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I am looking at buying my first bike as an adult. I grew up in a neighborhood that was very hilly, so am used to getting bikes with gears to be able to do hills more easily. I now live somewhere comparatively flat (long shallow hills; E.g. 0.5 mile at a few degree incline, <5 degrees), but am very out of shape.

Question: What are the real things I need to consider to decide

1) Whether I need a multi-speed bike at all

2) How many speed bike I need?

For completeness & context I am about 6' and 160 lbs but not in shape at all. I currently walk or bus pretty much everywhere. I'm looking to use the bike mostly for getting to/from work, not necessarily to get in shape. My ride to work can be 0.5-3 miles, depending on if I decide to ride to transit or bike the whole way.

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    Please define "long shallow hills" because it seems to mean different things to different people. Also can you tell us your current weight? And how many floors of stairs could you climb before getting puffed and have to slow down? – Criggie Dec 23 '15 at 7:26
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    Since you're a novice at cycling, buy a used multi-speed bike that seems to fit you. If you then find that you're always using the same gear you will know what gearing to get for a single-speed if you decide to go that way. – Daniel R Hicks Dec 23 '15 at 14:28
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    I have to ride 30km to find a hill, but there is no way I would buy a SS. Winds of 50km/h mean SS is no sutible. – mattnz Dec 23 '15 at 19:35
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    The main thing you need to consider is "buying my first bike as an adult". You have no idea what sort of cycling you will like, how avid you will be, how strong you will get how fast, etc. You need to get a bike that is flexible -- not wedded to any particular concept of cycling. You also need to understand that your tastes will change, so you don't want to invest a lot of money. First ask around for a friend, neighbor, or coworker who has has a bike they're not using and which should be a reasonably good fit to your body. If not that, buy a used one. Multi-speed if at all possible. – Daniel R Hicks Dec 24 '15 at 1:56
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    Possible duplicate of Picking a bike for a cyclist new to riding on the road? – Daniel R Hicks Dec 24 '15 at 2:03
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Since the question was

What are the real things I need to consider to decide

1) Whether I need a multi-speed bike at all

2) How many speed bike I need?

I'll answer that rather than comparing the benefits of the two options.

I'll open with saying I think are a few more decisions, but this is a start. Good luck, and whatever you face at this juncture, don't let it stop you - riding a bike changes lives and saves the planet.

You need to decide how hard you want to work when riding.
You need to decide how far you'll be biking and how long your rides will be.
You need to decide if you're willing to walk if your single speed gets too difficult.
You need to decide if you're getting the bike to get into shape or to take leisurely rides. (In other words, does working harder than mechanics might allow bother you?)
You need to decide if you accept the additional complexity and maintenance of a multi-geared bike (marginal as those might be).

If you settle on a geared bike

How small the intervals between your hardest and easier gear do you need.
How small the intervals between your hardest and easier gear do you want.
You need to decide if you accept the additional complexity and maintenance of additional gears (marginal as those might be).

  • This is exactly the list I needed, thanks. – Gaius Augustus Dec 24 '15 at 1:49
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    But the point is, you won't really know any of those things until after you've done some cycling. – Daniel R Hicks Dec 24 '15 at 1:57
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    @DanielRHicks Precisely why a used bike is a good start. Plus as the fitness develops, the requirements may change. I can now ride my road bike faster than my electric assist MTB bike could go on full throttle :) – Criggie Dec 24 '15 at 9:55
  • People tend to think that ride a single speed bike is ALWAYS hard, but it isn't. I've been riding a single speed for commuting for like 5 years in a city a little hilly and is not much of a difference after you get used to it. Of course if the city is quite hilly you're gonna be in trouble. – Rodrigo Dec 29 '15 at 18:13
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Single speed bikes tend to be very low end bikes--aside from fixies, but those are a different animal altogether. As such, you almost certainly will want a multispeed bike. Don't get too focused on having a specific number of gears. Instead, focus on a bike that meets your needs. For commuting, you'll mainly be looking at commuter bikes and road bikes, and you'll likely be looking at a derailer bike with at least 16 gears.

Visit some local bike shops with absolutely ZERO intention of buying something that day. Depending upon where you live, the selection of shops may range from great to sparse. Get a feel for the place and how they treat you. The customer experience will range from great to awful.

