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Single Speed Vs Fixed Gear Bike (Fixie): What’s the Difference?

From the outside, single speed and fixed gear bikes look identical. They both have one speed. All fixed gear bikes are single speed. Not all single speed bikes are fixed gear. It’s important to recognize the difference between the two because both types of bikes offers completely different ride experiences. In this guide, I’ll outline the differences between single speed and fixed gear bikes. I’ll also list the pros and cons of riding a single speed vs fixed gear bike. I’ll cover performance, efficiency, speed, the ride experience, comfort, peddle strike, and much more.

I’ve always been a fan of the simplicity of single speed bikes. About 10 years ago, I bought my first fixed gear bike. I rode that bike to college every day for a couple of years. These days, I prefer single speed because I like having the ability to coast. In this guide, I’ll share my experience.

Key Takeaways

Both fixed gear and single speed bikes have a single gear. Single speed bikes have a freewheel mechanism that allows you to coast. Fixed gear bikes do not have a freewheel. You have to pedal constantly.

Fixed gear bikes give you more control and more feedback from the bike. Riding fixie can help you become a stronger cyclist. Fixed gear bikes also give you more exercise. They are also lightweight and low maintenance bikes.

Single speed bikes are efficient because they allow you to coast. They are safer and easier to ride. Pedal strike is less likely. There is no learning curve. They can also be easier on the knees.

Fixies are great for urban commuters, bike messengers and couriers, track cyclists, minimalists, and cycling enthusiasts who are into fixed gear riding.

Single speed bikes are great for recreational cyclists, commuters, beginners, urban riders, those on a tight budget, and leisure riders.

A red fixed gear bike with drop bars
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What’s the Difference Between a Single Speed and Fixed Gear Bike?

The main difference between single speed and fixed gear bikes is the rear hub. Single speed bikes have a freewheel mechanism This allows you to coast. Fixed gear bikes do not have a freewheel. This means you have to keep pedaling at all times while the bike is moving.

Another major difference between a fixed gear and single speed bike is the brakes. On a fixed gear bike, you can brake by resisting the motion of the peddles. Single speed bicycles need front and rear brakes.

When it comes to actually riding the bike, the difference between a fixed gear and single speed is huge. Riding a fixed gear bike is a completely different experience from riding a single speed.

A fixie leaning up against a tree

Fixed Gear Bikes

Fixed gear bikes have a single cog and chainring. The rear cog is bolted in place on the hub of the rear wheel. It cannot rotate independently from the wheel. The rear cog and rear wheel turn together. They have a direct connection to the cranks and peddles through the chain. When the bike is rolling, the cranks and pedals are turning. This means you must pedal at all times while riding a fixed gear bike. You cannot coast or back peddle.

On a fixed gear bike, you can brake by resisting the rotating force of the cranks. You can also stop the cranks from rotating to lock up the rear wheel and skid.

Most fixed gear riders use these techniques to brake instead of using regular disc or rim brakes. Most fixed gear bikes come with regular brakes for safety reasons. Some riders remove the brakes completely.

Fixed gear bikes are commonly referred to as fixies. Track bikes are also always fixed gear.

Single Speed Bikes

A single speed bike

Single speed bikes are equipped with a freewheel mechanism. This allows the rear cog to rotate in one direction relative to the rear wheel but not the other. The cog can freely spin backward or stay in place while the rear wheel rolls forward.

This mechanism is what allows you to coast or pedal backward while riding a single speed bike. This also allows the rear wheel to turn at higher speeds than the cog and peddles. When you walk a single speed bike, the peddles do not turn. If you peddle backward, the cog moves backward but the wheel isn’t affected.

When you pedal forward and start moving the cog at the same speed or faster than the rear wheel, the freewheel mechanism ‘catches’. The cog cannot move forward relative to the rear wheel. At this point, you start transmitting power from the peddles to the rear wheel to accelerate the bike forward. 

a single speed drivetrain

The freewheel is a ratchet mechanism. There are two different systems that are used. Most commonly the ratchet mechanism is built into the rear cog. The ratchet and cog unit threads onto the hub. This system is called a freewheel.

The ratchet mechanism can also be built into the hub. This system is known as a freehub. Both systems work similarly.

You can buy a single speed version of pretty much any type of bicycle including road bikes, mountain bikes, gravel bikes, hybrids, folding bikes, fat bikes, beach cruisers, etc. It is also possible to convert any regular bike to a single speed.

Fixed Gear Bike Pros

1. Riding fixed gear can help you become a stronger cyclist

Fixed gear bikes force you to ride at cadences that you may not be used to or comfortable with. You must learn how to ride at different cadences because any change in speed means a change in cadence. 

For example, while descending a big hill on a fixie, you might reach a cadence of over 150 RPM. Being forced to ride at an uncomfortably high cadence trains you to maintain a higher cadence when riding a geared bike. You’ll also learn how to create more power while riding at a lower cadence while you’re climbing hills.

Riding a fixed-gear bike can also help you develop a more efficient pedal stroke. Because you can’t coast, you’re forced to learn how to peddle in smooth circles rather than in a choppy up and down motion. Your pedaling has to be smooth because the motion of the pedals is constant. You can’t pedal hard for a few strokes then let off. Having a smooth pedal stroke greatly improves your efficiency. 

Riding a fixed gear bicycle can help you develop better stamina and a more powerful pedal stroke because you can’t stop pedaling. You’ll train yourself to continue pedaling at all times. Your leg muscles will develop.

You’re also forced to pedal through corners while riding a fixie. This teaches you better handling skills. For example, you’ll learn how to avoid pedal strike. This helps you ride faster.

professional cyclists racing

Many professional cyclists use fixed gear bikes for training for these reasons. Riding fixie bikes part of the time can make them stronger riders.

