I Feel the Need… The Need for One Speed!


This weekend I built my first single-speed bicycle. It’s not a fixed-gear or track bike — it has a single gear in the back with a freewheel mechanism, and as you can see it has brakes, too.

For years I’ve wanted a single-speed bike just to see what all the fuss is about, but also I wanted to experiment with what I’ve heard are the benefits of single-speed training. But most importantly I also wanted a basic bike that I would feel comfortable leaving locked up in my lobby or even on the street for hours or days on end. My other two bikes are a just little too attractive to thieves, so I can never leave them anywhere for long. Basically I needed a kick-around set of wheels.

Speaking of thieves, this whole project has a little bit of a shadow over it: Over the years I’ve been collecting enough of my own bike parts for this project, but I was missing just one critical piece: the frame. It finally occurred to me that a pile of abandoned bikes locked up in my building’s lobby might be ripe for the picking. There was one bike, an old Nishiki, that looked my size and had the requisite horizontal dropouts. I knew the bike hadn’t been touched in two years, but still I put up several signs in the building’s lobby seeking the bike’s owner. After a few weeks of hearing nothing, I made my move and, yes, I stole the bike.

I like to think I salvaged it, and I did my deed during a high-traffic part of the day so as many fellow residents as possible would see me doing my work (I merely unbolted the rear wheel, which was the only part locked up). But honestly I am still a little afraid that the bike’s owner will someday return from his three-year ’round-the-world hike, or kick his drug addiction, or whatever has kept him from his wheels, and he will see me on a bike whose dents and angles look a lot like those of his beloved Nishiki. Such worries are the wages of my sin, I guess.

I stripped the bike of nearly every part it had, dramatically reducing the weight by replacing the bike’s original parts with my own slightly-higher-quality parts (the original handlebars were made of steel!) or by just leaving certain parts off the rebuild entirely. The only part I’m (literally) stuck with is the seatpost: it seems the previous owner installed a replacement post that was too big for the frame, so he simply hammered the thing into the seat tube as far as it would go. As a result, the seat is immovably positioned about an inch too low for me. Even if I figure out how to remove the seatpost, I’m not sure a properly-sized seatpost would even work anymore since the seat tube seems permanently expanded.

On my first test ride of about 15 miles, I came to enjoy the single-speed’s simplicity, and it was surprising how often I managed to keep up a steady pace without shifting gears. On the hills I had to stand up and hammer, but even then I managed to keep a good pace.

The best part was that with this beater bike I can stop riding, lock up the bike in the park, and then do a few miles running on foot. The toe clips require me to wear normal sneakers, so I didn’t need to pack an extra pair of shoes. And, as I said, I’m not overly worried about the bike being stolen. Hooray!


6 responses to “I Feel the Need… The Need for One Speed!”

  1. hmm that’s sound like a really meaningful way to spend many weekends away. would like to ask you if you have some secret bike manual that you refer to or just clobber the whole thing together using your own wits:P

    i just changed my jobs and my new office is right smack between two train station, not long enough to warrant a bus ride but enough to work up a sweat after a walk. so was actually considering buying a cheap bike to use and be locked up at the stations.

  2. Actually, I’ve been tinkering with bikes for twenty years, so I kinda know what I’m doing. When I don’t know, there is one ultimate guide to bike repair online, a resource that stands head and shoulders above all others. I am speaking, of course, of Mr. Sheldon Brown.

    Sheldon maintains a comprehensive site covering nearly everything about bike construction, repair, and maintenance. For the home tinkerer, his site is the Holy Bible. His article on single-speed bikes was my scripture this week.

    It’s actually a great example of Cluetrain-like customer care: You see, Sheldon works for a Massachusetts bike shop Harris Cyclery, and most of his articles direct readers to Harris’s online catalog for parts and service. In fact, it’s hard to see the seam between his site and that of his employer. So while his site has probably caused thousands of cyclists to try their hand at home bike repair instead of going to their local bike shop, it’s hard to imagine that his site has done nothing but good for Harris’s business.

    So yeah, just go ahead and tinker. It’s a great way to spend time away from the computer. I value my tinker time immensely.

  3. Sheldon Brown is the man. I love Harris… ever been to FGG?

    By the way, this is my first visit. I dig your stuff. Good work.

    – Clay

  4. Thanks, Clay, I enjoy your site as well. What’s FGG?

  5. Ah, found it: http://www.fixedgeargallery.com/

    Lovely stuff. Again, I lack the balls for fixed-gear riding. Or maybe it’s that I possess them and wish to keep them 😉

    But that doesn’t stop me from admiring the fixie bike and those who ride them.

  6. Yeah, i’m a big fan of nishiki bikes. i have lots of photos on flickr