A question came up recently about why people ride fixed-gear bikes. I think you can't reasonably answer that question without first understanding why people ride single-speed bikes.
So, why do they do it?
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I ride a single-speed (as opposed to fixed gear) because I like to be able to coast down a hill without worrying about spinning out, or hitting a pot-hole while frantically trying to keep up with my pedals. Don't get me wrong, I love riding fixed-gear, but for where I live it's just a little impractical to not be able to coast.
I ride a single-speed (as opposed to a geared bike) for multiple reasons.
A: It's all I could afford. If you only have $600, you'll get a lot more bike with a single-speed than a geared bike. Or rather, you'll get a lighter bike with better hubs/wheels/etc than for a $600 geared bike. Someday I'll have the money for a decent road bike (105/Rival or better) and will buy one. But for now, my single-speed is much lighter and sturdier than any $600 geared road bike I could have gotten.
B: I enjoy the simplicity. Want to go faster? Pedal faster.
C: I enjoy the workout. I live in Utah, where there are some pretty big hills/mountains. The only way to get to the top is to (as my dad used to say) hunker down and gut it out. There's something quite invigorating about knowing you conquered that hill with the power in your legs instead of the mechanical advantage of your gear ratio.
D: Even on the freewheel side of my hub, my single-speed is quiet. No gears means that unless I'm coasting, my bike is nearly silent.
Back in the thirties, Tullio Campagnolo invented the modern derailleur for very good reason.
A single-speed is a very sensible machine if the terrain and/or rider strength allow. Simple, reliable, lightweight.
But for many, not a practical solution. If widely varying terrain must be tackled, the single speed is going to be problematic.
The objections given to multiply-geared bikes are valid, but a well-maintained gear train is essentially silent, reliable, and easy to use.
I'm a mechanic, and my bikes shift effortlessly and positively. I "stir" my gears constantly to keep my pedal pressure and cadence at an optimum. I enjoy doing this, much as sports-car drivers enjoy a manual transmission.
As for fixies... Used to be a standard training item for pro road racers. The idea being to build up both leg strength, spin, and smoothness. However, I think a fixie, especially one without modern brakes is as dangerous to ride now as it was at the dawn of cycling back in the 1800s. I see it as a fad item.
It is less expensive and it has less parts that can break and almost no fragile parts compared to bikes with more gears. This means:
That said: If I lived anywhere where the were hills higher than the bridges over the canals I would probably never use it.
p.s. I have something like this only mine is (and looks) about 30 years old (the frame anyway):
I rode nothing but a single speed (as opposed to fixed gear) 24" Bontrager Cruiser (like a big BMX) for approx 8 years and loved it. Daily commute (~10-15Km round trip) and most other incidental/social travel. I have only recently changed to a 8 speed Charge Tap due to moving to a very hilly neighborhood.
For me, the beauty of single speed is the simplicity. @Jay Bazuzi called it ; )
No worrying about what gear I should be in. Just stand up and pedal harder.
No worrying about gears slipping or being tuned properly. Chain tight, done.
No worrying about which brake lever to pull and how hard. Only had one to choose from.
I also loved the feeling of being more 'connected' to the road than on a geared bike. (I've never owned a fixie but I'm told they feel even more 'connected' than a single speed.)
And they look super-clean too. A single brake lever/cable is the only 'external' element on the bike.
Single Speeds are about a ride more challenging, not in the sense of being harder physically, but more of a chess game than a test of leg and lung strength...knowing when to pause, maybe even almost track stand to get that extra oomph you need to attack that loose steep section. No gears to help you, just your mind to adapt your riding style to the constraints of the bike. The rear end of the SS is SO much lighter. And I don't put any extra weight there either, the rear end is unsprung weight, and it rolls better the lighter it is. A geared bike's derailleur and long chain acts as a damper when you try to lift the back end...the SS pulls up willingly, like a BMX bike. Momentum is REALLY your friend on a SS, you have all the incentive to attack at the top of the hill and keep off the brake, since you may be going too fast to pedal back up to speed. Technique pays off, especially in steep sections where you may need to stand up and know how to keep the rear wheel planted. I enjoy climbing standing up, pulling on the bars at about 5RPM, while my buddy next to me grinds away on his granny ring. Having a light and simple bike helps me afford better parts, which last longer. No expensive cassettes to wear out folks! And personally, the SS makes me feel like a kid!
