Commuter Corner: A Summer Fling with a Single Speed

“Is that one of those single-speed bikes?” a co-worker asked me on a recent afternoon ride to the beach at Magnuson Park. “Huh, I don’t get those at all.”

“It is,” I said, surprised by her surprise. “But what’s to get?”

The truth is, six months ago I too was mystified by the Seattle single-speed. Why, in a town this hilly, would you refuse the option of down-shifting? Like my colleague, I was sure style and affectation were the only things driving the messenger bike craze. But at Bike Happy Hour, my friends sung the praises of these simple bikes, told me I wouldn’t understand until I tried it for myself. I denied any interest at the time, but I found myself inexplicably browsing Craigslist bikes over the following days. “Just a little harmless internet window-shopping,” I told myself. Do I even have to tell you what happened next?

That weekend I found a great deal on a tragically hip single-speed with a flip-flop rear hub, and I joined the ranks of the Tecate-swilling cool. It took a couple trips to the bike shop to get things dialed in, but after three weeks commuting to work, the farmers market and just about everywhere else, I was hooked.

Call it cliché, but everything joyous about riding a single stems from its simplicity. There’s an elegant aesthetic to the single-speed, something downright sexy about the teardrop shape of the chain. Singles and fixies are stripped to their barest essentials—classic beauty.

But it’s not just the visual simplicity that gets me. Frequent Cascade Courier and blog readers will recall that I am a self-diagnosed “bi-pochondriac” who obsesses over subtle noises and imagined friction. I experience weird shame about shifting gears on subtle inclines. Riding a single-speed has quieted my mind. When you take derailleurs, multiple chainrings, shifters and complicated cassettes out of the equation, there’s less to fuss over. And there’s less to manage on the ride. Thoughts like “Should I switch gears?” or “Am I cross-chaining?” don’t even enter my mind. I can be completely present on the trail, only concerned with the chirping of morning birds, instead of the squeak of my derailleur.

I’ve spent much of my cycling life chasing the carefree joy of riding my first BMX Huffy. And hitting those open flats on my single is pretty darn close to being ten years old again. I’m overcome with the urge to stand up and pump until my legs burn, to pop wheelies that would certainly taco my road wheels. Simple bikes are time machines, they are fountains of youth.

And the hills? I commute 6 miles each way with an elevation gain of 200 feet. I must admit, it’s among the most single-friendly commutes in Seattle. But when I do face hills, I conquer them much faster and happily than on my twelve-speed. It may not work for everyone, but a little on-the-fly re-routing can do wonders.

My single lit a fire inside me. It’s my manic pixie dream bike—new and beautiful, fun and enlivening (okay, and occasionally frustrating). When the winter wet returns, I’ll hop back on my reliable twelve-speed commuter with its fenders and accessories, but summer is the time for rejuvenation, for an uncomplicated fling with a single-speed.