So a few weeks ago, I broke my own minimum price for a new bike rule and bought a nice little rideable single speed road bike for as cheap as I could on Amazon. I got it for under GBP200 (USD250, EUR215, AUD335) though there were some other considerations post-purchase if you’re interested. The relevant point here is that I wanted a bike for winter as my regular bike being small-framed has an issue with toe overlap and mudguard fitting would be tricky, and I didn’t want to spend anything much on another bike. I could’ve gone the used route, but I have to admit I really like what I got. That’s just by way of introduction though! Hello, Dear Reader and welcome along to a quick rundown of the pros and cons of riding a single-geared bike as a winter trainer. Will such a bike serve any purposes? And if so, what are those purposes? Having run it for a few weeks and its first few hundred miles, is it gonna make a winter trainer or not? I’ll give you my take on it in brief and then explain a bit about what I mean…
What exactly are the pros and cons of a single speed road bike as a winter trainer?
- Removes reliance on shiftable gearing. This places dependency back on our own physical capabilities and encourages (or perhaps forces) adapting and strengthening those physical capabilities
- Can foster a different riding style than what you might be used to. One thing it isn’t is an easy spin. But mixing it up is something we may not always do. It’s a great way to force the body to learn and adapt. Riding single speed is one way to put yourself in the position where you almost have to grind a bit or push a bit harder to just get where you’re going and back.
- Being limited to one gear encourages assessment and reading of the terrain. Though we may well do it anyway, descents are maximized and no time is wasted getting into a climb.
- Frees the riding mind from gear change decisions. This, in concert with #2 can, if leveraged, increase our engagement with, and enjoyment of, the ride itself. It’s more of a mindful cycling idea.
- It can encourage you to just for once take things easy! Sometimes for a change it’s nice to just go for a ride, no tech, no intervals, just an easy steady 75-80rpm and enjoy the scenery or enjoy being out on the bike. It’s about nothing else other than finding your cycling joy which is a fantastic ride motivator.
- It can cause you to find new ride routes. All part of the plan! Not really 🙂 But because some climbs won’t be feasible – or at least won’t be as straightforward, then certain routes are out. Finding new ones can add spice to trite ride patterns #lookonthebrightside 😀
- Stomping up hills can actually be satisfying. Yep, should you decide to ignore #6 and ride your normal hilly routes, it’s likely you’re gonna have to stomp. For years I rode a single-speed MTB. Riding up steep stuff was a challenge, often a stop-start one. But getting to the top when others have had to rely on gearing yields gains in self-confidence and faith in one’s abilities.
- Easier to maintain the bike. Lacking the derailleurs is just simpler for winter.
- Rides quieter. With the chain not having to pass around the jockey wheels and no danger of cross-chaining, the system runs quieter and therefore more efficiently.
- Single-speed bikes kinda just look prettier. Cleaner lines, less clutter. Of course beauty is in the eye of the beholder, we all agree to that. And likewise, prettiness isn’t a term in everyone’s ride vocabulary. Fair enough. Well, fair enough provided your helmet and shoes aren’t matching. If they are, I’ll gently refer you back to point #9 😛
- Hard to train in specific power and HR zones at specific cadences. Yep, that kind of training just doesn’t work well on a single-speed bike. You do what the bike instructs you to do and is a factor of your chosen ratio/fitness.
- Reduces the choice of ride routes. While it could be a pro (see #6 above) for many having good routes ruled out can reduce motivation.
- Starting from zero, a typical single gearing produces lower acceleration. It’s more relevant to pulling out of junctions into traffic, or getting up to speed on public roads after stopping at lights.
- Stresses the legs a bit more than with gears. Sometimes it might stress the legs a lot more depending on your chosen gear ratio. This can however, with sufficient research be used safely as part of your training.
- The ol’ knees might hint at potential aggro up ahead! Following from the previous point. Putting a conscious ceiling on how hard we push for the sake of the anatomy is something to be mindful of for some, if not all of us.
- Your gear ratio becomes far more important. Best we can do is to choose a gear ratio in which we can still keep the pedals turning at an acceptable cadence and power output.
- The gear ratio is never going to be perfect. Any cassettes of 10 speed and above will have sufficiently small variations in the teeth of adjacent sprockets to ensure a near perfect gear is selectable at any given moment. Being in a singlespeed gear-ratio that’s not ideal most of the time and requires your legs to take up slack at any given moment was the compromise we signed up for when going single-speed.
So what does any of that even mean then?
Firstly, I’m not suggesting a single-speed road bike as some kind of unilateral swap for your regular bike(s). I’m suggesting that it can be used as part of your overall riding to add variety, to recruit new muscle, to encourage muscle adaptation, to change up your type of riding or routes, to generally provide a different outlook on your cycling in general. As I discussed in another article, this variety can help sustain your cycling motivation, particularly over the winter months.
Secondly, it can easily be argued that there’s nothing that can be done on a single-speed bike that can’t be done (with change) on a geared bike. And while I would offer no counter-argument to that, I think it misses the point of the exercise. And that is? Well, I’ve been wondering about the truth in this idea… What do you think, that…
Single-speed / fixed gearing actually suits the cycling mindsets of some of us better
On a geared bike we aim for our preferred cadence and use the gears to adjust to our desired speed over varying terrain. While our power varies as we do so, generally the use of gearing helps us to keep our energy expenditure within a certain zone or zones. Gearing smooths out the variances.
