Building a Single Speed

September 5, 2012

Mine is done. Now construct your own Single Speed bike. Here’s what you’ll need:

  1. Everything starts out with a nice frame. I would suggest a 1970s/80s steel frame, but that’s basically a matter of taste. Buy a new one (expensive!), buy a used one, or use that old dusty frame from your garage. Some things you should care about when deciding for a frame: (A) Think about the size you need. This table gives you an overview. Mentioned is the height in centimeters of the seat tube. (B) Check whether a headset and a bottom bracket is still part of the frame, since both are quite expensive parts and relatively difficult to mount. If you can check/ask for the quality (smooth movements, no slackness). (C) Next thing on the list is to check what kind of back dropouts the frame has. For a single speed bicycle horizontal dropouts are best because they allow you to adjust chain tension. I have a frame with vertical dropouts you’ll need an extra chain tensioner later (which kind of destroys the great look of your new bike). (D) The last thing is to check is in what state the frame finishing/paint is. Make sure there is no rust in the headset and bottom bracket area.
  2. If your frame has a bottom bracket already just buy a fitting crankset. If a chainring is attached already make sure that it’s not too large. A 53-tooth chainring is definitely too large for a single speed bike and pedalling will be quite heavy. For me a 46-tooth chainring is perfect. In case your frame doesn’t have a bottom bracket, you should first find out which standard-type you need.This mainly depends on the diameter and the width. Here’s an overview. For the headset there’s basically only one standard. Mounting both parts into your frame is quite complex and if you are not an experienced bike mechanic you should seek the assistance of your favourite bicycle shop.
  3. Now the hardest part is over and you can start searching for the essential parts of your bike that actually make the frame look like a bike: The wheels. Since a single speed bike is not a fixed-gear bike you can use a freehub. I think it’s a bit more comfortable and safer for a beginner. Best thing is to use 28” (inch) diameter rims. For the back wheel just remove the cassette from the freehub and replace it with a single speed conversion kit. Once you have it it’s about 15 minutes work to set it up. I am using a 18-tooth sprocket in combination with the already mentioned 46-tooth chainring in front which is perfect for flat cities and longer journeys. So choose your sprocket size wisely.
  4. For the likely case that you have horizontal dropouts: Be aware that back wheels with quick release skewer might slip if you are a strong guy. I recommend to replace the quick release axle with a standard axle with nuts. If you can find a solid axle with the same diameter and thread pitch and a couple of nuts it will work. Remember that your  new axle should also be at least 4 cm longer than the old (quick release) hollow axle. You need some special tools for it, but you local bike shop can probably assist you.
  5. Now buy some tires. This might seem a bit early, but it’s good to buy them now because you need to check whether they fit your brakes and frame. I’m using 28 mm wide Continental Grand Prix Four Season tires because I think they are fast and comfortable at the same time. Get some high quality inner tubes as well.
  6. It’s time for brakes now. Mounting them is not difficult, just have a look at an existing bike. However, sometimes some fiddling is necessary to get them parallelly aligned.
  7. Next, organize yourself a seat post and a saddle. It’s very important that the diameter of the seat tube exactly matches the diameter of the seat post. Otherwise, you’ll always have fun with a slightly down-sliding seat post. Also find a handlebar now that fits your needs and you think is comfortable.
  8. A bike is nothing without the chain. I would buy a new chain to prevent slipping issues. A special single speed chain is not necessary. To shorten the chain you need a special tool that you can again find in your favourite bike shop (or borrow one from a friend). Concerning the chain: Shimano offers a system called “Quick Link” which makes closing the chain, after having adjusted the length, very easy.
  9. Last, but not least get some pedals. If you cannot decide whether you want to use bike shoes with cleats or not, just buy pedals with a regular and a cleat side.

Parts you should consider to buy new include bottom bracket and headset, as well as front chain ring, sprocket and a chain. New rims and tires are nice, but not necessary. As I wrote, sometimes you will probably need the assistance of an experienced bike mechanic. Probably you will also have to pay him or her, but I definitely think you can have a very beautiful and good working single speed bicycle for around 200€. Well, I think that’s it. Have fun. For more info there is also the famous single speed/fixed-gear bible by the late Sheldon Brown. His “Bicycle Technical Info” page supplies with everything you need to know. If you are from Groningen, you should also pay a visit to Fietsje, a great bike shop with many useful single speed accessories.

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