When choosing a bike, one of the most important decisions you’ll have to make is whether you want a bike with a single speed or multiple gears. The best bike for your style of riding depends on a number of factors including the type of terrain you ride, the distances you ride, and personal preference. To help you decide, this guide lists the pros and cons of riding a single speed vs geared bike.
In this guide, we’ll cover weight, efficiency, speed, climbing ability, ease of use, maintenance, the ride experience, cost, and much more. We’ll also outline the different types of single speed and geared bikes that are available including fixed gear bikes, freewheel single speeds, derailleurs, and internal gear hubs.
I regularly ride both single speed and geared bikes. I’ve always loved the simplicity of a single speed. When touring or riding longer distances, I always ride a geared bike. In this guide, I’ll share my experience. Hopefully, this guide helps you choose the best bike for your style of riding.
Table of Contents
- What is a Single Speed Bike?
- What is a Geared Bike?
- Pros and Cons of Single Speed Bikes
- Pros and Cons of Geared Bikes
- Types of Single Speed Bikes
- Types of Geared Bikes
What is a Single Speed Bike?
A single speed bike has one gear ratio. This means there is one chainring and one rear cog. The chain stays on the same sprockets at all times. You do not shift a single speed bike. To change your speed you simply pedal faster or slower. You can’t change the gear ratio.
The most common gear ratios for single speed bikes are 44/16 and 46/16. In each ratio, the first number represents the number of teeth on the chainring and the second number represents the number of teeth on the rear cog. The gear ratio represents the number of times the rear wheel spins for each complete rotation of the cranks.
The gear ratio is particularly important on a single speed bike. The gearing needs to be low enough for you to be able to climb hills and start from a stop without having to mash down on the pedals too hard. At the same time, the gear ratio needs to be high enough to cruise at a reasonably fast speed so you can get where you need to go without having to pedal too fast.
You can customize your single speed bike’s gearing by swapping out the chainring or rear cog with a different model with a different number of teeth. Switching to a smaller chainring (fewer teeth) lowers the gearing and makes pedaling easier.
Using a larger chainring (more teeth) raises the gearing and makes pedaling harder. Switching to a smaller rear cog with fewer teeth makes it harder to pedal. Using a larger rear cog with more teeth makes it easier to pedal. There are compromises to make when choosing a gear ratio.
Most single speed bikes have a freewheel rear hub. This is a ratchet mechanism that allows the rear cog to rotate backward or stand still relative to the rear wheel. This mechanism allows you to coast.
When you start pedaling and the rear cog starts rotating faster than the rear wheel, the ratchet mechanism catches. Pawls spring up and catch on teeth inside of the mechanism. This prevents the cog from rotating forward faster than the rear wheel. This allows you to start transmitting power to the rear wheel.
Some single speed bikes have a fixed gear hub. These do not have the ratchet mechanism. Instead, the cog is essentially bolted in place on the rear hub. The cog cannot spin independently from the wheel. When the bike wheels are turning, so are the cranks. You can’t stop pedaling and coast while a fixed gear bike is in motion.
Many different types of single speed bikes are available. For example, BMX bikes, beach cruisers, kids bikes, commuter bikes, unicycles, and track racing bikes, are all usually single speed.
What is a Geared Bike?
Geared bikes have multiple gears or speeds. Shifting gears changes the gear ratio. A handlebar-mounted shifter mechanism allows you to easily change gears while you ride. When you shift down, the bike becomes easier to pedal. When you shift up, the bike becomes harder to pedal.
There are two types of mechanism used for changing the gear ratio of a bicycle: derailleurs and internal gear hubs.
A bike with derailleurs has multiple rear cogs and usually multiple chainrings. A typical geared bike has 2 or 3 chainrings and 6-12 cogs on the rear cassette or freewheel. Each cassette cog and chainring has a different number of teeth. Shifting between sprockets with different numbers of teeth changes the gear ratio.
The rear cogs and chainrings both require separate gear changing mechanisms. These are the derailleurs and shifters. Most geared bikes have front and rear derailleurs and shifters. Bikes that only have one chainring and multiple cassette cogs only have a rear derailleur and one shifter.
Handlebar mounted shifters allow you to shift gears as you ride. This is achieved with a tensioned cable that runs from the shifters to spring-loaded derailleurs. You shift up by manipulating the shifter to increase the tension on the cable. This pulls the derailleurs to the next higher gear. You shift down by manipulating the shifter to reduce the tension. The internal springs push the derailleur to the next lower gear.
Shifting gears changes the number of teeth that the chain runs over. This changes the speed that the rear wheel turns in relation to the speed that you turn the cranks. Gear ratios are calculated using the number of teeth on the chainring and cassette cogs.
For example, if you’re riding on a 48t chainring and a 12t cog, the gear ratio is 48/12 which is equivalent to 4. This means the rear wheel rotates 4 times for each rotation of the cranks. This is a high gear. If you shift to a 40t chainring and a 20t cog, the gear ratio is 40/20 which is equivalent to 2. This means your rear wheel rotates just 2 times for each rotation of the cranks. This is a lower gear.
Internal gear hubs use planetary gears that are housed inside of the rear hub to change the gear ratio. Internal gear hubs have anywhere from 2-14 gears.
Bike gears give you a mechanical advantage. When you shift into a low gear, the pedals require less force to turn. You can pedal faster but the rear wheel turns slower. Low gears work well for climbing hills or riding into a headwind. When you shift into a high gear, it takes more force to turn the cranks. You pedal slower but the rear wheel moves further for each revolution of the cranks.
High gears work well for riding fast on flat ground and descending hills. Mid-range gears fall somewhere in between. These work best for cruising on flat surfaces.
Single Speed Bike Pros
1. Single Speed bikes require less maintenance
Single speed bikes have fewer components to maintain. For example, there are no derailleurs, shifters, or shifter cables. There is only one chainring and one rear cog. Single speed bikes have fewer moving parts that can wear out, break, or go out of adjustment.
When you ride a single speed bike, you’ll never have to deal with adjusting derailleurs. You never have to worry about shifter indexing. You never have to adjust or replace shifter cables. Chains also tend to last longer on single speed bikes because the chainline always stays straight. The chain never runs at an angle and rubs against the gears.
