A single speed / commuter guide. I was recently shopping for a single speed bicycle one of the biggest attraction was low maintenence during winter (or mud if you are into cyclocross) , I needed a bike that is well thought out and reliable to get through my commute . There are a ton of different bike options so narrowing down what you need and key features before you start shopping is important. These were mine but you might want to add another few in there like lightweight for a cyclocross single speed.
Having ridden to work for over 9 years now I have some wisdom as to what is really important to me and what is nice to have. I was very discerning about the features of the bike. Here’s what I was shooting for:
- Disc Brakes, with lots of rain and winter conditions, grime wears the material quickly from your wheel rims. This can be slowed by frequent cleaning but daily use and cleaning in the winter season is impractical, meaning you have to replace your wheels fairly frequently. Disc brake provide great stopping power, function without creating rim wear, and are much much less affected by road dirt meaning wheels last longer and stop better.
- Steel frame, I dont need the lightest thing, with a 22mile commute, I would rather have comfort and durability. In a perfect world, I would be able to get a higher quality, lighter weight steel. If I had the funds and if the bike option was out there – Titanium would be the perfect answer. If you are looking for a cyclocross machine, you may want to stay with aluminium frames.
- Drop handlebars, I’m a believer that with all the variations of hand positions on drop bars they provide more long-term flexibility and comfort. I know I have at least 4different hand positions on a drop bar and can mix and choose as I please.
- One Gear, yes when on a ride with lots of hills and pacing with other people – speed and efficiency are important, gears are the definite way to go. When riding to work, in the rain and crappy conditions on a fairly flat route, gears are not that critical. For the sake of less moving parts, simpler maintenance, and cost. I chose a single speed direction.
- Fatties, really the ability to use a slightly larger tyre, something along the lines of a 35c. I feel this is a nice size, as it’s still somewhat efficient, but fatter for more fun or comfier ride.
- Fenders, Fenders, Fenders, I live in Portland, it rains, fenders are essential, and for a good commuting bike. Full coverage fenders not the clip on kind are needed. Now here is where the subtlety lies, to run a larger tire and still have room for proper fenders, this requires some design thought from the bike manufacturer. Providing adequate clearance and mounting holes on the frame and fork. This is critical and somewhat hard to find if you look close.
With these specific requirements, I set off to find a bike. Guess what, it’s quite a particular set-up. Not a lot out there – Should I lower my standards? – no. After some searching, I narrowed it down to two bicycles that seemed the most suitable, both from large bicycle brands and both within a price range. All-City Nature Boy Disc $1050 and Raleigh Furley $649. Both of these bikes class themselves as cyclcocross single speed machines, with the ability to use knobby cyclcross tires. Both come with smooth rolling 35c tyres.
These two bikes are very similar, small differences in components and types of steel but basically the same style and capability of bikes. The Raleigh site sums up the capability in a very eloquent way:
“combining the practicality of a single speed urban commuter with the geometry and tire clearance of a ‘cross bike. With Clement’s X’PLOR USH tires and Promax Render R mechanical disc brakes, the Furley is the perfect urban explorer that will take you to work in the morning and through your favorite gravel alley on your way home. With plenty of clearance for nobby cross tires, the Furley easily doubles as a single speed cross machine or summertime gravel explorer. The Furley’s frame is easily capable of taking gears, a rack, and fenders making it the perfect do everything platform for getting to work or getting away from work. “
- Both have a 42/17 gear ratio – good general all purpose ratio.
- Both have steel frame and fork
- Both have mechanical disc brakes and drop bars
- Both come with the same tires, 35c smooth rolling Clements
- The Raleigh has an eccentric bottom bracket, The All City has a sliding rear dropout.
- The Raleigh’s frame is set up to be converted to a geared bike when needed. Just add a cassette, rear derailleur and a bar shifter and you have a 10/11 spd machine.
- The All-City has a slightly higher grade of components, better hubs etc, reflected in higher price point.
- The All-City has internal corrosion protection built in, Im not sure about the Raleigh, but a can of JP Frame Saver would fix any doubt.
The bikes are pretty comparable on paper with only a few small details. If the possibility of converting your bike someday to a geared bike is of interest to you, then the Furley will win out since it has cable routings and derailleur hanger right there ready to go when you are. Both bikes are very capable, comparable and ride similarly.
