From the outside, single speed and fixed gear bikes look identical. They both have one chainring and one rear cog, meaning they 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 each type of bike offers a completely different ride experience. In this guide, I’ll outline the main 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. We’ll cover performance, efficiency, speed, the ride experience, comfort, peddle strike, and much more.
What is a Fixed Gear Bike?
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. In other words, there is no freewheel mechanism. The rear cog and rear wheel turn together. They are directly connected 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 like you can on a single speed or geared bike with a freewheel mechanism. When you paddle forward, the bike moves forward. When you stop pedaling, the bike stops. If you peddle backward, the bike moves backward.
The motion of the rear wheel also controls the motion of the cranks. For example, when you walk the bike, the cranks rotate. When you hit a bump and your rear wheel slows down, your pedals also slow down.
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. In fact, some riders remove the brakes completely. If you see a bike without brakes or with only a front brake, it probably has a fixed gear.
Fixed gear bikes are commonly referred to as fixies. A classic fixed gear bike has a road bike frame with flat handlebars. Drop bar fixies are also common. The frame is usually made from steel. Track bikes are also always fixed gear. It is also possible to convert pretty much any geared bike to fixed gear, including mountain bikes.
Many fixed gear bikes come with a flip-flop hub. This is a hub that has a single cog on either side. On one side, the cog is fixed in place. On the opposite side, the cog has a freewheel mechanism. You can remove the wheel and flip it around to convert the bike between a fixed gear and single speed with a freewheel.
What is 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 faster 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.
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.
Inside of a freewheel, there is a cylindrical shell that has a series of pawls spaced evenly around the sides. The pawls are little metal flaps that are spring-loaded. This is the part of the unit that threads onto the hub.
Around the inside of the freewheel’s main body, there is a ring of teeth or ridges. The teeth angle upward on one side and drop down sharply on the other. The pawls sit up against the teeth.
When you pedal, the pawls spring up and catch on the vertical side of the teeth. This prevents the cog from rotating forward relative to the rear wheel. This allows you to transfer your energy from the pedals to the rear wheel to drive the bike forward.
When you stop pedaling and coast or peddle backward the pawls freely pass over the angled side of the teeth. This is what makes the clicking sound you hear when you coast.
Freehubs work similarly. The inner surface of the hub contains the teeth. A separate part called a freehub body contains the pawls. A single cog attaches to the freehub body with a lockring. The pawls catch on the teeth when you pedal. The pawls pass over the teeth when you stop pedaling.
Both systems perform about the same. Freewheels are more common on single speed bikes. They are simple and affordable. Many riders prefer a freehub system it’s a bit easier to work on. It’s also more modern.
You can buy a single speed version of pretty much any type of bike including road bikes, mountain bikes, gravel bikes, folding bikes, fat bikes, etc. It is also possible to convert any geared bike to a single speed.
What’s the Difference Between a Single Speed and Fixed Gear Bike?
The difference between single speed and fixed gear bikes is the rear hub. Single speed bikes have a freewheel mechanism while fixed gear bikes do not.
On a fixed gear bike, the rear cog is fixed in its place on the hub. When the rear wheel turns, the cog turns, and the cranks turn. The rear cog and cranks must move together. You must always pedal while riding. You cannot coast on a fixie.
Single speed bikes, on the other hand, have a freewheel mechanism. This allows the rear wheel to continue spinning when you stop pedaling, slow your pedaling, or peddle backward. This allows you to coast. When you start pedaling, the ratchet mechanism catches, allowing you to start transmitting power to the rear wheel.
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. This slows the bike down. Single speed bikes need front and rear brakes. Most fixies come with at least a front rim brake for safety reasons.
These differences may seem minor. Other than the rear hub, pretty much everything else is the same. Both fixed gear and single speed bikes have one chainring and rear cog. They use the same types of frames and wheels.
In fact, it may not even be possible to tell the difference between a fixed gear bike and a single speed with a visual inspection. Both types of bikes look pretty much the same from the outside. 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 or geared bike with a freewheel mechanism.
Fixed Gear Bike Pros
If you’ve never ridden a fixie before, it can take some getting used to. In this section, I’ll list all of the biggest benefits of riding a fixie.
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 bike 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.