A single speed bike is also faster and easier to clean because there are fewer places where dirt can accumulate. The only maintenance you’ll need to do to a single speed drivetrain is clean and lube the chain, keep the tires aired up, check your brakes, and make sure the chain is properly tensioned.
When you ride a single speed bike, you’ll spend less time maintaining your bike and more time riding. You also don’t need to learn as much bike maintenance to keep your bike on the road.
2. Single speed bikes are lighter
On average, a single speed bike weighs around 1-1.5kg (2.2-3.3lbs) less than a geared bike. An average single speed road bike weighs less than 9kg or 20lbs. To compare, a mid-range to high-end road bike weighs 9-11kg or around 20-25lbs.
Single speed bikes are lighter because they have fewer components. There are no derailleurs, shifters, or shifter cables. There is only 1 chainring instead of 2 or 3 and there is only one rear cog instead of 9-12. Eliminating all of these parts saves a considerable amount of weight. The bike simply contains less material.
There are a number of benefits to riding a lighter bike. Most importantly, a lighter bike is easier to accelerate and maneuver because you’re moving less mass around while you ride. Lighter bikes are also easier to transport. This is nice if you carry your bike up a flight of stairs or lift your bike onto a roof rack frequently.
3. Single speed bikes are cheaper
Because single speed bikes require fewer components, they cost less to build. As a result, the retail price is lower.
The drivetrain, in particular, is one of the most expensive parts of a bike. Single speed bikes don’t have derailleurs, shifters, or shifter cables and housing. This saves money because manufacturers don’t have to buy or install these parts. They also only have a single chainrings and rear cog. These are cheaper than multi-gear models.
Eliminating these expensive drivetrain components reduces the price of the bike significantly. You could save anywhere from $100-$500 or more by choosing a single speed instead of a geared bike. For example, an entry-level to mid-range single speed bike might cost $400-$800. A comparable geared bike might cost $800-$1200.
When comparing a single speed and geared bike that cost the same amount of money, the single speed model will likely come with higher quality parts. Because you’re not paying for an expensive drivetrain, you get a better quality frame, wheelset, tires, brakes, etc. If you’re on a tight budget, you’ll get a better quality bike for your money if you go with a single speed model.
4. Lower maintenance cost
You’ll also save money on maintenance and repairs when you ride a single speed bike. You never have to take the bike to a bike shop to get the derailleurs adjusted. You never need to buy a new derailleur or shifter after breaking one in an accident. These parts don’t exist on single speed bikes.
It is also much cheaper to replace a single cog or chainring when it wears out. A single sprocket costs less than multiple. Single speed bikes are an excellent option for those who are on a tight budget.
5. Single speed bikes are easier to ride
When riding a single speed bike, you never have to worry about shifting gears. This means you don’t have to remember which chainring and rear cog you’re using. Cross-chaining is never a worry. You never have to think about which way to manipulate the shifter to get to the gear you need. You never have to think about which shifter controls the chainrings and which controls the rear cogs. For new riders, it’s easy to forget which button shifts up and which shifts down and which shifter controls the front derailleur and which controls the rear. You also don’t have to worry about choosing the optimal gear or dealing with cadence changes during shifts.
Instead of thinking about shifting, you can focus your energy on pedaling and steering the bike at all times while riding a single speed. This makes single speed bikes much easier for beginners and children to ride. It requires much less thought to ride a single speed. There is a smaller learning curve to riding a single speed.
6. Single Speed Bikes Give you More exercise
It takes more effort to ride a single speed bike because you can’t use the mechanical advantage of different gear ratios to climb or cruise at high speeds. To climb a big hill, you have to pedal hard. To ride fast, you have to pedal fast. Your average heart rate will be higher and you’ll burn more calories while riding a single speed. If your goal in riding a bike is to lose weight or improve your fitness, a single speed bike is an excellent choice. An average sized person can burn around 500 calories per hour cycling.
7. Riding a single speed can make you a stronger rider
When riding a single speed bike, you often have to use more force to pedal than you would on a geared bike. For example, while climbing a steep hill you really have to mash down hard on the pedals. You can’t just shift down and spin fast. Pedaling with more resistance helps to strengthen your leg muscles. This extra strength allows you to pedal harder. Having stronger legs helps you while riding any bike.
Riding a single speed bike can also help you develop a faster cadence. This is possible because single speed bikes force you to ride in lower and high cadences that your body isn’t used to. For example, in order to keep producing power while descending a hill, you may need to pedal at 120 rpm. Riding at this high cadence helps to develop your muscles and train your legs to move faster. After some practice, you’ll be able to comfortably maintain higher cadences, even while riding a geared bike. Some cyclists also develop a smoother pedal stroke while riding single speed.
Being able to maintain a higher cadence and peddle smoothly makes you a stronger and faster cyclist. These days, some professional road cyclists and mountain bikers use single speed bikes as a training tool. For more info, check out this interesting article about how single speed bikes can make you a faster rider.
8. Single Speed Bikes are Less complex mechanically
Single speed bikes have fewer moving parts than geared bikes. For example, there are no complicated derailleurs or shifters. This means there are fewer parts that can break. There are also fewer parts that need to be maintained or replaced when they wear out. This makes single speed bikes a bit more reliable than geared bikes. There are fewer parts to worry about. The overall complexity of the bike is lower.
One benefit of this is that you don’t need as much mechanical know-how to maintain a single speed. For example, you don’t need to learn how to adjust a derailleur or change a shifter cable. If you don’t know anything about bicycle maintenance and don’t care to learn, you might be better off with a single speed. Your bike will spend less time in the shop.
Single speed bikes look simple and clean. There are no bulky and complicated looking derailleurs hanging off the frame. There are no shifters mounted on the handlebars or shifter cables running along the frame. Single speed bikes have only one chainring and one cog. Many riders enjoy the sleek and simple looks of single speed bikes. The looks really appeal to minimalists.
10. It’s harder to damage a single speed bike
There are fewer parts to damage on a single speed bike. For example, there is no fragile rear derailleur hanging off the frame. There are no complex integrated shifters. You don’t have to worry as much about causing damage when you transport the bike or have an accident. This makes single speed bikes a bit more reliable. If you crash or drop your single speed bike, chances are it will be just fine.
