There is something mysterious and appealing about fixed gear bikes that draws the attention of curious cyclists from all backgrounds. Whether it’s the increased drivetrain efficiency, the mechanical simplicity and ease of maintenance, or just the cool—dare I say hipster—aesthetic that catches your fancy, you might just find yourself tempted to get one.
And who could blame you? All of these things are true and on top of that, fixed gear bikes (a.k.a. fixed-wheel bikes or fixies) are simply a joy to ride. Even their freewheeled counterparts—single speed bikes—inherit some of these wonderful qualities.
But single speed and fixed gear bikes are not without their drawbacks. Before making the leap to the “no derailleur, no problem” lifestyle it’s important to understand the practical implications so that you may come to an informed decision about whether the fixed gear or single speed lifestyle is for you.
Before diving into the details, here are the main points to remember:
On the road, fixed gear and single speed bikes can be more fun to ride; additionally, they are mechanically simpler and more reliable, easier to maintain and clean, often lighter and in some cases faster than freewheel and geared bikes.
However, if you live in a particularly hilly area then you may want to avoid single speed as being tied to one gear can make climbing a huge chore.
While there are many excellent reasons to switch to fixed, this article will largely focus on the drawbacks so that you know what to expect.
Fixed gear or single speed—what’s the difference?
First off, let’s briefly cover the difference between these two categories of bicycles so we’re all on the same page.
All fixed gear bikes are single speeds, but not all single speeds are fixed gear. Unlike conventional geared bikes, both have only one chain ring and one rear sprocket, no derailleur and no gear shifters.
The result is a much cleaner silhouette and a mechanically simpler machine. The lack of gear-shifting components also sheds weight and significantly reduces aerodynamic drag. This is one reason why they are used for track events.
So what do fixies have that single speed bikes do not? Actually, it’s the other way around. Single speed bikes, like geared bikes, have a freewheel mechanism attached to the rear wheel hub that allows the rider to coast—it’s what generates that repeating clicky sound. fixed gear bikes lack this mechanical feature, meaning it’s not possible to coast: as long as the rear wheel turns, so too must the pedals.
|Multi-speed||Single speed||Fixed gear|
|Number of sprockets||4–12||1||1|
|Number of chain rings||1–3||1||1|
|Has a freewheel?||Yes||Yes||No|
|Has a derailleur?||Yes||No||No|
Riders often attribute their love of fixed gear to the smooth and continuous ride quality that comes with it. You can read more about what it feels like to ride fixed gear in my article What Happens If You Stop Pedalling on a Fixed Gear Bike?
Most of the points discussed in this article pertain to all single speed bikes, both fixed-wheel and freewheel.
The learning curve
“It’s like riding a bike”—a common idiom applied to skills that you couldn’t unlearn even if you tried.
Riding fixed gear for the first time can be a little jarring and confusing if you’ve spent your life thus far riding with a freewheel. It may take a day or two of riding to become comfortable enough to tackle the busy streets and dangerous descents you may be used to.
After months or even a few weeks, many riders discover a profound sense of joy that can only come from riding fixed gear.
Some long-time riders describe the relationship with their fixed-wheel bicycle as “a sense of connectedness as though you have become one with the bike.” Well, I’m not sure about that but I do know that fixed gear will always be the one for me.
Lengthy hill climbs will be even harder
For short climbs over small hills, you can hop up out of the saddle and put some power down for half a minute and end up on the other side a little out of breath but otherwise unaffected. This is true of both geared bikes and single speeds.
However, longer climbs can be a bit more arduous without the comfort of those easier gear ratios at your fingertips. You might find it doable at first with a good run-up but soon you’ll run out of momentum and be faced with the mountainous route up ahead of you. Sure, you can stand up from out the saddle and really dig into the cranks when things begin to slow down, but how long can you keep that up for? Even the stronger riders among us are praying for more gears at that punishing moment.
If you live in a hilly area and you want to ride a single speed bike, then you’d better get used to the knee-grindingly slow cadences and burning thighs.
fixed gear is not for everyone. If you struggle with the odd bit of climbing here and there, or if you’re a stronger rider who needs to train hard and tackle more challenging geography then the flexibility of multiple gears becomes a necessity.