Many professional cyclists use fixed gear bikes for training for these reasons. Riding a fixie part of the time can make you a stronger and faster cyclist.
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.
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.
Fixed gear bikes give you more feedback from the road
You get more feedback from the road when you ride a fixie 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.
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.
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.
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 more easily.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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. 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.
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.
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
Riding a fixie certainly isn’t for everyone. In this section, I’ll outline the main drawbacks of fixed gear bikes.
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 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.
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 fast 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.
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.
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.
Pedal strike is more common on fixed gear bikes
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.
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.
To reduce the likelihood of breaking a chain, many riders use an extra-thick chain. Most fixed gear bikes 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 cog. The chain will still probably need to be replaced more frequently than you’re used to.
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.
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 if you need to ride long distances.
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.
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.
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.
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
Single-speed bikes are popular among recreational cyclists and urban cyclists. In this section, I’ll outline the biggest benefits of riding a single-speed bike with a freewheel.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
There aren’t too many drawbacks to single speed bikes. In this section, I’ll outline a few things to consider before you buy one.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 bike 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.
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.
With a flip flop hub, you can switch between fixed gear and freewheel in just a couple of minutes. You could even stop and make the switch mid-ride if you wanted to. The only tool you’ll need is a wrench to loosen and tighten the axle bolts. You will need to tension the chain every time you remove the wheel. More on that later.
Alternatively, you can use a flip flop hub to convert a single speed bike into a two speed bike without the need for derailleurs or shifters. You can achieve this by installing a different-sized cog on each side of the flip flop hub. They could both be fixed or freewheel or you could use one of each.
Different sized cogs create a different gear ratio, making it easier or harder to pedal. To change gears, you would stop and flip the wheel around to engage the other cog. This setup isn’t as convenient as a derailleur but it is simple and cheap.
When you use different sized cogs, you will have to move the wheel forward or backward to compensate for the different cog sizes so the chain isn’t too tight or loose.
The maximum possible size difference between your two cogs depends on a number of factors including your dropout slot length, chain length, and the current location of your axle in the dropout. Usually, you can get away with cogs that have a size difference of 2-3 teeth. For example, you might have one cog with 16 teeth and one with 14 teeth.
Flip Flop Hub Pros
- Versatility- A flip flop hub allows you to ride either fixed gear or with a freewheel. You could commute in freewheel mode and then swap to fixed gear mode for a weekend ride with your friends. It’s like having two bikes in one.
- You can have two gear ratios- You can install a different-sized cog on each side of the flip flop hub. Using a larger cog reduces the gear ratio to make pedaling easier. This is great for climbing. Using a smaller cog increases the gear ratio to make pedaling harder. This would give you a higher top speed.
- Simple- A flip flop hub adds very little complexity to your bike. There is no additional maintenance required other than replacing the second cog when it wears out. Flip flop hubs work pretty much the same as standard hubs.
- Affordable- Using a flip flop hub is like having two bikes in one. It’s much cheaper to use a flip flop hub than to buy a fixed gear and a freewheel bike.
Flip Flop Hub Cons
- You have to physically flip the wheel around to swap between freewheel and fixed- This takes a couple of minutes of work. It’s also a bit of a hassle. It’s not as easy as undoing a quick-release lever and flipping the wheel. You have to loosen a couple of bolts. You’ll need a wrench. While replacing the wheel, you must make sure that the chain is properly tensioned. If it’s not, it could slip or drop.
- Slightly heavier- There is an extra cog that adds a couple of ounces of weight. For most riders, the extra weight is insignificant.
- You need brakes- When you’re in freewheel mode, you need a front and rear brake. When you’re in fixed mode, you don’t have to use the brakes if you don’t want to.
- Slightly more expensive- Flip flop hubs cost a bit more than standard single-speed hubs. You’ll also need to buy two cogs instead of one. The extra cost is minimal. Maybe $20-$40 depending on the quality of components you choose.
- Looks- Some riders don’t like the look of the extra cog on the opposite side of the hub. It doesn’t look quite as clean.
What to Look for When Choosing a Single Speed or Fixed Gear Bike
Single speed and fixed gear bikes are very similar mechanically. They use the same types of frames, gearing, wheels, brakes, pedals, handlebars, etc. In this section, I’ll outline a few important considerations when choosing a single speed or fixed gear bike.
