Tuesday, September 26, 2023

Single Speed Questions - Part 1

Listen to this episode HERE
Recently N.Y. Roll and I did a podcast all about single speed bikes on gravel. You can check it out HERE in case you missed it. I'm not sure why, but that episode has become one of our most popular episodes, quickly reaching Top Ten all-time status in our brief history. Still, we were a bit taken aback by the interest. 

In fact, we've received more than the usual feedback on that episode and so by that we already knew that many of our listeners found the subject intriguing. 

I even received an email from a long-time blog reader who listened in and had a lot of great questions about single speeding in general, and on gravel in specific. I had no real solid answers at first, because some of these questions were beyond the scope of my expertise. So, I did some research. 

Now that I feel comfortable with what I have found out, I am ready to share the results of my research and then add in what I know about some other questions that came up through the days since the podcast went live. So, grab a cuppa your favorite beverage, sit back, and get ready for a long post today! There will be links to go to for supplemental research you can do on your own time as well. Here we go! 

We're going to jump right in the deep end with a question on health concerns or health benefits in regard to single speed usage. Note: These questions were sent in by a reader and have been lightly edited for clarity. 

What impact, advantage or disadvantage, does riding single speed have on your knees?

The benefits and disadvantages of single speed use are not clear-cut.

This is probably the number-one reason most often given for folks either not wanting to give single speed a try, or for people to say that they cannot do single speed anymore. Knees. It is a big concern, but when I did my research, I found that overwhelmingly a few things rose to the surface that many riders don't give a lot of attention to when they go to a single speed set up and try riding it. I'm going to list the issues in bullet point fashion and I will provide links to go to for more information.

First and foremost though, it needs to be understood that any above-average use of joints and tissues can advance the onset of problems and accelerate wear issues. Always consult your physician/care provider before undertaking any extracurricular physical activities above and beyond your normal lifestyle's physical demands. 

  • Initial Position/Set Up For The Rider: The overwhelmingly most mentioned issue that can cause you to have problems with single speed use is rider positioning on the bike. Saddle height is the main culprit, but cleat positioning can also be a major issue if it is wrong. (See "5 Common Causes of Cycling Knee Pain" Arizona Pain & Spine Clinic) Get these wrong and the extra stress induced by single speed usage will get issues to crop up faster than with geared bikes. 
  • Single Speed Use Can Help Build Up Surrounding Knee Tissues: If your set up is correct for your body and bicycle, (we will get into gearing later), then single speed use can be a benefit to stronger knee support since it will build up tissues around the knee, make them stronger, and may help stabilize the knee joint in a more secure way than without that sort of stress being induced by single speed usage. (See "Fixed Gear Bicycles And Knee Health" by Sheldon Brown and "Cycling and its Impact on Your Knees" by The Noyes Knee Institute
  • Overuse Injuries Can Be Mitigated: You can take some preventive measures, (beyond proper bike fitting) to help mitigate or avoid overuse injuries, which are one of the, if not THE most common type of complaint against single speed use. These measures include, but are not limited to, the following: Choose a reasonable gear ratio (More on this later) Go easy on the hills and downhills (if fixed gear). Walk longer/steeper hills. Stretching before and after exercise. Employ proper technique (Use your core, arms, glutes, etc) Maintain efficient pedaling as much as possible (Use momentum) Get into a state of physical fitness before attempting a heavy diet of single speeding, and then maintain that fitness while employing a single speed in your cycling routine. Finally, be cognizant of weather! (Wind) (See "Are Fixed Gear Bikes Bad For Your Knees? (The Truth)" by Brooklyn Fixed Gear)
  • Go Easy To Start Out: Jumping right into the deep end by trying a single speed out and doing your regular geared routine/routes is definitely not the way to do it. As they sat, "Baby steps!" One of my sources stated that "Overuse injuries most likely occur when an athlete changes the mode, intensity, or duration of training." So, don't go out and pile on a few long single speed rides in the beginning if you want to be successful later on. Patience Grasshopper! (See "Cycling Knee Problems" by the Chester Knee Clinic & Cartilage Repair Center)

How do you know if a bike or frame can be made up as a single speed? 

Most single speed specific frames have a built-in tensioning mechanism

Actually, any bike can be ridden as a single speed. Just don't shift! But seriously, almost any bike can be modified in some way to be a single rear cog, no shift bike. 

Even a derailleur bike can be made to be a single speed by using the rear derailleur as your chain tensioning device. That said, there are opinions which say that you are not going to get a real "feel" for single speed unless you use a frame designed especially for that purpose. That's debatable, but I will say it is easier to just get a single speed and be done with it. Plus it is a level of commitment that might just motivate you enough to be successful at the venture. 

