Single Speeding: Dead As The Dodo, But In Much Less Time
by Andy Corson


Remember me?

Will Meister at is giving it up. He says the website, popular among in-the-know off-road cyclists the world over, is staying switched on but will no longer be updated (much like latin). This, along with some other changes in the landscape of less-than-mainstream-cycling, is evidence to me that The Revolution -- the single speed revolution that is -- has revolved back into nothingness, or at least into meaninglessness. Or maybe just into purposelessness. The site will be only five years old at its very last update and yet its appearance marked the crest of single speeding as a bicycle culture mainstay because it was itself the harbinger of another trend, offroad fixed gear riding, an offshoot response to 'common' single speeding.

Maxim 1: Cool just is. No one can own cool, or make cool.

There have been signs for a long time that things were not as rosy as they once had been. Most obvious of course was the upsurge of single speed 'culture,' starting, as these things do, as a divisive underground scene. It gained steam in part by borrowing from the already dead but lionized punk subculture and soon became a full-fledged fad (just like punk!), complete with it's own faux-Fuck Fashion style and mainstream media coverage (the iconic, ironic, ubiquitous question popping up again and again: why?)

In just a few years it had become a full-blown market niche, exploited (for good and bad) by companies big and small. Debate of the relative merits and shortcomings of single speeds raged on chatrooms everywhere, as if any of it really mattered. Spectacular drunken impromptu hi-jinx had by this time long since become rote expectation at events where single speeding was no longer the noisy red-headed step child, but rather the main attraction. And this, for many people on both sides of the debate, was the black sky of impending doom.

Maxim 2: Cool is as cool does.

Here's how it seems to work: Someone tries something no one else is doing. If it's a decent idea maybe a few other people pick it up and try it. They stick with it because it works, it's fun, it's unusual, and perhaps they learn something new. If people of influence in their circle pick it up even more people will try it.

Any time something gains enough popularity that it draws to itself people who never otherwise would have thought to do something like it, it will begin naturally to reflect cross sections of the greater populace. Yes, you'll awaken some people who will understand it and embrace it, but you'll also get the opinionated attention of unwanted wankers. Inevitably there begins a backlash of complaints about inclusion of people who 'just don't get it,' but as a result this itself prompts subsections (such as off road fixed gear) to sprout up as a response to the new standard somehow no longer being enough. Another example: no one did 24 hour races 20 years ago, let alone SOLO 24 hour races, and now solo 24 hour competition is de rigeur.

Maxim 3: Cool cannot be forced. It wouldn't be cool, then, would it?

I've been part of this single speeding thing for a long time. I can honestly say I've been riding adult sized single speed mountain bikes since before Single Speeding as a category enjoyed any sort of popularity, when even my cyclist friends looked at me funny. But I didn't think it up. I admit I started doing it because of someone else's enthusiasm, and enjoyed rejecting mainstream acceptability and being 'a part of something,' whatever that means. In my defense, I tried it because it made sense to me, and I stuck with it through the good times and bad because I truly enjoyed it. I still do. I have been influenced and have in turn influenced, but by having an opinion I have aided in the decline of the very thing I enjoy by recognizing its virtues and sharing them with others.

Maxim 4: Cool isn't what's popular, it's what is about to be popular. Cool has a short shelf life.

Your mother criticizes you because she loves you and wants you to be a better person. In much the same way, many of the self-appointed fathers of this subsection of cycling have lately been distancing themselves from the very thing they helped launch. Chipps Chippendale of The Outcast, encyclopedia insanica of single speeding, and Hurl Everstone ("if you have to ask...") have both published articles which question the viability of single speeding, reducing it to a platitude, a shadow of its former self, implying that with popularity single speed biking has become sad and regrettable. Mike Ferrentino, of Bike magazine and one of the originators of the once-anti-race Single Speed World Championships, is a bit more upbeat, rhapsodizing in one issue about the sad lack of irreverence in the world of racing and in another issue observing encouragingly the new breed of cycle nuts finding their foothold and creating a new version of the old idea. Gene Oberpriller and Steve Smith, also fathers of The Revolution, have both declared in no uncertain terms that "Single Speeding Is Dead." All this editorializing against single speed culture from the very people who once sought to spread it would be hypocritical if it weren't so predictable. I mean, honestly, what did they expect?

Maxim 5: Cool doesn't die, it fades away.

As its fundamental ideals are compromised, Cool dissipates into invisibility, absorbed back into the system it sought to reject, leaving only the impurities that had attached to it. When conditions are right it will coalesce again, condensing like water vapor on a cold glass of beer.

Here's the bottom line for me: I still like to ride single speed bikes. Almost all my bikes are single speeds. I like not having to adjust derailleurs or buy entirely new shifting systems because my two year old stuff isn't compatible with any of the new stuff. Although I admit I have enjoyed certain elements of the Cool period, such as being on the forward edge of something that clicked with a lot of people, I didn't invent it and I never assumed that doing it made me cool... it certainly didn't. I don't profess to ride only single speeds, but in reality that's the case most of the time.

If history is any guide, one need not look any further than mountain biking. One generation ago the sport didn't even have a name> In the last 30 years it has suffered surges of popularity, criticism, rejection from 'established' cyclists, and undignified martyrdom. It went on to spawn a lot of subsects, including single speed mountain biking. Think about that.

Before the politics of righteousness took over, single speeds invigorated us, taught us by contrast new (old) technical ideas, forced us to reconsider our riding techniques, and has offered mainstream bicycle buyers –- the ones who really keep all this going, after all -- long-asked-for options that are practical and low maintenance.

Single speeding isn't dead. It can't be, because people are still doing it. A lot of people. Rather, it's the patina of cool, so enticing but so fickle, which has faded. But that's OK.

Now we can go back to simply having fun.


Andy Corson is part of the core team at Surly, and has supported from the very start.

Classic 'Why?' piece from Matt Chester.

v1.0 written Sep 2006

Check out the Surly site.
Dodo from the excellent clipart collection at Florida ETC.

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