Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Single Speed Versatility?

Paper Bicycle, Chaincase
I've been test riding the Paper Bicycle for the past month, and as I've mentioned before it is a single speed. The gearing is pretty low: 38x17t, with 26x2.5" tires (about 60 gear inches). The bicycle is upright and it weighs around 37lb. Reading these specs, it would appear that the manufacturer geared the bike low to compensate for its weight and upright positioning, enabling the urban cyclist to handle hilly areas. In turn, it stands to reason that the bike cannot go very fast, assuming that one does not want to spin like mad while commuting: a sedate urban bike, where the single speed aims to make the uphill portion of the ride easy and assumes you will coast downhill. 

However, my experience of actually riding the bike contradicts this. While the gearing is low enough to handle reasonable uphill stretches, I can also pedal downhill much of the time, and on flats I can pick up quite a bit of speed. Based on what I understand about single speed gearing, that seems implausible, and yet that's how it is. 

This is not the first time I've noticed that the single speed drivetrains on some bikes can feel more "versatile" than multi-speed hubs on other bicycles I have ridden, in the sense that a single gear on Bike A can feel acceptable over a broader range of terrain than an entire 7-8 gear range on Bike B. The first time I felt this was when switching between the multi-speed Pashley and the single speed Motobecane mixte conversion, both of which I owned in 2009-2010. The Motobecane was easier uphill and faster downhill, whereas the Pashley's gears would max out in both directions. At the time I attributed this to the city bike vs roadish bike difference, but I have since experienced the same effect on bikes that were more comparable. For instance, when I test rode the Breezer Uptown, I arrived on the Paper Bicycle, then rode the 8-speed Breezer over the same terrain. I had to switch between the high and low gears of the Breezer's 8-speed range constantly in order to make the bike "move" as comfortably as the Paper Bicycle moved in its single gear. It was a poignant contrast, given that the weight and upright positioning of the two bikes are comparable. Others have reported similar experiences - discovering a single speed that was able to cover their commute as well as a multi-speed bike, but without the hassle of constantly switching gears. A single speed Abici has proven sufficient for Trisha of Let's Go Ride a Bike in Nashville, more so than her other, geared city bike. 

Increasingly, there is a trend to put 7-8 speed hubs on city bikes. Some beginner cyclists I've spoken to won't even consider 3-speed hubs, let alone single speeds. They do not have exceptionally long or hilly commutes, but after test riding a couple of bikes they feel that multiple gears are necessary. It makes me wonder whether there is something about the way many new bikes are designed, that they simply do not respond well to the rider's pedaling effort and need all those gears to compensate. Is single speed versatility the flip side of the coin to hub inefficiency, or is it all about the frame design? I am far from having an answer, but this seems worth investigating. A single speed bike is easier to maintain and put together, and it is less expensive. If it's possible to design one that can handle mildly hilly terrain, why bother with multi-speed hubs and gear shifters?

67 comments:

  1. You didn't discuss your fitness, which is an important factor here, and which you tend to underestimate. It might be worthwhile to count your cadence under various conditions on a single speed bike. If you have trained yourself to feel as comfortable with a low cadence as with a high one that could account for your ability to feel comfortable with a single speed bike on hilly terrain (though I admit I don't understand why you would then need gears on a different bike).

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  2. Jon - But my fitness did not change when switching from the Paper Bike to the Breezer. When there was an uphill incline, I found the Breezer difficult to pedal in whatever gear I was in initially and had to downshift. When there was a downhill incline, I would grow uncomfortable with the high cadence and had to upshift. On the Paper bike, I was fine with just the one gear when going both up and down the very same inclines.

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  3. The whole reason gears were invented is because single speed vehicles were NOT versatile.

    Sure, you can find that optimum gear ratio that lets you ride comfortably on a given route. But it doesn't meant that such bike would be versatile.

    I have some pretty bad hills around my home:
    http://bostonbybike.blogspot.com/2011/11/5km-challenge.html
    While some of them I can climb on my 3-speed bike, others are tough even on my 20-speed bike. I could build a single-speed bike that would handle those hills but then my cadence on flat road would have to be around 200rpm to move me forward. This bike would not be versatile.

    Regarding your experience - would a different riding position be a part of the reason why Breezer was more difficult to pedal than the single speed Paper Bike?

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    Replies
    1. if you gear it to climb a hill you can coast down it, works fine for me

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  4. Impossible to say why. Send me the bike and I'll find out.

