In a sport where we’ve now taken our rear cassettes to eleven, racing on a bike with one gear can seem an anachronism. Yet given any crisp autumn Sunday, you’ll find more and more racers grinding up the hills, and spinning manically on the flats without a derailleur in site. You may even find a few racers intentionally disabling otherwise well tuned bikes, locking them in one gear. It’s not sabotage; it’s just a Phase One Conversion, and the first step into the circle.
This neo-traditionalism doesn’t make any sense. Racing with just one gear is totally illogical, and admitting otherwise after lusting after the latest, lightest, most robotic drivetrain creates all sorts of cognitive dissonance. I’m sure that’s one reason why the single-speeder enjoys a bit of a fringe status within cyclocross, which is on the fringe of cycling, which is on the fringe of reality.
So why single speed cyclocross?
Riding a single speed will teach you to love that momentum that you’re dropping like an anchor in the corners. That downhill u-turn that you brake all the way though, and can still spin out of? Try that on a single speed and you’ll be running out. A new found respect for free speed and a proper racing line will help you in any racing, geared or non.
Yes, this is a pro. It’s somewhat counterintuitive, but its not uncommon to see SSers passing the Multis on climbs. The reason is simple: they’re in a higher gear. The choice is to mash and keep moving, or fall over. With the safety net of a lower gear it’s easy to zone out, rather than focus on putting out all the wattage you’re truly capable of. While it may not be your most efficient cadence, pushing an uncomfortable gear will make you a better rider.
Driving 100 miles each way to race for 40 minutes doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, so why not double up and take on a second race? Many races will let you add on another race for a discount, making opting into the single speed race an economical way to double you racing time. This assumes that you’re at a point in the season, or your career, where you value racing experience and gains in fitness more than the result at a local race. Which should be most of you, most of the time.
I upgraded from a 4 to a 3, because waking up at 4am to race on dewey grass before an audience composed entirely of JD and Diane sucks. It turns out there’s now an easier way – just race single speed. This is usually an open category, (always double check though) so men and women of any category can enter.
So how? Trying out single speed racing can cost as little or as much as you want.
Phase 1 Conversion: Zip Ties
Most every single speed race in New England welcomes a multi-speed bike temporarily disabled via zip tie or some mechanical trickery. The approach is a bit different based on your drivetrain.
The easiest of all:
- Pick a gear. If you’re running a double chainring, I’d usually recommend putting the chain in the larger to increase chain tension.
- Zip tie the shift levers tight to your brake levers. Ensure that they’re tight enough to not allow shifting.
- Cut off the ends.
- Throw the ends into a trash can, or pack them out. I cannot emphasize this step enough.
After the race, just cut the ties. Then THROW THEM AWAY OR TAKE THEM HOME.
Still simple, but you need a screwdriver and a vague idea of how your rear derailleur actually works:
- Put your chain on the big ring.
- Zip tie the left shifter, as with a Double Tap lever.
- Pick your gear in the back, then screw in the low limit screw so you can’t shift to an easier gear. If you’re racing in a reasonable gear, it’s usually plenty long.
- Zip tie the right shifter.
If this doesn’t make sense to you, just show up to the race and find someone with waxed mustache or maybe a single speed tattoo. They’d love to help.
After the race, cut the ties and back out the low limit screw until you can shift into you big cog.
If your geared bike is DI2, you can afford to drop a few hundred more for a dedicated single speed.
Phase 2 Conversion: Bike
Once you’re ready to invest a bit, any old bike can be converted to a true single speed – one cog and one chainring. You’ll then begin to see the benefits of mechanical simplicity, as dropped chains, missed shifts, and skipping gears become a thing of the past. Yes this will mean either giving up gears forever, or getting a second bike. A second bike is never a bad idea in cross, your single speed can always double as your pit bike in a geared race. This single speed can be an affordable option if you have an older frame and a few components to get started. The recipe is simple. Your shopping list will be:
- A non-ramped chainring. This can be sold as a “single speed” or a 1x Chainring. You don’t need Narrow Wide for single speed, but non-NW chainrings are becoming harder to find.
- Single speed conversion kit that includes cog and spacers.
- Method of tensioning the chain. If your frame has a BB30 bottom bracket, an eccentric bottom bracket from Beer Components or Wheels Manufacturing can give you a great setup. A slightly less elegant option is to run a chain tensioner, or even repurpose a rear derailleur. If you’re a DIYer, here’s a great primer from Cyclocross Magazine. Otherwise, your local shop will be glad to source the parts and get their hands dirty on your behalf.
Phase 3: The ‘real’ single speed
These will be machines purpose built, with adjustable dropouts and no derailleur hanger. Do you need this? No. But there are some really cool bikes out there, with most of the major manufacturers bringing at least one model to the table. You can actually roll out on a brand new, disc brake single speed for under $1,000, which is unheard of with gears.
Your choice of gearing will vary based on your ideal cadence, and even the course you’re racing on. General guidance for a conversion is to start with a 2:1 ratio, and then subtract one or two cogs. So this would give you something like a 44/20 or a 42/19. The joy of zip tying is that you can pre-ride and make a decision at the last minute.
If you’re a spin to win type, you’ll go to a larger cog in the back. If you can mash comfortably at 30 rpm, another click down will give you an advantage when it comes down to the sprint.
In New England we’re blessed with the Zanconato Single Speed Series, which will let you dip a toe in the single speed life style, and greet you with a warm, zip tied embrace. Yes, this is New England; there are points, a series standing, and you’ll be sorted accordingly on Cross Results, but the spirit animal of the series is very much the mullet. More from Chip.
You can find races that are a part of the series marked with a Z on our 2015 race schedule.
Team Monster Truck will have zip ties on hand!