Single Speed Bike Cons
1. Single speed bikes are inefficient
While cycling, your cadence plays a major role in your efficiency. For most cyclists, the optimal cadence is somewhere between 60-90 rpm. Because you’re always riding in the same gear when you ride a single speed, it’s difficult to maintain your optimal cadence. Particularly while riding in an area with uneven terrain.
Sometimes the gear ratio is too low so you end up pedaling too fast. According to this interesting article, pedaling at a higher rpm than necessary causes you to burn more energy lifting your legs up and down. Sometimes the gear ratio is too high and you’re forced to pedal too hard. This causes you to burn energy too quickly. You end up exhausting yourself. This is common while climbing with a single speed bike.
On a single speed bike, you can’t shift gears to adjust your cadence. All you can do is pedal faster or slower, which is inefficient. As a result, you won’t be able to ride as far, maintain as high of average speed, or carry as much weight as you could on a geared bike. You’ll burn more energy and tire out faster.
Of course, your cadence isn’t the only factor that determines cycling efficiency. Aerodynamics, weight, and rolling resistance also play a major role.
2. It is harder to climb hills on a single speed bike
The gear ratio of a single speed bike is higher than the lowest gear on a geared bike. This makes it harder to climb hills with a single speed. You need to apply more force to the pedals to make it up the hill. Sometimes you’ll run out of energy and have to walk the bike. While climbing steep hills sometimes you simply can’t produce enough force to keep the peddles turning. For this reason, single speed bikes are not ideal for riding in hilly areas. You’ll end up riding less and walking more.
There are a couple of techniques you can use to make climbing with a single speed a bit easier. As you approach a hill, build up as much momentum as you can. This momentum can help carry you partway up the hill. While climbing the hill, stand up to peddle. This allows you to use your bodyweight to help you turn the cranks. It can also help to lean the bike back and forth as you pedal. Try to lean the bike away from the foot that is delivering power on the downstroke. Leaning the bike makes it easier to move your bodyweight from one foot to the other. While leaning the bike, you also use your upper body strength to produce extra power. With some practice, you can make it up some surprisingly steep hills with a single speed.
3. Riding a single speed bike can be hard on your knees
This is a controversial point. Some cyclists claim that riding a single speed is no harder on the knees than riding a geared bike. Some even claim that riding a single speed strengthened their legs and reduced knee problems. Others claim to have developed knee pain while riding a single speed bike. I haven’t been able to find any scientific evidence to back up either claim.
Mashing down hard on the peddles can cause knee pain and injuries. According to this article, knee injuries usually happen while riding at an rpm below around 60-75. Pushing down hard on the peddles puts stress on the patella (kneecap). All of the force you use to peddle goes through the weight bearing surfaces in your knee joints. Over time, this can cause pain.
Cyclists tend to mash down harder on the peddles while riding a single speed than a geared bike. Particularly while climbing hills and starting from a stop. The reason is that you can’t downhift into an easier gear while riding a single speed bike. The gear ratio is higher than the lowest gear on a geared bike. If you want to keep riding, sometimes you have to pedal too hard. You end up overstressing your knees. This can cause damage over time.
One solution may be to stand while pedaling up hills. This seems to reduce knee stress while cycling at low cadences. Another solution could be to lower the gearing by swapping out the chainring or rear cog. In this case, you would want to install a smaller chainring or larger rear cog.
If you experience knee pain while riding a single speed, you should stop riding it. As a rule of thumb, if it hurts, it’s not healthy. You could cause permanent damage if you ride through the pain.
It’s also important to consider that the gearing may not be the cause of the pain. Bike fit also plays a big role in comfort. Incorrectly adjusted saddles or clipless peddles can also cause knee problems.
4. Single speed bikes have a lower top speed
On a single speed bike, your top speed depends on the gear ratio and the maximum rpm that you can pedal. The gear ratio on a single speed bike is fixed. This means that the rear wheel makes a fixed number of turns per rotation of the cranks. This is the case because there is only one gear. Your maximum pedaling speed will top out at some point. After all, your legs can only move so fast. On a single speed bike, your top speed is limited by the gear ratio and the speed that you can move your legs.
Your maximum cadence will be the same on a single speed and geared bike. The difference is the gear ratio. Single speed bikes have a lower gear ratio than the highest gear ratio on geared bikes. This is necessary so you can ride in a range of conditions. For example, you couldn’t climb hills if the gear ratio was too high. For this reason, you won’t be able to ride quite as fast on a single speed bike as you could on a geared bike. If you ride with friends who ride geared bikes, you might not be able to keep up in some situations.
5. You’ll need to replace the chainring and rear cog more frequently on a single speed bike
These parts wear out faster on a single speed bike because they are constantly in use. The chain is always rolling over the same chainring and cog because there is only one of each. Over time, abrasion from the chain wears the teeth down.
Chainrings and cogs wear out more slowly on a geared bike because the wear is distributed across multiple gears. For example, a geared bike may have 3 chainrings and 10 cogs. In this example, there are 13 sprockets rather than 2. It takes much longer to wear all 13 out.
Having said this, the chainring and cog on a single speed bike tend to last a long time. The reason is that the chain always remains straight. The chain never runs at an angle. This greatly reduces wear and tear. You can also extend the life of your drivetrain components by keeping them clean and well lubricated.
6. Single speed bikes are less versatile
Single speed bikes aren’t ideal for some types of riding. They work best for commuting, recreational riding, running errands, urban riding, cruising, and other forms of casual cycling. They also work better in relatively flat areas rather than hilly areas.
There are some places you simply can’t ride a single speed bike. For example, some grades are too steep to ride up with a single speed because the gearing is too high. You’re probably not going to use your single speed bike for long-distance bicycle touring due to the inefficiency. You can’t use you single speed for most types of competitive riding. In most disciplines of road cycling and mountain biking, racers ride geared bikes.
You can’t ride a single speed bike in as many places as a geared bike. Single speed bikes have fewer uses than geared bikes. If you only have the budget or space for one bike, you may not get as much use out of it if you go with a single speed.
Geared Bike Pros
1. Geared bikes are more efficient
When riding a geared bike, you can maintain the optimal cadence at all times. Riding at your optimal cadence maximizes efficiency. You can ride further while maintaining a higher average speed without tiring out. For most riders, the optimal cadence will be somewhere around 60-90 rpm. For elite cyclists, it will be 90-120 rpm.
