Geared up to the simplicity of single speed

Bike builder James Kennedy explains that single speed does not mean ‘fixed’ and why he believes it offers the solution to urban riding

Last weekend I had a stand at the Spin LDN urban bike show. After the third day of hearing the same misapprehension uttered by people under their breath as they passed our stand I was forced to act. I borrowed some tags off the clothing guys next to us and attached it to each of the bicycles with the message: “I am not a fixie J”

It is a delineation that I feel is incredibly important. The folk understanding of fixie culture is now a very ingrained one. Hipsters and couriers cycling a fixed gear around town are the poster boys – whether they like it or not – of a never popular but increasingly disliked road user; the red light jumping, traffic weaving, peaked cap wearing nemesis of the taxi driver. Like most stereotypes it has weak foundations, but like it or not its image is a vivid one and it is a group that those outside find intimidating and difficult to penetrate. The separation of this culture and what we do is so important to us because cycling is an egalitarian activity. Whether for sport or for commute, cycling’s best feature in my eyes is that it is for everyone, all of the time. It is so simple, so inclusive, so accessible in its barest form that anyone or anything that shrouds this simple joy in mysticism infuriates me.

We sell single speed bicycles. However single speed and fixed gear are not the same. Single speed means that the bicycle has one gear. The term fixie (fixed gear) refers to the state of the hub of the rear wheel. A fixie does not have the ability to freewheel. The pedals must spin at the same pace as the rear hub, regardless of what your legs think about it.

At Kennedy City Cycles we choose to build our bicycles with a single speed freewheel. This means the wheel is able to spin independently of the pedals (to “freewheel”) and as such is just like most bicycles, but with one gear. We do this not because we think it is trendy or fashionable (yes, singlespeed does tend to be the hipster vehicle of choice, but they can be right too – just look at what they’ve done with coffee), but because we think it is the practical decision for a city rider. Gearing is without a doubt some amazing technology, but that doesn’t mean gears are always strictly necessary, especially when a bicycle with a single speed is perfectly capable of handling what the average city has to throw at it.

* A bicycle is lighter with a single speed than with gears. This helps for obvious reasons of propulsion but also when bearing in mind the majority of city dwellers do not live on the ground floor. A single speed is easier to carry up to your fourth floor flat and less likely to get grease all over you in the process.

* Single speed bicycles are massively reliable. Without having to move from side to side your chain is easily maintained and extremely unlikely to ever come off. If it does, it can easily be slipped back on and your can be on your merry way.

* Maintennance of a single speed is simple. The few things that can go wrong, even over an extended period of time, are very simple to fix. Bicycles are one of the few things in modern society which have a major utilitarian value yet that we can all feasibly understand the inner workings of. This is even truer of a single speed and as such we can all learn to maintain them with minimum fuss.

* You don’t have to worry about shifting gear. Set at a suitable ratio your bicycle will allow you to pull away easily and to ride at a comfortable top speed without being geared for speeds only seen on the downhills of the Alps. The reality for most city riders is that traffic lights are what will restrict the speed of your progress, not the lack of a velodrome-esque high gear.

An analogy I’ve used before it that of the Chelsea Tractor and a Smart Car. If you live in SW1, for instance, the Smart Car is undoubtedly the more practical vehicle of choice, but I’d be willing to bet more people own Range Rover Vogues. It’s a matter of the right kit for the job – 27 gears are entirely appropriate for a cycle touring holiday, but when you’re nipping in and out of town a single speed and the accompanying lack of hassle will suffice.

That said, we like to think we’re not dogmatic about it. We choose to build with a single speed because they are light, reliable, low-maintenance and low-effort, so anything that is able to fulfil that criteria is also worth considering.

The Automatix, a recent release from SRAM, is the only other thing I’ve seen which matches this. An internal hub gear, the Automatix is self-contained within the barrel at the centre of the rear wheel. The most common place you’ll find these normally is in a Sturmey Archer hub, where a planetary system within the hub allows you to change gear without your chain having to leap from one cog to another. The Automatix works on a similar premise, but is entirely automatic (hence the name). The hub contains two gears, which it flicks between using a centrifugal clutch depending on the speed of the revolutions of the wheel. When you’re going fast, it shifts up, when you slow down, it shifts down. It is entirely cableless, meaning that from the outside it looks just like a normal singlespeed (at least in profile), and more importantly meaning that the chain can’t really come off and that the same low-maintenance and low-hassle principles of a single speed still apply.

Rather unsurprisingly, having said we would always be a single speed bicycle manufacturer, we will be offering the option to fit our bicycles with the Automatix hub from January.

Both options offer less cables, less hassle, less maintenance and let’s face it – some very smooth lines. More is not always better.