2. A fixed gear gives you more control over the rear wheel, which improves traction 

When riding a fixie, you can precisely control the speed and motion of the rear wheel. For example, you can slow the rear wheel down by resisting the rotation of the cranks. You can pedal harder to speed the rear wheel up. You can even peddle backward to make the rear wheel rotate backward. This allows you to precisely control the bike’s speed and motion through the drivetrain. 

Having this much control over the rear wheel can improve traction on slippery surfaces, such as gravel, sand, snow, or ice. You can feel how much traction you’re getting through the pedals and make corrections quickly if the wheel starts to slip. Fixed gear bikes are a good choice for winter cycling for this reason. 

Having precise control of the rear wheel also allows you to perform some cool tricks like riding backward or skidding the rear wheel.

3. Riding a fixed-gear bike gives you more exercise and improves your endurance and level of fitness

Because you can’t stop pedaling, you naturally burn more calories while riding a fixed gear bike. Your average heart rate will remain higher because you can never coast and rest. You end up getting a more intense workout as a result.

This makes fixed gear bikes a great choice for those who cycle for exercise or to lose weight. You’ll burn fat faster and improve your stamina while riding a fixie. 

Using your legs to slow the peddles and brake can also help you to strengthen underused muscles in your legs. This can make your legs stronger. This extra strength comes in handy while climbing hills. 

4. Fixed gear bikes give you more feedback from the road

You get more feedback from the road when you ride fixie bikes because the rear wheel can drive the cranks. This allows you to feel the terrain under you a bit better. 

For example, if you hit a bump, the rear wheel may slow down and then speed up after clearing the bump. When you ride down a hill, the rear wheel speeds up. When you hit an incline, the rear wheel slows down. You’ll feel this change in speed in your legs because the speed of the rear wheel directly controls the speed of the pedals. 

On a single speed bike, you wouldn’t feel this change as much because the freewheel mechanism allows the rear wheel to spin faster than the cranks. You may not notice bumps or changes in incline as much.

Some riders claim that riding a fixie makes them feel more connected to the road for this reason. This connected feeling may help improve traction and handling. Particularly while riding on loose or slippery surfaces. 

5. Fixies look cool

Many cyclists enjoy the clean look of a fixed gear bike. If you ride without brakes, there are no cables hanging off the frame. There are no shifters or levers attached to the handlebars. Of course, there are no derailleurs either. The bike looks simple and minimalist. This aesthetic is always in style. 

Many fixie riders also customize their bike to suit their own personal sense of style. For example, you could match the color of your frame and wheels. You could install a colorful chain, chainring, grips, or tires to match your frame or wheels. A fixie can be a piece of art. 

A fixed gear bike with red wheels, a red chain, a red chainring, and red grips

Some fixie riders go as far as to adopt a specific style of clothing to go along with their bike. They wear classic bike messenger style of clothing. Riding fixies has also become a part of urban culture. Some cities have fixie clubs or groups that ride together. It’s a whole subculture. There are plenty of online fixie groups as well. Group rides can be a great social experience.

6. Climbing hills can be easier on a fixie

Many cyclists have a ‘dead spot’ in their pedal stroke. This is a point where you can’t provide much torque to the cranks due to the position of the pedals. This is usually when the cranks are vertical.

A dead spot can slow you down and create a jerky feeling. On hills, the dead spot can really slow you down because you lose momentum during this part of the pedal stroke. 

Fixed gear bikes can reduce or eliminate the dead spot. This is possible because the momentum of the bike carries you through the dead spot. Even if you stop producing power, the pedals continue turning as long as the bike is rolling. Your bike essentially pulls your feet over the dead spot. This helps you create a smoother and more powerful stroke, allowing you to climb hills without as much effort. 

7. Fixed gear bikes can be lighter

On a fixed gear bike, you can brake by resisting the rotating force of the peddles. You don’t necessarily need rim brakes or disc brakes. Some riders choose to remove the brakes to save weight. Some riders only remove the rear brakes and leave the front. 

Removing both brakes can cut around 1-1.5 pounds from the weight of the bike. You’re eliminating the brake calipers, brake levers, brake cables, and cable housings. This is a significant weight savings. 

Personally, I recommend against removing the brakes for safety reasons. It’s also important to note that brakes are legally required in some jurisdictions.

It’s also important to note that fixed gear and single speed bikes are not necessarily lighter than geared bikes. This is the case because these bikes tend to use heavier duty components. Most models come with heavy steel frames. Fixed gear bikes, in particular, need sturdy frames that can handle the extra stress of fixed gear riding. Single speed and fixed gear bikes also tend to have thicker chains and cogs that add a bit of weight.

8. You can track stand more easily on a fixie

This is the technique of balancing your bike with your feet on the peddles without the bike moving forward or backward. Track standing comes in handy when you have to stop but you don’t want to unclip your feet from the peddles. For example, maybe you’re waiting for a traffic light to change. You can start moving faster when you’re already clipped in and ready to go. 

Fixed gear bikes make track standing easier by allowing you to pedal forward and backward slightly to help maintain your balance. It is possible to track stand on a bike with a freewheel but it’s much harder. You may not be able to maintain the position for quite as long as you can on a fixed gear bike. For some tips on how to track stand, check out this guide.

9. The fixie tradition

Before freewheels or derailleurs were invented, all bicycles were fixed gear. Fixed gear bikes have also been used by bike messengers throughout history. Mail was commonly delivered by bicycle in many American and European cities during the 1800s.

These days, many cyclists like to ride a fixed gear bike to keep with the tradition. This is the main reason that many modern-day bike messengers ride fixies.

A bike messenger riding a fixie

10. Theft may be less likely when you ride a fixie

Because there is a learning curve to riding a fixie, the average bike thief can’t just hop on and ride away as easily as they could on a bike with a freewheel. If there are no brakes, a thief may have even more trouble.

