Single Speed Mountain Biking: The Nuts and Bolts

Single speeding is a completely different animal when it comes to mountain biking. The simplicity and riding style is unlike any other form of fat tire obsession. While many think they can just ‘not shift’ and get the same experience…they are wrong. The quiet tranquility and momentum keeping riding style of single speeding is unique to bikes with only one gear. Single speed nuts will tell you it is the only way to ride. Single speed fanatics will tell you that every quiver needs at least one. Those that haven’t thrown a leg over one…don’t get it until they do.

What Makes Single Speeding Different?

As I alluded to earlier, single speeding is not just ‘not shifting’. It is a simplicity on the mountain bike that can only truly be felt with the presence of only one gear. You get zero chain slap, zero noise and all focus is on the trail and your riding absent of any thoughts of shifting. Your riding style completely changes as you attack climbs to keep momentum and get out of the saddle to hammer. You don’t have a choice…there is no gearing down to make things easier on yourself. It is just you and the bike on the trail making it happen.

Single speeding also makes you a better geared mountain bike rider by forcing you to take a serious look on how you keep and built momentum on the trail. Since momentum is the only thing that actually helps you one the climbs and flats on the SS, you are able to transfer those same theories to the geared bike. The single speed mountain bike also strengthens your legs and forearms as you are spending more time in your riding on a harder gear and out of the saddle. I can actually tell when I have been off the single speed in awhile on my arms.

Single Speed Mountain Bike – What Do I Need?

There are two basic ways to get into single speed mountain biking.

  1. Convert an old HT mountain bike to a single speed using parts you have laying around.
  2. Buying a new dedicated rig just for single speeding

There is no right or wrong way…just what fits into your budget. The ‘taking the old and making it new’ is a great way to get into single speeding on the cheap and it is a route that a lot of single speeders still take.

Gear Ratios And Single Speeding

Since you only have one gear, choosing a gearing setup for your single speed is very important. Ideally, you want to be able to just clear the hardest climb in your area, but still have enough gear that you are not a hamster spinning in a wheel on the flats and downhills. It is this balance that makes the perfect gearing for your ride.

Around my area, this typically equates to the following gear setups.

  • 26″ Wheels – 32 or 34 tooth front ring w/an 18 or 20 tooth rear cog
  • 29″ Wheels – 32 tooth front ring w/an 18 – 22 tooth rear cog

For longer mountain rides, riders will typically throw on a larger rear cog to accommodate for the longer/steeper climbs, but…on average…that is what you will find on the majority of single speeds in our area regardless of riding ability. The 29ers get an easier gearing setup due to the larger rolling mass of the larger diameter wheels.

Single Speed Setup: Converting The Old Into New

One of the most popular ways to build up a single speed is grabbing that old hardtail in the garage that you never ride anymore and stripping it of the gears. There are going to be several different, cheap items you need to pick up at your local bike shop (sometimes hard to find single speed parts) or online to make this happen.

Cassette Spacers

Surly Single Speed Spacer KitYour rear wheel is setup to handle a full cassette setup. Because of this, you have to buy a spacer setup to take up the extra space and insure a straight chain line. The single speed spacer kit installs on your cassette body of your hub with multiple sized spacers.

The different sizes are included so you can line up your cog with the front ring as close as possible. A straight chainline equals less drag, less chain wear and a more efficient drivetrain. Try to get it as straight as possible.

Buy a SS Spacer Kit Here

Single Speed Chain Ring Bolts

Since you will be dropping the big ring on your crankset, you are going to need shorter chain ring bolts to tighten down the middle ring to the crank without the big ring present. This is accomplished through shorter chain ring bolts.

Buy Chain Ring Bolts Here

Single Speed Cog

Single speed cogs are cheap so you can try out several different options to see what fits you best with your trail conditions. Starting off with an 18T for 26″ wheels and a 20T for 29ers is a pretty good starting point. For riders that are in great fitness, jump up the front ring to a 34T on 26″ bikes and 18T on the rear cog for 29ers.

Note: While it is not required, companies like Blackspire also make single speed specific front rings that are built without ramps for shifting to make for a smoother single speed setup.

Buy a SS Cog Here

Single Speed Chain Tensioner

Single Speed Chain TensionerUnless you find that ‘magic gear’ on your hard tail frame that allows you to run the chain without any tensioning aid, you are going to need a chain tensioner to keep everything rolling smoothly. On single speed specific frames, there are mechanisms setup at the rear axle or bottom bracket to adjust for chain tension. On non-single speed specific frames, you have to have this extra part to take over those duties.

Note: With some frames, you can try different front ring and cog combinations that result in proper chain tension without the aid of a chain tensioner. However, that gear ratio also has to work on the trail, so…in most cases…with the method of bringing your old mountain bike back to life…you end up with a chain tensioner.

Buy a SS Chain Tensioner Here

Converting The Old Into New

Single speeding is a great excuse to dust the cobwebs off that old hard tail. For a minimal amount of money, you can get the bike up and rolling again with a completely different riding style. I love to ride anything that pedals, so I have everything in my quiver from a SS Rigid to long travel DH. Don’t count out the single speed movement as you look for ways to expand your cycling obsession. It may surprise you how much you love getting out on simplicity at your local trail head. It is a different experience.

Next week I’ll get into the options that are available when you are ready to drop some coin on a SS specific frame.

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