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  5. When you have many gears, none are perfect. When you have only one, it's enough. I think it's the 'enough-ness' of a SS that makes them feel 'baby-bear', and it's why I prefer them.

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  6. bostonbybike - I am not talking about those types of serious hills; I would not ride an IGH bike on that kind of terrain at all. I am talking about the fairly mild hills that are part of most urban cyclists' commuting.

    I am also not suggesting that a given bike (let's call it Bike X), would not be more versatile with more gears. What I am suggesting, is that why ride Bike X with 8 gears if Bike Y handles just as well with a single gear and is easier to maintain.

    The Breezer's and Paper Bikes riding positions were very similar.

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  7. I have a five speed hub, but am confident I can do away with 3. I don't consider turning my bike singlespeed since I want to be able to alter the gearing when I need to. However I would definitely not ride fixed - I find it highly uncomfortable for long rides, however I like the idea of being able to control speed with your legs. I think a coaster brake would work better.

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  8. No doubt the Paper has an excellent frame.

    A plus for having gears is low speed maneuverability.

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  9. I was told, years ago, that fixed-gear bikes were easy to climb on, and I pooh-poohed the idea. Till I got one. I now ride 600 miles a month on a fixed-gear--set at a reasonable 69 gear inches--all over hilly Los Angeles. I take it up on Mulholland Drive often enough. Typical day rides are up to 70 miles, and I've done centuries on it. The damn thing does it all! I carry spares, tools, and lock always, and often clip on panniers to carry shopping or materials for my clothing projects.

    As with V, I didn't suddenly change fitness level when moving from a geared to a single speed bike, so whatever the reason (and there are of course thousands of differing opinions), it works.

    Bike maintenance now consists of changing tires and chain every few months, leaving much more time to ride the thing, hooray!

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  10. IGH bikes have some internal drag due to the added friction of the gears inside the hub. Single speed drivetrains are more efficient. I had a first generation Nexus 8 bike (hub failed prematurely) and I replaced the bike quickly with a single speed Bianchi Rollo/Milano Uno (60 gear inches). I was amazed that I could go almost everywhere I could with the Nexus 8. I got into the habit of standing to power instead shifting to a lower gear. With minimally geared bikes - it is important to have some knowledge of gear inches and what is possible.

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  11. Chromatonic hit the nail on the head. If you were a robot, many gears would be efficient. But since you are human, your expectation of what the new gear should do, and energy you waste worrying about which is the optimal gear is a drag on your performance. Some have estimated it to be equal to a sail mounted to your rear rack.

    I have had the same experience going from a multispeed to a single speed. After much thought I concluded that answer is not in realm of physics. It was in my head.

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  12. I think there's a few things at work here. First, drivetrain efficiency, not to be sneezed at. Many years ago as a kid I tried a quick turn on a Real Track Bike after a time trial, and the damn thing almost rode out from underneath me.

    Second, there's a whole lot going on in our heads that we don't know about. If you know you've got gears, you may use them.

    Third, from the POV of why bikes are being outfitted like this (at least in the US), there is an issue of initial fitness; if someone is overweight, out of shape, not comfortable spinning, and not good about getting the bike fit right, they'll be much worse off on a single speed than on a multispeed bike.

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  13. Velouria - "What I am suggesting, is that why ride Bike X with 8 gears if Bike Y handles just as well with a single gear and is easier to maintain."

    Well said. Understood!

    When I was a little boy my family used to spend summer in a countryside village in Poland. I remember bikes those local people rode everywhere: some junky single-speed upright bikes. It must have been for the same reason: Why use something more complicated and expensive if that simple, rugged vehicle takes you anywhere you want? (There were no hills in that area).

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  14. Over here in the UK single speed bikes were by far the most common on urban roads when cycling was still popular with adults as an everyday means of transport.

    Multi-geared bikes only became really popular when cycling became a hobby, done occasionally - or even not at all, with many new bikes being left to gather dust at the back of the garage after the novelty had worn off. People wanted something trendy and like the professionals rode, hence the popularity of 5 and 10 speed 'racers' with no fenders (mudguards). Practicality was way down the list of desirable features for a bike, just as it has become for many consumer items in the last few decades.

    More recently new cyclists, especially adults taking it up again after years off, have not really approached cycling from a utilitarian point of view, but from a gadgety one. They'll buy the latest hi-tech cycling stuff even if they don't need it, and they'll buy it often, just as they'll buy the latest new phone every five minutes.