Fixies also have lower resale value than single-speed bikes because demand is lower. Fixies are not valuable bikes. This makes it harder and less profitable for a thief to sell the bike. They may choose to steal another more valuable bike instead of your fixie.

11. Fixed gear bikes require less maintenance

Like single-speed bikes, fixies don’t have shifters, derailleurs, or derailleur cables to keep clean and adjusted. All you have to do is keep the drivetrain clean and keep the chain properly tensioned. Once in a while, you’ll have to replace the chain and cog when they wear out. 

Fixies drivetrains are even simpler than single-speed drivetrains. They have fewer components. For example, fixed gear bikes don’t have a freewheel mechanism to maintain. This means there are fewer bearings to grease or replace. In the rear wheel of a fixie, the only bearings you have to worry about are the axle bearings. There are no freehub or freewheel bearings to worry about.  

If you ride a fixie without brakes, you never have to worry about making adjustments to the calipers or cables or replacing the brake pads. Even if you run brakes, you won’t have to perform maintenance as frequently because you use the brakes far less. Pads will last much longer if you brake by resisting the rotation of the cranks. 

12. You can do some interesting tricks on a fixed gear bike

Some fixie riders like to perform stunts or tricks. This kind of riding is sometimes called fixed gear freestyle. A few common tricks include riding backwards/fakie, wheelies, bunny hops, skidding the rear tire, fish & chips, and track stands. 

Some tricks are easier to perform on a fixed gear bike than on a single speed. Some tricks are only possible on a fixed gear bike because you can pedal backward. For some examples of the kinds of tricks a fixie is capable of, check out this cool YouTube video.

13. Riding fixed gear makes you feel more connected to the bike

Many avid fixie riders make this claim. The argument is that a fixed gear bike becomes an extension of your body when you’re clipped in because you control the rear wheel directly. When you pedal, the bike moves forward. When you stop pedaling, the wheel locks up. If you pedal backward, the bike moves backward. The movement of the rear wheel is directly tied to the movement of your feet.

Fixed Gear Cons

1. There is a steep learning curve to riding a fixed gear bike

Not being able to stop pedaling feels really strange at first. It takes some getting used to, even if you’re an experienced cyclist. While you’re learning, you’ll naturally try to coast.

When you inevitably try to stop pedaling, you’ll experience a kickback. The cranks keep spinning and push on your legs when you stop pedaling. If your feet come off, the cranks may spin around and hit your legs. You have to remember to always keep moving your legs while the bike is rolling. 

You’ll also have to learn how to brake by resisting the motion of the peddles. This takes some time and practice to perfect. It feels kind of counterintuitive. You won’t be able to stop efficiently at first. Your muscles need some time to develop. It’s a good idea to keep both of the brakes installed to be safe.

Pedal strike is another consideration. Because you have to keep pedaling through corners, you can’t lean as far while riding a fixie. You have to learn your limits so you don’t hit a pedal and crash.

When learning to ride a fixed gear bike, go somewhere without any traffic or people around, such as an empty parking lot. Ride around for a while and practice. Practice braking by resisting the pedal motion. Practice cornering to see how far you can lean before the pedals strike the ground. Ride over some bumpy and slippery surfaces to see how it feels. Test your traction. Teach yourself how to start pedaling from a stop. Once you master these basic fixie skills, you can start riding on the city streets safely and confidently. 

The first time I rode a fixed gear bike, I was surprised by how different it felt. It took much longer than I expected to feel comfortable riding. There was a strong learning curve. 

2. Fixed gear bikes can be dangerous

There are a number of reasons for this. First, if your pant leg or shoelace gets stuck in the drivetrain, the cranks just keep on spinning. If this happens, your pants will usually either rip or pull down. The wheel could also lock up.

In a worst-case scenario, you could be pulled off the bike and faceplant directly into the ground. As you could imagine, this could cause a severe injury. It can even be fatal. 

When you ride a fixed gear bike, you’ll want to be sure to roll your pant leg up and tuck your shoelaces away. If you’re using luggage, make sure all straps are secured. Make sure no clothing or gear is hanging near the drivetrain. You may also consider installing a chain guard. These look kind of lame but can increase safety. You should also always wear a helmet while riding a fixie. 

Pedal strike is also a more common danger on a fixed gear bike because you can’t stop pedaling or move your pedal out of the way while leaning the bike through a corner. A pedal strike during a high speed turn could cause you to crash. When your pedal hits the ground, the rear wheel can lift off the ground and the bike can slide out from under you. You need to know how far you can lean before your pedal hits the ground.

Another potential danger is not being able to stop. If you decide to ride without brakes, you won’t be able to stop if your chain brakes or comes off or if your feet come off of the peddles.

Not being able to stop is incredibly dangerous, as you can imagine. For this reason, it’s recommended that you always ride with at least a front brake. Brakes are also required in order for the bike to be considered legal in many jurisdictions.

In some situations, it can be harder to look around while riding a fixie. For example, while descending a hill at speed, you can’t easily twist your body around to look behind you while maintaining an extremely high cadence. This can make it harder to see if a vehicle is approaching, which can also pose a safety risk. 

3. You can’t coast on a fixie

While riding a fixed gear bike, you must continue pedaling at all times. This is inefficient because you’re always burning energy pedaling. You can’t take a break and coast and let gravity or your momentum carry you along. 

For many riders, this is the biggest drawback to riding a fixed gear bike. There will be times that you want to coast but can’t. It gets annoying. 

If you have good brakes, it is possible to remove your legs from the peddles and let them spin freely. This feels unstable and looks kind of funny but it is possible. 