Single Speed Chain Tension (nitty gritty)
One of the big differences between the design of the two bicycles is how they address and handle chain tension. Chain tension on a single speed bike is of top importance. Since there is not a derailleur to pull the chain taught there needs to be a way to tension the chain so that the chain doesn’t fall off when going over bumps and general riding. There are two main ways:
First Method: Eccentric :- Here the chain tension is adjusted at the bottom bracket. An item called an eccentric bottom bracket, this basically means the chain tension is adjusted by keeping the rear wheel in the same position and sliding the bottom bracket (crank) back and forth. This is done by loosening the bottom bracket holder and rotating it slightly to either tighten or loosen. This method is chosen by Raleigh.
Second Method: Sliding :- Move the rear wheel backward to set chain tension. The common drawback is the position of the rear disc brake caliper. All City solved this by making the disc caliper mount sliding also, so the wheel and the mount both slide. This method is chosen by All-City.
Both of these systems have pros and cons.
Eccentric (adjustment at the bottom bracket / crank)
- The eccentric system can use a vertical rear drop out so rear wheel flats can be changed easier, like on a normal geared bike.
- The eccentric system uses an expanding wedge to lock in place the chain setting. But rumors are the wedge is not the best solution and the system can move slightly throwing the chain tension off.
- The eccentric system requires an additional part, compared to other systems adding a little complexity and weight.
- The eccentric system is fairly easy to adjust by a home mechanic.
Sliding (adjustment of chain tension by sliding rear wheel outwards)
- The sliding drop outs must use a horizontal/ sliding style rear drop out, this can make changing a flat a little more tricky, as it’s a touch more difficult getting the wheel off the bike.
- A common problem with sliding dropouts and disc brakes is that the disc would become mis-aligned. On the Nature Boy the have cleverly engineered the dropout so the disc brake tab slides also, meaning that the brake caliper stays in alignment.
- The Sliding dropouts must be adjusted on two sides of the bike. Potential for misalignment of the wheel. The eccentric only needs adjusting on one side.
- The sliding drop outs are used with a wheel with a fixed bolt, no quick release.
Adjusting Chain Tension
To understand a little better it is useful to know how to adjust the mechanics on these two systems.
Eccentric Bottom Bracket :
Loosen the 5mm bolt (shown in the picture above), tap it with a soft blow hammer to release the wedge. Insert the Allen wrench in the empty hole that runs across the width of the bike, the use the pedal arms to rotate either clockwise or anti-clockwise. Get the chain tension you need and tighten down the 5mm bolt. If you use the pedal arms to help this task is very easy.
Sliding Dropouts :
Loosen the rear wheel. Loosen 2 bolts on the slider, (two that adjust the brake caliper), adjust the small tensioning screw that runs into the sliding drop out, loosen or tighten as needed to get correct chain tension. Tighten 2 slider bolts. Adjust the sliding drop out on the other side of the bike until the wheel is centered on the frame. Lock the rear wheel down.
I decided to go with the Raleigh Furley, mainly because the geometry was more suited to me. Both bicycles would have been great, and the All-City does have slightly higher grade components that are reflected in it’s price.
So far with a week of riding on the Furley I can say it’s fun to ride, no worrying about gears and the bike is built very sturdy, so you don’t mind having a bit of fun, hitting some stuff you wouldn’t normally and taking some back alley off road on the way home. The one downside is it’s a touch heavy (in comparison with my other steel bikes), a carbon fork would have added another $500 to the cost, so I can see why they did not do this, but with the 35c tyres and steel fork, the bike rides like a sturdy horse that wants to play a bit. So far so good.
The gear ratio is almost perfect, my commute has about 500 vertical feet each way, none of it steep. For added commute speed I could switch out the 17 tooth cog with a 16 and try that.
The brakes are great considering they are low end mechanical style. Plenty of stopping power and easy to set up. The handle bars on the bike are short and shallow style and he Tektro levers comfortable.
Saddle – one thing I instantly noticed is the quality of the unbranded saddle. Its a classic contoured shape (not flat) and pretty comfortable.
Short term improvements on the list are a set of PDW Full Metal Fenders in time for the rainy weather.
Check back in a few months to get a fuller report after some rainy miles:)