And so I’ve noticed, conversely, because the gears aren’t available to level out my energy expenditure over the ride, that there’s a far greater variance in both power demanded and in cadence required on the singlespeed.
My theory based on this is that to some riders, that state of affairs is understandably not an efficient, comfortable or maybe pleasant way to ride. I can absolutely understand and assent to that. But to some other riders – and I’d have to include myself here – the power, cadence and possibly speed variances are so great compared to (our) geared bikes that rather than being detrimental to our smooth riding, it brings a new dimension to that riding overall. And it’s an enjoyable and fun dimension at that. If you fall in or around that latter categorization, read on…
I don’t imagine this as separating riders out into two discrete groups: you like single speed, or you like gears…
Nor do I imagine it as a sliding scale between those two extremes. Rather I see there being some intersection between the two. Which is why I wouldn’t be dogmatic, prescriptive nor evangelical in suggesting trying single-speed if you ride gears any more than I’d suggest gears if you’re a fixed-gear rider. I think both can have benefits to your ride mojo if you’re open to it. But since we’re talking single-speed…
When’s a con not a disadvantage?
I think if you can read that list of cons above (and it’s probably only a partial list – can you think of more?) but if your mind allows you to imagine those not so much as cons but as challenges, or maybe opportunities to try something different, or excuses to push yourself a bit harder or even let yourself relax into the ride a bit more, I think if you have that mind, then a single-speed road bike could well inject a drop of that other dimension into your cycling veins.
For me at least, these very ideas summarize the benefits of riding a single-speed road bike as part of your overall cycling if you normally ride gears. So while the list of pros above speaks for itself. And with an outlook favourable to your new single-speed bike, the list of cons can shift from being disadvantages to being opportunities in the challenges that single-speed presents. That means that, rather than having to overcome these obstacles, we can actually utilize them to add spice to our rides.
How on earth can we utilize the cons to our advantage?
Let’s look at them one at a time.
- It’s hard to train in specific power and HR zones at specific cadences. That’s true. But for me, at times when I’m not in the middle of a training plan, I like the idea of just riding for its own sake. The single-speed is just the thing. Because I’m somewhat limited in comparison to my geared bike (my singlespeed’s also heavier!) I use those rides to ease off. My goal for that ride is to quite simply just enjoy it with no concerns beyond that.
- Reduces the choice of ride routes. As I alluded to in the above list, yes, some rides will just not be feasible pushing the gear inches you are on your singlespeed. In my mind, that’s the signal to go get some flatter alternative routes. They’re probably places I don’t usually go. While not everybody does well with change (and I’m probably one of them!) I tend to view the singlespeed as a wise teacher suggesting it’d be in my interest overall to plot out some good routes. You can never have too many routes I say! I like to have one for each compass direction #windplanning lol 🙂
- Starting from zero, a typical single gearing produces lower acceleration. Yeah, this one can be troublesome specially at junctions. I can say it might encourage me to learn to trackstand. But I can already trackstand. I just hate doing it with clip-ins. Perhaps it’s a lesson from my wise counsel to practice and gain confidence at it! #soundslikeaplan 🙂
- Stresses the legs a bit more than with gears. For me personally this was one of the main reasons to go back to mixing in a bit of single-speed. I’m not the youngest and I feel it’s a weakness of mine not being able to push hard and sustain it for a bit. That’s the crux of the single-speed plan I’m working on at the minute. It’s to maintain leg strength, which is a primary consideration for me at my age (50+) and possibly build on it.
- The ol’ knees might hint at potential aggro up ahead! Yes, I have felt a few tendons around the knee make themselves known since starting my single-speed for strength plan. Not something I can ignore, nor would I suggest anyone else ever would. I’m a big fan of foam rolling. And that seems to be completely alleviating the soreness. Were it not to, I’d definitely consider easing back. More likely adjusting my gear ratio.
- Your gear ratio becomes far more important. Yes, and the point above illustrates that. Too high a ratio and the knees can take the weight of it. For me, if the ratio is too low then my idea of single-speed road bike for strength gains just won’t work. I’m currently experimenting with a 46T:18T which seems just right for about 18mph. I switched from 46T:16T which felt like too much of a squeeze on the knees on the few little hills I had to grunt up. I think experimentation is the key here. So if you’re thinking of trying it, set some time (and a couple freewheels) aside for it.
- The gear ratio is never going to be perfect. I think it’s part of my personality to be independent. I think that’s why I like cycling so much, it’s not relying on public transport, nor on my car whose maintenance I know little about were anything to go wrong. And so that carries through to this notion of getting along any route on the strength of my legs alone. And this isn’t any kind of inner sanctimoniousness. It’s not about somehow proving single-speed as superior to gears. Because not only is that not true, it’s a wholly unhelpful sentiment. Rather, it’s about feeling the achievement and satisfaction of coping – because I guess coping is what we’re doing – with the terrain. We’re working within the physical constraints, and importantly, we’re succeeding. It’s telling yourself, I can do this, and I did it! 🙂 And keeping that sense of success and achievement high ensures we can cope with most things that rides throws at us and we know we can. And that sentiment can extend to other areas of our lives too. So yay for single-speed road bikes! 🙂
Have a look at my accompanying vid showing the bike setup and build as well as a quick ride giving the outline of the advantages and disadvantages 🙂
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Thanks for reading, hope there’s something of interest or use to you up in there. Let me know! Take care meantime, ride safe and have fun no matter how many gears you got behind you! David.