Single-speed bikes are a blast to ride.
But are they the right choice for your commute? Having ridden them for years, here’s what you’ll need to consider.
What should you know about commuting on a single-speed bike?
Single-speed bikes are excellent for commuting moderate distances without extended hills. They are less expensive to purchase, easier to maintain, more reliable in harsh weather, and simply a fun change of pace compared to multi-speed bikes. Note that most single-speed bikes are NOT fixed-gear, so you can still coast comfortably at any time.
Let’s look at why this is the case. And if you’re curious which single-speed city bike to start with, skip ahead to the end for my suggestion.
Single-speed does not equal fixie
Most bikes have a sort of ratchet inside the rear hub. It’s called a freewheel, and it lets you keep rolling even when not pedaling. This is probably what you’re used to.
But without the ability to freewheel, the cog and wheel can only move together; they’re “fixed” to each other’s rotation.
That’s why the pedals always turn when a fixed-gear bike is moving.
The first bicycles–and probably your childhood tricycle–were fixed-gear.
Track (velodrome) bikes are still fixed-gear to this day. And as bike messengers adopted track bikes for city use, the fixie became a trend in its own right
The important thing to realize is that while fixies are always single-speed, single-speeds are not always fixies. Single-speed road, city, and mountain bikes generally have a freewheel, but of course not always.
They’re a fun break From the usual
When you commute via the same route every single day, it’s nice to change things up.
A great way to do that is to change how you interact with your bike.
Single-speed bikes have a beautiful way of taking your attention off of the bike and placing it on other parts of the riding experience.
Want to go faster? Pedal faster! It’s that simple–and one less thing to worry about.
They’re practically immune to rough conditions
Getting, and keeping, a derailleur shifting well in snow and mud isn’t a slam dunk. Even in mild weather, you’ve got to check and adjust your shifter and derailleur cables fairly often.
I don’t know about you, but that’s the last thing I like to deal with on my way out the door.
Internally-geared hubs are nice for urban riding, but they’re not that common in North America, and I’m not a huge fan of black-box devices I can’t easily troubleshoot.
A single-speed throws all those headaches out the window. As long chain tension is OK, which you’ll need to check with or without gears, the drivetrain is ready for action.
They’re often the cheapest choice
If you’re just kicking around the idea of bike commuting and other sorts of utilitarian cycling, the cost can be off-putting.
It is a bargain versus car travel, and the health benefits are worth a pile of money in the long run, but it’s totally reasonable to save cash if you’re not sure cycling is for you.
To that end, new single-speed city bikes usually run at least a hundred bucks less than their geared counterparts.
That might not sound like much, but it roughly covers fenders and a rack, or a nice commuting pannier, or other miscellanies that make the two-wheeled life more enjoyable.
They aren’t for everyone, though
Doing without high gears is seldom a problem for commuting. With stoplights and route closures galore, it’s unlikely that top-end speed will even matter.
But the lack of low gears is another matter. The big hill that felt manageable on Monday can be more imposing come Friday, after climbing it daily.
You might be surprised how quickly your legs adapt. But until they do–or if yours is a particularly steep commute–consider switching between geared and single-speed bikes on alternating days.
What gear are single-speed bikes in?
A single-speed bike can be in any one gear you like. You can change the front chainring and/or rear cog to adjust the gear ratio.
I recommend thinking about gearing in terms of gear-inches. That unit is how many inches forward you’ll roll with one complete circle of the pedals. It’s calculated as:
tire diameter in inches * front gear teeth / back gear teeth
…but the best way to figure yours out is with a simple calculator and chart like this one.
Higher numbers mean higher speed (since you move farther which each pedal stroke) but more effort to do so.
When you buy a complete single-speed bike, the stock gear probably measures around 65″-70″, or perhaps slightly higher. That range works for most cycling on paved roads without severe hills. If it feels wrong, then use the calculator linked above to figure out a chainring or cog size that will move it in the right direction.
I suggested adjusting the gear no more than 4″-5″ at a time.
By the way, remember that you may need to shorten your chain or to replace it with a longer one depending on the new gear combination. A larger chainring and smaller cog have the same effect (higher gear-inches and therefore a harder gear), so consider the effect on your chain length when you’re thinking about which one to fine-tune.
Can I convert my bike to a single-speed?
Yes and no.
If you look at where the rear axle fits into the frame, you’ll probably notice a little notch. That’s known as a vertical dropout.
Vertical dropouts are easy, since you don’t need to worry about positioning the wheel correctly. It simply can’t go in wrong.
But this system relies on a derailleur’s springs to keep the chain snug.
Normally that’s fine, but if you take away the derailleur, it’s highly unlikely that the chain will be exactly the right length for proper tension.
(It is theoretically possible, but only for a couple of gear combinations which vary between bikes.)
You can solve this with a chain tensioner, which attaches right where the derailleur used to. It’s essentially a derailleur that doesn’t shift: just springs and a cog or two.
However, getting the right front-to-back gear alignment (known as the “chainline”) is also important.
A single-speed cog is much narrower than a full cassette of gears, so you’ll need to experiment with spacers until the chainline is right. If that’s intimidating, then any bike shop can do it in short order.
That’s all a bit finicky, so most dedicated single-speed bikes use horizontal dropouts instead of vertical ones. In place of a notch that the axle drops into, they are horizontal or slightly diagonal slots. The axle simply slides in from the front (common on road and city bikes) or rear (common on track and track-inspired bikes).
Horizontal dropouts make it easy to get the proper chain tension and adjust for chain stretch along the way. Just avoid the temptation to over-tension the chain, and you’re set! Chainline still matters, but it will be addressed right out of the box on any bike sold as a single-speed.
So, all told, you can certainly convert a geared bike into a single-speed. And many people do.
It’s just a bit of a hassle, and not totally free.
A good tensioner, cog, spacers, and new chain should run around $100 or more, and the labor to make it all work is perhaps another $75 and up. A new chainring up front, if needed, will add a bit more.
A conversion also means no more geared bike to alternate with.
Fortunately, a basic but entirely decent single-speed bike is relatively cheap. Brands like Brooklyn Bicycle (my preference), Linus, and Public all make solid city bikes at more than fair prices.
Choosing a single-speed commuter bike for newbies
Die-hard single-speed riders usually end up assembling their own bikes from the frame up. It’s a bit of a niche within a niche, so the market isn’t exactly overflowing with top-of-the-line offerings.
But for testing the waters, it’s cheap and convenient to get started.
In short, you’re looking at around $400 for a new single-speed city bike.
Depending on how it’s equipped, budget at least another $100-$200 for important accessories (not including installation labor) like fenders, a rack, lights, and other important features on a “daily driver.” However, none of that is single-speed specific. They’re important for every city/commuter bike.
Speaking of which, I’ve written short guides on what to look for (here) and how much to spend (here) on an urban bike. Those tips should help any newer city bike buyer, whether you want a single-speed or not.
P.S. I’ve intermittently commuted on a single-speed for several years. It’s a humble Brooklyn Bicycle Co. Franklin, and it has been nothing short of outstanding. It’s the best value option, and good by any standard. Stop by my review here to find out why.