You maintain your optimal cadence by shifting gears. For example, maybe your optimal cadence is 80 rpm. Imagine you encounter a hill and your cadence decreases from 80 to 60 rpm. With a geared bike, you can shift down into an easier gear so the peddles require less force to turn. This way, you can speed your pedaling back up to your optimal cadence of 80 rpm. The bike will slow down but you will continue pedaling efficiently.
When you start descending the hill, your cadence may increase to 100 rpm. You can shift back into a harder gear to return to your optimal cadence of 80 rpm. The bike will speed up and you will continue pedaling efficiently.
Riding at the optimal cadence allows you to maintain maximum efficiency. You’ll burn less energy because you’re not pedaling too fast or too slow and you’re not working too hard. Your heart rate will remain in a reasonable range. You won’t burn out. Cycling efficiently allows you to ride further and maintain a higher average speed without tiring out.
2. Geared bikes make it easier to climb hills
Most geared bikes have a ‘granny gear’. This is an ultra-low gear that is designed to make it easy to climb steep hills. The granny gear is the smallest chainring and largest rear cog. This gear has a much lower gear ratio than a single speed bike would have.
When riding in the granny gear, you’ll spin your peddles quickly and easily and the bike will move at a walking pace. It takes very little force to peddle. This gear gives you an excellent mechanical advantage for climbing hills. When you approach a steep hill, you can just shift down into your lowest gear and keep spinning on up. You’ll move slowly but you’ll eventually make it to the top of the hill.
This feature makes geared bikes ideal for cycling in hilly areas. With a geared bike, you pretty much never need to get off your bike and walk up hills. An extra-low granny gear allows you to climb the steepest of grades without even having to stand up. The low gear also makes it easy to get moving again if you have to stop during a climb. The low gear is also crucial for bicycle tourists and bikepackers who ride a bike that is fully loaded with heavy gear.
3. Riding a geared bike is easier on your knees
As mentioned above, this point isn’t really proven but there are some situations where riding a geared bike is probably easier on your knees than riding a single speed. The most common of these situations being riding up hills.
With a geared bike, you can shift down into an easier gear while climbing so you don’t have to mash down on the peddles. This allows you to spin quickly and with little force. Peddling quickly with less force has a lower impact on your knee joints than peddling hard and slow. This is the case because you’re putting less stress on the load-bearing surfaces in your knees. You use much less force to pedal in a low gear. With a single speed bike, you don’t have the option to shift into an easier gear.
Another situation where riding a geared bike may be easier on the knees is when starting from a stop. With a geared bike, you can shift down into a low gear so you can start peddling with little force. Kind of like how you always start driving a car in 1st gear rather than 5th. It’s easier to start out in a low gear. You don’t have to mash down on the peddles and cause stress. As your speed increases, you can continue shifting up. You don’t have this option with a single speed bike. If you want to accelerate a single speed bike quickly, you have to use a lot of force. This can lead to knee pain.
4. Geared bikes have a higher top speed
The highest gear on a geared bike has a much higher gear ratio than a single speed bike. The higher gear ratio means the rear wheel will make more revolutions for every rotation of the cranks. For example, a geared bike may have a top gear ratio of 50/10. This means that there are 50 teeth on the chainring and 10 teeth on the rear cog. For every revolution of the cranks, the rear wheel will make 5 revolutions (50/10=5). A single speed bike may have a gear ratio of 44/16. This means the rear wheel will only make 2.75 revolutions for every revolution of the cranks (44/16=2.75).
The higher gear ratio allows you to achieve a higher top speed on a geared bike. If you ride at your maximum cadence on a geared bike in the highest gear then ride at your maximum cadence on a single speed bike, you’ll find that you can travel much faster on the geared bike. Your top speed depends on the gear ratio and your maximum cadence. Assuming your maximum cadence is the same, you’ll reach a faster top speed on a bike with a higher gear ratio.
Having a higher top speed allows you to cover more ground more quickly. This comes in handy while riding on flat surfaces and descending hills. If you enjoy riding at high speeds, you’ll probably prefer riding a geared bike.
5. Geared Bikes are more versatile
Modern geared bikes have up to 30 speeds (3×10 gearing) with a gear range of over 500%. This gearing makes the bike much more versatile. An optimal gear exists for every grade and type of terrain you could encounter while riding.
This allows you to ride in a wider range of conditions with a geared bike. For example, you can ride up steep hills, into strong headwinds, and down long descents, all while pedaling at your optimal cadence. With a single speed bike, you may have to walk your bike up some hills and coast down some hills. You can’t always peddle.
Thee wide gear range also allows you to use a geared bike for multiple types of riding. For example, you could load your bike up with panniers or bikepacking bags and go touring or bikepacking. You could also enter yourself in a local competition and race your bike.
6. Those who are in poor physical condition can ride a geared bike
The lower gearing allows those who aren’t in the best physical condition to ride a bike. You never need to overexert yourself. Even when climbing hills. You can simply shift down and spin your legs quickly and easily. You hardly have to break a sweat.
This makes geared bikes an excellent choice for those who are older, out of shape, recovering from an injury or illness, overweight, or simply lacking the stamina or strength to ride a single speed. As your fitness improves, you can start utilizing the harder gears and riding faster and with more power.
7. Chainrings and rear cogs last longer
You don’t need to replace the chainrings and rear cogs as frequently when you ride a geared bike. The reason is that the wear on these components is distributed between multiple gears. Instead of always riding in one chainring, you might have 3. Instead of always riding on one rear cog, you have 8-12. They all last longer as a result.
With a single speed bike, the same chainring and cog are always engaged. They wear out faster as a result.
Geared Bike Cons
1. More maintenance is required on geared bikes
Geared bikes have more components to maintain. There are also more moving parts. For example, there are derailleurs, shifters, and shifter cables. There are also multiple chainrings and rear cogs.
To keep your geared bike shifting smoothly, you’ll have to periodically adjust the derailleurs. If you don’t, your bike will start riding rough and shift poorly. Some problems you could encounter include skipped gears, ghost shifts, grinding gears, and trouble shifting into a particular gear. These are all signs that you need to maintain your drivetrain.