Now let's say that you are thinking about piecing together a single speed build. Then you will need to be looking for a certain type of frame that has the ability to position the rear wheel in the rear dropout in several positions. Most of the time this will be a "horizontal" drop out. 

The forward facing slotted rear drop out on this frame means it is SS ready

Check out the frame to the left here (or above if you are on a phone/device). It is my Black Mountain Cycles Monstercross frame and fork when I got it in 2011. 

Note the rear drop outs are facing forward slots. This is a "horizontal" style drop out which would allow you to position the rear wheel in several spots, of course, altering the wheel base. But, and most importantly for this discussion, it allows you to "tension" the chain for a single speed set up! 

Move the wheel forward in the drop out and this slackens the chain for wheel removal. Slide it back for tension on the chain for riding. Make sure to use a bolt-on wheel or a quick release wheel with an internal cam mechanism like that found on most Shimano skewers. 

If the slotted drop out faces the opposite direction, as with most older Surly frames, it is then called a "track end", "rear fork", or just "track drop-outs". 

Another example of a single speed tensioning system.

An example of an eccentric bottom bracket which allows for chain tensioning for SS set ups.

An example of a "swinging drop out", Salsa Cycles' Alternator Drop Out. This can be used as a single speed also.

I may be missing something else out there, but the idea is that either the rear wheel has to be "moveable" in terms of how it is fixed to the frame or the bottom bracket is an eccentric allowing the bottom bracket to be rotated in an elliptical orbit which tensions/detentions the chain against the rear cog. There is an elliptical rear hub, the White industries ENO hub, but that is pretty niche. 

That's enough for today. Look for Part 2 of "Single Speed Questions" to post tomorrow.


Phillip Cowan said...

Great post! Love my single speed. The single gear is not the handicap some people think. Ironically my SS has the highest JRA speed of all my bikes lol.

Carson said...

I'm 50+, weigh 250+, and have a torn ACL in one knee and cartilage issues in the other. I started riding single speed and/or fixed gear, almost exclusively, in 2019 and have never had any problems. In fact, my knees have never felt better. My primary bikes are a track bike with flip/flop hub, gravel/urban bike with flip/flop hub, and a 29+ MTB setup single speed. I will add that I tend to run fixed in winter and free wheel in summer or if there are lots of hills. Many people warned me of knee issues due to my weight, age on a single speed bike, but I've found single speed to have the opposite effect for me. So I'd say, if you're interested, try it, you might be surprised. One last thing, I actually like fixed gear over free wheel as bike momentum keeps the cranks turning, which seems to make pedaling easier. That may be more perceived than real, but it's something I've noticed, especially on paved surfaces.

Guitar Ted said...

@Carson - Thanks for the encouraging comments! I appreciate you. Good luck with the knees and happy single speeding to you!

Exhausted_Auk said...

I try to avoid frames for single speed that combine track dropouts with a rear rim brake. The reason is that any adjustment to the rear wheel position (e.g. switching a flip-flop hub to a different size cog) also requires an adjustment of brake pad position. Instead, I prefer a forward facing, semi-horizontal dropout, where the dropout slot is at about the same angle as the rear brake caliper. However, good luck finding a frame with forward facing rear dropouts and track (120mm) hub spacing!

Skidmark said...

Greets GT, I initially feared pedal strike riding fixed cyclocross off-road, but after occurring (often enough) I find the bike just pole vaults up n over with much less abruptness than the same pedal strike on a freewheeling bike.

MG said...

It's cool to see so much interest in single speeds again. I dove head first into it about 20 years ago, but put it down for several years, before building up both flat and drop bar SS bikes a couple years ago. I remember why I love it so much. It's the perfect way to turn off your brain and simply focus on the ride.

Thanks for sharing your considerable knowledge on the subject, Brother. Cheers!!

Guitar Ted said...

@Exhausted_Auk - Yes, you are right about the brake issue with track ends. I admit I have not seen a 120mmOLD rear frame with horizontal drops.

Guitar Ted said...

@Skidmark - Ooo! That sounds dangerous! Please be careful out there!

Guitar Ted said...

@MG - Thanks Brother!!

R said...

The niche within a niche (ss fam). glad you mentioned that 'all bikes are single speeds' - this is the best way to learn if ss'ing is right for you - take rides on your current bike, but refuse to shift. after enough rides like this, if you want more - you know what to do. one other note, regarding knees - for me, the temptation to always push a harder gear (to speed up just a bit) is ever-present on a geared bike (leading to sore knee joints after long rides). on my single speeds - i'm forced to take what the road gives me; sometimes that means you're just going to spin easy for a few miles (and much less wear on my knees). not to mention you're standing on your pedals more often (using more body english to get up the hills) as opposed to seated grinds. i'm glad there's still weirdos out there like us.

Guitar Ted said...

@R - Thanks for the comments. I appreciate you!