Single speeds aren’t magical…

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.

-James Wilson-

Social Comments:

WordPress Comments:

  1. biff says:

    Singlespeeds are fun. Training is the last thing on my mind when i ride mine.
    I don’t think you should confuse the bike with the rider.
    There as many reasons why people ride what they do as there are riders.

    Your last sentence is spot on though so I see where you’re coming from.
    If someone does want to chase bad chicken ass do respect their decision :O)

    Reply • July 5 at 2:37 pm
  2. William says:

    First, I am a self identified singlespeeder. I love to stand to climb, I love to coast and pump terrain once spun out, and my performance is good enough for me and my riding group on a singlespeed as compared to riding a geared bike.
    That out of the way, people ride singlespeed for three reasons in my experience. Neither of them has anything to do with training. There are the extroverts who love the attention, they will almost always find a way to work their singlespeed awesomeness and how much better it is to ride with only one ration into conversation. Then there are rustics, although it may not be the best term, who claim they don’t like the extra maintenance, weight, complexity and cost associated with standard bikes. The third group is the mystics, it’s just fun for this group and they don’t sweat the of what gear, how many climbs they clean, etc.
    I don’t know a single rider using a singlespeed bike who does so for training purposes so I find it difficult to identify with James on this post.

    Reply • July 5 at 8:02 pm
  3. deciamte says:

    i love my single speed, its a challenge..been riding it 2 years

    Reply • July 5 at 10:37 pm
  4. dblspeed says:

    Don’t understand the SS mystique as well, I find it a bit annoyingposerish; but I ride SS most of the time, I don’t live in the mountains, I can pack more exercise in the little free time I have, there is less wrenching required, flowing comes easier.

    Could I get the same results with a regular bike? Yes, but it would take me more time.

    SS is no magic for me, just a more convenient way to ride and get results.

    Reply • July 6 at 6:11 am
  5. jeffB says:

    Here`s a funny SS example that shouldn`t hold water, but does;

    I`ve got a friend who is VERY fast. I`ve got to be 100% on my game, giving everything I have to keep up with him on his geared bike. When he get on his (rigid. Yes, rigid) SS bike, I can`t stay on his wheel to save my life. He`s so much faster on that rigid SS it`s almost comical. And yeah, we`re talking some rough, technical terrain.

    Reply • July 6 at 12:35 pm
  6. Paul says:

    Well….yes and no.

    I started doing my reasonably hilly 15k commute to work on a single speed and it sure as hell helped my riding on the dirt. Then I started doing the DBcombo workouts and that helped even more. Then I started commuting on a geared bike and kept doing the DB combo workouts and my trail fitness and strength went down.

    So I say single speed commuter = good, strength training also = good. Both together = excellent!

    Reply • July 7 at 12:48 am
    • bikejames says:

      @ Paul – kind of what I’m talking about here. You could have simply not shifted gears on your geared bike and accomplished the same thing. What happened was you started to use the gears to make life easier which will result in a fitness decline. If you used the gears to make life harder (like shifting up to pedal up a hill in a harder gear or to remain standing and cranking on a flat or downhill) you would have actually seen an increase in your fitness levels.

      Geared bikes can be used to make life easier to to attack harder – understanding and taking advantage of that can actually make a geared bike a better training tool.

      Thanks for the feedback, though, and I’m glad the DB Combos program has helped you out as well…

      Reply • July 7 at 8:25 am
      • Wyatt says:

        But James, you are saying here that SS isn’t more effective as a training tool, and yet you describe a way to get more gains as a rider by using a geared bike as a SS. Therefore, riding in a single speed is in fact a way to train that is qualitatively different from using multiple gears. Which kind of nullifies the whole notion that SS bikes aren’t effective training tools.

