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01 Oct, 2014

Experience the Mayhem

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Without changing gears at all, the single speed sub culture has pedalled its way into the South African cycling scene. Raymond Travers spoke to Grant Usher, who is widely regarded as the South African single speed godfather, to try and find out what gets these intrepid riders’ chains buzzing.

I still remember the first single speed rider I met. It was a few years ago and I had just enjoyed another awesome Thaba Trails experience.

As I loaded my bike - at that time a Merida - onto the carrier, a rider stopped near me and asked how my ride went. I turned, glanced at his bike which was also a Merida, smiled and replied that it was a little windy but great.

It was then that I saw that his bike didn’t have a rear derailleur.

“Single speed bru,” he said, obviously noticing my confusion, “it’s the best thing that’s happened to mountain biking since mountain biking.”

He smiled, nodded at my “enjoy your ride” salutation and pedalled away towards the trail start point.

As a relative novice to the sport, I was suitably impressed. I had heard conversations about single speeds at my local bicycle shop but this was the first time I’d actually seen one “ridden in anger”
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I remember thinking that you’d need to be pretty “hard core” to ride a trail like Thaba Trails on a single speed. So, for the next few months anyway, the whole single speed phenomenon was pushed into an unreal, almost fantasy world in my mind.

But according to “Godfather Grant”, single speed is really not that complicated. In fact, these bicycles are probably easier understood than our more “high tech” conventional bikes because, as he says, all you need to do is “get on and ride”.

“A lot of people make the single speed thing out to be ‘hard-core’ or that we are out to prove a point,” said Grant, “but it isn’t really like that. It’s simply a bike choice that we’ve made.”

He even believes that single speed riders shouldn’t even be treated differently at races.

“It’s just a bike at the end of the day. If you want to bring in a single speed category, then you should have a dual suspension category, a hard tail category and categories for each of the wheel sizes,” Grant pointed out.

After that, Grant smiles. As he talks, he works on a – you guessed it – single speed 29er he is preparing for a customer, he tells me more about this cycling phenomenon which is rapidly sweeping South Africa’s cycling nation.

“Single speed is basically just riding for the right reasons. You enjoy riding. You not conforming to anything but you just get on your bike and ride,” he explains.

Traditionally, single speeds have no suspension, a rigid fork and, of course, only one gear.

“Actually, I find that a single speed eliminates all the white noise that goes on while riding a traditional bike,” I stare at him while he explains this analogy. “On a traditional bike when a climb or a descent comes up, you thinking about adjusting your gears or your cadence accordingly. You also wonder whether you should lock out your front fork or suspension, or both. So there is all that noise that constantly goes on in your head.”

In fact, Grant believes that single speed riding can elevate your trail riding experience to another level.
“Because of the absence of all that white noise, you really do just go out there and ride. It almost amplifies that riding experience to the max. From a sensory point of view,” he adds, “you feel a lot more connected to what is going on around you.

“You hear more. You see more. You feel more. In fact I find it connects you a lot more to the trail. You just experience a very different ride on a single speed. And that’s why I love it,” he says as he looks out of the window, towards where I’d worked out the Braamfonteinspruit would be.

I start to think that he’d probably rather be on his bike “out there” than working in his workshop or even telling me of his passion.

“I also find that with single speed that there is no real middle ground,” he continues, as I realise that he probably enjoys talking about his passion almost as much as he enjoys doing it, “people either love it or hate it. Some guys will ride a single speed once and say that it definitely isn’t for them. And then you get a few guys like myself who come from a racing background who get onto a single speed and completely fall in love with it.”

Grant says he has sold off most of his conventional bikes and, apart from a road bike, all his bikes are single speed.

With this type of bike, according to Grant, the terrain dictates your pace and your intention dictates the way you ride. And this also has an effect on the mechanics of your bicycle.
“When you weaving through a tight rocky section on a trail, you always thinking about the derailleur on the right hand side of your rear wheel,” Grant explains, “with a single speed you just don’t have those worries.”

Speaking of which, he says the maintenance costs of a single speed, particularly one without suspension, is considerably less than any other bike.

“If you remember to lube the chain, it is a bonus but if you don’t, it’s not the end of the world. You can ride it, get it dirty and you don’t have to maintain or wash it that often,” he said.
And, according to Grant, any bike can be converted to single speed.

“It’s basically just a spacer and a tensioner at the back, and you’ve converted any bike,” he explained, “so those old 26ers you’ve got lying around that you’d get almost nothing for if you had to sell them. By converting them into single speeds, you’ve given them a new lease of life and, for me, those bikes make some of the nicest single speeds.”

And these converted bikes can also make excellent training bikes.

“I’ve been following single speed for a while now,” explains Grant, “and the trend locally is that guys are buying or converting single speeds for use as training bikes. I’ve found that you get a lot more return on your training efforts with a single speed. You generally get a harder gear than you would normally choose on the climbs and, on the descents and flats, you are spinning at a higher efficiency than you would normally.”

But why go to all that trouble, I think. Why not ride your conventional bike in one gear, which is like riding a single speed?

As if he had read my mind, Grant answered that question too.

“Some guys reckon they can pick one gear and go and ride and think that it is the same thing as a single speed. But the drive train,” he explained, “on a pure single speed is so much more efficient because your chain is perfectly straight and doesn’t have to go through all those jockey wheels.”
“It’s also like the bacon and eggs you had this morning,” he smiled again at my perplexed look, “the chicken was involved but the pig was committed! So if you riding one gear on a conventional bike, it involves you but doesn’t commit you.”

And it’s this feeling of commitment that not only unites the single speeders into a community of their own, but it also creates that buzz that seem to put these riders on a high.

“We’ve often spoken about that feeling,” Grant tries to explain, “it’s a bit like when you’ve decided to do a bungee jump, it’s sort of that moment of surrender. Before the race you obsess about a gear choice but you will have it for the whole day, so you think ‘I’ve got my gear now so I just have to take a deep breath and sort of surrender to the terrain’. That moment on the start line is quite refreshing actually.”
Single speeders normally keep quite a few different gears with them and choose the right one for the terrain.

“It would depend on your strengths and weaknesses and your riding style,” Grant explains, “and it’s difficult to give advice on gears because some like to ride a high cadence while others don’t.”
In closing, Grant also explained the actual difference between flat rides and hilly rides for single speed riders.

“There is quite a large misconception about the perfect terrain for a single speed. A lot of people think it should be flat and smooth but it’s actually the flats that kill you. In a race, or any ride for that matter, you often walk the climbs but you will probably find that other geared bike riders are also walking that same hill. On the flats, geared riders put their bikes into high gears, get into a decent cadence and away they go. With single speed bikes, you don’t want to drop out of the bunch so you need to do mini intervals. You completely anaerobic, going flat out at a high cadence then freewheeling and repeating this to keep with the bunch.”

So single speeders actually like climbs, and the headwinds, because then they are on an even playing field to the conventional bikes.

I thank Grant for his time and walk away from the interview. I find myself seriously considering a single speed, if not for training purposes but so that I can experience that feeling of being at one with the trail.
After all, single speed seems to be the best thing that has happened to mountain biking since, well, mountain biking, Bru!
Raymond Travers

Raymond Travers

Modern Cyclist Editor |

Editor