More than any other innovation, gearing transformed bicycles into the useful, versatile machines we know today.
Even so, many riders—including yours truly—like to ride with a single gear, at least part of the time.
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Single speed vs. gears, in brief
Single-speed bikes require less maintenance than geared bikes, especially in harsh conditions. They also cost $50-$100 less and weigh about 1 pound less (for similar quality). But geared bikes are much easier to ride up steep hills, can go faster down hills, and are better suited to cargo or a passenger.
Note that single-speed bikes are not necessarily fixed-gear, although all fixed-gears (“fixies”) have just a single speed. (If you’re not familiar with the difference, then check out this article explaining fixies in much more detail.)
In general, is it hard to ride a single-speed bike? They’re easier to ride in the sense that you don’t need to think about shifting, nor maintain any derailleurs. They’re harder in terms of physical effort, especially in hilly places or with heavy loads.
There’s a certain tranquility in not shifting. It’s not only quieter, but it’s one less thing to think about.
They’re popular with urban riders (here’s what to know about commuting on a single-speed bike) but also have a bit of a cult following among MTB and road riders.
Before diving into their pros and cons, let’s clear up two common misconceptions.
First, can single-speed bikes go up hills? Yes, contrary to what you might thing, single-speeds assuredly can go up hills. The rider’s fitness is a bigger factor than with gears, so the same person can’t necessarily climb all the same hills, but they can indeed climb in general.
Second, how do you brake on a single speed bike? It doesn’t take anything special. You generally use hand-actuated rim or disc brakes, just like on any other bike. Some single-speeds do have a rear coaster brake (which is impossible with a derailleur) but those are usually reserved for beach cruisers and kids’ bikes.
(Fixed-gear braking is a little trickier, since you resist pedal rotation instead of using a rear brake. But most single-speeds are not fixed, so you needn’t worry about that if you don’t want.)
How do you recognize a single-speed bike?
The tell-tale sign is the absence of a rear derailleur. Many geared bikes these days have a 1x (“one-by”) drivetrain with no front derailleur in the first place, so it’s the rear one that you’ll want to check for.
That’s still not 100% certain, since internally-geared hubs look similar from a distance. IGHs do have a fatter body and a shifting cable, but you’ll need to take a closer look to identify those. (If that’s all Greek to you, then check out this derailleur vs. hub gears comparison to learn more.)
Additionally, some people use a chain tensioner to convert a geared bike to single-speed. Chain tensioners uses 1-2 pulleys to take up slack in the chain, so they often resemble derailleurs at first glance.
Single-speed bike advantages
Maintenance is minimal
This one’s almost self-explanatory: there’s simply no derailleur to adjust!
While that’s not hard in most cases, it’s still a minor nuisance that most of us would just as soon skip.
Single-speed bikes are slightly cheaper
Single-speed bikes often cost about $50-$100 less than geared ones. Tune-ups are also cheaper because there’s no need to deal with derailleur cable adjustment. However, don’t choose on cost alone. Saving money is merely a nice bonus if you already wanted a single-speed.
If cost is the driving factor, then you’ll save the most with a vintage bike that shifts terribly but is otherwise in good condition. With some patience, it’s not uncommon to score something…not terrible…for under $100 on Craigslist. Pull the derailleurs off, fiddle around with gear ratios, and you’ve got yourself a very cheap single-speed.
(Mind you, that’s a terrible choice for newbies. You’ll need to know how to evaluate its condition and perhaps spring for a few replacement parts.)
They save a little bit of weight
An entry-level rear derailleur and cassette each weigh about 300g each, or 600g total. A single trigger shifter (with a cable and housing) weighs around 150g, bring the total to 750g.
A single-speed bike uses a freewheel (roughly 200g) in place of all the above. That saves roughly 550g, which is a little over 1 lb. If necessary, a chain tensioner would reduce weight savings by about 100g.
Removing a front derailleur with multiple chainrings could save an additional 200g-300g (around half a pound).
Of course weights will vary with component quality, but the difference will be somewhere in that ballpark. Weight doesn’t really matter for everyday purposes, so it’s a pretty trivial benefit, and not a reason to choose a single- over multi-speed bike!
Single-speed bikes can be great for fitness
Removing the ability to shift can force you to work harder when you’d normally take it easy. If you’re cycling for general fitness, then that’s a great way to nudge yourself into extra effort.
Of course, they’re not magical; you can get equally good exercise on any bicycle, since it all comes down to the effort you choose to expend. But when bumping up that effort is the only option, you might be surprised what you’re capable of!
