Single Speed Sports

Posted by chdot on April 22, 2009

Photo sindändùne

Yesterday a man on a bicycle with one gear (in Edinburgh) was an Internet sensation – he even featured on BBC Scotland radio and tv news programmes.

It was just the latest example of a world wide return to a certain simplicity – bikes with one gear.

In the 20th century such machines were often referred to as having “no gears”. This was to contrast them with bikes with (usually) a 3 speed hub – most made in Nottingham by Sturmey Archer.

After the Second World War derailleur gears gradually took over as the normal method of efficiently transferring leg power to road speed.

In the 1970s and 80s 10 gears was the norm, usually in the form of a ‘ten speed racer’. Since then the ‘mountain bike’ has become the mass consumed machine.

The most significant innovation of the MTB boom is probably the widespread use of the triple chainset (the three chainrings by the right foot pedal).

The crucial component is the smallest ring which gives the lowest gears – making climbing hills easier whether that’s the Pentlands or The Mound.

15 gears soon became 18 with 21, 24 and 27 speeds becoming more ‘desirable’. Largely a triumph of marketing. More gears doesn’t necessarily mean better.

Having a bike with only one gear was once the only option, (think penny farthing), then normal for economy reasons – gears were expensive. Now singlespeeds have become something of a street fashion.

This has generally been a spin off from the cycle courier scene.  (This development is not always welcomed by ‘real’ bicycle messengers and the term fakenger has been coined!) If you earn a precarious living speeding packages across congested city centres, breakdowns can be costly.

Hence a move to minimalism – one gear, fewer moving/breakable parts. In the UK it is a legal requirement for a bicycle to have a brake on each wheel. On the rear wheel this can be a fixed wheel (the rider’s legs, exerting backward pressure, providing the braking), so a brake mechanism, lever and cables can be removed, adding simplicity and reducing weight.

Another advantage of bikes with a single chainring and sprocket is that (providing the wheel is pulled back to tension the chain properly) the chain doesn’t come off.

Single/fixed riding is particularly common in flatish cities like New York, Boston and London but it’s a growing niche in Edinburgh – there’s even a web site and the Edinburgh Bike Co-op web site has a page of info on hows and whys – plus details of readymade bikes and fancy components for those toying with the idea of a new craze or lifestyle change.

But its not just YouTube star Danny MacAskill who is skilled at riding a bike with one gear. (Sir) Chris Hoy has won many races with just one (fixed) gear on velodromes around the world. Like many children he started riding a bike with only one gear. His (very) early racing career was as a BMX racer. 

Another established (and just hanging on) track sport is Cycle Speedway. Edinburgh has one remaining track at Redbraes (video) where the Edinburgh Falcons train and race (new members welcome – bicycles provided).

Bike Polo has been around for over 100 years though it’s not known if it has ever reached Edinburgh in an organised way.

Bicycle Soccer is even less established as a world class sport. There are practitioners in America but it seems to be better established in Japan (video – note the specially positioned saddles).

In addition some people race mountain bikes with only one gear! The Singlespeed World Championships were held in Scotland two years ago.

Bikes can be fun with any number of gears. Some skills, and successes, take practice. Rumour has it that a skatepark is finally going to be built in Edinburgh (Saughton Park). In the meantime practice on street corners, MeadowbankRedbraes or indoors at transgression park.

One Response to “Single Speed Sports”

  1. Nice article and good to hear some of the history. Happy Trails!

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