4. Riding fixed gear can be hard on your knees

This is a controversial point. Some riders argue that riding a fixed gear bike is no harder on your knees than riding any other bike. Others claim to have developed knee pain while riding a fixie. I have not been able to find any scientific evidence to back up either claim. 

We do know that riding a fixed gear bike requires you to pedal constantly. This could accelerate joint wear in the knee because you use your knees more while riding a fixed gear bike. It could potentially lead to an overuse injury in the knee, which can cause pain. For this reason, a fixie may not be the best choice for long-distance rides. 

Stopping a fixed gear bike by resisting the rotation of the peddles also puts additional force on your knee joints. All of the force you use to stop must travel through the weight-bearing surfaces in your knee joint. This can put additional stress on your knees. Locking up your tire is particularly stressful because it requires quite a bit of force. You could eliminate this issue completely by simply using brakes. 

There is a counterargument to this. Some cyclists argue that riding a fixie teaches you proper pedaling technique and strengthens the muscles in the knees. This can reduce knee pain.

If you start experiencing knee pain while riding a fixed gear bike, you should stop riding. Riding through the pain could cause permanent damage.

Of course, the drivetrain isn’t always the cause of knee pain. Bike fit is crucial. For example, you need to make sure your clipless pedals are adjusted properly if you use them. Make sure the frame fits you. Good pedaling technique is also important. 

5. Pedal strike is more common on fixed-gear bicycles

When riding a fixed gear bike, you have to keep pedaling through corners. If you lean too far, your pedal can hit the ground. During a pedal strike, your rear wheel can lift off the ground, causing you to lose traction. The bike can slide out from under you. While riding over rough terrain, your pedal can get caught up on a root, rock, log, or other obstacle that is sticking up. This could throw you off the bike. 

You can’t move the pedal out of the way in these situations like you can on a bike with a freewheel because the cranks can’t move independently from the rear wheel. You can’t control when each pedal is facing down near the ground. 

There are a couple of ways to reduce the likelihood of pedal strikes while riding a fixie. The best option is to use shorter cranks. This gives the pedals a bit more ground clearance, allowing you to lean further. Many fixies come with 165mm cranks instead of standard 170-175mm cranks that most road bikes use. 165mm is the shortest crank length that is widely available. 

Using smaller peddles can help to give you a bit more clearance as well. Small clipless pedals allow you to lean further than large platform pedals. You could also use a frame with a higher bottom bracket. This would also raise the pedals a bit higher off the ground. Even with these modifications, you need to be careful about how much you lean while riding a fixed gear bike to avoid pedal strike.

6. Fixed gear bikes are hard on chains, chainrings, and cogs

Because you can’t coast, fixie chains are always spinning while you’re riding. This speeds up the wear of the chain, chainring, and cog. Whenever you’re riding, there is friction between the chain and gears causing wear and tear. You’ll have to replace these parts more frequently. 

When you brake by resisting the motion of the peddles, you’re also putting additional stress on the chain. All of this braking force has to move through the chain because the chain is what connects the crankset to the rear wheel. This force can break a chain on occasion. It also causes the chain to wear faster. As a result, your chain may not last quite as long on a fixed gear bike. 

A single speed drivetrain

To reduce the likelihood of breaking a chain, many riders use an extra-thick chain. Most fixed-gear bicycles come with a 1/8” chain instead of a standard 3/32” chain. A 1/8” chain is 1/32” thicker than a 3/32” chain. This extra material adds a bit of strength.

To use one of these wide chains, you’ll also need a wider chainring and rear sprocket. The chain will still probably need to be replaced more frequently than you’re used to.

7. There is a negative stigma to fixed gear bikes

Some riders consider fixed gear bikes to be ‘hipster bikes’. People sometimes ride fixies just to be trendy. Fixed gear bikes can even be considered a fashion accessory. Some cyclists consider fixies to be kind of pointless and ridiculous because they use outdated technology for seemingly no reason. After all, freewheels have been around for well over 100 years at this point. Sometimes fixed gear riders come off as kind of pretentious. 

A fixed gear bike

8. Fixed gear bikes are inefficient

Because you always have to peddle a fixed gear bike, you’re always burning energy while riding. This means you can’t let gravity do the work for you and carry you down a hill. You can’t take a break and coast for a moment. You must always keep pedaling. You’ll burn more energy this way.

This causes you to tire out sooner while riding a fixed gear bike. You won’t be able to cover quite as much ground as you could on a single-speed with a freewheel or a geared bike. This can be an issue on long rides

9. You have to peddle at a high cadence while descending hills

If you want to descend hills quickly on a fixie you’ll have to peddle fast. You may have to pedal at speeds up to 170 rpm. This can be incredibly uncomfortable. For unskilled cyclists, it’s impossible to pedal that fast.

If the peddles start moving too fast for you to keep up, you’ll have to brake and slow down. You can’t descend a steep hill as fast on a fixie as you can on a bike with a freewheel. 

10. The peddles can hit your legs

If one of your feet slips off the pedal, the pedal can rotate around and hit the back of your calf or ankle. This can cause cuts, scrapes, and bruises. This is a common injury for people who are just learning how to ride fixed gear because they forget that the pedal is always moving. 

The solution is to make sure your feet are firmly attached to the pedals. Using clips and straps or a clipless peddles system can really help. Flat pedals are not ideal for riding fixed gear.

11. You can’t descend as quickly on a fixed gear bike

On a fast descent, the peddles start turning too quickly for you to keep up. When this happens, you’ll have to brake and slow down. You may not be able to keep up with your friends who ride bikes with freewheels. This makes fixed gear bikes a bit slower while riding on hilly terrain.

12. More difficult to jump over obstacles

The fact that you have to keep pedaling makes it much harder to jump on a fixie. Even hopping over a pothole or up a curb can be a challenge. This is because you must learn how to jump regardless of the pedal position. 