Sometimes less is more
Interestingly, the weight shed from dropping the freewheel and gear-shifting components, the smaller number of cogs and shorter chain means that the lightest bikes have to be fixed gear. These kinds of super-lightweight fixies can be seen in short-and-steep hill climbing events such as the UK National Hill Climb Championship.
In some countries it is legal to remove the rear brake from a fixed gear bike since the rider’s legs can act on the rear wheel via the fixed drivetrain to slow down, meaning the weight of the rear brake calliper, the brake lever and cables can be dropped as well.
However, for these races we use quite an easy gear ratio to make steep climbing more biomechanically efficient, and it would not be suitable for descents or even riding on flat ground. So, this is really a specialist, race-specific build that wouldn’t be practical for your average commuter or for regular training.
“Changing gear” takes 30 minutes, $20 and a few tools
While riding a geared bike, you have an array of gears to choose from, available at the push of a button or the click of a shifter; if you’re not happy with your cadence, you can just try a different gear there and then. For single speed bikes however, “shifting gear” means a trip to the bike shop. Worse still, choosing the wrong gear means going back again!
My advice is to choose your gear wisely.
Don’t be fooled by all the flashy photos of specced out fixies you’ve seen on Instagram with their tri-spoke wheels and carbon framesets. You don’t have to spend a fortune to pick up a decent fixed gear bike.
I recommend starting with a steel or aluminium frame. No, steel is not that heavy—that’s propoganda. That said, it is best to avoid the heavy hi-tensile steel frames and unreliable componentry found in the super cheap options. Look for chromoly steel and don’t buy a new bike unless it comes with geometry chart (even if you don’t understand the chart).
My budgeting advice for fixies is much the same as for geared: somewhere within the $400–700 price range is a solid investment for a cost effective long-term bicycle. Not so cheap that it will soon break and necessitate costly repairs, yet not so pricey as to break the bank.
I’ve had my fair share of unwise purchases, but if you know what to look for and what to avoid, then buying second hand is certainly an option and can be outstanding value for money depending on what you can find. Patience and diligence are important virtues for the second hand buyer.
Buying single speed is spending money where it counts
The nice thing about single speed and fixed gear bikes is that they have fewer components overall, demanding fewer resources and less manufacturing costs for a complete bike.
And it’s not just one or two parts: single speed bikes have no derailleur, no gear shifters, no gear cables, no front mech, one less chain ring and a fraction of the number of rear sprockets compared to an 11-by-2 geared bike.
Which is not to mention the possibly of dropping the rear brake which is legal in some countries as mentioned earlier.
All this is to say: money that would otherwise be spent on needless gear-shifting components can instead by spent on the parts that really matter, such as the frameset. Rather than spending $5 each on 11 separate soft-metal sprockets, you can spend $25 on a really solid sprocket and have $30 left to put towards a quality saddle and bar tape.
So whether you buy a complete bike outright, or take the DIY approach and build your own, you are doing away with the frivolous extras and spending money where it truly counts.
I realise some the above points have been critical of the fixed gear lifestyle. And that’s fair enough—it’s not for everyone.
But for those who are curious about this alternative branch of bicycling, maybe it bears thinking about why exactly we do this—why do we limit ourselves to this outdated form of technology and all the inconveniences that come with it? Well, there must be some reason for it, otherwise how do you explain the millions of people doing it?
For many it is the superior ride quality. Some rely on fixed gear
bikes for being less of a hassle to maintain. Maybe the best part is
Seasoned veterans who are tired of the same old same old might find that fixed gear adds that little extra spice to the experience of cycling—or maybe they’ll just find its limitations to be a burden.
Gearing aside, the best kind of bicycle is the one that makes you want to ride it. Whether it’s the aesthetics, the utility, the exercise, or simply the joy of riding that gets you off of the couch and onto the saddle, and whether others approve of your steed matters not. Go with the bike that most sparks excitement in you.