The Zen of Single-Speed

"Bikes have gears for a reason," said a friend of mine who is a very accomplished off road rider and while I usually respect his opinion, the phrase struck me as odd. If you can go faster on a geared bike then why would someone choose to limit themselves? What is it about riding with a single chain ring that attracts such a passionate following? Having recently bought a Nashbar Single-Speed CX, I was now a new member of this unusual tribe and I was determined to understand their pathos.

The first place to start was on my new bike. Let me give you a little history. I rode bikes as kid, like most people but it wasn't until I was 35 that my interest was re-ignited by a newly blooming bicycle culture. I started on mountain bikes, dived right into XC racing, Downhill and later BMX racing. Now I've decided to try Cyclocross, hence the new SS. Why does all this matter? My history suggests that I ride a lot but that's not entirely true. My riding history has been pot marked by inconsistency, that is until recently. Ever since I got my SS, I have started riding every day. Instead of reminding myself to get on the bike, I have to force myself to take a rest. Something inside me has changed. I have been bitten by the SS bug.

"It takes me back to when I was a kid on a 20" SS banana seat Huffy riding gravel.
Simple, clean lines, just ride!"
- Jamie Lynn Hruby Granquist

The SS bug secretes a focused toxin directly into the bloodstream. Its symptoms are easy to spot. They include but are not limited to - elation, adrenaline, quirkiness, badassitude and a zen like clarity. I checked Facebook for a support group to see how others have handled these symptoms and still managed to go on with their lives. The group Single Speed or Death offers help to those who have been stung. Their self-description is an excellent summary of the SS philosophy.

"Single Speeding is all about simplicity and low maintenance. The love of the RIDE. For others, it represents a lot more. It may be about rejecting (often high-priced) technological advancements that promise to make us better cyclists. It might simply be boredom, and the need for a new challenge. For whatever reason you have chosen to Ride with just "1 on it", WE RIDE.... SINGLE SPEED OR DEATH!"

I'll admit the "Or Death" part is a bit extreme but I can certainly relate to the rest of it and so could the other 320+ members and counting.

"Rebuilding forks and drivetrains every couple months blows, especially on multiple bikes.
Plus rigid SS'ing is about as pure as the sport gets."
- Stewart Miller

Okay, so we get the philosophy of it. Single Speed is about simplicity, durability, identity and affordability salted with a little protest. We could also focus on lighter weights or performance issues but those come secondary to mindset. Let's dive into the psychology of SS. How can a person with limited options (One gear) be happier than a person who has more options? The answer might be found in the book 'The Paradox of Choice' by Barry Schwartz. In it he argues that we as consumers have too many choices and suffer anxiety over making the right picks. Often times we are unhappy with our decision even if all reasoning concluded it to be the best option.

It appears single-speed riders have found a way out of that paradox by using a method known as voluntary simplicity. This is where a person intentionally reduces their number of choices. This relieves their anxiety and increases the happiness in their lives. Sounds crazy right? Apparently it is very sane. Psychologist Dan Gilbert explains it this way, "The psychological immune system works best when we are trapped." He refers to it as "The unanticipated joy of being totally stuck."

"With each passing year, I find myself descending more and more into minimalism, and it extends to my bicycle as well. The simplicity of a single speed, the honesty of it, compels me to ride this way." - Michael Jones

Perhaps you've seen the TED video about the difference between authentic happiness and synthetic happiness. Authentic happiness is what you feel when your goals are achieved because you got what you wanted. Synthetic happiness is what you feel when you produce a result that you did not anticipate. In both scenarios you end up happy. The great thing is that your brain can't tell the difference between authentic happiness and synthetic happiness.

Why do we have this? Our brain wants us to be happy so it adjusts our worldview to suit the reality we find ourselves in. This happens more quickly when we have less options. This isn't to say that the guy with 30 gears isn't going to be happy but in a strange way, it might take him longer.

So there you have it. That sense of euphoria you feel when pedaling a SS is very real. You can only go so fast because you have voluntarily limited yourself. Thus you are now free to enjoy the journey.

"I'm of an age where I like what I like."
- Jeffrey L. McKasson

I want to thank everyone who provided feedback for this story. I had put up a poll on the Facebook group and within minutes the stories came pouring in. I quoted some of these riders in the above article but there were so many that I had to pick only a few. If you would like to read the rest and learn more about this single-speed community, check out the link below.

Single-Speed or Death!


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