How often you have to maintain your drivetrain depends on a number of factors including how much you ride and the conditions you ride in. Generally, you’ll have to adjust your derailleurs around once per year. Over time shifter cables stretch and throw your derailleurs out of adjustment. Every 1-5 years, you may have to replace a shifter cable.
Geared bikes tend to wear through chains more quickly. The reason is that the chain runs at an angle while you’re riding in your extreme low and extreme high gears. When your chain runs at an angle, the chain plates rub against the teeth of the gears. This causes some additional wear on the chain. You might have to replace your chain 500-1000 miles sooner on a geared bike than you would on a single speed. This is only the case on bikes with derailleurs. The chain runs straight on bikes with hub gears.
It also takes more time to clean and lube a geared bike because there are more places where dirt can accumulate. For example, you’ll have to clean all of the cogs and chainrings. You’ll also have to clean the derailleurs and shifters. If your bike has an internal gear hub, you’ll have to replace the lubricating oil every 5000 km or so.
These maintenance jobs are all pretty easy to perform. You will spend more time working on your bike when you ride a geared bike.
2. Geared bikes are heavier
Because they have more parts, geared bikes weigh more than single speed bikes. The derailleurs, shifters, cables and housings, and extra chainrings and rear cogs all add a bit of weight. These parts don’t exist on single speed bikes.
On average, a geared bike weighs around 1-1.5 kilos (2.2-3.3 pounds) more than a geared bike. The exact weight difference depends on the quality of the components. A rear derailleur weighs around 225 grams. The extra chainrings can weigh 100-200 grams. A front derailleur can weigh around 100 grams. Shifters might weigh 400 grams.
The weight difference will be smaller when comparing high-end bikes because high-end components are lighter. A high-end geared road bike weighs around 8 kilos or around 18 lbs. A comparable high-end single speed might only weigh 7 kilos or 15.5 lbs.
Of course, the drivetrain isn’t the only part of the bike that determines the weight. You’ll also want to consider the weight of the frame, wheels, and other components if weight is important to you. It’s possible for a geared bike to be lighter than a single speed. For example, a high-end geared bike with a carbon fiber frame may be lighter than a steel-framed single speed. Carbon frames and are much lighter than steel. The wheels also play a big role in the weight of the bike. Carbon wheels are lighter than aluminum wheels.
3. Geared bikes cost more
Geared bikes require extra components such as derailleurs and shifters. These precision-built drivetrain components are some of the most expensive parts of the bike. In addition, geared bikes have extra chainrings and cogs. The extra parts add a fair amount to the cost of the bike. For this reason, geared bikes cost more than single speed bikes.
The cost difference between a geared bike and a single speed bike depends on the quality of the bikes. At the low end, a geared bike might only cost $150 more than a single speed. Low-end groupsets are fairly cheap. At the high end, a geared bike could cost $1500 more than a geared bike. High-end groupsets are incredibly expensive. Particularly electronic groupsets.
When comparing an equally priced geared and single speed bike, you may find that the geared bike will come with a lower-end frame and wheelset. This is necessary to offset the additional cost of the groupset.
It’s also important to remember that you will also spend a bit more money on maintenance and repairs when you ride a geared bike. If you’re unable to maintain the bike yourself, you’ll have to take it to a bike shop and pay for derailleur adjustments. You may have to buy a replacement derailleur or shifter if yours get damaged in an accident. You’ll also have to replace the chainrings and cassette periodically. Over the lifetime of the bike, these extra costs can add up. Particularly if you have to hire someone to perform the maintenance for you. If you can do the labor yourself, the difference in maintenance costs will be far less.
4. Damage is more common on geared bikes
Two of the most commonly damaged parts of a bike are the rear derailleur and derailleur hanger. These parts are susceptible to damage due to their position. The derailleur hangs precariously off the side of the bike near the ground. It’s easy to hit the derailleur against something while riding or transporting your bike. This can cause damage.
When you knock the derailleur, you can also bend the derailleur hanger. On some bikes, the derailleur attaches directly to the frame. Knocking the derailleur against something can bend the frame.
The shifters can also get damaged during an accident or while transporting the bike. They contain some intricate and fragile parts.
You don’t have to worry about damage nearly as much when you ride a single speed because there are simply fewer parts to damage.
5. Geared bikes are more mechanically complex
Geared bikes have more moving parts than single speed bikes. Both the derailleurs and shifters contain intricate, precision-built mechanical parts. Electronic shifting systems are even more complex. They contain wiring, batteries, and complicated electronic components.
Because geared bikes have more complex moving parts, there are more parts that can break, wear out, or get gummed up with dirt and debris. Eventually, these parts need to be thoroughly cleaned, maintained, or replaced.
You also need some mechanical know-how if you want to maintain a geared bike by yourself. You’ll at least want to learn how to adjust your derailleurs and change a shifter cable. You won’t want to have to take the bike to a bike shop for every little issue. These skills take some time and effort to learn.
If you know basic bike maintenance, the complexity of the components doesn’t really matter. Quality derailleurs and shifters can last decades. For example, I still ride a Schwinn High Sierra from the 80s that has its original drivetrain components.
6. Geared bikes are harder to ride
In order to ride a geared bike quickly and efficiently, you have to know how to choose the correct gear for the conditions you’re riding in. You must also shift regularly. This requires some thought.
For example, you have to remember which chainring and cassette cog you’re using. This is important to avoid cross chaining. You have to remember which shifter button to push to shift in the direction you want. You must also remember which shifter controls the front derailleur and which controls the rear. When you’re a beginner, it’s easy to shift the wrong derailleur or shift up when you meant to shift down. You must press the shifters with the proper amount of force so you don’t over shift, grind your gears, or miss a shift. All of this requires some thought. You need to pay more attention to what you’re doing.
At the same time, you have to pedal and steer the bike. Shifting makes riding a geared bike a bit more complicated than riding a single speed. Particularly for beginner cyclists and kids.
7. Geared bikes can be noisy
If you don’t properly maintain your geared bike, the drivetrain can get noisy. The chain can make a grinding sound while riding in certain gears. This is caused by the chain plates rubbing on the gear teeth. Shifting from one gear to the next can also cause a loud clunk.
These problems can be solved by properly keeping your derailleurs properly adjusted and regularly cleaning and lubing your drivetrain. A properly maintained geared bike operates almost as quietly as a single speed. There will still be a bit of sound when shifting.