Single Speed and Fixed Gear Bike Frames
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. If a steel frame cracks, it can usually be easily repaired by any welder. 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. For more info on different bike frame materials, check out my guides:
- Steel Vs Aluminum Bike Frames
- Carbon Fiber Vs Aluminum Bike Frames
- Titanium vs Carbon Fiber Bike Frames
Pretty much any type of bike frame can be run single speed, including mountain bikes, road bikes, fat bikes, folding bikes, etc. 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. You can read more about it here.
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.
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.
Single Speed and Fixed Gear Bike 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. For more info on gear ratios, check out this great guide.
When you’re just starting out, a gear ratio of 2.7-2.8 is ideal. For riding in flat areas, 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.
Single Speed and Fixed Gear Chain Width
Single speed and fixed gear bikes often have a wider chain than geared 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 for Single Speed and Fixed Gear Bikes
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.
If your frame is made from steel, it is possible to bend the frame so the dropouts sit further apart or closer together. You can usually adjust the spacing 10mm in either direction. This is called cold setting. This is not possible with an aluminum or carbon frame.
Brakes for Single Speed and Fixed Gear Bikes
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.
Pedals for Single Speed and Fixed Gear Bikes
Your choice of pedals depends on where you ride, the type of cycling you do, and your personal preference. Some riders prefer flat pedals while others prefer clipless. Some prefer old-school clips and straps. Each type of pedal has its own benefits and drawbacks.
Many riders prefer flat peddles. Flat pedals make it easier to stop and start riding again. You don’t have to unclip your foot every time you stop and clip back in when you get going again. This is nice when riding through stop-and-go city traffic. Most single speed and fixed gear cyclists ride in urban environments so flat pedals often make sense for this reason.
Flat pedals also allow you to wear regular shoes. You don’t need special cycling shoes. This allows you to comfortably walk around off the bike. You also don’t have to carry around a second pair of shoes while commuting. This is convenient.
Beginner fixed gear riders often prefer flat pedals because they make it easier to put your foot down. While you’re learning to ride a fixie, chances are you’ll make some mistakes. It’s nice to be able to easily take your foot off the pedal. You’re less likely to fall over or crash when you’re starting out. There is no learning curve to using flat peddles.
There are drawbacks to using flat pedals. It’s easier for your foot to slip off of the pedal. When this happens, the pedal can spin around and hit your ankle. It’s also harder to brake with your legs on a fixie with flat pedals.
More fixed gear riders prefer riding clipless pedals. The main reason is that clipless pedals prevent your foot from coming off. This makes it much easier to use your legs to brake. It’s also easier to ride at high cadences. In addition, you won’t have to deal with the peddles spinning around on their own and bashing the back of your legs. You can also pull up on the peddles to use different muscles in your legs. Some cyclists find that riding clipped in makes them feel a bit more connected with the bike.
The main drawback to clipless pedals is that you’ll have to buy and wear cycling shoes whenever you want to ride your bike. These are less comfortable to wear while you’re off the bike.
There is also a learning curve to riding clipless. Particularly while riding a clipless and fixed gear. You have to learn how to clip in and unclip while the cranks are spinning. This takes some time to learn. Chances are, you’ll fall over at some point.
For more in-depth info, check out my guide to flat vs clipless pedals.
Some cyclists like using clips and straps on their single speed or fixed gear bikes. These are simple straps on the pedals that you slide your foot into. These offer most of the benefits of clipless pedals and allow you to wear normal shoes. Another option is to use double sided pedals. These are flat on one side and clipless on the other. This gives you the choice to ride either flat or clipless.
How to Convert a Geared Bike to Single Speed or Fixed Gear
It is possible to convert pretty much any bike from geared to single speed or fixed gear. In most cases, you can make this conversion for less than $100 and an afternoon of your time.
This conversion is a great option if you already own a geared bike that you love but prefer riding single speed. This is also a good option if you’re on a tight budget. It can be much cheaper to buy a used bike or use a bike you already own and convert it to a single speed or fixed gear rather than buying a whole new bike.
The following steps explain how to convert a geared bike into a single speed or fixed gear, step-by-step.
1. Remove the extra chainrings or replace them with a single speed chainring
If your bike has 3 chainrings, remove the two smallest ones. Alternatively, you could replace the chainrings with a new single chainring.
