Let me say right up front that I have nothing against single speeds (although single speed guy who’s whole existence is tied to his bike is a bit annoying). What I am talking about here is the reputation that they have developed for “training”. Riders who have experienced it will tell you how single speeding made them stronger and ride smoother on their regular bike. As a result of this anecdotal evidence a lot of riders are advised to get a single speed when they think about doing some training.
Here is the problem with this, though. There is nothing magical about single speeding, it simply taps into some training principles and methods most riders don’t take advantage of enough. By understanding what these are you can actually design a much more effective plan at improving your trail skills and endurance.
First, single speeding forces riders to stand up and attack climbs. Since you can’t downshift you have to sprint into climbs and carry your momentum as far as you can. When that runs out you have to stand up and start grinding. Since most riders are adept at using their gears keep a constant, steady pace while staying seated as much as possible, single speeding forces them to take an opposite approach.
What this does is build anaerobic endurance, leg strength and core strength. Great things to have but none of these things are revolutionary, unless you happen to participate in a sport that traditionally does little to no strength and anaerobic endurance training…oh wait, we do. Single speeding does nothing for you that you couldn’t get from a good strength training routine and by forcing yourself to stand up and attack the trail instead of always using your gears to make things as easy as possible. Like I told my buddy, I don’t need a single speed to make me stand up and be a man.
The second thing that single speeding does is force riders to stand up and flow the trail when they tap out their gearing. Again, since most riders sit and keep pedaling this forces them to work on trail skills in a way that they never have before. They start to appreciate the fine art of pumping terrain and cornering cleaner since these things add up to less momentum lost. Since you can’t just pedal and get up to speed again, keeping your momentum and “flow” suddenly becomes more important.
Again, you can improve your trail skills through attending a skills camp, reading a book (like Mastering Mountain Bike Skills) or even just looking online for advice on basic stuff like body position. You can apply it on the trial by forcing yourself to stand up and flow the trail instead of just sitting down and pedaling. You don’t need a single speed to enjoy this benefit, just a conscious understanding of what single speeds force you to do that you can on any bike.
One last thing in closing – I admit that single speeding will make you a bad ass. If you’re a boxer so will chasing a chicken, eating raw eggs and pounding on a side of beef (which worked well for Rocky and the boxers of the era he was portraying). Today, though, no one would argue that chasing a chicken is the best way to become a bad ass at boxing. All I’m saying is that while single speeding may be fun and have its place, as far as real training goes there are better, more efficient ways to become a bad ass on the trail than simply logging miles on a single speed.