        Reply • July 9 at 6:04 pm
        • bikejames bikejames says:

          I never said they couldn’t be effective, I just said that they aren’t magical which means we can point to why they are effective. I’m not saying there aren’t some benefits to riding a SS, just that the main benefits come from the forced standing pedaling, use of momentum and high tension cardio, which are giant weak links for most riders.

          Reply • July 11 at 4:57 pm
  7. Sam says:

    I ride muddy UK trails all winter on my SS. I see it as a good way of getting the most out of every ride, when the weather really want me to stay at home, and a way to keep riding in conditions that wreck drivetrains in a matter of hours. I never used to use the SS on group rides because I was worried about keeping up, but now I can keep up with everyone else (on rides less then 3hrs) and I’m never last up a hill even if I get off and push.

    I am a great believer in James’ programs and strength training as a whole but if you can work on it while riding as well as in the gym surely that has to be a good thing.

    This winter I’m looking forward to having more off the bike time for my strength training but I will still be ragging the SS around the woods at least once a week.

    Reply • July 8 at 12:07 am
  8. In honor of a singlespeeder who was visiting from California, I spent a week in my middle ring and middle cog. It was:

    1) Faster on the climbs, because I had to keep the gear moving.

    2) The same on the descents, because I sprint at a high cadence then pump anyway.

    3) A good way to find strength I didn’t know I had. Now I’m pulling taller gears with more confidence.

    I suppose any gear is a good gear, when used in moderation …

    Reply • July 16 at 8:34 pm
  9. Steve says:

    It is true that you can force yourself to do everything on your geared bike that you have no option but doing on a single speed. But, in my case, it is true that when I have the easier option I take it. It is for this reason the single speed helps with my fitness.

    Reply • August 20 at 2:42 am
  10. Scott says:

    Most people are not that diciplined unfortunately. Admittedly I’m not and if I ride my geared bike and I find myself reverting to down shifting when I shouldn’t. SS’s are a pheonminal training tool in my opinion and many others. It really helps you work on your high rpm cadence smoothing out your pedal stroke and also slow grinding for increased leg, stomach, and arm strength.

    Reply • October 22 at 4:28 pm
  11. Rustic-Mystic says:

    While I agree with the basic premise that SS bikes are not magical training aids, I beg to differ with the point that choosing to not shift is the same as riding a SS.

    Sheldon Brown said it best when he wrote:
    “Why ride a Singlespeed?
    Modern 24-27 speed bikes are marvels of technology, and allow a cyclist to select the gear ratio that will make the most efficient use of his/her energy. If what you’re after is getting the maximum possible speed/distance for the minimum effort (and there’s nothing wrong with that!) a multi-speed bike is what you need…but, efficiency isn’t everything!

    If you’re riding for sheer pleasure, or for exercise, you don’t necessarily place that high a premium on output results, as measured in speed, distance or vertical climb. Instead, you may care more about the actual experience of riding your bike. In this case, you may be a candidate for a singlespeed bike.

    Riding a singlespeed can help bring back the unfettered joy you experienced riding your bike as a child. You don’t realize how much mental energy you devote to shifting until you relinquish your derailers, and discover that a whole corner of your brain that was formerly wondering when to shift is now free to enjoy your surroundings and sensations.

    Paradoxically, a singlespeed is, in another sense more efficient than a multispeed bike! While the single gear ratio will not be the “perfect” gear ratio for all conditions, in the conditions which fit the single gear, it is considerably more efficient mechanically than the drivetrain of a derailer bike.

    A singlespeed bike dispenses with the weight of the derailers, shifters, cables, extra sprockets and longer chain. In addition, a singlespeed gear train runs the chain in a perfectly straight line from sprocket to chainwheel, and avoids the serpentine wind through the pulleys of a derailer. You can really feel the difference! A singlespeed is noticeably quicker and easier to pedal than a multispeed bike in the same gain ratio.