I'm in the process of converting my 18 speed 1989 Peugeot Sahara into a single speed. It's going to be a purely commuting bike, although it was originally intended as an "ATB" (the first incarnation of today's mountain bikes).
I agree with David, there is more of a connection to the road, a lot of that feeling being down to, I think, the slimmed down simlplicity of the bike - less tech between rider and road.
There are fitness benefits too with just having one gear, although I wouldn't want to take it on trips of any great length.
If I had a single speed instead of fixed gear, I could do one thing that I really miss:
Bunny hop a curb. That's something I've had to do more than once on a regular road bike just to avoid cars and it's something I do all the time on a variety of bikes just for convenience. For the life of me, I can't do it at more than a crawl with a fixie. I can shift weight over a pothole or the like, that's not too bad, but getting airborne is impossible for me.
The Fixie keeps me off some of the types of locations I rode all the time in college: extensive sidewalks, railroad tracks, potholes, etc... Not a problem where I live, but it would have been years ago.
I can see both sides of the argument for geared bicycles vs. non geared bicycles. On one hand, you have more versatility in terrain/speed/ease of pedaling, while on the other you have the beauty of simplicity. To answer your question, many SS (single speed) riders argue that because you only have one gear, you have much less maintenance with your bicycle. This means you don't have shift cables to lube or adjust/tune, and you don't have to worry about damaging a derailleur as there isn't one. A damaged derailleur is often a result of dropping a bicycle or banging it against something. You also have the simplicity of not having to choose between various gears. For a rider newer to cycling, this can be beneficial as you are much less likely to "drop" a chain off the chain ring, or be stuck in between gears, or end up in a gear that is either too high or low. The only maintenance one might foresee-ably have is cleaning and relubing the chain every other week to keep it in good working order, and checking the chain tension to make sure that the chain stays on properly. An SS set up can also be helpful in strength training and cadence training, as it is likely that one won't have it geared perfect for every slope. It may be too big to climb hills easier, therefore strength training, and it may be too small to go all too fast on flat ground, therefore cadence training. I hope that this was enough of an objective opinion for you to make a decision
It is my opinion that fixed geared bikes can almost never be as fast as a freewheel bicycle, unless the rider has a front brake to rely on for stopping power, instead of his or her legs. Fixed riders have to monitor their speed in order to gauge stopping time and gear up for the strain of slowing down by pedals. Because of this, a smaller gear is preferred on this type of bike. If the bike has a brake, a larger gear can be put on and the need to prepare to stop won't be as great, and neither will the strain. More fixed gear riders should consider this but because a lot of people are attracted to the total simplicity of the bike in the first place, it seems like a sellout to add a brake to your fixed gear. Seen as pussy-ass to some. Also wearing a helmet is pretty pussy-ass to these people too, but to me, going slow is most pussy-ass of all. Also in this area, riding fixed no brakes would require a monthly purchase of a replacement rear tire (on descents, stopping in time forces riders to skid the back wheel across the pavement which wears the tire to shreds).
I ride freewheel because my bottom bracket is low enough to cause my pedals to strike the ground on moderate to pronounced turns, and I do not wish to sacrifice speed. The single speed free wheel bike is gratifying in 52/16 or 15, but a smaller gear like 42/16 Is annoying. You don't go as fast. You have no reason then to refrain from going fixed and ditching the brakes. Where I live there are hills and on the larger gear I was forced to keep a grueling momentum to top the hills and draft on large vehicles. I am terribly fit because of it, and have been lucky enough to avoid lingering soreness and neck pain. It was fun, and incredibly fast. You had to be fast in that gear. It is a great setup. However, I got a job pulling a forty pound trailer and had to put a 42t chainring on my bike and a rear caliper. It's good for pulling. I can steam up the hills no problem, and the added caliper is a life saver for sure with all the weight. BUT, the rest of the time, the 150 miles a month I ride off the clock, is weird because the spinning is faster with less speed and more pain to my knees. Your legs become toned and fit for powerful, cadenced, pedal strokes in the high gear, and when yo move lower, the increased cadence becomes a challenge to cope with. I seems you're working harder to go slower. Pussy-ass indeed. So here's what I'd say, pick a gear you rock in, and keep in mind that if you go fixed: you compromise speed and safety by using a small gear without brakes: you compromise safety but not speed if you have a big gear and no brake: and with a big gear and a brake you compromise nothing.