I strongly urge that you stay away from big box stores and only shop at local bike shops. You will have a far better selection of bikes at a local bike shop, and service is non-existent at big box stores.

What's available at bike shops in your area may be completely different from what's available in my area. As such, it's impossible for anyone on the Internet to make specific recommendations. It's best if you look at the inventory of bikes in shops in your area. Something that you have to custom order or drive 100 miles to pick up adds a lot of unnecessary expense and hassle.

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We don't do specific product recommendations here on SE Bicycles, so all statements will be somewhat general and relatively opinionated.

For general purpose riding, you probably want a "Hybrid" bike. That's a diamond frame with flat handlebars, slick or semi slick tyres, and the ability to fit a carrier/rack and mudguards/fenders.

You don't need a racing road bike because they are expensive, have weight limits, and aren't particularly comfortable or versatile.

You also don't require a mountain bike or MTB. Suspension sounds like a good idea, but it saps your energy and is useless on sealed roads. If you end up getting a bike with front suspension, make sure you can turn a knob to lock it out.

As for your gears question... by your own statement you're out of shape. Get a bike with gears, this will lessen the impact of a climb on your body. Specifically a transmission with a triple front chainring instead of a double. This gives you a "grannie gear" to slowly grind your way up anything a car can drive up.

At the back you're unlikely to find fewer than 7 gears these days, but the quantity doesn't really matter. More gears costs bit more. You'll need a larger number of teeth on the big gear. 32 or 34 used to be big, but some bikes can have as much as a 40 tooth. (This was called "megarange" by Shimano.)

Another option is an internally geared hub (aka an IGH) which could be anything from 3 speed up to 14 speeds. An IGH with 14 linear speeds is roughly comparable to a 3x9=27 speed, because of the overlapping ranges.

You can also find bikes with a "gearbox" in the frame, between the pedals. I am unfamiliar with these, they're not common here.

If you're convinced that a singlespeed is better, or you'd rather believe the singlespeed purity hype then remember back to riding in your youth. Would you have ridden up a hill in your flat-land gear? Why would you do that now?

You haven't mentioned a budget. Generally speaking, anything under ~$750 US new is likely to be a bit crap in the quality department, and heavy on rubbish like cheap suspension. If your wallet runs away at that bottom line, do consider a quality used bike. They can be had for much lower cost, and work just as well.

Budget for a lock or two, a helmet, and something bright. If you ever want to ride at night you need lights front and back. These add up too.

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    SS hype? Really a triple for a flat city? – paparazzo Dec 23 '15 at 6:52
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    Keeping a bike moving in a granny gear over any distance is not something I would personally inflict on an out-of-shape person. It can be quite an aerobic workout. Two speeds in front should suffice for any casual purpose. – junkyardsparkle Dec 23 '15 at 7:16
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    @junkyardsparkle fair call - lets ask OP for a clarification and definition on his term "long shallow hills" plus his current weight. – Criggie Dec 23 '15 at 7:25
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    Added this information to the original post. – Gaius Augustus Dec 24 '15 at 5:11
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As mentioned in another answer, opinions will probably vary on this, based on a number of factors. Since the first two answers tend towards two extremes, I'm simply going to say that you might want more than a single speed, but probably don't need anything in the high range of speeds. If you live somewhere with intersections where you will need to quickly accelerate from a dead stop to avoid conflicts with cars, then having a lower gear than you would use for normal riding can be very useful, especially until your leg muscles have developed.

Essentially, the trade-off is that hills and starting from stops will make demands on your muscles without a lower gear, and sustaining speed over distances will make demands on your aerobic capacity without a higher gear. Keeping that in mind might help you evaluate your options based on what you know about your current level of fitness and what kind of riding you plan to do.

  • Lack of higher gear does NOT put more demand on your aerobic capacity at higher speed. Just the opposite - you don't have a gear to push you and you spin out with minor exertion. If you don't have the capacity for higher gear then you simply don't miss it. – paparazzo Dec 23 '15 at 8:26
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A good single speed will be a lot cheaper than a good geared/multi-speed but there are pros and cons to both.

