Last updated 16 January 2020
Single Speed Bikes: Give it a try
Ready to buy a single speed bike bike?
You’ve probably heard the word on the street. It’s time to go single.
If you’ve been wedded to derailleurs, it takes quite a leap of faith to contemplate riding a bike you can’t click into a lower gear when hills and headwinds hurt.
But you don't know what you'll like till you try it so we suggest you give singlespeed a whirl.
When you pick up a single speed, the first thing you notice is that ditching the derailleur and such paraphernalia crash diets a kilo off the bike’s weight.
No jiggling mechs makes it the quietest bike you’ve ever ridden.
Then you discover that using your legs rather than gears to help you over hills becomes totally engaging. You learn to pick up more speed on the flats to build the momentum to take you up hills, which you tackle out the saddle to get over them faster.
Over time, you make the pleasing discovery that an absence of gears and the general adoption of a wider 1/8” chain means less to wear out and less time spent on maintenance.
You might even find yourself in agreement with singlespeed/fixed converts who tell you that riding gear-less is the best fun you can have on 2 wheels.
We’re not saying that single speed is for everyone. We are just saying give it a try. You have nothing to lose but your 3/32” chains. (cont'd below)
Genesis Flyer 2019 Single Speed Bike
- The Benefits of Single Speed
- What's a Fixie Then?
- Why Ride Single Speed? - confessions of a convert to life without gears
- Single Speed / Fixie Terminology
- FAQs - single speed questions answered
- Converting a multi-geared bike to a fixie or single Speed - tips from our Newcastle workshop
1. The Benefits of Single Speed
- Less is more.
- Less equipment means less to go wrong.
- Less time required to maintain the bike: more time to ride.
- The absence of derailleurs, chainrings, cogs and cables declutters the bike and saves weight.
- Stripped down to the essentials, single speed bikes display a unique aesthetic.
- A single speed with a taut chain and a good chain line is the quietest bike you'll ever ride.
- Everything else being equal a wheel built to take only one cog is going to be stronger than a wheel that's been 'dished' to take a multi-cog cassette.
2. What's a Fixie then?
A favourite with young hipsters and old roadies alike, a fixie is a specific type of single speed. 'Fixed' means that the rear cog is secured to the rear hub with a lockring so it can't freewheel. If the rear wheel is turning, so must the pedal cranks and therefore your legs. And that's the great thing about riding a fixie. The spinning rear wheel creates a 'flywheel effect' which helps propel your legs round and helps you develop the smooth-cadence riding style of the pros, sometimes referred to in cycling mags as supplesse.
Henri Desgrange, inventor of the Tour de France, is quoted as saying 'Isn't it better to triumph by the strength of your muscles than by the artifice of a derailer? We are getting soft...As for me, give me a fixed gear!'
Henri wrote these lines way back in 1902. Fast forward more than 100 years, Henri's comments remain as valid as ever as more and more riders are eschewing gear shifting and choosing to ride fixed.
- Fixies are also called fixed wheel bikes or fixed gear bikes.
- Aficionados will tell you that riding fixed is a totally engaging experience.
- Riding fixed builds strength and smoothes your cadence.
- Taking minimalism to the extreme, some fixed riders remove the rear brake (back-pedalling a fixie acts as a brake, kind-of ).
- That's one of the reasons why riding fixed is best reserved for fit, confident bike handlers.
- Having said that, it's worth remembering that back in the day, all bicycles were once fixies.
- For instance, 'ordinaries' AKA 'penny farthings' were fixed.
- Today, track cyclists ride fixed at the Olympics.
- If you've ever exercised at a spinning class you'll have ridden fixed too.
- Many elite road racers hang up their 2x11-speed bikes in October and ride fixed through the winter.
- Riding fixed or single speed in winter means you don't wear out as many expensive drivetrain components as you would riding salted, gritted roads on a multi-geared bike.
- Because it trains you to ride smoothly with continuous focus on what's coming up ahead, riding a fixie can be safer on icy roads.
3. Why Ride Single Speed?
Former Bike Co-op member Rick Chalton writes about his conversion to single speed.