    Singlespeed bikes are also considerably more sturdy and reliable than multispeed bikes. There’s no derailer to bash if the bike falls over, catch on the underbrush or to get overshifted into the spokes. The rear wheel itself is a lot stronger than one made with off-center (dished) spoking to make room for a whole bunch of sprockets on one side.” (http://www.sheldonbrown.com/singlespeed.html)

    If you think you need to buy a SS for training, you should probably just spend your money on more protein powder and hire a coach.

    What I find annoying are the people who cannot just go ride for fun because they are ‘training.’

    p.s. I own a geared FS and a SS.

    Reply • September 21 at 12:55 pm
  12. tbaas says:

    SS is awesome!! Started doing it through frustration with gear/derailleur issues in wet/muddy conditions, but now see no reason to ever go back to a geared bike. Riding a geared bike in one gear is not the same as riding a SS. Riding a geared bike in one gear ive found is actually harder (esp if its dual suspension). SS drive train is much more efficent. You wouldn’t think it’d be so noticeable but is. As a training tool, good only in that it takes a way the easy option.

    Reply • June 8 at 6:22 pm
  13. Canardian says:

    Hmmm… Missed the mark James. Sure we can emulate riding a bike with one gear ratio on our geared bikes, but that isn’t the essence of single speeding to most folk. I appreciate that I am both the engine and transmission while out riding my SS. But what I appreciate most of all is that I have no option to bail out and shift to make things easier. It’s like walking a tightrope without a safety line in case you falter. Believe me, your focus and determination to succeed are much stronger when any option to take it easy is eliminated. Sometimes simple is just better.

    Reply • September 4 at 2:14 pm
    • bikejames bikejames says:

      I’m not going to argue that you get a different experience on a SS versus a geared bike, my point is simply that SS make you stand up and pedal more instead of being able to downshift and grind away in the Adult Fetal Position. It is this forced standing pedaling that is giving people most of the training effect that they notice when going back to a geared bike. You don’t have to ride a SS to work on that, though, if you are just mindful about not staying seated when the going gets harder and forcing yourself to stand up instead of just downshifting.

      I’m not trying to discourage anyone from riding a SS or using one for training, I’m just letting riders who don’t have one know they can still apply the SS mindset on their geared bikes.

      Reply • September 7 at 9:12 am
      • Max says:

        I’m not sure exactly why it is but trying to ride a geared bike in a SS manner is nothing like riding a true SS even if you are using the same gear ratio. Is it all mental? I’m not sure but it sure doesn’t seem like it…I race SS 99% of the time. Honestly, I think it just suits my physiological make-up better. Sitting and spinning a small gear up a hill is much harder for me than mashing a bigger gear on my SS. My RPE is MUCH lower on a SS. My body seems to just much prefer the slower cadence. I’m the type that looks at a hill and just wants to get it over with. I don’t have time to be shifting/looking for the right gear…As for using it as a training tool. Other than maybe it helping to teach one to maintain/carry momentum on the trail I don’t see much benefit from it. A Track bike on the other can really help with being able to lay down more power on the flats when running gears. Just my $.02.

        Reply • December 28 at 9:19 am
      • Jeff says:

        Makes perfect sense, James. I’m not sure why anyone is having a hard time getting your point. I see it as you explaining what exactly it is about SS that can make you a better rider.
        BTW, I just got a SS after racing XC all season on my FS. Can’t wait to get out on the trails this summer!

        Reply • May 3 at 10:47 am
        • bikejames bikejames says:

          Thanks, appreciate it and have fun with the new bike!

          Reply • May 7 at 12:38 pm
  14. The Wulf says:

    I enjoy riding single-speed; but I will say that single-speeders are often obnoxious. It’s a shame that what ought to be viewed as an isolated sport finds itself being compared against different disciplines. The arguments about single-speeds improving skill seem more like rationalizations for something that needs no justification beyond that it is both enjoyable and different. Ultimately, you get better at what you ride simply by riding more.