If you want to ride a quiet bike, consider choosing a bike with an internal gear hub and belt drive. These systems operate almost silently.
8. You get less exercise while riding a geared bike.
You won’t burn as many calories per hour while riding a geared bike. The reason is that geared bikes take less effort to ride due to the mechanical advantage that the gears offer. The exercise is less intense. You burn less energy while pedaling quickly without using much force to turn the peddles. This is particularly true when climbing hills and riding into a headwind. You’re not working as hard to ride and your heart rate will remain lower.
You can ride a geared bike longer than a single speed without tiring out. This allows you to have a longer, lower-intensity workout. Low-intensity cardio workouts are great for building aerobic capacity. You’ll burn fat and improve muscle health.
Geared bikes look more complex and messy than single speed bikes. There are derailleurs hanging off the frame and shifters mounted to the handlebars. The shifter cables run along the frame. There are also multiple chainrings and cogs.
One feature that improves the looks of geared bikes is internal cable routing. This is when the shifter and brake cables pass through the inside of the frame when running from the handlebars to the derailleurs. This feature is common on high-end geared bikes. Most electronic drivetrains are wireless these days. These can also clean up the look of the bike.
Who Should Ride a Single Speed Bike?
Single speed bikes are a great choice for commuters, grocery getters, urban cyclists, bicycle messengers, and those who ride for fun. They are ideal for these types of riding due to their simplicity, low maintenance requirements, and reliability. There are fewer moving parts. You can ride a single speed bike hard for many miles without having to worry about parts breaking or wearing out.
Single speed bikes can also be an excellent choice for those who are training for a cycling event. Many professional road cyclists and mountain bikers ride a single speed bike for training. Riding a single speed can help you improve your pedaling speed and develop a smoother cadence. They can also help you build stronger leg muscles. This is particularly true for fixed gear single speed bikes.
There are also a number of cycling disciplines where single speed bikes are standard. For example, BMX bikes and track bikes almost always have one gear. Most BMX bikes have a freewheel while track bikes are usually fixed gear. Some professional mountain bikers have experimented with riding single speed for some events.
Those who want a lightweight bike at an affordable price should also consider riding a single speed. Because these bikes have fewer parts, they weigh much less than geared bikes. They are also significantly cheaper because they have fewer parts.
Who Should Ride a Geared Bike?
A geared bike is probably the better choice for the majority of riders. The main reasons are the efficiency and the mechanical advantage that gears offer. With a geared bike, you can ride longer and further without tiring out. You can also shift down to climb hills and shift up when riding flat terrain or descending. The gears come in handy whether you’re commuting, running errands, or just riding recreationally.
Geared bikes are also better for those who ride long distance or carry heavy loads. For example, bicycle tourists and bikepackers often ride 50-100 miles per day while carrying 20-50 lbs of gear. You can’t really do that with a single speed.
If you plan to race your bike at some point, you’re probably better off going with a geared model. Most cycling disciplines use bikes with gears. For example, almost all road and mountain bikes come with gears.
A geared bike may also be the best choice for someone with knee pain or joint problems. Having the ability to shift down into a lower gear can reduce stress on the joints. Particularly the patella. You can reduce the likelihood of injuring yourself by riding a multi speed bike.
If, after reading this guide, you’re still undecided as to whether or not you want a bike with gears, you’re probably better off going with a geared bike. It will be useful in more situations due to the added versatility that the different gear ratios offer. If you want to ride in one speed on your geared bike, you can. Many beginner riders rarely shift.
My Choice: Single Speed Vs Geared Bike
As a kid, I always rode single speed bikes. I had a couple of different BMX bikes that I would ride around my neighborhood and on bike trails around my house. The area was pretty flat so I didn’t really need gears. I enjoyed the freedom of being able to mash down on my peddles without having to worry about shifting. I was also pretty rough on my bikes when I was younger. It was nice not having to worry as much about damage.
These days, I prefer riding geared bikes. The main reason is the efficiency. I like having the ability to gear down and spin up hills easily. I also do some bicycle touring. For the type of riding I do, gears are pretty much necessary. I couldn’t ride a fully loaded bike with a single speed. I also feel like riding a geared bike is easier on my knees. My knees aren’t the strongest so I like being able to shift down and ride at a higher cadence where less force is required to peddle.
Types of single speed bikes
Single speed bikes are available with two very different types of hubs. They can come with a freewheel or a fixed gear (fixie). It’s important to know the difference between the two because both types of hubs offer a completely different riding experience. Each design also has its own set of benefits and drawbacks. In this section, I’ll explain how both types of hubs work and share a few pros and cons.
Single Speed with Freewheel Hub
Most single speed bikes and all geared bikes come with a freewheel hub. The freewheel is a ratchet mechanism. It allows the rear cog to move in one direction relative to the rear wheel but not in the opposite direction. For example, a freewheel allows you to stop peddling or pedal backward while the bike is moving. The wheel can roll forward independent from cog and cranks. When you stop pedaling, the rear wheel continues to spin normally. This is what allows you to coast. The freewheel also allows the rear wheel to spin faster than the rear cog. This is helpful when descending a hill at high speeds. When you walk the bike, the peddles do not turn.
When you start pedaling 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. This allows you to start transmitting power to the rear wheel to drive the bike forward.
There are two different types of freewheels. One is built into the hub. This is called a freehub. The other attaches to the hub. This is called a freewheel.
Along the inside of the body of a freehub, there are grooves or teeth. These teeth angle upwards on one side and drop down sharply on the other. On the hub body, there are a series of spring-loaded pawls. These pawls can pass freely along the angled side of the teeth when you coast or peddle backward. This is what makes the clicking sound when you coast.
When you start pedaling, the pawls move in the opposite direction, spring up, and catch on the edge of the teeth. This engages the peddles so you can transfer power to the rear wheel.
With a freewheel, the ratchet mechanism is built into the rear cog unit instead of the hub. Both styles function the same. These days, most riders prefer a freehub system because it is a bit more modern and easier to work on. Rear cogs are also a bit cheaper to replace because you can replace the cog only and not the ratchet mechanism.
Pros of Freewheel Single Speed Bikes
The biggest benefit of a freewheel is that it allows you to coast. This gives you a chance to rest your legs while you ride. You can descend hills without having to burn any energy. Just sit there and let gravity take you to the bottom of the hill. This increases efficiency. You can ride further and burn less energy.
