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What's Up With Single Speed and Fully Rigid Bicycles?
Multiple gears were introduced to bicycling in the 1890’s; front suspension was introduced to mountain biking in the early 1990’s, and full suspension shortly thereafter. Some mountain bikers see gears and suspension as necessary advancements: and yet, like the advancements of aluminum and carbon over steel, many mountain bikers still choose to forego both. Here’s why (and why not).
1. Single-speeds make you a faster rider.
Races are often won and lost on the climbs; two riders otherwise equally matched are distinguished by who reaches the top first. But training yourself to climb can be the least-loved aspect of the sport: it takes the fortitude of a masochist to have lower gears with which to climb and not use them. But when you only have one gear, there’s really only one speed that you’re going to climb a hill: fast. Too slow and tentative, you’ll stall and have to walk. And since bikes are made for riding, not walking beside (don’t tell the teenage boys who can’t seem to manage flat cement when they see a girl), you have to attack the climb, and you have to get good enough to be able to climb the whole thing.
2. Fully-Rigids make an old dog learn new tricks.
Let your attention slip a little when you’re on a fully-suspended bike, or on one with front suspension at least, and depending on the trail you’re riding, odds are you’ll be okay. You might get the baggies scared off of you, but you’ll survive. But you know that root you thought you should try to avoid, but you didn’t? The front tire of your fully-rigid is still stuck to it, if you were looking for it while you’re on the ground. Pick a good line, stay loose on the bike, and become a better rider – or else.
3. Single-speeds make your bike lighter for a lot cheaper.
Some riders pay $425 for a set of (SRAM XX1) gears that are a super-light 260 grams: single-speeders shake their head and count how much money they saved by just getting the one (Chris King) gear at 18 to 52 grams. Same for cranks (Race Face Turbine v. SRAM X9: 100 grams less for the Turbine), derailleurs (SRAM XO: 365 grams combined), and shifters (SRAM XX: 183 grams). Take off cables and housing, and see how much you’ve spent in the last year buying new ones of those; the number of shifters broken from crashes; the number of worn drivetrains replaced for $40 or more. Seems almost silly, doesn’t it?
4. Fully-Rigids make your bike a lot simpler.
Studies have shown that consumers can be overwhelmed with too many options – that happiness grows as choices do, up to a point where more choices actually decreases happiness as stress-levels rise and uncertainty of making the right choice grows. And have you seen suspension these days? More air, or less air in not one but two chambers? More rebound damping? Less rebound damping? More compression damping? Or maybe less compression damping? But wait, are we talking high-speed compression, or low-speed compression? Because you could adjust those separately if you want to. How about bottom-out: would you like to ramp that up more, or less? Oh, crap, I ruptured a seal. Can you send me to Fox for a couple weeks to get repaired? I might be back before the end of summer. Wait, why are you ogling that bike? It has no suspension whatsoever!
How Many Gears Do You Prefer?
5. Why it might not be for you.
The inverse of these great points is also, unfortunately, true: if you overshoot your ability, you can find yourself stuck a long way from home without energy or motivation to get back; constant and unrelenting vibrations from trail chatter can wear out your arms and shorten your ride; there are more stock options for multi-speeds than single-speeds, so odds are you aren’t actually paying retail to upgrade to some of the super-high-end components; and tuneability can give you all the advantages that come with full suspension – including speed and comfort. I would (and have) taken comfort and versatility over weight (both of my favorite rides ever were around the 30lb mark), and I’m content with pure and solitary personal motivation to get better.
Both fully-rigids and single-speeds throw new challenges into the riding experience, and often let you cut a ton of weight, ironically, by not spending money. If you know you could be a better and faster technical rider, but don’t have the motivation, check out those options. Because another thing you get when you ride a fully-rigid single-speed is almost universal – if sometimes begrudging – mad respect. Just don’t hate your bike, because if you do you won’t ride; and when you don’t ride, nobody wins.