'For most people who ride a bike, gears are not just a luxury - they are a necessity. Countless hours are spent choosing derailleurs, weighing up the pros and cons of Shimano versus SRAM or Campagnolo, and then fettling and tweaking cable tensions and limit adjusters to give the perfect, near flawless click of a gear change, so subtle it’s like gliding between ratios. Gears make that hill ridable. Gears stop your legs spinning like a hamster's on a treadmill every downhill. Gears are great.
So why abandon them in favour of a single gear? Whether fixed or free, a pre-chosen single gear is, on the face of it, a stupid idea, bordering on lunacy. Why would anyone put themselves through all that pain and extra effort when the technology exists to make life easier?
My first contact with the world of the singlespeed came when a friend-of-a-friend pulled out of a big event due to ill-health and I was offered the spot on the relay team. Only after I had agreed to it, was I told that the team was ‘Jorvik Single and Rigid’ - all riding on suspension-less singlespeeds, and that someone would have a bike for me to borrow. So after just one quick ride on Mike’s gorgeous deKerf, I found myself racing a 24hour race, with one gear and no comfort. Needless to say, I was hooked: by the no-holds barred ride: the speed with which it dispatched the steep but short climbs: and the comedy spinning on the long downhills. But mainly it was the simplicity of the mechanics, and the flyaway weight.
Of course, it also mattered to me that people raised an eyebrow as I spun past them. Hey, I was young and the ‘look-at-me’ streak was still healthy. It wasn’t long before a spare frame was brought out of retirement from the shed, given a retro Hope screw-on hub, an even more retro Pace RC30 fork and a collection of parts from the bargain bin. And that same bike is the one that’s hanging up outside, ready for a quick blast round the woods on the way home from work tonight.
It also spent a fair bit of time with skinny hybrid tyres, and a much bigger gear on, serving me on the commute, until the wear of daily winter use began to take its toll, and so I bought a single speed road bike. It wasn’t a hard choice; with only a tight budget, a single speed offers the most bang-for-your buck, the most speed per unit cost, and the one with the smallest maintenance bills. Once confidence allowed, the screw-on freewheel was swapped for a fixed sprocket and the fun really began. Nothing had prepared me for the workout that pedalling constantly gave, but what I really noticed was the fluidity it brought to a normally stop-start route; I picked better lines around junctions to conserve momentum, I hung back until the lights turned green, trying to not stop and unclip. And I didn’t fly down the hills with reckless abandon anymore, because, well, I couldn’t.
And then there is the racing. Single speed riders are notorious for their relaxed attitude. It’s rare you’ll get far round the course of the SSWC or SSUK races without finding bikes leant against trees, their riders drinking beer and heckling other riders who are taking it a little too seriously. And when you can’t blame ‘being in the wrong gear’ for not making a climb, it’s a straightforward battle of technique and strength. And I didn’t even mention the ‘purity’ cliché.'
4. Single Speed / Fixie Terminology
This is a bike with a single freewheel cog at the back, a single chainring on the front and no gears. Unlike a fixie you can stop pedalling a single speed bike and freewheel (AKA coast) along as you might on a bike with gears.
'Fixed' means that the rear cog is secured to the threaded hub with a lockring. A fixed wheel has no freewheel mechanism. If the rear wheel is turning, so must the pedal cranks and therefore your legs.
A good chain line means that the chain runs parallel to the bikes frame's centre-line. A good chain line, with the rear cog perfectly in line behind the chainring, prevents stress on the chain's side plates. The benefits of a good chain line include enhanced mechanical efficiency, reduced wear and tear, and a quieter drivetrain that lasts longer.
The flip-flop rear hub is threaded to take a fixed cog and lock-ring on one side and a freewheel on the other. Switching between freewheel and fixed mode is simply a matter of removing the back wheel and rotating it 180 degrees. While switching modes isn't something you're going to do every ride, the flip-flop hub comes into its own on long mountain passes where you might want to power uphill in fixed, then freewheel down the other side
Old Roadie Tip - fit a larger cog on the freewheel side to help you home at the end of a strenuous ride.
5. FAQs - Single Speed Questions Answered
Single Speed or Fixed?
On the principle of making just one small change at a time most cyclists who take up the single life start off with a single speed. That way, you can give up gears but you don't have to forego freewheeling - rather like a smoker might give up cigarettes but use nicotine patches or gum for a while.
Then once you're accustomed to the gear-free life it's a natural progression (for many but not all riders) to go all the way and progress to fixed.