Another major benefit of a freewheel is that it allows you to rotate your cranks to avoid peddle strike. This is helpful while leaning hard into corners or while riding rugged terrain. While leaning, you can move the pedal facing the inside of the corner to the top position so it won’t hit the ground. While riding rugged terrain, you can position your pedals horizontally and coast so they don’t hit rocks or stumps.
It can also be a bit easier to climb with a freewheel because you can coast a bit between peddle strokes. Particularly while you’re standing and pedaling. Let our bodyweight push down on the peddles and the bike. The bike keeps moving during the upstroke.
Most riders are also used to riding a freewheel. There is no learning curve. Geared bikes also come with a freewheel mechanism. These pros also apply to geared bikes.
Cons of Freewheel Single Speed Bikes
Because you can coast, riding a single speed with a freewheel is a less intense workout. You won’t burn as many calories as quickly if you’re riding for exercise. You’re not exercising at all while coasting.
Freewheel bikes may also be a bit slower than fixed gear on flat ground because you can’t produce power through the entire peddle stroke.
Fixed Gear Single Speed Bikes (Fixie)
Fixed gear single speed bikes do not have a freewheel mechanism. Instead, the rear cog is bolted in place on the hub of the rear wheel. This means that the cog can not move independently from the wheel. The cog is directly connected to the cranks and peddles through the chain. The motion of the peddles is directly connected to the motion of the rear wheel.
When you peddle forward on a fixed gear bike, you’ll move forward. If you peddle backward, the bike will move backward. When you stop peddling, the rear wheel will stop moving. When you walk the bike, the peddles will rotate with the rear wheel. Whenever the bike is rolling, the peddles are moving.
This means that you cannot coast with a fixed gear bike. You are forced to peddle at all times. You can brake by resisting the rotating force of the cranks. Some fixed gear bikes don’t even have brakes. Some only come with a front brake.
For more in-depth info, check out my guide to single speed vs fixed gear bikes.
Fixed Gear Pros
A fixed gear bike gives you the ability to control the rear wheel more precisely. You can create resistance to slow the rear wheel down or peddle harder to speed it up. You can also lock the rear wheel up to make the bike slide or pedal backward to make the bike move backward.
Fixed gear bikes also give you more feedback from the road while riding because the rear wheel can drive the cranks and peddles. For example, if you hit a bump, the rear wheel will slow down and so will the cranks. This makes you feel a bit more connected to the terrain. Some riders find that this gives them the ability to better handle slippery surfaces and rough terrain.
Riding a fixed gear bike can also help you develop a more efficient and more powerful peddling style. The reason is that fixed gear bikes force you to peddle at different cadences. For example, while descending a big hill, you might have to pedal at 150 rpm to keep up. This trains your legs to ride at higher cadences. Riding fixed gear can also train you to develop a smoother peddle stroke. This can help you become a stronger rider all around. In addition, riding a fixed gear bike gives you a better workout because you can’t coast.
Many riders also enjoy the clean looks of fixed gear bikes. There is also a long fixie tradition among track riders and bicycle messengers. Riding fixie is a lifestyle in some circles.
Fixed Gear Cons
There is a pretty big learning curve to riding a fixed gear bike. Not being able to stop peddling feels strange at first. You must also learn how to brake by resisting the motion of the peddles. If you try to coast, you’ll experience ‘kickback’. The cranks just keep spinning. The first time I rode a fixie, I was surprised by how different it felt. It certainly took some getting used to.
There are also some risks to riding a fixie. First, peddle strike is more common because you can’t move your peddles out of the way while cornering. You can’t lean as far or ride some types of rough terrain with a fixed gear bike. A bad pedal strike could cause you to crash. If a pant leg or shoelace gets caught in the chain while you’re riding, you could get thrown off the bike. If you ride without brakes and your chain comes off, you can’t stop. It’s also easy to lose control by locking up the rear wheel.
Probably the biggest drawback to fixed gear bikes is that you can’t coast. This makes the bike much less efficient. Riding fixed gear can feel uncomfortable at times as well. When descending large hills at high speeds on a fixed gear bike, you’ll have to peddle at an incredibly high cadence. Sometimes up to 170 rpm. This can feel uncomfortable. Sometimes you’ll have to brake to slow down. You may descend slower as a result.
Flip Flop Hub
These hubs have a freewheel cog on one side of the hub and a fixed cog on the other side. This design allows you to switch between freewheel and fixed gear. To do this, you remove the rear wheel, flip it around, then reinstall it so the other cog is engaged on the chain. It’s like having both a single speed and fixed gear bike.
You can also use a flip flop hub to convert a 1 speed bike into a 2 speed without the need for derailleurs, an internal gear hub, or shifters. You achieve this by installing two different sized cogs on the flip flop hub. They could both be fixed or both freewheel or one of each. To change gears, you would have to remove the rear wheel, flip it around, and reinstall it with the other cog engaged. You’ll also have to re-tention the chain if you do this.
Types of geared bikes
Geared bikes are available with two different shifting mechanisms. They can use derailleurs or an internal gear hub. Both shifting systems perform the same function of changing the gear ratio. They both offer a very similar ride experience with a few key differences. Derailleurs and internal gear hubs have their own benefits and drawbacks.
In this section, I’ll outline each. For more in-depth info, check out my internal gear hub vs derailleurs guide.
Derailleurs are the mechanisms that move the bike’s chain between the different cogs and chainrings to change the gear ratio. Most bikes have two derailleurs. The rear derailleur shifts the chain between the rear cogs and the front derailleur shifts between the chainrings. The derailleurs mount to the bike’s frame. The rear derailleur mounts to the rear dropout and the front derailleur mounts to the seat tube.
A cable runs from the derailleurs to the shifters that are mounted on the handlebars. Manipulating the shifters changes the tension on the cable. This causes the derailleurs to move. Derailleurs are spring-loaded. When you decrease tension on the shifter cable, the spring in the derailleur pushes the chain down to a lower gear. When you increase tension on the cable, the derailleur pulls the chain up into a higher gear.