P.S. the dropout direction on a bike doesn't matter. its the way the rear wheel is mounted onto the bicycle. bolts are safer, but too tight can put stress on the steel, so a quick release wheel with a chain tensioner like the surly tuggnut or the redline cross mountain version, is my ideal choice. Keep in mind that it is unsafe to add a derailleur mount chain tensioner on a fixed gear and a fixed gear can almost NEVER be successful if the wheel is mounted onto fork ends, as many high end race bikes have, without the magic gear. Which is extremely hard to find.
ride single speed because its fun! if you are a fixie person a fixie is the bike for you. if you live in hilly areas, its not a problem. you dont need to be ripped, im 13 and i live on a hill. if you really are a fixie person, it wont matter. you can either get brakes for downhills or if youre willing to due to the fact that braking ruins the paint on the rims, you will walk down hills. it all depends on the person. if youre not willing to but you love fixies, you can buy a road bike and customize it to look how you want, just like a fixie
I ride year-round in Oregon in the woods. In the sunshine (yes, it happens more than you'd expect in Oregon) I ride my full-suspension bike with many gears. In the winter, I ride my rigid, single-speed bike.
The rigid, single-speed is much easier to clean, and when parts do wear out, they are much cheaper to replace. Plus there are many fewer parts to wear out. Riding in the woods in the winter puts a lot of wear on a bike.
A quick search shows the following prices:
Plus there's the mechanic cost (and time). I can do the work myself, but I'm dog slow, so I take it to the shop - and that adds more $ to the picture.
Of course those prices are just ball-park prices, you can find 10-speed parts for less than some single-speed parts, but you'd be getting low-end 10-speed parts and higher end single-speed parts.
Edited to remove costs not associated with gearing.
I rode a single speed bike in a 24hr enduro mountain bike race. Out of a group of 5 friends I was the only one to finish as all their bikes broke, generally from the rear mech getting clogged up with mud jamming and getting ripped off the frame. Much better for reliability!!
When I was resting in the paddocks the number of people I saw carrying their bikes past with their rear mechs hanging was quite surprising.
I ride a single speed because I'm lazy. The less mass you take up a hill, the less work you do – at least in theory. The trick is having the best single gearing for the average hills you encounter. The other trick is not being in a hurry when you're on the flat sections. A good medium gearing or medium tall gearing is all I need. When I moved from a hilly town to one that had no hills except for bridges, I put on a bigger front sprocket to tall things up a bit and I was happy again.
Another thing I do is have two single speeds. One has skinnier tires and is geared taller for higher speeds and the better cooling effect of having more air moving past me on hot summer days. That's my cheap bright red Schwinn Madison. The other bike is my Surly Steamroller which has fatter tires and geared lower and runs a coaster brake for completely silent running at night. I'm grateful that they finally have headlights that are powerful enough to actually see where you're going on a bicycle at night.
In addition, I like my one-speeds because I am so familiar with the single gearing that they have, I always know my acceleration potential at any given speed. This is good information to have when dodging cars and trucks in city traffic where I do all my cycling.
Of course there's also the maintenance thing. When the bike has to be just about perfect before you'll ride it, having a single speed makes life a bit easier.
That's my story and I'm sticking to it. After fifty years or so of bicycling on a daily basis, a guy gets set in his ways.
I really enjoy riding singlespeed. Much more relaxing, you don't have to think about changing gear, you just pedal, and if you want to go faster, you pedal faster.
It's much faster too, heaps less friction, according to wikipedia it's 10-15% more efficient. I run a 52-20 and it's good up til about 45-50 kph. Lots less maintainance, lighter, quieter. Looks much cleaner too. I really like the non maintance side of things. They are actually faster on the flat.
30 of the last 40 years (10 years off due to illness & injuries) cycling as a commuter, racing or combo of both. Bit of a heart defect, too old, too slow, too out of form to consider getting back into any form of racing. But I like cycling. Cost to get the '95 LiteSpeed refitted was more than budgeted for cycling. Less expensive alternative was a quality FGSS. Running single-speed due to the hilly terrain I ride on. 42x18 gearing. Bit over geared on some of the climbs, under geared on the descents. Spinning away on the flats 19mph give or take 1 mph. Downhills would be tough running fixed. SS means spinning out at 27-29mph and then freewheeling. Rural area. Hipsters? We have old hippies & red necks.
Bottom Line: 1. inexpensive, 2. simple maintenance, 3. Fun