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  15. Hi,
    Great blog. Interesting and fun. I've been riding a singlespeed 29er for about a year. We go all over the place. Gravel, Snomobile trail, singletrack,road. It's simple and a blast.

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  16. Wow, Chromatonic said it beautifully ! He/she is a wise one.

    I found that when I rode my 8 or 9-speed bikes I did a lot of shifting at low speeds. When starting from a stop I'd make three or four upshifts just getting across the intersection. On my single speed, I just stand on the pedals for half a dozen or so strokes, which gets me up to speed at least as quickly as on the multi-speed. To me this seems like it takes less effort than all that shifting, plus it's not as distracting.

    But I grew up riding a SS in a VERY hilly mining town where we did everything on 58 gear inches, or thereabouts, so maybe I'm just used to using a variable cadece.

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  17. A SS (FW or fixed)with perfect chainline will give you 10 gear inches of efficiency over a similarly equiped deraileured bike. When I was choosing my SS (FW) gearing I used my deraileured bike without shifting. I found a 42 x 20 was just about right. That 20T gear was smack in the middle of the FW, so it wasn't chainline that was causing the friction, it was all snaking around pulleys and chain length, plus all the weight of FW + deraileur. I ended up moving to a 44 x 16/18 flip-flop until one side blew out. Now I ride 44x17 on a 27" wheel. That's about 69", about what Richard uses. It's perfect. I live in the Hills above Pasadena, CA. I've found that with SS, you find the gears within you: change your pedal stroke, pop out of the saddle and mash, out of the saddle spinning, change your seating position by sliding your but forward and back in the saddle. Change hand positions. All these and more are 'gears', and I'm delighted to find how many of them I have to hand without having to resort to more gears.
    I still have my geared bikes. I love them for climbing/descending steep mountains, for hauling groceries, and for those exploratory rides where I don't know WHAT I'll find. But my SS gets more rides than all the others put together, though perhaps not more miles.

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  18. Some years back when I was a more flexible and quicker cyclist I decided I was going to keep the winter fixed gear on my road bike for club rides into the spring until I couldn't keep up. The club was not the fastest ever but some guys had race experience and some had race aspirations. In fair weather you could expect that a few of our 50 miles would be at 30mph and there would be a few light rushes at 35mph.

    So in February and March I rode 42 x 17, no problem. Early April switched to 42 x 16. No problem. By June it was no longer possible to be at the front absolutely whenever, staying attached to the group was no problem and would never have been a problem.

    More recently I quit my 2x9 Ergpower setup for the pleasure of 5spd freewheels and downtube shifting. Yes you think before shifting. Yes it can cause slight positioning adjustments when riding with a group. Does not matter. It's also easier to climb approximately limiting hills in my new low of 42x24 than it was with 39x26 on the modern bike. The old narrow freewheel on a 120 hub gives better chainline. Possibly the much narrower Nuovo Record crank makes for efficiency. At least it feels good.

    The most important thing is always that the bike feels good and the ride is fun. I've used a modern ultralight TT bike that was really fast but the ride was just an exercise in clock-watching. Waiting until you can dismount. That's not worth it.

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  19. I agree with what most have posted regarding efficiency of the drivetrain. In the past year I've ridden IGH, derailleur, and most recently single speed. When I have gears I'm always shifting or thinking about shifting. I never feel comfortable getting out of the saddle on a geared bike either. Single speed is a bit of a revelation. Slow or fast, up or down, standing or sitting...it does it all. For reference it's a Redline 925 running 42/16 for about 70 gear inches.

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  20. I've tried most of the variations described above and am currently using a Paul Melvin for a two speed 48/38-17 set up on 35c tires. This is about 61 and 77 inches.

    Love it. It often mimics the "handful of gears" shifting I frequently used to do, gives me an easy gear for tooling around, hills or wind, as well as a big enough gear to keep up with fast friends on a spirited ride around town.

    If I were building a custom bike today, it would be made specifically for this kind of set-up.

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  21. Velouria-
    I would have to agree with the comments by Phil Miller, and I also wonder about frame stiffness. I think that a bike frame can have too little or too much flex. The Breezer is oversize aluminum, very stiff. The Pashley is standard diameter steel, and the geometry lacks any triangulation to speak of. Your Motobecane has much stiffer geometry, matched with stand diameter tubing. I think that this hits the "sweet spot," and this is one reason you see so may older frames successfully converted to single speed. The Paper Bike looks like a mixture of modern oversize tubing and moderately flexible geometry. The inventive chain case/stiffener would reinforce the bottom bracket area, but the single downtube would tend to introduce some flexibility back.
    Of course, this is all wild conjecture, and testing the frame flexibility would likely indicate something entirely different going on.