Modern derailleur systems have anywhere from 10-30 gears. These days, 1X drivetrains are becoming common. These use only a rear derailleur and no front derailleur. There is only one chainring. For more info, check out my 1x vs 2x guide. Electronic groupsets are also available. These use batteries, motors, and electronic shifers to move the derailleurs and change gears. For more info, check out my guide to electronic vs mechanical shifting.
When compared to internal gear hubs, derailleurs have more gears and a wider gear range. Bikes with derailleurs can have up to 30 speeds and over 600% of gear range. This allows you to ride a wider variety of terrain while cycling at your optimal cadence.
Derailleur drivetrains are also 2-10% more efficient than internal gear hubs. Less energy is lost between the peddles and rear wheel. Derailleurs are also lighter than internal gear hubs. This allows you to ride slightly faster.
In addition, derailleurs are easier to repair. They are completely user serviceable. All you need to adjust and maintain your derailleurs is a few simple tools and some basic knowledge. Every bike shop can also work on derailleurs. Parts availability is also better. Wherever you ride, you can find a replacement derailleur to get you back on the road.
Derailleur drivetrains also offer better compatibility. Pretty much all frames can run derailleurs. They are the standard shifting mechanism. Derailleurs are also cheaper.
Derailleur drivetrains require more frequent maintenance. For example, chains don’t last as long because they run at an angle much of the time. This increases wear. They can also be a bit finicky. Regular adjustment is required to keep the bike shifting smoothly. You’ll need to know how to adjust your derailleurs to keep your bike running smoothly.
Derailleur drivetrains can also get clogged with sand, dirt, mud, and other debris because they are completely open and exposed to the elements. You have to clean them more frequently to keep the bike shifting smoothly. Particularly while riding through dirty, sandy, wet, and muddy environments.
Derailleurs also can’t shift when the bike is stopped. While slowing down, you must downshift so you’re in a low enough gear to get moving again. This is a hassle while riding in stop-and-go city traffic. Derailleurs also can’t shift through multiple gears as quickly. This can be a problem when the terrain suddenly changes.
In addition, derailleurs can be a bit fragile. The rear derailleur hangs precariously off of the dropout. It’s easy to damage a derailleur while riding rugged terrain or while transporting your bike. The rear wheel is also a bit weaker on derailleur bikes because the hub has a smaller diameter so the spokes must be longer.
Internal Gear Hub
An internal gear hub is a system used to change a bike’s gear ratio. It is an alternative to derailleurs. Internal gear hubs integrate a rear hub and shifting system into a single unit. The system works by using planetary or epicyclic gears to change the gear ratio. All of the gears as well as lubricant are sealed inside of the internal gear hub unit. Internal gear hubs are also known as hub gears or IGH.
A cable runs from the internal gear hub to the shifter, which is mounted on the handlebars. When you manipulate the shifter, the tension on the cable changes. This causes the hub to change gears. Most internal gear hubs use a single twist shifter.
Internal gear hubs have anywhere from 3-14 speeds. Most bikes with internal gear hubs have one rear sprocket and one chainring. All of the gear changing happens within the internal gear hub. The chain doesn’t move.
Different internal gear hubs are used for different types of bikes. Utility bikes, older bikes, and folding bikes often use simple 3 speed hubs. Commuter bikes and city bikes often use 7 or 8 speed hubs. High-end touring bikes may use a modern 14 speed hub.
Hybrid drivetrains are also available with an internal gear hub and rear derailleur with 2-3 cogs. This increases the gear range and number of gears but also increases the complexity of the system.
Internal Gear Hub Pros
The biggest benefit of internal gear hubs is that they require less maintenance than derailleurs. Because the unit is sealed, you don’t need to clean it as often. The chainline is straight so chains and sprockets last longer. Adjustment is rarely required. This makes internal gear hubs extremely reliable and long-lasting. They are a great choice for those who don’t like to maintain their own bike as well as those who put in a lot of miles.
Another major benefit of internal gear hubs is that you can shift while stopped and shift through multiple gears at once. This is nice if you ride in stop-and-go city traffic, in hilly areas, or on slippery terrain.
Internal gear hubs also make the bike a bit more durable. The rear wheel is stronger because internal gear hubs have a larger diameter, which makes the spokes shorter. There is also no fragile derailleur hanging off the bike. IGH are also compatible with belt drives.
Internal Gear Hub Cons
Internal gear hubs are 2-10% less efficient than derailleurs. This is because the power you produce at the peddles passes through multiple gears before it gets to the rear wheel. Internal gear hubs are also a bit heavier than derailleurs. The energy loss and extra weight will slow you down a bit.
Internal gear hubs also have fewer gears and a smaller gear range than derailleurs. The best internal gear hub, the Rohloff Speedhub, offers 14 speeds and a gear range of 526%. Average internal gear hubs have 7 or 8 speeds.
Internal gear hubs are also harder to repair if something goes wrong. In fact, if your hub breaks, you might need to ship it to the manufacturer for repair or simply replace it. It is also harder to find replacement parts such as oil and cogs for internal gear hubs. Some small bike shops don’t stock them. This can be a challenge if you ride in remote regions. Internal gear hubs are also more expensive.
As you can see, both single speed and geared bikes each have their own set of benefits and drawbacks. The best choice for you depends on a number of factors including your style of riding, where you ride, the distances you ride, and personal preference.
If you need to ride long distances or up steep grades, you’ll probably be better off with a geared bike. If you ride for exercise or only ride in the city, you may prefer a single speed bike. It’s important to take maintenance requirements into consideration as well.
You’ll also want to spend some time considering which type of single speed or geared bike is better for your style of riding. Fixed gear and freewheel bikes ride completely differently. Derailleur and internal gear hub bikes have their own benefits and drawbacks. Whether you decide to go with a single speed or geared bike, I hope this guide has helped you in making your decision.
Do you ride a single speed or geared bike? Share your experience in the comments below!
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Zachary Friedman is an accomplished travel writer and professional blogger. Since 2011, he has traveled to 66 countries and 6 continents. He founded ‘Where The Road Forks’ in 2017 to provide readers with information and insights based on his travel and outdoor recreation experience and expertise. Zachary is also an avid cyclist and hiker. Living as a digital nomad, Zachary balances his professional life with his passions for hiking, camping, cycling, and worldwide exploration. For a deeper dive into his journey and background, visit the About page. For inquiries and collaborations, please reach out through the Contact page. You can also follow him on Facebook.