Riding clipless pedals makes it much easier to jump because you can pull up on the peddles. Still, it takes some practice.

Single Speed Bike Pros

A single speed bike

1. Single speed bikes can be safer

If your pant leg or shoelace gets caught between the chainring and chain on a single-speed bike with a freewheel, you can just stop pedaling, pull over, and deal with it safely while stopped on the side of the road. Sometimes you can simply pedal backward and your pants or shoelace will get unstuck. On a fixie, the cranks just keep spinning and the problem gets worse. 

Freewheel bikes also make it easier to avoid pedal strike. You can rotate the cranks so the pedal facing the inside of the corner is up out of the way. When you lean into the corner, there is no chance of the pedal hitting the ground.

You can also rotate your pedals to move them out of the way of obstacles while riding rough terrain. For example, if you spot a stump sticking out of the ground, you can move the pedal up to clear it. This is important because a bad pedal strike can cause you to crash. This makes single speed bikes the better choice for riding on rugged terrain.

It can also be easier to look around while riding a single speed bike with a freewheel. You can stop pedaling and twist your body around and look behind you. This allows you to better see what’s going on around you. For example, you can easily check for traffic. With a fixie, it’s not as easy to turn around to look back while you’re still pedaling. 

In addition, the pedals are less likely to strike your legs while riding a single speed. When you stop pedaling, the pedals simply stop moving. 

2. You can coast on a single speed

When riding a single speed bike with a freewheel, you can stop pedaling whenever you want and let gravity or your momentum carry you along. Having the ability to coast comes in handy in a wide range of situations. 

Most commonly, you’ll want to coast while descending a hill. You may also want to coast while taking a drink of water or eating a snack. Coasting can also make it easier to turn around to look behind you. Sometimes coasting makes it easier to navigate traffic situations or ride through tight gaps. Sometimes you simply want to stop pedaling for a few seconds to relax or adjust your position. For many riders, having the ability to coast is the main reason they choose a single speed bike with a freewheel over a fixie. Coasting is convenient.

3. The drivetrain components last longer

While riding a bike with a freewheel, you put less wear and tear on the chain, chainring, or rear cog because they’re not constantly moving. While you coast, these parts sit still, not accumulating any wear.

In addition, you’re not putting additional force on your chain while braking like you are when you ride a fixie. As a result, you may not have to replace your chain, cog, or chainring quite as frequently. 

A single speed bike drivetrain

This saves you money because you won’t have to buy replacement drivetrain parts as often. It also saves you time because you won’t have to perform maintenance on your bike as frequently. 

4. Single speed bikes are more efficient

Having a freewheel gives you the ability to coast. This can save you a massive amount of energy. You can let gravity carry you down a hill without having to peddle at all. If you ride in a hilly area, you might only have to peddle half of the time you’re riding.

While you’re coasting, you’re not burning any energy at all. You can just sit back and enjoy the view. This energy savings allows you to ride further without tiring out. If you regularly ride long-distance, you’ll be happy to have a freewheel. While riding a fixed gear bike, you’re pedaling and burning energy at all times.

5. Single speed bikes are easier on your knees

As mentioned earlier, this point isn’t really proven but I think it’s worth mentioning. While riding a single speed bike with a freewheel, you naturally pedal less because you can coast part of the time. This means you’re using your knees a bit less. You may be less likely to develop an overuse injury as a result. 

With a freewheel, you’re also not using your legs to brake. This greatly reduces stress on your knee joints. For these reasons, you may be less likely to develop knee pain while riding a bike with a freewheel.

6. It’s easier to avoid pedal strike while riding a single speed bike with a freewheel

While leaning into a corner, you can rotate your cranks so the pedal pointing toward the inside of the corner is at the top position, away from the ground. This way, it won’t hit the ground while you lean.

While riding bumpy terrain, you can hold your cranks horizontal so the peddles will be less likely to get caught on a root, rock, or other obstacle. This greatly reduces the likelihood of a pedal strike. This makes riding off-road much easier with a single speed.

7. There is no learning curve to riding single speed

If you know how to ride a bike, you can ride a single speed with a freewheel. In fact, these bikes are easier to ride than geared bikes because there are no gears to shift. You can just hop on and pedal. You don’t have to re-learn how to peddle or brake like you do on a fixie. It’s much easier to ride a bike with a freewheel.

8. You can descend hills faster

The freewheel mechanism allows you to descend as fast gravity can carry you down the hill. On a steep hill, you can coast much faster than you could ever peddle. If you ride with a freewheel and your friends ride fixed gear, you’ll beat them to the bottom of the hill.

9. You’re can ride at lower cadences

When the wheels start spinning too fast for you to keep up, you can simply stop pedaling and start coasting. With a freewheel, the rear wheel can turn faster than the cog. You don’t have to keep pedaling. This makes descending big hills much more comfortable. You can maintain a comfortable cadence at all times. 

10. Easier to avoid obstacles on a single speed

Being able to stop pedaling makes it much easier to jump over obstacles with a single speed bike with a freewheel. You can simply rotate your pedals to the appropriate position and easily hop up a curb or over a pothole.

Using clipless pedals makes this even easier because you can pull up on the pedals to hop the bike. Being able to hop the bike or lift the front wheel makes it much easier to avoid obstacles in the road or on the trail. 

Single Speed Bike Cons

1. Less exercise

Riding a bike with a freewheel gives you a less intense workout than riding a fixie. The reason is that you can stop pedaling and start coasting whenever you want.

While riding down hills, chances are you’ll coast part of the way. When your heart rate starts climbing too high, you’ll coast for a few moments to avoid the discomfort. As a result, you’ll burn fewer calories during your ride. You’ll have to ride a bit further to get the same workout that you would on a fixie.