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  22. If the overriding goal is to get more people on bikes in a commute/utility way, then 1 by x (where x=7,8,or 9)is the way to go. 2 or 3 by x confuses them and turns them off.

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  23. I’m still not convinced by single speeds but also I must admit I haven’t ridden one. There aren’t many stretches of level road around here so I’d always tend to default to a geared bike. Being a fit but overweight 49 year old means that I don’t want to make hills any harder than they have to be – I have my knees to think of.

    For me, the 3 speed is the best compromise when balancing reliability, cost, serviceability, versatility and rideability.

    Is single speed just another fad? I suspect so. The secondhand ads could be full of cheap unwanted used single speeds in a few years time. If that’s the case, as a project I’d be tempted to buy one and turn it into a 3 speed commuter bike.

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  24. TomA - The frame stiffness issue is complicated. The Pashley I owned is one of maybe 12 loop frame bicycles I have tried at this point, and it felt unresponsive even in comparison to some of those other loops, made of similar hi-ten steel. There's got to be more to it.

    But I do think it is a combination of tubing and geometry and some manufacturers/models just happen to get the combination right for optimum efficiency whereas others don't.

    Anon 2:51 - Do you mean that people tend to dislike derailleur gearing for commuting? I agree, and think it is entirely unnecessary unless major hills are involved. The problem with serious hills, is that - at least for me - no IGH is good enough; I want a touring cassette.

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  25. I bought my 1970s lady's Raleigh single speed as an interim bike until I could find a 3 speed, but it is so fast and responsive I'm loathe to give it up! It seems that all the effort of pedaling propels you forwards, and everyone who's tried it comes back with a big smile and announces "it sure goes!" I had the opportunity to buy a 3 speed (without test riding though), and had to admit I love my single speed too much, and I think it's not just the perfect gear, and the simplicity, but the efficiency which you can feel as you pedal... no wasted effort! Riding my mountainbike a few blocks last week was an example of the opposite effect, with full suspension, soft tyres, and 24 gears.. so uncomfortable.

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  26. I am confused. If you hate switching gears so much, why can't you ride an 8 speed in whatever gear feels right and leave the shifter alone? And the other gears will be there for you just in case you need them.

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  27. Pam - My point was that on many bikes with 7 or 8-speed hubs I cannot in fact remain in one gear and treat it as a single speed; that gear begins to feel wrong very quickly and I am compelled to switch to another. By contrast, on a "good" single speed bike that one gear somehow feels right over a wider range of terrain.

    I don't hate switching gears. What I dislike is when I feel that a bike responds to my pedaling inefficiently and that the multitude of gears are there to compensate for that.

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  28. Quite a number of people in this comment thread are looking for a way of using the two or three derailleur gears that they actually use.

    I notice that the rear hub on the Paper bike is a cassette style hub arranged for singlespeed use.

    With a cassette hub there isn't a 'minimum' number of cogs like multispeed freewheels where one was forced to have at least 5 cogs in the rear even though only 2 or 3 of those were used.

    In other words, one can use a cassette hub to arrange just those 2 or 3 rear cogs that are actually used at an optimized chainline. The disadvantage of this approach is that an inordinate number of spacers are used, and the wheel is still heavily dished.

    Cassette BMX hubs, having a shorter freehub body can be fitted with up to three cogs, thus achieving the same goal except without the disadvantages and with singlespeed overlock spacing. Ira Ryan did this in his Oregon Manifest bike when he managed to put in 4 cogs into a Chris King singlespeed hub.

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  29. I know exactly what you mean, and can especially relate to what Anon @ 3:03 above says, I have had a similar experience with my vintage loopframe single speed. I dug it out of my parents' garage and put new saddle and tyres on it just to test it out and on my first ride on it I was hooked. But the coaster brakes were inadequate so I got a new hub with a coaster brake and 3 speeds (not that I really needed the 3 speeds, I just thought they would improve the ride quality) and I really could have stayed with the single speed, changing to 3 speeds just means a little more time in the saddle. That first ride was such a surprise for me, after having 24 derailleured speeds at my disposal (most of which I did not use) I thought the SS would be like riding a tank but it flew!