    Reply • September 10 at 5:12 pm
  15. Chris Graham says:

    I think the magic that comes from single-speeding is not rooted in training. I think it’s the silence and simplicity that comes with only being able to think about the trail in front of you. I have multiple mountain bikes, but I will always jump on my rigid SS when I want to clear my head. I also raced a few races last season in the SS category because it’s full of fun-loving goofballs.

    Reply • January 5 at 2:23 pm
  16. Ryno says:

    Well, I have to say that single speeding re-kindled my love for the sport. While building my dream bike (Ti geared bike), I also built up a cheap single speed. I took it out and rode it and absolutely loved it! Even started racing it. After my expensive Ti bike was finished I took it out for its maiden voyage and hated the feel of gears. I found myself slower in my climbs and overall runs..something happened. I sold it promptly and built up two more “good” single speeds. Both of which I love. I find that I climb faster and enjoy the sport so much more

    Reply • April 4 at 9:34 am
  17. David says:

    I have recently bought my first 29er SS. Loved BMX as a child. When my first child came along and he was old enough, I bought him a BMX and myself a 24″ cruiser. Love it, but it’s not big enough to ride longer distances. I have many bikes, but my daily commuter is the 29er SS. So simple. I only have to think about my cadence and my hand positions on the wide bars. Once at top comfortable cadence, I relax. Get in a rhythm. On a geared bike I seem to constantly want to go faster. Change up, change down etc. Not so relaxing. People have said SS brings the simple enjoyment back. I agree. I get my speed fix on weekends with recumbents.

    Reply • June 22 at 6:56 am
  18. pucpuggy says:

    Single Speeds are magical.. you are wrong.

    Reply • October 7 at 3:28 pm
  19. Brian Dotson says:

    So I’m awaiting my conversion kit to turn my FS 2004 Haro XLS5 into a SS. Yeah… a full suspension single speed (lockouts though). Just love this old bike and have next to no cash for anything new so I enjoy what I have – and it seems I’m forever twiddling with derailleur issues and tweaks to combat ghosting, slips, etc. Been riding for nearly 30 years. I ride more than ever and seem to always be tweaking (btw Catalyst Pedals I bought a month back – best investment I’ve done in a long time!) but just like switching back to platforms a couple years back stirred something fresh for me, I think SS might also.

    SS for me is all about getting the most bang for the buck in terms of real $$$ saved on maintenance and in terms of time too. I ride alone a lot so I’m not sweating keeping up with the pack. I don’t ride to train – I ride to refuel my brain and refresh my soul. Being able to reconnect to a simple “shut up and ride” has its attractions for me as well as getting a new perspective on my well worn five or six trails I get to ride. YMMV.

    James knows his stuff – your pedals convinced me of that –

    Reply • October 8 at 5:38 pm
    • bikejames bikejames says:

      Keeping things simple and fun is one of the good things about SS…and I guess that may make them magical!

      Reply • October 11 at 4:26 pm
      • Brian Dotson says:

        Ok – got about 45 miles in on single speed so far – love it. But again, I’ll add that the Catalyst pedals are perfect for this! On climbs I’m able to get out of the saddle with more confidence on the SS (no more concerns of slipping gears) but the Catalysts work perfectly with the SS to enable me to drive through the pedal stroke with more confidence and power than I’ve ever had before. Tons of torque! Great stuff!

        Reply • October 19 at 11:10 am
        • bikejames bikejames says:

          Thanks, glad you’re liking them!