2. Single speed bikes don’t offer as much traction

When riding a single speed with a freewheel, you can’t control the speed or motion of the rear wheel as precisely as you can on a fixed gear bike. It’s also harder to feel how much traction you’re getting. There is a disconnect between you and the rear tire due to the freewheel mechanism.

As a result, you can’t make corrections quite as quickly. While braking on a slippery surface, it’s easier to lose traction and start to skid. This can make single speed bikes harder to ride on wet or loose surfaces. 

3. Looks

A bike with a freewheel requires two brakes. The brakes can make the bike look more complex and messy. For example, there are levers bolted onto the handlebars and calipers bolted onto the frame and brake cables running from the handlebars to the calipers.

In addition, single speed freewheel bikes aren’t really part of fixie culture, even though they are very similar mechanically. You may not fit into a fixie club or group if you ride a bike with a freewheel. There isn’t really a community for single speed riders, unless you’re riding a BMX bike. 

This point really only matters if you care about looks. Most riders aren’t trying to make a fashion statement with their bike. 

4. It’s harder to climb hills on a single speed

While climbing a hill with a single speed bike with a freewheel, it can be a challenge to pedal through the dead spot. It’s difficult to continue creating torque while the pedals are vertical. You create power during the downstroke then lose power while passing over the dead spot. The freewheel allows the rear wheel to keep spinning without the cranks. This makes climbing on a single speed a bit more difficult.  If you can’t keep the cranks spinning, you’ll have to get off the bike and walk it. 

On a geared bike, you have the option to shift down into a lower gear that makes it easier to pedal through the dead spot. This isn’t an option on a single speed. On a fixie, the motion of the bike helps turn the cranks through the dead spot.

5. It’s easy to ride lazily or inefficiently on a single speed bike

Some cyclists develop a bad pedal stroke while riding a bike with a freewheel. They kind of pedal up and down in a choppy motion rather than pedaling in a smooth circular motion. This is possible because you can coast through part of the pedal stroke. This creates a jerky motion and slows you down. Fixed gear bikes promote a better pedal stroke.  

In addition, you’ll be tempted to stop pedaling and start coasting when the cadence gets too high. While riding a single speed, you also tend to coast through corners. You won’t push yourself quite as hard because you can easily stop pedaling. For these reasons, single speed bikes don’t work quite as well for training. 

6. Single speed bikes can be heavier

A single speed bike with a freewheel needs a front brake and a rear brake. Fixies only need a front brake because you can use the drivetrain as a rear brake. The extra rear brake components add around 1 pound to the weight of your bike. This includes the weight of the brake lever, caliper, pads, cable, and rotor if you use disc brakes. 

7. A single speed bike can require more maintenance

Maintaining a single speed bike is easy regardless of whether has a freewheel or fixed gear. That said, if you ride a bike with a freewheel, you may have to spend a bit more time on maintenance.

The brakes require more maintenance on single-speed bikes. You’ll have to keep them properly adjusted and replace the pads when they wear out. Every couple of years, you may have to replace the cables. Rim brakes can cause your rims to wear slightly faster. 

You don’t have to perform brake maintenance as frequently on a fixed gear bicycle because you use the brakes less. Instead, you brake through the drivetrain. Some fixed gear bikes don’t even have brakes to maintain.

In addition, single speed bikes have additional bearings in the freewheel mechanism. These require minimal maintenance but there is maintenance involved. 

8. Single speed bikes don’t give you as much feedback from the road

When you ride a single speed, you can’t feel the terrain under you quite as well because the rear wheel can move independently from the cranks, thanks to the freewheel mechanism. For example, when you hit a bump or incline and the rear wheel slows down, you can’t really feel it. As a result, you may not feel as connected to the bike while riding a single speed with a freewheel. This can make it a bit harder to maintain traction while riding on loose surfaces.

Flip-Flop Hub: Another Option

A flip-flop hub gives you the option to ride either fixed gear or with a freewheel on the same bike. Flip flop hubs have a single cog on either side of the rear wheel. One side has a fixed cog. The other side has a freewheel cog.

You choose which cog you want to use. It’s like having two bikes in one. Most off-the-shelf fixed gear bikes come with a flip flop hub. It’s the best of both worlds.

This flip flop hub design allows you to easily switch between fixed gear and freewheel. To make the switch, you simply remove the rear wheel, flip it around, then reinstall it so the other cog is engaged on the chain.

What to Look for When Choosing a Single Speed or Fixed Gear Bike

Frame Design

The most popular frame and fork material for single speed and fixed gear bikes is steel. The reason is that steel stands up well to the abuses of urban riding. It can handle bumps and scratches and drops without bending or cracking. Steel can also handle the extreme forces generated by fixed gear cycling. It is the most durable bike frame material. One thing you do have to look out for is rust.

Aluminum frames are also popular for single speed and fixed gear bikes. They are significantly lighter than steel. To save weight, some riders choose to use a carbon fiber fork. You can build a single speed or fixed gear bike with any frame material. Some riders prefer carbon. A carbon fork can improve ride quality.

Pretty much any type of bike frame can be run single speed. Most riders prefer a rigid frame and fork for single speed and fixed gear riding. Not having suspension keeps the bike simple and efficient. 

Chain Tension on Single Speed and Fixed Gear Bikes

In order to run a single speed drivetrain, you need a way to adjust the tension of the chain. This is necessary to prevent the chain from unshipping. In other words, the chain must be kept taught so it doesn’t slip off of the cog or chainring. 

This is particularly important if you ride a fixie. You can’t use the drivetrain to slow down if your chain drops. On a geared bike, the rear derailleur functions as a chain tensioner. On a single speed bike, you need a dedicated chain tensioner.

