rear wheel appears to be a bit out of true.
  • A few odd noises now and then.

Singlespeed experience

I keep hearing things about how wonderful the simplicity of a singlespeed bicycle is, and my first significant experience riding a singlespeed a longer distance seems to confirm those claims.

One thing I love about riding is that it makes me more in touch with the contours of the land. You get to know every hill and valley, every creek bottom. This is even more true on a singlespeed, where rather than shifting to make things easier, or help you go faster, you just have to pedal harder, or faster.

There are some areas (mainly west of town) where I’m not sure if a singlespeed would be doable, or enjoyable. But then again, I had the same concerns about this ride, and they proved not to be warranted. I guess I’ll have to try more of this singlespeed stuff and see what I learn.

14 Responses to “Shilo on a singlespeed”

  1. Doug Says:

    welcome to SS! I got into it with my mtn bike last year. I like the direct drive feel you get with the SS and I like to stand and climb even on my geared bikes so that worked out perfect.

  2. Steve B Says:

    Interesting commentary on the SS. I have an off-subject question. Could you tell me what brand mirror you use (in 1st photo)? Is it attached to your helmet? Are you happy with it? I’m reweighing the helmet vs. sunglass mirror placements. Thanks!

  3. Asher Says:

    Your blog is always a treat — beautiful pictures, as always!

    I fear you make riding a single-speed sound awfully tempting … quick, someone remind me I can’t justify the expense of another bike right now 😀

  4. Chris Says:

    “…I really enjoyed not having to think about shifting.”

    Yeah. It’s funny because thinking about shifting is really not that much of a burden, but the absence of choice is (ironically) amazingly freeing. What I think it does is get you thinking in terms of working with the landscape and your own momentum to some sort of optimum that only you can appreciate. It adds a whole other dimension to the joys of riding the bicycle.

    Awfully good to see you out and about, my friend.

  5. Apertome Says:

    Thanks for the kind words.

    Steve: I use a CycleAware Reflex Mirror. Yes, I do like it. It took a week or two to get used to it, but now I don’t like riding without it. One thing is nice, though, is that you can remove it when you like, either for transportation or mountain biking or whatever. The one downside is, the mirror piece can get knocked off fairly easily — not while riding, but when carrying the helmet with me.

    Chris: You nailed it, at least based on my (so far) limited experience. One thing that struck me was that it felt easier riding up some of the hills than it seems like it would have in the same gear on a geared bicycle. Maybe it’s my imagination, or maybe it’s increased drivetrain efficiency, or maybe you lose a little energy every time you shift and so deprive yourself of momentum on a geared bike, or maybe it’s something else entirely. I’m not sure.

  6. Jon Grinder Says:

    For an even more eye-opening experience, try fixed-gear, sometime. The added efficiency over a freewheel is quite noticeable.

    And, now it’s time to start thinking single-gear century ride…

  7. Apertome Says:

    I believe it. Someday I’ll try riding fixed. Kinda wish I had a flip-flop hub. At some point, I’ll get one!

    I definitely need to get in better shape, and work out the comfort issues with the singlespeed, before I attempt anything approaching a century …

  8. the flat tire Says:

    I must resist….

  9. Apertome Says:

    Resist what?

  10. Doohickie Says:

    I agree with everything you say about single speed riding. It is more of a thinking man’s game; you have to pay attention and adjust your riding, especially on the hills. Of course, there is always the WEEEEEEE when you go down the other side, enjoying the coasting once you top out the one speed you’ve got.

  11. Jeremy Says:

    I concur with Jon. I like single speed, but there’s a benefit to going fixed. As with both, you do indeed get to know the lay of the land better. And there’s something about not have to really do anything, but pedal. Glad to hear you’re enjoying!

    Cheers,

    Jeremy

  12. Asher Says:

    “One thing that struck me was that it felt easier riding up some of the hills than it seems like it would have in the same gear on a geared bicycle”

    I’ve noticed a similar phenomenon when my FD gets stuck on the big ring, which it very much likes to do these days. The first time this happened, I had to take a run from downtown Louisville up to the Highlands, and was marginally concerned about the climb from the flatlands of downtown (I normally ride a steeper-but-more-fun option that involves an alley), but sort of forgot about it until I was almost at the top of the climb, when I suddenly realized I was in my third-biggest gear (note: this was SO not the case yesterday, when I rode the little climby bits all but cross-chained, LOL — shows you what a couple weeks of the bike can do!).

    I think we all tend to underestimate our own abilities and capacities — take away the props that we use to limit ourselves, and we tend to rise to meet our potential. Beside the joy of simplicity, riding singlespeed means there are no psychological props standing between you and your potential — it’s just a ring, a cog, a chain, and you.

  13. Asher Says:

    Oh. That’s a couple weeks OFF the bike. D’oh.

    Maybe a couple weeks OFF the Coke Zero would help my typing…

  14. Tim Says:

    I realized the same thing on my first ride of distance on the SS. Just as stated, I could feel the terrain and focused on tempo instead of worrying about the right gear. Sometimes, though, the knees like the bail gear.

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