The single speed vs. fixed gear debate is a big point of contention in the cycling world. When it comes to fixed-gear bikes, advocates and naysayers are equally vocal and passionate about their positions.
Ironically, most cyclists who oppose fixed-gear bikes on safety grounds have never actually tried riding one.
If you’re new to these types of bikes, I’ll start by describing their similarities, key differences, pros, cons and ideal terrain for each. Then you can decide for yourself which option might best suit your needs.
What is a single-speed bike?
A single-speed bike is a bicycle that has just a single gear, with no derailleurs or hub gears that allow you to change the gear ratio as you ride. For the purposes of this article, think of a single-speed bike as having a freewheel on the back hub, so when you stop pedalling your chain remains still while your back wheel keeps rolling, and you can coast without pedalling.
What is a fixed-gear bike?
A fixed-gear bike, also known as a fixie, is a single-speed bike that has no freewheel, which means there’s a very direct relationship between the turning of the pedals and the turning of the back wheel. When you pedal, the back wheel turns. When you slow or stop your pedalling, the back wheel slows or stops as well. As long as the bike is in motion, the pedals are in motion. So, presumably, are your legs.
What single-speed and fixed gear bikes have in common
Single-speed and fixed-gear bikes both have a single front chainring and rear cog. Therefore, both types of bike are considered single-speed. Their lack of derailleurs, shifters or multi-chain rings makes them lightweight, low-maintenance and reasonably priced compared to a normal bike. These are all desirable features for beginners looking to hop on a new bike.
Like all bicycles, fixies and single-speeds are not just a mode of transportation but also a vehicle for stylistic expression. Depending on how much you’re willing to invest, you can enjoy a unique customizable appearance for either type of bike. Advocates of single-speed bikes are drawn to their clean, uncluttered look. Overall, these types of bikes are about getting back to the basics.
Differences between single-speed and fixed-gear bikes
The main difference between single-speed and fixed-gear bikes can be found at the rear hub where the cog connects to the drivetrain. Single-speed bikes have a freewheel cog that rotates freely and independently of rear wheel. On a fixie, the rear cog is joined to the rear hub so that when the wheel turns, the cog also turns.
This makes for a big difference in how you ride each bike. Single-speed bikes are similar to normal multi-gear bikes in that they allow you to coast downhill. The freewheel can rotate independently of your pedals. Fixies, on the other hand, force the pedals into continuous motion as you go downhill, rotating in order for the wheel to keep rolling.
This mechanical difference also impacts the need for traditional brakes. Fixed-gear bikes rarely have back brakes. You still want brakes on your front wheel—and in some places it’s illegal to ride without them. However, fixie bike enthusiasts can stop by applying downward pressure to stop or even reverse the rotation of their pedals, the latter resulting in a skid. Each of these methods works better when your feet are strapped or clipped into the pedals.
Advantages of single-speed bikes
Single-speed bikes will feel a lot like a regular bike, but without the advantage of being able to switch gears on uphill climbs. Single-speeds are equipped with full braking capability, offer a standard comfortable riding position, and of course the ability to coast.
Coasting even for a few seconds allows you to take a break from constant pedalling, which in turn keeps you in the saddle longer.
For these reasons, single-speed bikes are better than fixed-gear bikes for long-distance riding and are safer in cities where braking requires quick reaction time.
Single-speed bikes are also easier for beginning cyclists to maneuver and for older cyclists to operate.
Drawbacks of single-speed bikes
Uneven and hilly terrain are a challenge on single-speed bikes, because you must rely on your own fitness to conquer ascents. However, fixed-gear riders face the same challenge with their lack of gears.
The single-speed bike’s freewheel is often criticized by fixie riders because it makes the rider feel less connected to their bicycle. Others will tell you single-speed cyclists are “less cool” than fixie riders.
If you don’t care about other people’s opinions and you enjoy coasting, it’s harder to find a disadvantage with a single-speed bike.
Advantages of fixed-gear bikes
The greatest advantage of a fixed-gear bike is it forces you to train your body and build stamina. The constant pedalling is sure to make your legs stronger.
Fixies are also safer to ride in wet conditions because they don’t rely on traditional rim brakes.
Diehard fixie fans love to highlight that their bike is an extension of themselves. The lack of a freewheel allows them to feel at one with the machine and closer to the road.
Fixies have enjoyed a surge in popularity in recent years, and they are central to a growing subculture among the hipster crowd, with many advocates claiming that they “look cooler.” But again, how you feel about your bike is all that should really matter.
Do you burn more calories on a fixed-gear bike?
You will likely burn more calories riding a fixed-gear bike, particularly if you train in a hilly area. When you ride a fixie, you have to deal with long, out-of-saddle climbs and also put in extra work on descents. The constant pedalling, relying on your legs to slow you down and maintain control, takes a lot out of you.
“Because your legs are constantly in motion, this type of riding provides much more aerobic benefit than geared-bike riding,” Lance Armstrong’s long-time coach Chris Carmichael once told The New York Times. “An hour and a half to two hours of fixed-gear riding is equivalent to four hours of regular riding (on a road bike).”
Drawbacks of fixed-gear bikes
If you’re not used to riding a fixie, it will take a little time to get used to the riding style. Many argue that with practice it becomes intuitive, but these bikes are challenging for beginners. You should practice somewhere safe before attempting to bomb down any steep hills.
Fixies are not for the faint of heart, out of shape, or weak-kneed riders. The force required to stop could cause further damage to previously compromised knees. Fixed-bike couriers report the need to always be alert to road conditions and intuitively predict the actions of drivers. This is because without front brakes, the stopping distance is twice as long. And if you are relying on skid stopping, you will wear through your expensive rubber tires much faster.
Another tricky aspect of fixed bikes is taking corners. Due to the constant pedalling you can’t always keep your inside leg raised. If the inside leg reaches the bottom of a pedal stroke in the middle of a sharp-angled turn, you risk clipping the pavement.
Best of both worlds
Advances in bike technology mean you don’t actually have to pick between a single-speed or a fixed-gear bike.
Many models come with a “flip-flop hub,” meaning that one side enables the freewheel style and the other engages the fixed-wheel method. You can switch between the two by simply flipping your rear wheel over.
If you’re considering purchasing a fixed-gear bike, I would highly recommend you get one with this option. Therefore you can try both, figure out which works best for you, and switch between them.
Personally, I’ve never actually tried riding a fixed-gear bike and people have warned me against it. But the more I read about how much fixie riders adore the feeling and how nothing compares to it, the more keen I am to try riding one. I certainly wouldn’t write them off without giving it a go, but I won’t be taking the plunge downhill anytime soon!