The Single-Speed: Stupid or Savior?

In which we seek to answer a question about pedal-powered enlightenment.

Single for a Reason: Would you refer to this man as your personal savior?

Survey Says…

We asked our online community to butt heads over the question: Single-speed, savior or stupid? The result was close but as of press time, the majority says the single speed saves.

By Dan A. Nelson

I loved my single-speed bike.
It was a Schwinn. A red Stingray, in fact, with a white banana seat, a 10-inch sissy bar and tall, curving handlebars.  It was 1975 and I was living large—a 9-year-old on a street rod!

The love affair was short lived, however. As a resident of a small farm community in the rolling wheat country of southeast Washington, I quickly developed a solid understanding of gravity and an appreciation for the physics of motion.

By age 11, my carefully horded pool of lawn-mowing and snow-shoveling money was invested in a 3-speed Huffy. With that new ride I discovered something amazing: I could cruise up as well as down steep hills. I’ve never looked back.

Unfortunately, some adults forget that the optimal time and place for single-speed bikes is preteen childhood, in relatively flat neighborhoods.
To be completely fair, I’ll admit that all things have their time and place. As a student of history, I fondly recall those days on the Stingray—it was a great time in my life.  Then again, when I was 9, I also liked to ride on my dad’s shoulders when I got tired of hiking and thought the best thing you could do with girls was put mice in their lockers at school.

Besides feeding a need for nostalgia, studying history allows us to learn from the past. I’m happy to report that I’ve learned my lessons. I no longer try to jump onto my poor old pop (he gets upset when I try to catch a piggy-back ride these days), and I’ve found a few other reasons to appreciate girls. I also understand that adding a couple additional chain rings and sprockets to the drive-train of a bike makes that bike more powerful, more efficient and vastly more comfortable to ride.

Of course, there’s truth in the old saw that those who forget the past are doomed to repeat it. By earning a lucrative scholarship to a prestigious college, my teenaged nephew proved to me that he has a remarkable intelligence. But this boy forgets his history. Al’s favorite pastime is jumping on a bike and racing his friends down the steepest hills in Portland, Oregon. He loves the downhill stuff, yet he clams up when asked about climbing those hills. With a little prodding, however, he reluctantly admits that he and his racing friends rely on city buses to ferry them to the tops of the hills. Why don’t they just ride up? Earn the turns, as it were? With a sheepish look, he admits, “It’s too hard to crank up those hills with one set gear.”

I loved the bikes of my youth, even that single-speed Schwinn with the coaster brakes and the freakishly tall handlebars. I look back at that time with fondness, and absolutely no desire to relive that experience. So let the little tykes have their single-speed bikes. I’ll take a bicycle I can ride up and down the hills.

Dan A. Nelson is a freelance writer who contributes to magazines including Men’s Journal and Backpacker and reports on the outdoor world from his blog Adventures Northwest (

Ed’s Note: We asked the guru of all things single-speed, Swobo owner and author of How to Avoid the Bummer Life ( Tim Parr, for a lovely 500-word essay on the single speed as a savior. This is what he gave us. Upon submitting it, he wrote in his email: “In typical single-speed flavor … you offer me 500 words … but I’ll only use 101.” Now dear readers, we ask you to be the judges.

“When heaven is about to confer a great responsibility on any person, it will exercise his mind with suffering, subject his sinews and bones to hard work, expose his body to hunger, put him to poverty, place obstacles in the paths of his deeds, so as to stimulate his mind, harden his nature, and improve wherever he is incompetent,” so said Meng Tzu, a 3rd Century Chinese Singlespeeder.

And with that, I rest my case.
Adversity is a filter.

Sit, stand or push.
Gears are for pessimists.
I’m rubber and you’re glue…

I’m Tim Parr, 21st Century Nor Cal, just happy to be here.

Vote on our next butting heads at

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