For the past couple of years, I’ve had a funny feeling in my tummy whenever I saw the lovely ads for Singular Cycles’ Swift in Singletrack magazine. There is just something so very right about the bike’s thin steel tubes, straight-legged steel fork, and mirror-polished Phil Wood eccentric bottom bracket. While my riding career began on fully rigid steel bikes, that wasn’t so much a conscious choice as the only one. Of course, at that time, 29in wheels, disc brakes, and mountain bikes with one gear were a long ways off. Despite the industry’s steady march towards lighter and more expensive materials, whispers from the steel is real massive and [nonsense] claims that 29in wheels act like suspension combined with the Swift’s undeniable aesthetic appeal to bring my curiosity to a head. When I contacted the folks at The Prairie Peddler, US importers for the UK-based bike brand, my intention was to spend a couple of months with the Singular to find out what the Swift was all about. Is steel still relevant? Does form trump function? (Does it matter?) Have I gotten too soft for a fully rigid mountain bike? Read on for details on the build and for my initial ride impressions…
The arrival of the Swift corresponded with increasingly loud cries of distress from my admittedly underbuilt 29er wheelset. This prompted the long-planned tubeless wheel build using polished White Industries hubs (look for a review soon). On a roll between the hubs and an older set of similarly shiny Formula Oro Bianco brakes (and needing a 27.2mm seatpost and 90mm stem), we contacted the good folks at Ritchey for a couple of finishing pieces from their new (polished) Classic series of components (again, reviews to come). If something’s worth doing, it’s worth doing right. Right?
Our review Swift is the 2011 model, with revised tweaked geometry over first generation frames.More significantly, Singular have done away with separate geared and single speed versions of the frame- the new model can go either way. I’m not the kind of single speed absolutist who cannot abide cable routing or derailleur hangers on my ride- they don’t really hurt anything and it can be nice to have options. Besides, the cable anchors are are very low-profile and paring the Swift down to the absolute minimum, weight-wise, really wasn’t Singular’s goal with this frame. Which brings me to one of the first things that people ask about when looking at the Swift. After oohing and aahing over the lovely cornflower blue paint and well thought-out details, and getting their fingerprints all over the (polished) bottom bracket eccentric, the question invariably comes: How much does the large frame weigh? In this case, 5.9lb with the eccentric and seat clamp. Plus another 2.5lb for the fork. So: the Swift isn’t light. But steel usually isn’t. That said, it’s not expensive, either- there’s nothing in the details that suggests a retail price of only $590 for the frame, fork, eccentric, and seat clamp. All together, the Swift built up to a respectable 23lb with sealant and pedals (the latter being required not only for riding, but also to meet the definition of the term bicycle).
New bike excitement aside, the build was almost boringly easy. Single speeds can be like that. The headset pressed in with the appropriate amount of resistance, the seat tube didn’t need deburring, and the bottom bracket threaded in nicely. The frame comes already treated with JP Weigle Framesaver in order to hold rust at bay- something that I’d just as soon not have to do myself. I was happy to find that the 68mm BB shell accepted my compact road cranks and that their arms clear the chainstays. The crank’s spider can hit the stays if the eccentric is behind it’s axis, but there’s plenty of adjustment forward of the centerline and the frame is stiff enough that the arms have yet to rub- despite only about 2mm clearance.
Now, as a 29er single speed owner (and sometime racer, thanks to NORBA USA Cycling rules requiring Cat 1 racers to buy annual licenses), I’m no stranger to big wheels or shiftless riding. Hopping on the Swift for the first time, doesn’t feel as 29er-y as my own bike. In fact, the steering was surprisingly quick in singletrack- not twitchy, but more immediate than I’m used in a 29er. The 34×19 gear punishes severely any failure to maintain momentum- making single speed riding a good compliment to the heavier-than-26in wheels and tires. An overly-long stem meant that lofting the front wheel was difficult to begin with, but the shorter Ritchey Classic has improved technical riding quite a bit, which was a big relief.
Other initial impressions? Riding a rigid fork is hard. Noting times to some of my usual landmarks, I will say that it’s so far not been faster than a bike with front suspension, even with the balance of the ride tilted toward climbing. I have become, out of necessity, been picking different lines than I would with front-suspended bike. Not better lines, necessarily, just different: a regular riding partner noted that I was choosing paths around rocks that he “wasn’t even looking at” while on his front-suspended aluminum singlespeed. Where I’m caught out most often is while cornering aggressively. Right or wrong, I tend to weight my front wheel more than other riders in order to drive it through turns. It’s with weight on the front wheel and the tires at the limits of their traction I’ve repeatedly found my heart in my throat thanks to some mid-corner washboard. Unsurprisingly for a bike from England, the Swift sports loads of mud clearance- so much so that a 2.3in tire mounted on a wheel with a broken spoke and severe wobble doesn’t come close to rubbing. The cowled KGB (Koski-Guy-Breeze) -style dropouts are very tidy looking and help to minimize rear end flex. Finally, the sterling silver swift head badge is a classy touch.
Over the next couple of months, I’ll be putting all sorts of miles on the Swift and passing it around the local group of picky twits for feedback. Though it’s forced an adjustment in my riding style, I really do look forward to my time on the Swift. Part of it is the bike’s beauty, sure, but I am learning to ride it harder and faster and my forearms are relaxing a bit with every ride. The Swift’s handling is among the best that I’ve experienced on a 29er and would be even more appreciated on tighter East Coast trails than the wide-open burners of Albuquerque’s Foothills. I do anticipate mounting a suspension fork at some point- even though it seems like a shame to even consider it. Stay tuned for a final review…