Ideally, your new chainring should be sold as ‘single speed’, narrow wide, or 1X. It should also be non-ramped.
These types of chainrings make it more difficult for the chain to drop. They are designed for single speed use. You’ll also want to make sure your new chainring has the same bolt circle diameter (BCD) so it fits on your cranks.
If you’re buying a new chainring, you’ll want to consider the gear ratio you want for your bike. Chainrings are a bit more expensive and difficult to replace than rear cogs so you’ll want to be sure to choose the correct size.
For road riding, a 42 tooth chainring is a popular choice. For off-road riding, lower gearing is preferable. You may want to go with a 32 tooth chainring if you’re building a single-speed mountain bike.
You’ll also want to decide which chain width you want to use. For single speed and fixed gear bikes, 1/8” is preferable. You can also stick with 3/32” or whatever chain size your current chainring uses. You’ll need to choose a chainring that matches your desired chain width.
2. Remove unnecessary parts
Your new single speed bike won’t’ need shifters, derailleurs, or shifter cables. You can remove these parts and set them aside.
If you’re converting your bike into a fixie, you can also remove the rear brake caliper, rear brake lever, and cable as well.
3. Measure the chainline
You want the chain to be as straight as possible. This maximizes efficiency and reduces the likelihood of your chain dropping. Your chain and gears will also last longer if the chain runs straight. For help measuring your chainline, check out this guide.
4. Replace the cassette or freewheel with a single cog
If your bike has a conventional threaded freewheel, you can simply remove the freewheel and thread on a BMX style freewheel or a fixed gear freewheel.
The problem is that your chainline may be off. In this case, you may have to re-space the axle and re-dish the wheel. For more info on wheel dishing, check out this guide.
If your bike uses a cassette hub, you can remove the original cassette and replace it with a single sprocket. To position the sprocket so the chainline is straight, you’ll need to install some spacers or washers on either side of the sprocket. You can take apart some old worn-out cassettes and use the spacers or buy a single-speed conversion kit that includes a cog and spacers.
Converting a cassette hub into a fixed gear hub is a bit more difficult. In the past, Surley made a product called the Fixxer. This was a freehub body adapter that eliminated the freewheel mechanism on Shimano hubs. This product has been discontinued. You may be able to find a used one if you look around.
If you can’t, your only other option is to braze the freewheel mechanism together so it can’t ratchet. If you can’t or don’t want to do that, you’ll need to replace the entire hub if you want to convert your bike to fixed gear.
Before replacing your rear cog, you’ll want to take some time to consider which gear ratio you want to use. Consider buying a couple of different sizes. You can easily swap them out to try different gearing.
For road riding, a 16 or 17 tooth cog paired with a 42 tooth chainring is a popular option. 2:1 gearing is popular for mountain biking. For example, a 32t chainring and 16t cog would offer a nice low gear for climbing.
When choosing a cog, remember to choose the correct width. Your cog must match the width of your chain and chainring. For example, if you’re using a 1/8” chain, you’ll need a 1/8” cog.
5. Install a chain tensioning mechanism
If your bike has vertical dropouts, you’ll need to install some kind of chain tensioning device. If your bike has horizontal dropouts, you can adjust the chain tension by moving the axle backward or forward in the dropouts.
When converting a bike to a single speed with a freewheel, the easiest way to tension the chain is to install a simple chain tensioning pulley. These usually mount to the derailleur hanger. You can buy a purpose-made single-speed chain tensioner or use an old derailleur. Remember, this only works if your single speed conversion uses a freewheel.
If you’re converting your bike to a fixed gear, the most cost-effective option is to install an eccentric bottom bracket to tension your chain.
6. Install a chain
You want to make sure your chain tensioning mechanism is set to its shortest length while you install your chain. This allows you to adjust the tension as your chain ages. Chains lengthen as they age.
7. Ride your new single speed or fixed gear bike
Take your converted bike for a test ride. Try to ride somewhere without any traffic to be safe. Make sure the chain runs straight. Test out the gear ratio to make sure it’s right for the terrain you plan to ride.
Who Should Ride a Fixed Gear Bike?
Fixed gear bikes make excellent urban bikes and commuter bikes thanks to the control they offer as well as their durability and simplicity. It’s a lot of fun to speed through a crowded city on a fixie.
