Single speeds on State: Madison, Wisconsin


State Street in Madison has long been closed to motor vehicles, save for buses and emergency vehicles. Combine that with a huge university population, an array of small businesses and wide sidewalks and you get a people-rich environment: students, parents, children in strollers, older couples, people who people-watch and individuals who might best be described as non-aligned: the usual diversity of human experience arrayed as it has been through time: outside, together, unorganized, meandering, loitering, talking, laughing, eating, drinking–enjoying, exploiting and, above all, populating a free and public space.

The people share stories; the buildings share walls. Once, all this was unremarkable. Peoria once had similar sidewalks full of people; today, their descendants are largely secreted behind windshields, picture windows and computer screens. Even in Madison, pedestrianism diminishes beyond State, but where it remains, it reminds the culture of its earlier, superior forms.

The sidewalks alternate between outdoor seating for adjacent establishments and bicycle parking–lots of both and all in use. Down the middle and sides of the street people pedal by, steadily, purposely. No racers this day, no tourists–the general feel is people using bikes as transportation, not recreation. You see women in skirts, men in jeans and both genders in shorts. Wait long enough and you might see a kilt.

But no jerseys, no Lycra and, in the late summer’s heat, the gloves are definitely off.

As you’d expect this close to campus most bikes are largely in “as is” condition. Some are well-kept, some have been liberally resprayed, and some are missing a lot of paint, whether of the original or reapplied persuasion.

That is not to say that a battle-scarred bicycle is not taken care of; there’s plenty of evidence of careful upgrades to many of the bicycles. For instance, the single-speed Motobecane above has two chains: one for propulsion of the machine and one for the repulsion of anyone seeking to make off with its Brooks saddle.


Fenders, flat bars, nice brake levers and new cables add life to an old Taiwanese Schwinn. Note the rear brake’s full-length housing zip-tied to the top tube. And, of course, the obligatory leather saddle. No toe clips or clipless pedals–here or on any of the bikes covered in this essay.


Before regulators directed bike manufacturers to beef up the forks on steel-framed bicycles, forks would bend before downtubes would kink in an accident. Install a brand-agnostic chrome fork, and you were back on the road. The single brake on the front wheel here is sufficient to slow the rider down. No idea why you’d want a quick release on the seatpost, though. It’s just one more thing to lock, unless of course, you don’t.


A mixte frame with flat bars makes for a stylish urban vehicle. Original to this Peugeot: frame, fork, headset, stem and brake calipers. The single rear cog has plenty of room to get comfortable, occupying as it does the center section of a multi-speed cassette hub. Beefy brake levers combined with alloy (not the original steel) rims mean these Mafacs have a decent chance of actually working.


Made in Chicago continues to maintain its street cred in Madison. At quick glance, this Schwinn coaster appears to have weathered the elements without major losses, though its grips may be new old stock and the pedals are of indeterminate provenance. It even has its original chainguard.

About 16incheswestofpeoria

Former bicycle mechanic, current peruser of books, feeder of birds.
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