          Reply • October 24 at 8:31 am
  20. Dan says:

    Well I’ve just turned 60 and am in Revelstoke BC to ride and celebrate with my wife and friends. It’s been very interesting for me in the fact that l’m able to ride so much more than in previous trips here. I’m clearing stuff that I’ve never been able to do. My wife is calling me the, “old goat.” I’m having a blast. Talking with my wife about this she pointed out that I’ve been riding my SS way more this this year. I never put 2&2 together but it’s the only thing different I’ve done. I have an old 26 rigid SS with deore hubs that are silent and I absolutely love riding this bike. I’ve tried the one gear thing on my FS but it’s just not the same. I’ve been following you for a long time James and I appreciate all you do and say. Also I absolutely love your Catalyst pedals and have converted many of my friends. Cheers

    Reply • July 21 at 8:12 pm
  21. Chris says:

    I don’t like standing pedaling on my FS, in fact I find it to be soul sucking. I love standing pedaling on my SS. There are steep climbs that I can stand and hammer up on my SS but when I try them on the FS I just get bogged down and loose momentum. Maybe the FS I have isn’t meant for the way I like to ride, which is standing and pedaling, and I should look at a different one. I can do long rides on my SS and feel tired but good, not always the case on the FS. Is there a FS type that lends itself more to standing pedaling?

    Reply • November 2 at 4:46 pm
    • bikejames bikejames says:

      I just run my suspension harder than recommended so I don’t squish as much. I also like a bike with a shorter wheel base so I feel like I’m on top of the bike instead of riding “inside” the bike. Both of these have helped me enjoy standing pedaling more on my FS.

      Reply • November 5 at 1:49 pm
  22. Danno says:

    Good article. I think you can ride a geared bike in the same manor and get the same training gains. When I started riding SS I got noticeably faster and my riding buddy decided to ride his geared bike like a SS and he got faster as well. It’s not the same but you can train like this without a SS. I will say that I am faster on a SS. Finished the Grizzly 100, 30 minutes faster than on my geared bike. One thing not mentioned here is that muscle type plays a big role in this. I was always fast in running sprints and could jump high, so was a basketball and volleyball player in high school and college. Mostly have type 2 muscle (sprinters muscle) where the elite XC riders are all heavy in type 1. My anaerobic endurance is more of a strength than my aerobic endurance which is why I am faster riding SS-style riding. When I ride a geared bike I feel like I’m just sitting and carrying around a bunch of extra weight in the form of dense muscle. On a SS I use this muscle to gain power in the pedal stroke. Add that to the simplicity, confidence you won’t get chain slip, and efficiency of a perfectly straight chain line, it’s a no brainer. It’s also cool getting comments about your overall badassery, for sure.

    Reply • December 10 at 6:23 pm
    • bikejames bikejames says:

      Great points, I agree with the need for extra muscle/ strength for SS riding, which is another reason it is a great training tool for geared bike riders as well (or at least trying to ride more like a SS rider). The more aggressive riding style it needs is also great for having more fun since you have to get out of the saddle and make better use of momentum.

      Reply • December 18 at 10:41 am
  23. Ryno says:

    Ok, I don’t mean to continue or justify my argument, but I have given a lot of thought as to why I am more efficient on my Full rigid SS.

    1.Fork compression-On a rigid fork I can exactly calculate where my tire is and how much I have to lift up to keep my front end light on rough terrain/obstacles. On a suspension fork you have to lift even more due to fork compression.
    2.Suspension Fork bob-Climbing with a suspension fork is the worst and robs your energy unless you have lock out. The only suspension fork I see in my future would have remote lock-out..its the only thing that makes sense.
    3.Trusting your gears whole hardheartedly- Using a multi-gear bike and mashing always has the possibility to slip or drop a gear, not evoking confidence. There are is a climbing technique that no one seems to mention, but I think is of upmost importance. I call it the stall technique. On super hard uphills when momentum is gone you can stall your climb in-between pumps. This lets you regulate your breathing, lets your muscles rest and maintain lactic acid build up. You need to trust your gears for this. As mentioned before from other posters the drive train on a SS a seems to be more efficient than simply staying in one gear.

    Reply • March 29 at 9:01 am

Add a Comment

Your email is never shared. Required fields are marked *


Follow MTB Strength Training Systems:
James Wilson
Author and Professional
Mountain Bike Coach
James Wilson