Single Speed

If I were buying a single speed, I would opt for the following requirements:

  • Road/Drop bars - will allow for upright and aero positions. Flat bars gave me some wrist pain on rides of 25Km+. (I've done up to 200Km on a single speed)
  • Front & rear brakes - not all of them come with front and/or rear brakes.
  • Flip hub - this will allow for fixed or free wheeling, opting for the later side initially

Some good/bad things to note with single speeds:

  1. Fewer moving parts (no gears or gear cables) so there's less maintenance
  2. You've only got 1 gear so you may struggle to do any climbing other than short hills.
  3. I found my pedalling stroke to be quite smooth after several months of single speed cycling and it helped with my leg strength quite a lot.
  4. The ride tends to be significantly quieter compared to my geared bike.
  5. The frame/fork will be alloy forged so very strong, the wheels will probably be a high spoke count so if you're really out of shape you don't have to worry about weight limitations on wheels etc. (I was 125Kg-130Kg at 195cm when I started on my single speed and had no issues)

Geared/Multi Speed

There's a lot of options when purchasing a geared bike. While you can buy a bike with say, a Shimano 105 11 Speed groupset from Giant or Trek or another, there will still be variations in the remaining components such as wheels, handlebars, stem, seat, seat post etc so there's no real like for like. For this reason, if/when you are purchasing your first serious geared bike, it's best to go try out different bikes in different retailers. I say this because some shops will have better margin on specific models and will push you towards them so get a feel for different manufacturers and different sizes.(same for single speeds too)

With all of the above taken in to consideration for both options, I would opt for the single speed as it should be a lower cost entry point. If after several months of cycling you are no longer interested, then you haven't burnt a lot of money. If you are excited by cycling and then want to transition to a geared bike you can either keep the single speed as a backup or sell it and raise funds for your new purchase.

  • A fixie (with a flip hub) is likely as expensive as a halfway decent multispeed bike, if not more so. It's a bad choice for a newbie. – Daniel R Hicks Dec 24 '15 at 13:19
  • I based my response on a good version of a geared bike, not a halfway decent one. A good flip hub bike vs a good geared road bike will be somewhere around a difference of €/$500, based off my own bike purchasing experience - Giant Bowery vs 11 Speed 105 Road Bike. – ynnekkram Dec 29 '15 at 0:10
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Out of shape kind of favors single speed. You don't have the output for bigger gears. You could just just set the SS up with a lower fixed gear. Like a 32 tooth front and 20 tooth rear. I commute on a SS in a flat city with no regrets. In that one gear a SS is efficient. A SS is easier and cheaper to maintain.

A SS is cheaper. If you only want to spend $400 then SS. If you are going to spend $800+ then you are going to find a decent quality multi speed.

Once you graduate into longer road rides then you will want a multi speed.

But you can get multi speed and just use a couple gears. Just don't get a cheap (BSO) multi speed.

I also have both a SS and MS mountain bikes. For me SS is just plain fun. It is you and the pedal.

I have several bikes and this SS I got used for $400 is still one of my favorites. If I have a non biking friend that wants to go for a ride I put them on this bike (with a bigger seat).

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    Could you expand on "Out of shape kind of favors single speed"? That doesn't quite parse. – junkyardsparkle Dec 23 '15 at 7:10
  • @junkyardsparkle I did expand. "You don't have the output for bigger gears. You could just just set the SS up with a lower fixed gear." Could you drive a 53 x 11? Out of shape you have more narrow range output. Out of shape you start with walking - that is one gear. – paparazzo Dec 23 '15 at 7:53
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    Spinning lower gears over distance can be demanding in it's own way. 32/20 seems to me, personally, like a lot of spinning for a long ride. – junkyardsparkle Dec 23 '15 at 7:58
  • @junkyardsparkle Then don't ride a 32/20 over a distance. The question is not from you personally nor is my answer directed to you personally. Nor did I specifically recommend 32/20 for the OP. Nor is the question about distance riding as I read it. And I did state "Once you graduate into longer road rides then you will want a multi speed". – paparazzo Dec 23 '15 at 8:32
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    "Out of shape" is a very strong argument against getting a single-speed bike. If there's one slope somewhere that is too difficult with the SS then the bike will not be used. – Daniel R Hicks Dec 23 '15 at 14:31

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