The interwebs are awash with debates about which is better – a single speed or fixed gear bike – an argument that I feel has raged on for far too long. So, to put this issue to rest once and for all, I’m going to lay out my thoughts here, fully expecting these pearls of wisdom to become gospel. And so here you are: the final word on fixies and single speeds.
It’s all in the hub
Mechanically, the difference between a fixed gear bike and single speed is so small that you might not spot it even when knowing what to look for. It all comes down to the rear hub and how the single cog is connected to the rest of the drivetrain. Single speeds are fitted with a freewheel cog that rotates freely one way but locks up the other. This means that the cog will turn the rear wheel when you pump those pedals, but then freewheel when the rear wheel starts turning faster than the cog – much like a geared bike.
Fixies, on the other hand, have no such mechanism. The cog is fixed to the hub. If the rear wheel turns, the cog turns, and if the cog turns, the pedals turn. It’s a small difference, but one that has a huge effect on how a bike rides and requires some consideration before you decide on a bike. In the next few paragraphs, I’ll explain in greater detail how this difference determines how these bikes are spec’d and then ridden.
That fixed feeling
Ask any fixie rider why fixies are better than any other kind of bike, and he or she will immediately start gushing about being one with the bike and being connected to the road. If they’re really obsessive (and many are), there will be many superlatives and some exaggeration. But that doesn’t change the truth – that the fixed drivetrain creates a rather special experience.
When you lock your feet into a fixie’s footstraps, the bike becomes an extension of you. Spin the pedals, and the bike leaps forward. Lock your legs, and the rear wheel slides. Pedal backwards, and… well, yes, the bike goes backwards. At first it takes some time just to get comfortable stopping, but with time you’ll develop confidence to ride the bike like it was intended to be – hard and fast… like this guy.
Single speed simplicity
Now, the fixed feeling is great, but that doesn’t mean that fixed = zen, so freewheel = yawn. Unless you’re very comfortable on a fixie, such a bike will always make for an engaging ride. But sometimes you don’t want to be so involved. Sometimes you just what to cruise – and that’s when a single speed comes into it’s own. Like a fixie, a single speed doesn’t require you to think about gears, but then single speeds take cycling simplicity one step further.
While a fixie demands that you pay attention and consider the timing of your pedal strokes, a single speed puts you under no such obligation. Don’t feel like pedaling? Sure, go ahead and coast. Downhills are a breeze on a single speed, and when you roll into the flats, the fuss-free ride will allow you to turn your mind to other things: the rolling panoramas, that hottie on the retro cruiser, the new beer bar on the corner. It’s all very civilised.
Different strokes for different folks
But what if you’re not not sure whether you want that own-the-road fixed feeling or the freewheeling freedom of a single speed? How do you choose then? Luckily, you don’t have to. Most fixies come with a flip flop hub, which can be run fixed one the one side and free on the other. With such bikes you get the best of both worlds, and swapping from fixed to free is as quick and simple as flipping the rear wheel over. View our easy guide here.
Eventually though, you will find yourself favoring a certain mode, and it’s at that point that you might want to consider the rest of the bike’s setup, specifically the brakes. Some single speed riders opt to have two brakes, but many fixies have only a front brake. Why? Because the drivetrain already acts like a brake when slowed down or completely locked. In fact this, is so effective that some fixies riders don’t even have a brake. Still, we believe strongly in running at least a front brake and can offer guidance in choosing a bar and brake lever position that best suits your style.
Take a test ride
To experience the different setups yourself, come around to our workshop for a test ride.
Words by Jean Paul de Villiers