Fixed gear bikes are also great for those who are in training. Riding a fixie can help you develop a faster cadence, better cornering technique, and more efficient pedal stroke. These skills translate directly to other types of cycling such as road riding and mountain biking. You can become a stronger cyclist by training on a fixie.
If you’re cycling for exercise, you’ll also get a more intense workout while riding a fixie because you’re always pedaling. Your stamina will improve and your leg muscles will become stronger and more toned. This makes fixed gear bikes a great option for someone who wants to become a faster and stronger cyclist, improve their fitness, or even lose weight.
If you need to regularly ride on loose or slippery surfaces, you may want to consider riding a fixie. The fixed drivetrain gives you complete control over the motion of the rear wheel. This can greatly improve traction once you master the fixed gear riding technique. Fixies can make excellent bikes for cycling in the rain or snow.
Looks and culture are a big part of fixed gear cycling as well. Those who enjoy the aesthetics, history, and lifestyle may prefer riding a fixed gear bike. Fixie riding can be a social experience. Being able to perform tricks is another benefit.
Who Should Ride a Single Speed Bike with a Freewheel?
Most riders prefer riding a single speed bike with a freewheel over a fixed gear bike. After all, there is a reason that freewheels are the standard on the vast majority of bikes. That reason is that you can coast.
For many riders, having the ability to coast greatly improves the cycling experience. Coasting makes cycling easier. It also greatly increases efficiency. You can ride further and burn less energy. This makes single speeds a better choice for those who need to ride longer distances.
Single speed bikes with freewheels are ideal for casual cyclists, those who are new to cycling, and kids. They make excellent commuter bikes, city bikes, recreational bikes, beach bikes, and kids bikes because they are safe, efficient, easy to ride, and fun. There is no learning curve. You never have to think about shifting or the location of your pedals. For these reasons,
In addition, those with knee issues may also prefer riding a bike with a freewheel. They put a bit less stress on the knees because you’re not always pedaling.
If, after reading this guide, you’re still undecided, you’re probably better off going with a bike with either a freewheel or flip flop hub rather than a fixed gear. Fixed gear bikes are a pretty small niche in cycling. Most riders prefer having a freewheel.
My Choice: Single Speed Vs Fixed Gear Bikes
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 was completely flat 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 a 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 Bit of Fixed Gear Bike History
The first bicycles were all fixed gear. For most of the 1800s, there were no derailleurs or freewheels. This is the case because a fixed gear is the simplest bicycle design. The freewheel mechanism wasn’t invented until around 1869.
Single speed and fixed gear bikes were the only options until the late 1800s when the first derailleur was invented. Multi gear bikes became the norm during the 1900s. Even after the invention of the freewheel, fixed gear bikes remained popular for many of the same reasons that they are popular today. They’re simple, pure, and fun to ride.
Throughout the 19th century, fixed gear bikes were popular among American and European cyclists. During the 1800s, mail courier systems began operating in many large cities across North America. Couriers rode fixed gear bikes. This tradition remains today. Many modern bike messengers still ride fixed gear bikes to keep the tradition going.
In the late 1800s, bicycle racing became a popular sport. In 1876, a velodrome track was built in Madison Square Garden in New York. Here, team racing was invented.
The first Tour de France took place in 1903. For the first few years of the race, all racers rode fixed gear bikes. The Tour de France founder, Henri Desgrange is quoted saying “I still feel that variable gears are only for people over forty-five. Isn’t it better to triumph by the strength of your muscles than by the artifice of a derailleur? We are getting soft… As for me, give me a fixed gear!”
Today, even after derailleurs and freewheels have been around for over 100 years, fixed gear bikes are still used in track racing and by bike messengers. For these types of riding, the simplicity and efficiency can’t be beaten.
During the early 2010s, fixies became hugely popular in big cities around the world. This popularity has declined somewhat over the past decade. These days, fixies are kind of a niche bike. They are still available but are a bit less common. A number of manufacturers still offer fixed gear and single speed bikes in their range. These bikes remain popular among urban youth around the world.
For more info on the history of fixed gear bikes, check out this interesting article.
Final Thoughts about Single Speed Vs Fixed Gear Bikes
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 has helped you in making your decision.
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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