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  30. Velouria said:
    "I don't hate switching gears. What I dislike is when I feel that a bike responds to my pedaling inefficiently and that the multitude of gears are there to compensate for that."

    It's hard to understand how efficient SS/fixed is until you try it for a few miles. Once you do, it's hard to return. I find myself oiling chains, changing RD pulleys and tuning the chain size on my geared bikes in an effort to achieve that magic that an SS/fixed gives naturally. These efforts always approach but never achieve the goal.

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  31. If you have steep hills, or long ones, gotta be careful of the knees. Some of us have iron knees and some don't. Multiple gears do save knees. Some of the gear combinations in this thread, while undoubtedly pleasant for those using them, could crucify mere mortals.

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  32. @ Velouria December 7, 2011 2:59 PM

    Re: "Anon 2:51 - Do you mean that people tend to dislike derailleur gearing for commuting? I agree, and think it is entirely unnecessary unless major hills are involved. The problem with serious hills, is that - at least for me - no IGH is good enough; I want a touring cassette."

    Not at all. My hunch is that a *single* (36t, 48t or 52t)in front is enough for most commute/utility scenarios. I don't rule out a rear der and of course an appropriate cassette, indeed, I encourage that...what better way to get the most out of the simplicity of a single in front?

    I don't like IGH.

    Touring is whole different thing; I wrote about commute/utility.

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  33. Oh come on, stop it everyone.

    Derailer efficiency is in the high 90%.

    Can you really feel that missing 1%?

    Maybe stop cross-chaining.

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  34. Everything is relative...for EG: your saying 38 x 17 is a "low gear ratio",on my 29"er mtn bike (Vassago Jabberwocky) I run between a 32 x 18 and a 32 x 24 for steeper trails (but that would be madeningly low on commutes).

    Frame design would obviously play a big part in what you speak of,but it isn't the entire telling of it,mentality also plays a role...I have both a Jabberwocky (SS) and a Bandersnatch (2x9) from Vassago,and they are pretty much sister bikes with new identical geos,same size and very similar spec,though one is geared,one is SS. I seem to be faster on the SS though,overall,regardless of what trail I ride,hilly or not.

    Why? My best guess is the mental part; I know to keep my momentum up on the Jabber because I can't downshift and spin,where-as I catch myself sitting and spinning hills I could clear easy-enough in a much higher ratio while on the Bander. My 2 cents and opinions,anyways (and that doesn't make em right or other's wrong,just makes em mine ;) ).

    Very good read,looking forward to reading more if you determin it is indeed "worth investigationg" :)

    Disabled Cyclist

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  35. V, A few good points here, and as a person who rode single speed bikes for many years before it was fashionable; I concur with allot of what you said, but as other's have pointed out there are other factors. Regarding fitness level, I think it's much easier for a person who has the muscle memory for cycling established and a moderate fitness level to approch and sometimes surpass the their speed on multi-speed bikes on a single speed, but many times this feeling is just that "a feeling", kind of like the feeling of a car with allot of torque Vs one with allot of horse power. The single speed will have more torque. Fatter chain, no chain slack, more power transmits it's way through your legs to the bike to the ground!

    I really think single speed lend themselves most to rides up to 8 or 10 miles (depending on Terrain) over that and I find rider fitness level balanced/Vs. rider fatigue will start to favor the bike with gears.

    After many years of riding single speeds I have mostly gone to multigear bikes; first, Internally geared and now bikes with derailleurs. I liked the internally geared hubs, but the weight and lack of quick releases eventually wore me down.

    I still regularly ride my single speeds though and enjoy them every time!

    MASMOJO

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  36. I share your experience, but for me, it's not related to the shifting system (except internally-geared hubs that have awful efficiency). I have ridden fixed-gears, single-speeds and multi-speed bicycles. On the best multi-speed bicycles, I rarely shift, whereas on less-than-ideal single-speeds, I constantly wish for a different gear. Clearly, for me, the frame is what matters, and how it flexes in response to my pedal strokes.

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  37. The deraileur is probably the least draggy component of a deraileured bike. It's mostly the chain: The changing directions of the chain itself as it goes through the deraileur. The deflection of the chain causes friction from link to link.

    and yes! you can REALLY feel it. As I said, I get about 10 gear inches for free.

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  38. When riding in the Netherlands I noticed how many different riding positions people seemed to use when riding their singlespeeds. I would second the hypothesis in some of the comments above that adjusting position and cadence can have a pretty big effect.

