If your local area is anything like mine, you’ll find you can’t ride half a mile without climbing a hill or two. For single speed and fixed gear cyclists, that can mean a lot of sweaty, thigh-burning, knee-grinding action.

While it’s definitely something to think about in deciding whether the fixed gear lifestyle is for you. There are concrete steps you can take to mitigate the difficulties of single speed climbing. But before we get into those, let’s evaluate whether single speed bikes are a well-rounded choice for hill climbing.

Long, steep climbs are more challenging without the option of lower gears, but people can and do climb hills on fixed gear and single speed bikes all the time. You can make climbing easier by using a suitable gear ratio, losing unnecessary weight, taking a run-up, and using the slalom technique.

So, yes, getting uphill with only one sprocket can pose a significant challenge. And while some of us are happy to grit our teeth and push on through those harder climbs, it’s not for everyone. Besides, sometimes you don’t want to end up at your destination out of breath and drenched in sweat!

And what about endurance rides? If you’ve got 50+ miles of mountainous terrain to cover, you certainly don’t want your gearing holding you back.

But this is fixedgear.life—I’d be remiss not to paint single speed climbing in a good light.

Depending on the kind of riding you do and the hilliness of your local area, climbing single speed is nothing to be afraid of. After all, you’d be climbing exactly the same hills on a geared bike, going exactly the same distance and ascending exactly the same heights. So what difference does it make?

In some ways climbing might be easier on a single speed bike since you don’t have all those useless components weighing you down—derailleur, shifters, cables, additional chain rings and sprockets, etc.

Tips for easier climbing on a single speed

As I keep saying, there are ways to make climbing less painful (even, dare I say, enjoyable) on a single speed bike, which is precisely the topic of the rest of this article.

Choose the right gear ratio

The first step to climbing on a single speed bike happens before you even swing your leg over it; and that step is to choose your gear ratio wisely.

If you live in a hilly area, try swapping out your 16 teeth sprocket for an 18 teeth sprocket for example. You might just find it makes all the difference and climbing becomes enjoyable again.

Keep your cadence high and your spirits higher

It is a well established fact that our legs are mechanically less efficient at slower cadences. So climbing the same steep hill on a single speed bike can actually be harder (and slower) than on an equivalent geared bike.

Without the luxury of easier gears to shift into, single speed riders have to put up with less than ideal gearing on non-trivial gradients. In order to maintain power efficiency, it’s crucial to keep your cadence up for as long as possible.

Maintaining cadence is key when climbing single speed. It takes a lot of work to bring your cadence back up from a slow grind, so it’s best not to enter that dire state in the first place, for as long as you can help it.

In contrast to the conventional multi-geared advice, this means going perhaps a little harder than you’re used to early on in the climb. The usual wisdom is not to burn yourself out too soon—however, on a single speed bike, you have to balance that with the risk of dropping to a less efficient cadence.

For particularly long climbs—in excess of a mile, say—the fastest way to the top may be incremental. Again the conventional “multiple gears” wisdom is to pace yourself evenly and change gears to suit the pace. However, on a single speed bike it may be more efficient to climb in short, intense efforts with frequent breaks to recover.

Start fast and keep it that way

To give yourself the best chance of conquering those short and steep climbs, it’s best to start fast and keep it that way. When you anticipate a challenging climb up ahead, that’s your cue to ramp up the speed a little in preparation.

To be clear, this means you must accelerate while you are approaching the hill, and before you actually start climbing.

This plays well into our previous point as you’ll begin by attacking the climb at a good spinney pace, making it easier to keep your cadence up going forward.

Trade gradient for distance (the slalom technique)

For those really steep climbs that bring your cadence to a crawl, it may help to employ the slalom technique. This is a simple adjustment to the way you ride that effectively reduces the gradient of ascent in exchange for a greater distance to be covered.

Sounds like a magic trick, but it’s just simple physics.

In case you don’t know, to slalom means to move in a smooth zig-zag or wavy line as you go. In essence, turning left and right about 45° alternately every few meters as you’re climbing.

Everyone knows the shortest path from A to B is a straight line. By taking a more wavy path, you’re effectively increasing the distance from A to B without increasing the height to the top. Ergo, reducing the overall gradient.

Just take care to do this safely and lawfully, and only in low traffic areas. Do not slalom into the oncoming lane, especially on busy roads.

Lose the dead weight

As is the advice for pretty much all cycling endeavours, try to avoid taking heavy things with you that you won’t need. This tip applies not just to single speeds and fixies but to geared bikes too.

Of course, the heaviest thing on your bike by far is your body, so the erm … *ahem* heavier riders among us may have room for improvement there.

Personal weight loss goals aside, take a good look at your bike and what’s attached to it. Do you really want that 200g kickstand weighing you down? Is it time to upgrade those stock tires to something more lightweight? If you’re commuting, sort through the things in your bag, removing heavy items like books that you know you won’t need that day.

Try not to get too bogged down removing every trivial gram of unnecessary weight from your setup—an obsessive exercise in what might coincidentally be called bikeshedding.

Take a flatter route

OK, this isn’t really a hill-climbing tip. This is more of a route-planning tip. I’ve included it at the end here because it is a bit of a cheat answer.

If climbing hills makes single speed riding unbearable for you, but you can’t bring yourself to give up the superior ride quality, simplicity and ease of maintenance, then this may be your last hope.

Depending on your local geography, you can often make your rides significantly flatter simply by taking a different road here and there. That might mean sticking to a canal or riverside path, avoiding the hillier areas on longer rides or, where possible, changing the destination to suit the journey.

Closing remarks

So there you have it: a few ways to make hill climbing a little less painful without resorting to those silly gear shifters.

You may also be interested to read Are Fixed Gear Bikes Good For Long Distance?