Philokukly: why single-gear?

From time to time I discuss the theory of knowledge with my students: this is a branch of philosophy. Philosophers love (philo) knowledge (sophos). By extension, Philoduokuklers love (philo) bicycles (duo-kuklos1). It is the theory of bicycles that concerns me today.

I am sure that Duokuklophiles also love bicycles, but Philoduokuklers – which can be shortened to Philokuklers – also theorize them. They ponder how we can know that a bike is a bike. They explore the various meanings of bikes. They contrast the social construction of bikes with their undeniable (at least for realist philokuklers) material existence. One philokuklical question that has been alluded to before in this blog is ‘why single gear?‘.

Of course, this question presupposes the existence of bikes: it is an example of applied philokukly, concerned not with the essence of bikehood nor with bikes’ possible social construction, but with their impact on – and meaning to – the rider (assuming that they do exist – the rider and the bike, that is).

To elaborate slightly on this applied question: why would anyone purchase and ride a single-gear bike? Gears were invented to make cycling easier and more efficient. Why return to the stone age (or even to the early twentieth century)?

My quest for philokuklical knowledge prompted me to a selfless act2: in early April 2021, I purchased a single-gear bike. I have now ridden it for almost a whole season, and can provide some answers.

What is a single-gear bike?

There is no simple way of defining a bike, let alone a single-gear one. For the purposes of this short piece, a single-gear bike is defined as a bicycle (two wheels, frame, fork, handle bars, seat, pedals, chain, chain ring…) all assembled in a standard way (see Figure 1). Its distinguishing feature is the rear sprocket – indeed, it only has one rear sprocket: no cassette, no derailer, no hub-gearing (see Figures 2 and 3).

Such bikes are of two major varieties. Fixed-gear and free-wheel. The fixed-gear version is such that there is a direct and continuous link between pedals and rear wheel: to go faster you pedal proportionally faster, and to slow down you must pedal proportionally slower. The free-wheel version does not have a continous link between pedals and rear wheel: to go faster you pedal proportionally faster, but to go slower you can simply stop pedalling (and brake).

Bicycle Drivetrains Explained - blog.jans.com
Figure 2: This is not a single-gear drivetrain. Source: https://blog.jans.com/bicycle-drivetrains-explained/

I did NOT purchase a fixed-gear bike3. Mine has a free-wheel (and front and rear brakes).

Figure 3: This is a single-gear drivetrain. Source: https://moosebicycle.com/collections/fixies/products/victoria

What on earth can the attraction be?

There are five reasons I have uncovered for riding a single-gear bike (based upon my experience since April).

1- it is less stressful than riding a bike with gears. There are fewer decisions to take, and no need to think about what the best gear would be. If the road slopes up: push harder or slow down. If the road slopes down : pedal faster or free-wheel. Simple.

2- flow. Since acceleration is harder than on a multi-gear bike, one learns to preserve momentum (when possible). This can be dangerous if momentum is prioritised over safety (of yourself or of other road users), but thinking carefully about trajectory can greatly improve general cycling skills.

3- strength. Riding single-speed (over a season) improves leg strength. As soon as the road rises, I must push. I also tend to ride up hills faster than I otherwise would, in order to maintain a comfortable cadence. This also improves strength (but after a while becomes exhausting…).

4- choosing appropriate routes. However strong I become, there are some hills I won’t get up on my single-gear, and others that I have conquered with great difficulty (but won’t be riding up every evening!). Having a bike with in-built limitations not only gets me thinking about my immediate trajectory, but also about the routes I take to get from A to B.

5 – maintenance. A single-gear bike is very easy to maintain (especially if fix-geared). However, one should not exaggerate the difficulty in maintaining a bike with gears, though it does add cables, springs and moving parts that need adjusting (see Figure 2)…

There are of course some disadvantages, especially when using a single-gear for regular commuting. Whilst it can be nice to push hard and to tackle each rise as a challenge, there are some days when I simply want to cycle from A to B with as little effort as possible (and without taking the long route to avoid hills). Without gears, easy cycling is rarely an option – unless the route is downhill in both directions.

This is an important point: I don’t want to become disgusted with my favored mode of transport. I sometimes need a bike that will be easy on me. My single-gear is unforgiving.

Ascetic Philokuklers will disagree, probably considering search for forgiveness a sign of weakness. Not being a masochist (nor an ascete, for that matter), I stand by my assessment.

The verdict?

Applied philokukly aims to provide practical answers to everyday theory-of-bike questions. So, how to answer the question ‘why single-gear?’ and, even more pratically, how to answer ‘why would I purchase and ride a single-gear bike?’.

If you already have a bike but don’t have a single-gear, I definitely recommend one as an n+1. Choose the gear carefully: I have opted for 46/20 – I spin out at around 30km/h, but manage to get up 6-7% inclines fairly comfortably, 10% at a grind. I can also pull away from traffic lights and stops quite easily. Don’t hesitate to go to your local bike dealer to change gears if your chosen gear is too punishing!

If the single-gear will be your only bike, good luck. It will be great for the days you are full of energy, but you may suffer when you are feeling below par. Unless suffering is your thing – in which case you may be a Philokukler with Dionysian or even Nietscheian tendencies – I suggest you have a back-up bike with a few gears…

1 kuklos appears to mean wheel or circle in ancient Greek. Duo, whilst latin in that spelling, also derives from ancient greek.

2 As a pre-emptive move (in case my wife reads this post), I vehemently reject any and all insinuation that there exist other reasons why I would purchase an extra bike. I only purchase bikes for the greater good. In fact, I have my eye on another one…

3 There is intense debate between fixed-gear and free-wheel afficionados. In a nutshell, the fixed-gear academy consider themselves purists, their steeds being closest to the Platonic ideal. Free-wheelers are Stoic: they recognize that reality is governed by logos and that what happens is necessary: even if the ideal bike is brakeless and fixed, reality (and safety) militate for brakes and free-wheel. This could be the topic of another philokuklical blog.

Published by Richard Shearmur

I am a professor at McGill's School of Urban Planning. I perform research on innovation, on how we locate work activities (in a world where people often work from many places), and on urban and regional economic geography. I used to work in real-estate, and teach a course on this. I am an urban planner, member of the Ordre des Urbanistes du Québec and of the Canadian institute of Planners.

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