    I enjoy singlespeed and I can't wait to try a kickback hub to see whether that additional gear is just enough to extend my range/save my knees.

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  39. Just to be clear, I am comparing single speeds to multi-geared hubs, not to derailleur gearing. On most classic city bike frames derailleurs are not an option anyhow.

    Massmojo - That is an interesting idea about the desire for gears becoming more pressing as the milage increases. When I rode 100 miles on an upright Bella Ciao bike (fitted with a Shimano 7-speed hub which I happen to particularly dislike), I did not initially switch gears, but began to do it more in the course of the ride. But unlike the bikes I am criticising, the Bella Ciao actually does respond adequately to gear changes, so I was not constantly shifting just because it had a multi-speed hub.

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  40. Ok, I'll take a stab at it: efficient frame, go up good.

    Light bike, must pedal a bit. Breezer heavy, go down fast.

    - Cave man synopsis.

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  41. I find it interesting that lots of commenters say they're actually *thinking* about what gear they're in while on a multispeed bike. This is absolutely not my experience--the only time I ever really have any clue what gear I'm in is if I happen to be at the top or bottom of the front or rear derailleur's range.

    Aside from those occasions, I basically shift automatically according to cadence. I like to think of a multispeed bike as a governor for human effort. A governor keeps the speed of an engine more or less constant under variable load etc [1]. Gearing is also used to keep the speed (the cadence) of the engine (the rider) relatively constant under conditions of variable resistance (i.e. wind, hills etc).

    I haven't really done any amount of single-speed riding, but I really think that a big part of what makes a singlespeed (or a bike with a narrow range of gears) fast or efficient has a lot to do with the reset of the bike.

    I have an old Raleigh three-speed (48t/19t I think) that's usually in the 2nd (direct drive) gear. That bike is *very* fast compared to other similar bikes I've ridden, even considering the upright posture and boat-anchor weight. In fact, it's respectably fast compared to any bike I've had except on extremely steep or long uphill stretches or on downhills long or steep enough that I spin out.

    I don't know enough to guess at just what the difference might be (stiffness of frame? bike-specific body position with respect to saddle, handlebars and pedals?), but there are plenty more things than just the drive train that could be responsible.

    [1] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Centrifugal_governor

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  42. I think Bostonbybike has commented very well on this subject. Although I haven't ridden single speed, I wouldn't be able to handle my hills with a single speed without a really low gear and then it becomes useless for the other parts of my ride. I think position is the biggest thing and I also think another commenter stated that it might just be a "feel" and not actually be faster, whether it is position, torque or whatever, we often think things are faster when they are just different. My winter has a really awful feeling that I have to change but I don't really notice taking that much longer to cover the same distance as my more comfortable bike. I think a test is in order with quantifiable results...Jan Heine and BQ could probably set-up a good one.
    Peter

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  43. V @ 6:09

    Whoa.

    We're talking IGH only, are we? You are aware that IGH hubs are expected to be less than 100% efficient?

    Just spent a few minutes googling around to see what the expert engineers say - Rohloff boasts their hubs lose only 4% of input power to heat and friction, claims that ordinary 7spd hubs lose up to 10% of power except in the direct drive gear. Ten per cent sounds high to me but no question a dirty or worn or imperfectly lubed hub loses that much. More interesting is their boast of losing 'only' 4%. A derailleur system losing 4% would be a crusty nasty system. Fixed gear of course loses very little.

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  44. Anon 7:00 - Oh yes, the inefficiency of hubs is part of it to be sure. But frame design contributes as well. Hub inefficiency alone could not account for Bike A feeling *better* as a single speed than Bike B feels as an 8-speed.

    Peter said...
    "Although I haven't ridden single speed, I wouldn't be able to handle my hills with a single speed without a really low gear and then it becomes useless for the other parts of my ride..."


    I think the first part of your statement sort of negates the second. How do you know if you haven't ridden single speed bikes? You are probably judging by a multi-speed bike you currently own (which is already difficult uphill - so how can a single speed be easier, right?), which sort of supports my point. Oddly, I've ridden single speed bikes that are easier uphill than multi-speed hub bikes that, on the surface, appear to have similar upright positioning. Looking at the Paper Bicycle's specs I would never have dreamed that it would actually be enough bike for my daily commutes, and yet it is. Bikes are mysterious.

