Cycling at its Most Basic; The Appeal of Fixed and Single Speed Riding
Bikepacking and ultracycling are fairly niche sports, but amongst our ranks is an even more niche group of long-distance riders; those that ride fixed gear and single speed. We wanted to understand why anyone would choose to ride long distances with just one gear and spoke to Bjorn Lenhard, Clement Stawicki, Eleanor Jaskowska, Ivan Cornell, Liam Glen and Markus Stitz to find out why.
When we asked our panel of riders why they first started riding fixed or single speed bikes, a recurring theme was the simplicity and lower maintenance requirements it brings. Liam even goes so far as to suggest his main motivation for buying a single speed mountain bike “was not to have to clean my bike so often in winter (or let’s be honest, most of the year here in the UK)!”. That said, it only took one ride for him to see that there was more to it than just reduced maintenance – “There is something appealing, almost liberating, about not having to make those hundreds of gearing decisions on a ride – you just give it your all until you can’t, then get off and push”.
For Markus, it was a similar choice and he explains that riding single speed “reduces complexity and lets me focus on all things other than bikes. I like cycling as it gets me to places and connects me with people in a healthy and fun way. I don’t like the complexity that has been introduced to it by loads of gears etc. Single speed riding is pure cycling”.
Yet, for others, it’s more of a cultural thing – a state of mind even. Clem tells us he started riding single speed “for the simplicity and the reliability to ride to work every day” but quickly came to feel most at home alongside other fixed and single speed riders. “The people around single speed culture are less serious and on the side of classical cycling sporty thing, and I feel very good in this family”. Another member of the single gear family, Ivan, agrees with the sentiment, “I found I wasn’t any slower than on gears, really enjoyed the whole zen thing about ‘contacting earth’ pedalling every inch of a ride, and having destroyed at least one derailleur mid-ride appreciated the K.I.S.S. approach of having less to think about, particularly when tired”
For those of us that haven’t tried riding long-distances on a fixed gear or single speed bike, a common fear is sore knees from lower cadence, but Liam explains that actually having to get off and push more frequently “means that the niggles are more spread around, which can be more manageable on the longer rides. The lower mental load is also really beneficial. For example, with gears, getting off and pushing is often a blow to the ego, whereas because it’s fully expected, on a single speed it’s a lot easier to handle mentally. In any case, I wouldn’t spend too much time stressing over it as no matter what you’ve always got 3 gears: sitting, standing and pushing!”. Liam does point out, however, that “if you’re not used to it, it will work difficult muscles than when riding with gears. For me, it’s all the stabilising muscles around the hip that get particularly worked from all the low cadence standing-up pedalling. You’ll need a strong core too for all that yanking on the handlebars!”.
Eleanor, the third woman ever to ride Paris-Brest-Paris on a fixed gear bike, agrees that it “makes some things harder, some things easier and most things are different. After a while that same 200km loop stops presenting the same level of challenge. Taking away gears and a freehub makes you totally inexperienced at riding long distance again. You’re vulnerable, learning quickly again. It’s great fun, scary and humbling. I found a love for hills, because there’s no granny gear to escape to you just have to go for it. You dig deeper than you thought you could, deeper than you would have gone with a derailleur.”.
Bjorn also rode Paris-Brest-Paris on a fixed gear. As the incumbent record holder for the event, he felt the need for a new challenge; “riding fixed is a totally different experience. It’s more natural, simple. You just sit at the bike and spin your legs. There is no thinking about changing gears. You can never relax. You always have to spin your legs. Even if you click out on downhills it’s hard to keep your legs up.”
Another frequent concern for fans of gears is picking the right gear when you can only have one, but Markus is a fan of not overthinking it. “I ride the same ratio since my round the world trip; 32/18. To claim there’s a science behind it would be a straight lie. When I got my round the world bike, the smallest chain ring was 32, the biggest cog was 18. That was the choice, and I stuck with it since then. On my cross bike I ride 42 – 17 most times.”
Markus is also quick to point out that it’s easier to travel with a single speed bike; “if you box a single speed bike you don’t need to worry about taking off or padding the derailleur, normally the first things that falls victim to heavy handling at airports. My drive train is full steel, before that breaks I will be long broken. In ten years riding single speed, and recently also fixed, I have never had a chain slipping or breaking, and I am not the best at keeping my bikes in good nick.”.
Eleanor is another rider who’s not overly scientific in her gearing choices, favouring familiarity. “I picked my gear based on my average speed and the cadence I normally ride at. I didn’t change my gearing for PBP. There were various people who suggested gearing up for the event and running a bigger gear because of the long shallow descents but I figured ‘run what you brung’. Although the hills are not as steep in Northern France as they are in Somerset my legs were pretty tired and actually all the climbs were pretty comfortable. I did struggle on the descents, my leg speed did improve and then decline again over the course of the 1200km. The descent into Brest was particularly challenging and did have to stop a couple of times to rest my legs.”
It’s not necessarily just about the personal challenge either. For Ivan, and many other UK-based fixed gear cyclists, there’s an added motivation through Audax UK and their Fixed Wheel Challenge (FWC), for which you get points for climbing as well as distance covered on a fixed gear. Ivan tells us that “this led me (through riding with the FWC champion at the time) to doing ridiculously hilly events on fixed and found that I really enjoyed these – I get a bit bored at times on a bike, mindlessly tapping out the miles and found climbing on fixed an incredibly engaging activity – I see it like rock climbing, where you have to assess every climb and pick a strategy which you then continually reassess – do I power up there, can I tack and if so watch/listen for traffic constantly, or do I just give up and walk!”.
If you’re still not convinced to give fixed or single speed riding a chance, Markus had these closing thoughts to share with you: “I rode 34,000km around the planet, and finished the Highland Trail 550, Capital Trail, Atlas Mountain Race, Land End to John O’Groats, Coast to Coast in Scotland and Strathpuffer a few times, all single speed. I map most of my routes single speed too. If I can tackle them single speed, other people will enjoy them too. Plus, I cycled to the Ride to the Sun and back in one go fixed. While I temporarily cycled with gears, I am back to one gear, as it is simply more fun.”.