They’re mentally relaxing
My favorite part of riding a single-speed is that shifting doesn’t cross my mind. Even as an experienced cyclist for whom shifting’s almost subconscious, it still floats around in the back of your mind.
Shifting is a quick and easy decision, but it’s still a decision on some level—one which you make dozens or hundreds of times on each ride.
When you ride a bike that can’t shift, the whole experience is just a tiny bit more peaceful. Is that worth the challenge of not having gears? It depends, but sometimes my answer is a clear “yes.”
They’re slightly more efficient
Every time the chain turns around a cog or pulley, it adds a tiny bit of friction and mechanical resistance. Single-speed drivetrains don’t have those two rear derailleur pulleys, so they transfer power just a bit more efficiently.
How much more efficient are single-speeds? When I’ve ridden a geared and single-speed bike in an identical gear ratio, the single-speed has felt perhaps one tooth easier. It’s not a night-and-day difference, but it’s pleasant nonetheless. Theoretically, smaller derailleur pulleys (i.e., sharper bends in the chain) will cause more resistance than larger ones, and certainly more than none at all.
A single speed may be faster than geared
You might be a little faster climbing moderate hills on a single-speed. It’s not some sort of alchemy that gives you a boost out of nowhere; you’re simply pushing a harder gear than you otherwise would!
Of course, there’s no free lunch. This only applies to moderate uphill stretches. Some climbs are so steep that you may need to walk them (or at least take a break). And on some descents, you’ll “spin out” and need a non-existent higher gear to keep accelerating.
They (usually) look clean and sleek
There’s something aesthetically nice about a stripped-down, minimalist bicycle. Derailleurs and cables aren’t exactly attractive, after all.
Do most people care? Not for a minute.
Is it a bit odd to gaze with admiration at my bike’s sleek drivetrain? For sure.
But just sayin’…it’s just nice to reduce visual clutter if your ride doesn’t require it.
(Note that vertical dropouts require a chain tensioner, so they won’t have quite the same clean aesthetic. Horizontal dropouts, track ends, or an eccentric bottom bracket are the nicer-looking options.)
Single-speed bike disadvantages
Climbing is harder work
Single-speed bikes can climb hills, but it’s harder because they can’t down-shift to increase torque. This is the most obvious and common concern about giving up gears.
Short, mild hills aren’t usually a problem for reasonably fit riders. A quick stand-up burst might suffice.
But the sustained effort for long, steep hills can get fatiguing whether you’re seated or standing.
That’s no problem—and perhaps even a benefit—if you’re riding for exercise. No easy way out! But it’s not ideal if you’re trying to take it easy, avoid sweating, or develop those leg muscles for the first time.
You’ll need to experiment with gear ratios
When you only get one gear combination, it’s got to be the right one!
You might get lucky with decent gearing out of the box. If not, you’ll need to expend time and money on swapping gears until you can a) tackle the steepest hill you need to and b) not pedal too quickly on slight descents.
It’s usually easier to swap the chainring (front gear) than the freewheel (rear gear). I recommend picking up a few used chainrings in adjacent sizes, like 40 + 42 + 44 + 46 teeth. Make sure to get the correct bolt circle diameter (explained here) and have a shop check it if you’re uncertain.
As a rule of thumb, I like a gear ratio of 2.3:1 – 2.4:1 on a city bike, 2.6:1 – 3:1 on a road bike, and up to 2:1 on a MTB.
(That’s the ratio of front to rear teeth. For instance, a 45t chainring and 18t freewheel would have a gear ratio of 2.5:1.)
You can also use this gear-inches calculator if you want to be more precise and account for differences in tire diameter at the same time.
However, there are ways to put multiple speeds on a single-speed bike. If you have long, horizontal dropouts (or a spring-loaded chain tensioner on vertical dropouts), then you can use a two-speed freewheel and double chainring.
This “dingle-speed” set-up (as in double-single-speed) allows one easier gear for trails and one harder gear for pavement. Simply hop off your bike, manually reposition the chain, then keep on rolling. It’s obviously a headache to do frequently, so it’s best for scenarios like a long road segment, then a long trail segment, then a long road segment back home.
You’re not totally off the hook for maintenance
Even though derailleur adjustment is a non-issue, you still need to monitor chain tension. Too loose and it’ll slip and pop over the gears; too tight and it’ll cause resistance and wear prematurely.