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  45. Very interesting, I experienced something similar lately when switching between my road bike and track bike. Both lugged steel, when running similar gearing the road bike on 52 / 17 and the track bike on 52/ 16. Strangely enough I find the track bike easier to spin. both have 170 cranks. could it be the lack of derailleur friction. Though that may not apply to internally geared bikes which I've found sluggish

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  46. I live in a hilly area and while the bike I ride has 5 gears, I almost always ride in the lowest gear. Going downhill, there's no need to pedal, going uphill, the low gear is all one needs. On the flat parts of town there's a limit to how fast one can go in low gear, but it's still a fairly rapid pace.

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  47. I have a derailleur geared bike (1x5) that I use as my daily commuter. I find that I spend 99% of my time in just one of those gears (4th, approx 75 gear inches).

    But honestly, as much as I think this is an interesting discussion, the only valid experiment is to try different gearing setups on the *same* bike. i.e., ride one bike as a single-speed for a month, then swap out the wheel for derailleur gearing, ride for a month, and then swap out the wheel for an IGH. And make sure that all three gearing setups have at least one gear that is very close if not identical to the other setups in terms of gear inches (i.e., all three setups should have a gear of identical ratio, preferably the "go-to" gear that you spend most time in). That's really the only way to do the experiment. Otherwise, it's really all hand-waving. Remember that from bike to bike you not only have frame flex differences, you also have geometry differences, and different rolling resistances due to different tires. You must separate these variables to come to any meaningful conclusion.

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  48. Interesting series of posts. I commute to work anywhere from 8 to 30 miles RT on a fixed Surly Steamroller with 35 mm tires, 48/16 or 48/18 in the snow. I find my sense of being connected to the bike and the road feel so good whatever extra effort there may be doesn't matter to me. I like to stand up every once in a while to climb a hill and I find consciously pulling up with one leg while pressing down with the other to be like dropping down a gear or two if I need more power. It is easy to keep the machine in the kind of perfect tune that makes riding a joy.

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  49. somervillain - I think you, as well as a few others, misunderstood my point somewhat. It is not about how any given bike will feel with different gear set-ups, but precisely about the fact that frame flex and geo differences can make one bike more versatile set up as a single speed than another bike would be geared. In other words, make the right kind of frame and gears are unnecessary in an urban environment that is not outrageously hilly. A single speed *can* be versatile, if the bike is built right, is basically my point.

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  50. I just scanned the comments here due to being in a bit of a rush so I hope I'm not repeating things a dozen others have already said, but...

    My singlespeeds are "faster" in many situations than similar geared bikes that I have. In my case it's because when I have a choice of ratios I'll usually choose a "lazy" one, on the singles I have to give myself a little whip to reach and maintain the sort of cadence that feels good. Those are also the bikes that are most likely to have the best tires, the most efficient position and get ridden a bit more aggressively as my other bikes are compromised a little more toward the comfort end of the spectrum. I know it's my set-up choices and attitude toward those bikes that make them what they are but I still find myself thinking that "singlespeeds are faster".

    Spindizzy

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  51. I understand now a bit better what you are after V, and I am in that position of having converted a single speed city bike to a 3 speed IGH. I would say the conversion is a bit of a disappointment, it was not really necessary but was part of a larger upgrade (wheels and brakes which were necessary), the frame of the bike seemed suited to single speed and was perfectly adequate, although I can get further up the hills now when they are steep. I do feel as though I have lost some power but that is a subjective perception. The bike is also heavier as a result of the new bits too ...
    Vicki

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  52. I have three words for you: "The Little 500." That's the bike race immortalized in "Breaking Away," in which Indiana University students competed in a bike race around a flat cinder track (NOT a banked velodrome) on single-speed bikes with coaster brakes and NO foot retention of any kind. The bikes are, in fact, 98% identical to one another, in order to level the playing field. They are monsters on those single-speed bikes! Whoever designed them, way back when, must have really nailed the geometry, frame flex, and planing.

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  53. This whole conversation is dangerous for me. I've been contemplating a single speed lately, but talked myself out of it for fear I would miss all those gears that I have on my other bikes. I'm now re-considering...

    Actually, the more I ride, the more I realize that gearing is complicated. It's not just the number of gears, but the range. And it's not just the range of gears, but something else... I'm a long way from understanding what works and doesn't work in a bike, but I do love experimenting.

