26 November 2021

Let's ride a singlespeed!

"When the mathematician would solve a difficult problem, he first frees the equation of all incumbrances, and reduces it to its simplest terms. So simplify the problem of life, distinguish the necessary and the real. Probe the earth to see where your main roots run."
- Henry David Thoreau


I recently converted my Surly Pugsley "fatbike" from an eight-speed to a singlespeed.  After a thousand or so very rode-hard miles in the past 8 years (and having been put away wet more often than not), the original drivetrain components had become seriously clapped-out.  Rather than replace them (at great expense), I decided to just remove them. Best part of this decision: stripping off the no-longer-necessary gears, shifters, cables, and derailleurs shed almost four pounds. Today, the Pugs, and her one 34x22 gear, is revitalized as a bike that is (as it truthfully always has been) an unmitigated hoot to ride!  In a way, it almost feels as though this was how she was meant to have been set-up all along.

I've been riding singlepeed bikes in the forests of northern Arizona for almost 30 years. Not counting a Surly Steamroller fixie, an old Ibis Trials Comp, and an even older Schwinn Typhoon, the newly reconfigured Pugs counts as the fourth legit singlespeed mountain bike in my garage. I dig riding one-speed bikes. Always have. Speaking honestly from experience, I can tell you: geared bikes are lots of fun. Singlespeeds, however, are truly enlightening (pun intended).

Despite her radical weight loss and new svelter aspect, my oldest friend, Derrill, who's never understood singlespeeding and has often vocally railed against it, again wondered why when I told him of my Pugsley's recent transformation? "Why not just ride around in one gear without shifting? I just don't get it." 

Nevertheless, I think he does.  

Derrill's 1950 Willys CJ3A
You see, Derrill's owned a 1950 Willys Jeep for many years. He and his dad meticulously restored it back when we were in high school in the 1980s.  To this day, when he can find the time, Derrill still likes to take his old flathead four-banger out wheeling on long days all over eastern and central Arizona, often in very remote places, bumping along at no more than 4 miles per hour over rocks and logs in his bone-jarring, slow moving, doorless, roofless antique Army truck.

That's because Derrill, at the core of his being, understands something that Henry Thoreau and every true-believer singlespeed rider I've ever met also knows in their heart-of-hearts. And that is: regardless of your means for achieving it, there's something really good for your soul about doing something simple, something analog, something slow, something uncommonly, better yet, unnecessarily difficult. 
34x22=damn near perfect

Inside many of our brains, there's a hard-to-articulate compulsion to undertake a thing that has had most, if not all, of its creature comforts and modern advantages stripped away. A thing that requires you, the operator, the driver, the rider, to muster a great effort, to seek and find a sort of oneness with, or a focus on a particular moment in time as you actively traverse a landscape, endure a set of adverse conditions, without any of the technological aides or advantages others might commonly require.  To be reminded, at the end of the day, after a good ride: I can do hard things.  

There is something satisfying about developing a skillset, a proficiency, an ability that is otherwise nontransferable, in any practical sense, to your survival in the real world.  Let's be honest: in a world where bikes with gears exist, riding a singlespeed bicycle in the woods is kinda stupid.  At the same time, it's also very rewarding to be able to say you did it, that you conquered that arduous task, that you struggled productively to be able to take in the view at a spot not everyone gets to enjoy and that you arrived at that place the hard way, that you did something which reminded you that, at least for today, you're alive and your heart is racing and you feel vital and alert and attenuated, at one, albeit sometimes all-too fleetingly, with the world around you.

Introducing: the Pugs SS
The older I get, the more I am compelled to contemplate and appreciate these moments.  I think that's because, as I find myself aging, I'm beginning to better understand that there will surely come a time when decrepitude will catch up with me and I won't be able to do such things any longer.  Moreover, as I've watched in recent years several of those who have been dear to me pass away, I have become more aware of the inevitable fact that there will come a moment in time for me when, quite simply, I will cease to Be, and that opportunities for me to be reminded so vividly of being alive will end. 

Like Thoreau said, "I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived."

Was Thoreau a singlespeeder?  I believe he was, if not in actual practice most assuredly he was, nevertheless, in his soul.

I often tell the people that I encounter out in the woods, if they ask me about the singlespeed bike I'm riding, why do you do it, and what is it for, that, "I never learned to play a musical instrument with any proficiency.  And I never learned to fluently speak another language.  But, over the course of my lifetime, I did learn to ride just this one gear really well, and it has always taken me everywhere I needed to go. To me, that has made all the difference."

When it comes answering folks more specific questions about why I'm riding the Pugs SS way out in the snowy forest come winter, I like to add, "Low tire pressure, and a sort of stupidity that's never deterred by your rational brain's entreaties to turn the-f around, both help a lot, too."

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Check out the post post-punk sounds of Sit, Stand, or Push, a song about using all three of the gears on your singlespeed by FLG-local band, Thee Deores.


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Finally, I present to you my real singlespeeder bona fides, all the one-speed mountain bikes in my quiver:

Coconino (SS)

Chester MuTinyman (SS)

Rock Lobster (SS)

Surly Pugs (SS)


May your trails be crooked, winding, lonesome, dangerous, leading to the most amazing view. -- Ed Abbey