I recently completed a 50 mile cycle event and at one point found myself riding alongside someone on a single speed bike. Nothing unusual in that, until he put his foot down and gently eased passed me – uphill. Now what the heck was that all about? I’m not unfit, although like a lot of middle-aged men, I could do with losing a few (cough!) pounds in weight. My pride was dented a little but then I realised that this rider was simply fitter than me.
As the hill topped out and I sat back into the ride, I started to consider why this cyclist rode a single speed and clearly preferred it over multiple gears. This article is, in part, my exploration of what it’s like riding a single speed or fixed gear bike (there is a difference). First, a quick look at what is a single speed bike and then some of the reasons why cyclists ride with them.
What is a Single Speed Bike?
This next sentence is going to be pretty stupid, but nevertheless. A single-speed bicycle is a type of bike with a single gear ratio. I did warn you! As an experienced cyclist, you’ll realise that this means that these cycles do not have derailleurs, gears, hubs, gear levers or other methods for varying the gear ratio of the bike.
What you may not instantly realise is that there are several types of single speed bicycles, including; BMX bikes, most children’s bikes, cruiser type bicycles, classic commuter bicycles, unicycles, track bikes, fixed-gear road bicycles and single speed mountain bicycles.
What is the difference between a Single Speed and a Fixed Gear Bike?
A single-speed bicycle is the most basic type of bike, after a unicycle. It is devoid of most mechanical parts and has a single gear.
A fixed gear bike, or fixie, is a single-speed bike but a single-speed bike may not be a fixed gear bike. A fixed-gear bike does not have a freewheel mechanism and as such, cannot coast or freewheel. The rear cog is fixed to the bike’s rear wheel hub, which means whenever the bike is in motion, the pedals will go around, just like in Gym spin classes. So you’re always pedaling on a fixed-gear bicycle.
A single speed bicycle is a bike with a one speed freewheel, that allows the pedals to remain stationary while the bicycle is in motion, so that the rider can coast. So a Singlespeed bike rides just as a normal road bike but with only one gear.
Why Ride a Single-Speed or Fixed Gear Bike?
Now that we know the difference between one gear bikes, why bother?
Advantages of Single-Speed
- Cheaper: single-speed bicycles are generally cheaper – there is a Viking model for just £150
- Lighter: there are fewer parts
- Mechanically Simpler: with less components, these bikes are mechanically much simpler than the multi-geared equivalent.
- Less Maintenance: again, with less mechanical parts, there are fewer parts on the bicycle that require maintenance
- Greater Drive Efficiency: the drivetrain efficiency of a single-speed can be greater than multi-geared bicycles. A straight chainline, lack of chain drag from rear derailleur jockey pulleys, and lack of chainrings, improve pedaling efficiency.
- Less Equipment: as a single rear cog takes less space than a typical seven to ten cogs rear cassettes, rear wheels can be built with little or no dish.
- Better Fitness: you’ll find yourself coasting less and pedaling more, along with the greater challenges have no alternative gears will bring
Disadvantages of a Single-Gear
- Less Versatile: as the single-speed bicycle lacks alternative gearing ratios, it is less versatile, as it cannot be pedaled efficiently outside of its single gearing range.
- Fitness: you really do need to be fit to ride a single-speed bike
- Hills: without lower gearing options, the single speed bicycle is generally more difficult to pedal uphill.
- Top Speeds: building speed can be challenging on these bikes, again restricted by lack of gear options
- Stopping: there is a learning curve to stopping on a fixed gear bike outside of the normal braking process
What is it like riding a single-speed fixed gear bike?
A few weeks ago, I met Aaron English, in the Google+ Cycling UK Community. He had added a post about riding a fixed-gear bike in such a way that it made me realise that this was someone that could help me to understand the emotion behind riding a single-speed bike and so I invited Aaron to write an article on his experiences. This is what he had to say;
At the end of biking season last year I purchased a single speed to replace a downhill mountain bike for commuting in the city. I named her IndyGo and I got to ride her for about a month before winter came to Minneapolis. All winter we stared at each other barely able to wait until late spring when the biking season starts. March teased us both with a few good riding days, so when April finally came IndyGo and I were ready to go play.
The first two weeks I rode the freewheel side of her reversible rear hub, got used to her lack of weight in comparison to my previous bike, and lost track of time in the middle three to five hour rides.
She wanted to fly, but would settle on encouraging me into a faster cadence, smoother pedaling, and less coasting. At the end of those first two weeks I was still riding IndyGo on her freewheel and began fishing for drafting parters on the south loop of The Grand Rounds public bike path. I was giddy as I rode in the wake of high end road racers and weekend fitness enthusiasts.
I would casually note what gear they were in by the differences in our pedaling cadence. It would tickle IndyGo to know she was keeping pace with pedigree composites, and I was tickled whenever I would slingshot thru their slipstreams. I was all smiles as I would sidle behind unsuspecting cyclists and wait for the right moment to break away.
Then IndyGo started whispering about how much more fun we could have if I flipped her hub to the fixed side. I listened as I rode her freewheel for a couple more days. She finally convinced me that it would not take long to make the switch, I could always switch back, and just do it.
The first time I tried to get on IndyGo after the switch I was not ready for the upstroke. The pedal kicked my heel into my butt and then about threw me off, and for the first few days I wondered why I had flipped IndyGo from freewheel to fixed.
Riding a single speed went from freedom to binding constraint. I was extremely aware that stopping was not an unconscious reflex anymore. On demand braking turned into slowing down as quickly as possible and stopping on a dime required ten feet, a lot of kinaesthetic confusion [a learning style in which learning takes place by the students carrying out physical activities, rather than listening to a lecture or watching demonstrations], and frantically trying to find the emergency brake lever.
After flipping the hub around I was obsessed with braking and regulating IndyGo’s speed became my first priority. I constantly back pedaled to stay in control. I found my feet gripping the pedals, my toes cramming into the toe clips, legs muscles constantly twitching, and slammed into a flight or fight mindset. I was coming home from recreational rides more fried than revived. When a friend asked if I liked making the switch I replied;
I’ll wait until after my first crash to decide
If hindsight is 20/20 vision then foreshadowing is 40/20 vision. The next day I was in the middle of a two hour ride thru the city. As I slowed down for a red traffic light a car cut a tight turn into my path. I stopped for the first time. The car passed without colliding, and as I celebrated myy first deliberate complete stop I felt the earth shifting beneath me. I was falling over sideways in slow motion. I tried to pull my foot out of the clip, but my toes were still instinctively cramming and gripping. I recalled the prophetic words from the previous day as I relaxed into the asphalt and the minor humiliation of falling over from a dead stop. When the embarrassment wore off I was ready to continue.
I began practicing stopping, and after a week of start/stop exercises I could slow descents by locking the hub. I was all set for a real high speed ride around The Grand Rounds’ south loop. I stayed loose in the pedals, didn’t grip the toe clips, and my legs remained relaxed and loose the whole ride. I was nearing the end of when I had to stop short or run into two pedestrians crossing the street.
I laughed as I started to fall over for the second time in two weeks. Unlike the first fall I has an interactive audience. Someone called out, “Are you OK?”, I answered in the affirmative without turning to see who was concerned. As I pulled away I thought about how afraid I was of crashing and burning, and began to laugh again.
Next week when I get time off of my day gig I’m going back to fishing for drafting partners ..