There are three ways to adjust the chain tension on a single speed or fixed gear bike. You can use adjustable dropouts, an eccentric bottom bracket, or a chain tensioner. In this section, I’ll outline each. 

Dropout Chain Tensioner

Fixed gear and single speed specific frames often have horizontal dropouts instead of vertical. The dropout opening faces the back of the bike. The dropout is a slot that measures a couple of inches in length.

This design allows you to slide the rear wheel backward and forward in the dropout to adjust the tension of the chain. If there is too much slack in the chain, you can loosen the axle bolts and slide the wheel back a couple of millimeters then tighten the bolts back up to hold the axle in place. If the chain is too tight, you can loosen the bolts and slide the axle forward a bit to reduce the tension. This is the simplest single speed dropout design.

A couple of similar dropout mechanisms exist that perform the same function. One uses tension bolts. These allow you to precisely adjust the location of the rear axle by tightening or loosening a bolt. This causes the axle to slide forward and backward in the dropout. A slightly more complicated design, the swinger dropout, pivots the rear axle to move it forward and backward.

Adjusting the chain tension by moving the rear axle in the dropouts is only possible with frames that are designed to run single speed. You likely won’t have this option if you’re converting a geared bike to single speed or fixed gear.

Eccentric Bottom Bracket

An eccentric bottom bracket is a device that allows you to adjust the chain tension by moving the crankset forwards and backward. The eccentric bottom bracket fits inside of your frame’s bottom bracket shell. A standard bottom bracket threads into the eccentric bottom bracket and sits off-center. You can rotate the bottom bracket inside of the eccentric bottom bracket so the entire crankset moves closer from or further to the rear axle. This changes the chain tension.

Eccentric bottom brackets are compatible with pretty much every bike frame. They are an excellent choice for those who are converting a geared bike to single speed or fixed gear.

One potential drawback is that they can start to squeak as they age. This squeaking is caused by metal parts rubbing against one another. You can eliminate this issue by greasing the parts that rub against one another.

For more info on eccentric bottom brackets, check out this great guide.

White industries also offers an eccentric rear hub. This works similarly to an eccentric bottom bracket. You rotate the axle assembly to adjust the chain tension.

Chain Tensioner

A chain tensioner is a single jockey wheel that is mounted to a spring-loaded arm. The arm usually mounts to the rear dropout. It could also mount to the chainstay.

The wheel sits below the chainstay. You adjust the chain tension by moving the jockey wheel up or down. Moving the jockey wheel down presses on the chain to increase the tension. Moving the wheel up reduces tension.

A single speed bike with a chain tensioner
Notice the chain tensioner attached to the dropout

It’s important to note that a chain tensioner is only compatible with bikes with a freewheel. Chain tensioners are not compatible with fixed gear bikes. If you plan to ride fixed gear, you’ll have to adjust the chain tension with an eccentric bottom bracket or with the dropouts.

The Drivetrain and Gearing

One of the most important decisions you’ll have to make when setting up your single speed or fixed gear bike is which gear ratio to go with. Because there is only one gear, you’ll have to strike a compromise.

The gearing has to be low enough for you to easily start pedaling from a stop and climb hills. It must be high enough for you to cruise at a decent speed without having to pedal too fast.

If the gearing is too low, you’ll spin out while accelerating and you’ll have to spin too fast while cruising. If the gearing is too high, you’ll have to walk your bike up hills. Too high of gearing can also cause knee pain for some cyclists.

The ideal gear ratio for a single speed or fixed gear bike depends on a number of factors including where you ride, the type of bike you ride, and your level of fitness. 

Most single speed and fixed gear bikes have a gear ratio somewhere between 2.6 and 3. The most common gearing for single speed and fixed gear road bikes and city bikes are 44/16 (2.75 gear ratio) and 46/16 (2.875 gear ratio).

The first number in the gear ratio represents the number of teeth on the chainring and the second number represents the number of teeth on the rear cog. The gear ratio tells you the number of times the rear wheel turns for each turn of the cranks.

When you’re just starting out, a gear ratio of 2.7-2.8 is ideal. For riding on flat ground, a higher gear ratio may be preferable. Single speed mountain bike gearing is usually a bit lower than road bike gearing. 

If you find that the gearing is too high or too low, you can easily change it. To lower the gearing (make pedaling easier), you can install a smaller chainring or a larger rear cog. To increase the gearing (make pedaling harder), you can install a larger chainring or smaller rear cog. 

One nice thing about single speed bikes is that it’s inexpensive and easy to swap out a cog. A new one costs around $10-$40 depending on the brand and quality. You can play around with different gear ratios until you find one you like. 

When it comes to buying drivetrain components for your single speed or fixed gear bike, you’ll have to look to smaller and less well-known brands as well as no-name brands. The big three bike drivetrain manufacturers, Shimano, Sram, and Campagnolo, don’t really offer much in the way of single-speed and fixed gear parts. A few good brands to look for include Paul Components, Phil Wood, Miche, and Sugino.

Chain Width

Single speed and fixed gear bikes often have a wider chain than multi-speed bikes. The chain typically measures 1/8” rather than the standard 3/32”. The wider chain also requires a wider chainring and rear cog. Before you buy new drivetrain components for your single speed bike, you’ll want to check which width your bike has installed.

The reason that single speed and fixed gear bikes use wider chains is that riding these bikes puts more stress on the chain. Wider chains are a bit stronger because they contain more material. They can stand up to the stress a bit better.

There are a number of reasons that riding single speed and fixed gear put more stress on the chain. Because you can’t gear down during climbs, you really have to torque down hard on the peddles. When you slow your fixie down by resisting the motion of the cranks all of the braking force must travel through the chain. This creates a lot of stress. You must rely on your chain to stop. If it were to break and you didn’t have any rim brakes, you couldn’t stop. Because there is only one rear cog, there is plenty of room for the wider chain. The extra weight of the wider chain, chainring, and cog is insignificant for most riders. 