Fortunately, it can go months without further adjustment once it’s right. Good thing, since it’s a little trickier than derailleur cable adjustment.
(This does not apply to vertical dropouts with a chain tensioner, like on many geared-to-single-speed conversions. There’s only one position for the axle—no sliding back and forth—and the tensioner’s spring absorbs the slack.)
Here’s what to expect:
(The process is easier with a quick-release axle: no wrenches needed. Fixed-gear bikes cannot use a quick-release, but other single-speeds can.)
A few single-speeds use vertical dropouts with an eccentric bottom bracket. It looks cleaner than a chain tensioner, but isn’t spring-loaded, so you’ll still need to adjust it. There are a couple different styles, but here’s the general idea:
Geared bike advantages
Climbing is easier
Gearing lets you increase torque to make climbing easier. On extremely long, steep hills, it makes climbing possible.
Simply down-shift until the effort feels sustainable, then sit down and spin until you crest the hill.
Starting from a stop is easier
Just like you’d down-shifting a manual car transmission to first before a stop, you can also down-shifting a derailleur or IGH as you slow down. When it’s time to get moving again, you’re in a more advantageous gear that requires far less initial effort. That’s particularly helpful when loaded up with cargo or luggage.
Higher speeds are possible
You can only pedal so fast. The exact rpm depends on your bike, technique, and fitness, but we all have some upper limit.
When you have higher gears available, that same maximal pedaling cadence translates to much higher speed. All else being equal, we’re talking half again the speed if you shift from a middle gear (like what a single-speed would use) to your highest.
Of course, nobody says you have to go that fast. There’s no harm in just coasting! But if you’re out to dominate Strava or just enjoy the thrill of bombing down hills, then gearing will help.
Easier to find off the shelf
Cyclists generally prefer multi-geared bikes so manufacturers generally sell them. It’s textbook supply and demand.
Geared bikes have been the norm (except on track bikes) for many decades. There are probably 10-100 times are many off-the-shelf options to choose from—and they’re likelier to be in stock, not just special order.
Geared bike disadvantages
Simple but frequent maintenance
Derailleurs are simple but a bit finicky, especially with modern indexed shifters that “click” precisely into place. If cable adjustment is a little out of whack, then shifting will feel sluggish or imprecise.
The fix rarely takes more than a few minutes, but you’ll need to attend to it often. Every few weeks is a reasonable expectation, but the exact components and their condition makes a huge difference.
Speaking of which, here’s a guide to troubleshooting derailleurs that won’t shift. The work is often simpler than you’d think, but not as simple as skipping the derailleur altogether!
Slightly more expensive
As mentioned earlier, geared bikes cost around $50-$100 more than single-speed bikes of comparable quality.
It’s hard to make an exact comparison, since the drivetrain might be just one of several differences that affect price. Few brands offer single- and multi-speed versions of the exact same model.
Can encourage too much shifting
The ease of shifting entices us to shift all the time. Slight extra effort? Down a gear! Slightly quicker cadence? Up a gear!
Of course, you can simply choose not to do that. Just pick a reasonable gear and stay in it until it’s no longer reasonable. But if you find yourself treating shifting like a sport in its own right, consider spending some time on a single-speed. From personal experience, it’s a great reminder that more options don’t always yield a better experience.
Which is best for you: single speed or gears?
It’s hard to go wrong with a geared bike, so that’s the best default choice for most cyclists. But the ideal number (and ratio) of gears isn’t ideal for everyone, so read this guide to learn how many gears you need for commuting and urban riding.
A single-speed makes sense if you ride mostly flat, urban terrain. That’s doubly true if your derailleur gets caked with mud or packed with snow on a regular basis. Single-speeds are fun in other settings, too, but it’s more of an overcome-the-challenge sort of fun. They’re not as easy as gears, but sometimes that’s the point.
If you have access to a geared bike, then you can “try before you buy” by picking a gear and, well, not shifting. Find a gear that feels just slightly easy on flat ground, then remain in it for the rest of your ride. Do this for a few rides—long enough that you’ve broken the reflex of reaching for the shifters. If you dislike the experience by that point…then there’s your answer!
Consider an internally-geared hub instead
Internally-geared hubs (IGHs) are a great option for urban cycling. They accomplish two things that are extremely helpful around town:
- Just a few gear options for steep hills and headwinds
- Little to no daily maintenance
- Ability to shift when stopped
These are actually the norm on most European city bikes, but they seem to be catching on in North America, too. You’ll find some great examples in my round-up of the best value city bikes.