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    1. don't think I would purposely buy a single speed or convert one from a working geared bike, but I have found it an excellent way to get a few more years out of a bike that the derailler and shifters are broken or beyond repair on without spending a bunch on it. I am 67 years old and ride 30 miles each day, mostly in hilly terrain but on roads. I find that overall my single speed bikes are just as fast as my geared ones if you average it out over the whole course. a geared bike will definitely propel you faster downhill if you want to upshift and pedal hard, but to me if I am already coasting what is the point? at my age I am not into racing anyone, I have thirteen bikes at present, two are single speed mtn bikes and I find they are what I ride the most. if you see me pushing my bike it is because I have a flat, not because the single speed can't make it up the hill.

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  54. Two things:

    1) While I live in San Francisco, the land of crazy-steep hills, I still find myself riding in just two or three of my bike's twelve gears. Perhaps a single speed might actually be an option for my middle-aged self.

    2) May I just say that virtually this whole thread is unusually well-written? I think Chromatonic and Richard R. set a strong pace early. Makes me wonder if anyone has yet studied the psychology of blog comments, and how one sterling comment might beget others. Of course, Velouria herself sets the table and the tone here at Lovely Bicycle.

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  55. I agree that a single speed can be versatile enough for moderately flat land, and for most normal kinds of riding. The only time I wish I had more options is when I have a trailer hooked to my bike, a Motobecane mixte with a 3-speed hub; I find myself wishing I had any kind of lower gear. I know that's somewhat off topic, but I'll note that the design of the trailer, if very good, can make it feel like you're towing nothing, even when you're carrying a few hundred pounds if stuff.

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  56. Velouria

    I have been very tempted to try single speed. But, I can't play around with the added expense of converting or buying new at the moment. My kids and family come before my bike experiments. I guess I am basing it on my "weak-leg" days when I need a 24 x 13 to get up my short steep Drumlins and then I have long stretches of rollers or flats. I do better on other days, but for the most part I need a really wide range to cover my commute. I need to preserve my weak knees. I get your point that bikes are mysterious and I might be surprised by what I find but at this point in my regular bike commuting, position seems to make a bigger difference. Sorry if I caused the thread to get off-track, but I thought it did have something to do with what we "feel" bike to bike.
    Peter

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  57. A single speed is always my "Go to bike". If I were to have only one bike it would be a single speed.

    The drive line efficiency is so much better than a geared bike, that it makes up for lack of extra gears in almost every situation.

    It helps to have the frame set a good one and have a desirable seating situation too, however I think that if I were riding a crappy bike, that it would work better as a single speed.

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  58. XO-1

    Must disappoint you. The Little 500 bikes still have 46x18 gearing, coaster brake, flat pedal, one piece crank. Otherwise they are current production bikes from this years' title sponsor. The frame design changes. Frame material changes.
    Back in Breaking Away days they were Huffys. No Huffy ever planed (unless built by Carlton or Serotta).

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  59. Why Huffys? I thought the Breaking Away bicycles were the AMF Roadmaster.

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  60. Folks, I have a 24 speed road bike that I converted to a single speed, and I ride my same 24 mile route just a easy as with the 24, and I live where it's hilly, but the hills don't bother me at all. I have one hill that with the 24 speed I had to shift to the lowest gear, but now I just stand with the single speed and still get up the hill. The bike is absolutely more efficient as a single speed.

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  61. This "Paper Bicycle" is a single speed yet weighs THIRTY SEVEN POUNDS? That's some heavy paper stock.

    Old steel road frame, any handlebars (position) you want, tires of any width, fenders, lights = no more than 25-30 lbs, tops.

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  62. Why not put the 8 gears on bike x and make sure one of the gears is the same as the single speed ratio. That way you have the best of both worlds. And really, drive train maintenance isnt such a big deal. In fact its fun.

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  63. Tony dadson
    "And really, drive train maintenance isnt such a big deal. In fact its fun."

    No. Really it's not. Not for most of us anyway ;)

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  64. Hello,
    I have just come back from a 22 mile ride, average speed of 15mph on my single speed. i love it. No worrying about which gear to be in for what hill, I just pedal. Not yet had a hill where I've had to get off and push. Completely agree that people are sold gadgets all the time that they don't really need, but are told by advertising companies that they can't possibly live without. My view? Just have fun and keep it simple!

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  65. I just need to comment that a Single Speed's perfect chainline has a lot to do with its efficiency. Crossed chains on geared bikes soak up a little bit of your efforts, not much, but then add in the additional weight of derailleurs and shifters and their corresponding cables. The efficient straight chainline and its lighter weight makes it seem easier to cover more circumstances.

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