Wheels and Hubs

A bike wheel

Most off-the-shelf fixed gear bikes come with a flip flop hub. As mentioned earlier, that is a hub that has a freewheel sprocket on one side and a fixed sprocket on the other side of the same hub. You can easily swap between the two by flipping the wheel around. Some single speed bikes only come with a freewheel sprocket. 

Rear wheels for single speed and fixed gear bikes are built symmetrically. They do not have a right side dish like geared bike wheels. This is possible because there doesn’t need to be extra space for a wide cassette. There only needs to be space for one sprocket.

This allows for a wider bracing angle. This is the angle that the spokes run in relation to the hub. The wider bracing angle makes for a stronger wheel. You’re less likely to break spokes as a result. 

Most single speed rear wheels don’t have thru axles or quick release axles like geared bikes. Instead, the wheel is held in place with a simple 15mm nut. You loosen the nut to move the wheel in the dropouts to change the chain tension. You then tighten the nut down to hold the wheel in place.

It is possible to convert geared bike wheel to a single speed. This involves removing the cassette and installing a single sprocket on the freehub body. There are kits available that include spacers that help you center the sprocket on the freehub body. This ensures that you maintain a straight chain line. 

If the bike has a freewheel, the conversion is even easier. You can simply remove the multi-speed freewheel and install a single speed model. You may need to install spacers to ensure that the chain line stays straight. 

Geared bikes that have been converted to single speed may still use thru axles or quick release axles. These bikes would need to have either an eccentric bottom bracket or a chain tensioner so you can adjust the tension of the chain.

When buying new wheels for your single speed bike, you’ll need to check the spacing of your dropouts so you can choose hubs with the correct axle width. There are multiple standards. For example, many track bikes and fixed gear bikes have 120mm spacing. Most road bikes have 130mm hub spacing. Mountain bikes often have 135mm hub spacing. Vintage bikes usually use 126mm spacing.

Brakes for Single Speed and Fixed Gear Bikes

A rim brake

In some countries, the law states that bikes ridden on the road must have two brakes. For a single speed bike with a freewheel, that will mean two rim brakes or disc brakes. For a fixed gear bike, that could mean just a front brake. Braking through the drivetrain by resisting the motion of the cranks counts as a 2nd brake in most cases.

There are exceptions. It’s a good idea to check your local laws. If you’re caught riding without the required brakes, you could be fined, though this is unlikely. 

If your bike has a flip flop hub, you’re limited to using a rim brake on the rear wheel. You can’t use a disc brake because the disc would be on the wrong side when you flip the wheel around. Some riders use a front disc brake and rear rim brake.

Even though you can ride a fixed gear bike brakeless, it’s best not to. If the chain were to come off or break while you were riding, you couldn’t stop. It’s dangerous to ride a fixie without brakes. In many jurisdictions, it’s also illegal to ride brakeless. You should at least have a front brake on your fixie.

A cyclist riding a fixie

My Experience

During college, I bought a fixed gear bike to use to commute to school, run errands, and go grocery shopping. I bought the bike in 2011 or 2012 when fixies were at the height of their popularity. The movie Premium Rush was just coming out. People were riding fixies all over campus. Every bike shop stocked them.

I usually don’t follow trends but this one captured me. I ended up buying a gently used fixie from another student. The bike came with a flip flop hub. When I brought it home, my roommate made fun of me for being a hipster. I didn’t care. I loved my new fixie.

When I first bought the bike, I always kept the fixed gear engaged. Learning how to ride efficiently and safely took longer than I expected but I felt comfortable riding after a couple of weeks and a couple of bruised ankles.

I liked being able to slow down by just slowing my pedaling. I also enjoyed doing track stands while waiting for a light to turn green. Cruising around campus was also fun. The area where I lived had flat terrain so I didn’t miss coasting too much at first.

After around six months, I started flipping the wheel to freewheel mode for my grocery shopping trips because it made it a bit easier to carry my grocery bags on my handlebars. Pretty soon, I kept the freewheel cog engaged most of the time. Eventually, I never rode in fixed gear. I found that I prefer riding a bike with a freewheel. On the fixie, I always missed having the ability to stop pedaling and coast.

I ended up selling the bike to another student and buying my Centurion Dave Scott Ironman road bike. I decided to sell my fixie because I started riding longer distances and wanted a bike with gears. Because I usually ride for transportation rather than for exercise, the geared bike made more sense. 

I have ridden a few fixed gear bikes since then. I regularly ride a single speed with a freewheel around town. For me, a fixed gear bike would make for a nice secondary bike for occasional use. Not an everyday bike.

A geared bike
Vintage road bikes can make excellent single speed and fixed gear bikes

Final Thoughts

Riding fixed gear is something that you really have to try out to know whether or not you’ll like it. Fixed gear bikes offer a surprisingly different ride feel from freewheel bikes. It definitely takes some getting used to. Some cyclists love riding fixed gear but most prefer having a freewheel. There is a reason that the vast majority of bikes come with a freewheel. A flip flop hub is a great compromise if you can’t decide.

If you’ve never ridden a fixed gear bike before, consider borrowing one from a friend. If you don’t know anyone with a fixie, you may be able to join a local fixed gear group and borrow a bike for a couple of hours. It’s a good idea to take a test ride before you buy. This can help you decide whether or not riding a fixed gear is right for you. Whichever type of bike you decide to ride, I hope this guide helps you make an informed decision about the best bike for your riding style.

Do you prefer a single speed bike with a freewheel or fixed gear? Share your experience and tips in the comments below!

If you’re also considering a multi-speed bike, check out my guide to single-speed vs geared bikes to help you decide.

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