Some authorities such as the late Sheldon Brown recommend starting with a fixie. If it's the best fun you can have on 2 wheels, why wait?
Which chain size?
The wider 1/8” chain has the benefit of rugged longevity. If your single speed rear cog and /or chainring are made for a 1/8" chain, that's the size you must use.
For a single speed conversion, perhaps using an existing cog and chainring made for a 3/32 chain, you can stick to that chain. Not only is the 3/32" chain lighter weight, the fact that the chain's inside plates are bevelled to cope with being ridden out of line (with a derailleur transmission) means that a 3/32" chain works better than an 1/8" chain if the chain line is less than perfect.
Which gear ratio should I use?
This is largely down to personal preference and will depend on the terrain you mostly use the bike. If you're riding fixed you want to strike the balance between a ratio that's low enough to get up hills but not so low, you spin out of control on the downhills. As a rough guide, 42:16 for Road and 32:16 for MTB are good starting points.
6. Converting a multi-geared bike to a fixie or single speed - tips from our Newcastle workshop
As an alternative to getting a new bike, you might want to follow the advice of Tim Fountain who submitted this piece on converting a geared bike into a fixie or single speed when he worked at our Newcastle shop:
Getting into Fixed
What's the craic with fixed then?
To sum it up in a snappy way, if the wheels are turning then the pedal cranks are, too. To go fixed use a frame with horizontal drop outs. Using a chain tensioner won't cut the mustard.
The chain is tensioned by pulling the wheel back into the drop out, some frames have built in tugs to get the chain super tight. Nice.
Your first requirement is a track wheel. Track wheels have a special thread for holding a fixed sprocket in place. Track hubs are often flip/flop so you can run a fixed sprocket one side and freewheel on the other.
Getting in 'tivvit (in one easy paragraph)
- Remove the now redundant parts of your bike (mechs, old wheel, cable and such like).
- Slip your lovely new track wheel into your dropouts.
- Position it so that there’s plenty of room for your wheel to slide back into as the chain stretches.
- Wrap your chain round the sprocket chain ring.
- Split/rejoin the chain.
- Pull the wheel tight into the drop outs and tighten the track nuts.
- Track hubs have a spacing of 120mm, which means your frame's rear end also needs to have a spacing of about 120mm.
Getting into single speed
You might be attracted to the simplicity of single speed but you don't want to give up on one of life's great pleasures - freewheeling. This section tells you how to convert a multi-geared bike into a single speed.
Getting to know your drop outs / kit you'll need
If they're the horizontal type (pictured right), you'll need:
- A single speed converter.
- A single speed chain (unless your previous chain is still usable).
- Chainring bolts.
If they're the vertical type (pictured right), you'll need all that stuff, plus a chain tensioner.
Getting in 'tivvit (in one easy paragraph)
- Remove clutter from the bike (mechs, chain, cassette, cables, blah blah).
- Fire on the cassette sprocket and lock ring (don’t tighten up just yet).
- Get your wheel back in the drop outs.
- If needed, bolt the chain tensioner onto where your mech previously resided.
- Lash your chain round your chain ring and sprocket, get it nice and tight then split/rejoin it.
- Using line of sight (think this is something you should already possess, we don’t sell it), fettle around with the cassette spacers so that your chain runs as straight as possible from chain ring to sprocket.
- Once you’re happy enough with it, tighten everything up - if your chainset allows it, remove additional chainrings and swap-out your existing chainring bolts with the shiny new ones you’ve acquired. That’s you done.
Common gear ratios deviate around the forties for the chainring and sixteen for the sprocket, for example 44t x 16t, 48t x 17t. If you're riding off road, go for something like 32t x 16t.
Tooling up: Allen keys, cassette tool, chain whip, crank puller, chain splitter and peg spanner should get the job done. Don't have these? We stock a range of tools perfect for maintenance and builds.
If you’re using a quick release hub in a horizontal drop out, invest some wedge in a set of bolt-on wheel skewers. They’ll keep your wheel in place better than a quick release skewer.
A single speed converter works for a freehub/cassette wheel. If you're running a screw-on hub/freewheel, then single speed conversion is tricky…It can be done with some creative spacing and dishing of the hub, but it's not advised!
We do bike servicing and custom builds ... so you don't have to do the work if you don't want to!