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A choice of gears on a bike is almost mandatory if you’re riding up long, steep hills. But is it necessary for a typical bike commute?
Most people only ride 3 to 5 miles into work. In the 10 to 20 minutes it takes to do that, many of them won’t need a wide range of gears.
With the above in mind, perhaps a single speed commuting bike would work for you? This article looks at the pros and cons of riding to work without gear options.
9 Things You Need To Know About Single Speed Bicycles And Commuting
Just so you know what you’re getting into with single-speed bike commuting, we’ve compiled a list of nine useful facts on the subject.
Read more: Urban bikes for commuting guide
1. Single Speed vs Fixie (The Difference)
A single-speed bicycle is one with a single gear ratio. It has one front chainring and one rear sprocket, so there is no option for changing gears. The single gear is an all-rounder, usually, so it won’t be too hard on average hills or too easy for flat roads.
The term “single speed” invariably refers to a bike with a freewheel mechanism at the rear hub, which enables you to coast.
Technically, a “fixie” (or fixed-gear bicycle) is also a single-speed bike, but it has no freewheel mechanism.
On a fixie, you are forced to pedal whenever the bike is in motion, though you can exert backward pressure on the pedals to slow the bike down and stop. It’s possible to ride backward on a fixed-gear bike.
Because it’s possible to stop a fixie without conventional brakes, a dedicated fixie will have either one or no brake levers. To be legal on the road in many places, it needs at least a front brake lever.
2. What Is A Flip-Flop Hub?
While we’re fresh off the topic of single-speed vs fixie bikes, now’s the time to introduce “flip-flop” hubs. You’ll see these on many bikes with only one gear.
A flip-flop hub lets you turn a single-speed bike with a freewheel into a direct-drive fixie. You do this by reversing the direction of the rear wheel. It takes only a minute or two to make the change.
If you’ve never ridden a fixie before, you can buy a bike with a flip-flop hub and have that option available to try. You’ll often see these bikes advertised as single-speed and fixed-gear simultaneously.
Video: The Flip-Flop Hub Explained
3. Climbing On A Single Speed
If your bike commute includes tough hills, a single-speed is going to be a flawed choice of transport. Its solitary gear ratio will not be an easy one, so you’ll be forced to exert lots of pressure on the pedals and grind a low cadence.
Climbing hills at a low cadence is a popular form of resistance training among serious cyclists. But if you’re a commuter trying to preserve your knees, either take a detour or avoid using a single-speed bike on steep gradients.
The amount of baggage you carry on your commute will affect the difficulty of climbing, given that single-speed bikes are lighter than comparable bikes with gears.
Video: Tips For Climbing On A Fixed Gear
4. Expense (Or Lack Thereof)
One thing bike commuters often look for in a commuting bike is low cost. This isn’t only influenced by their budget, but also takes into account the greater likelihood of a commuter bicycle being stolen.
Single-speed bikes are almost always relatively cheap. Short of buying a secondhand bike on eBay at a giveaway price, they’re one of the cheapest options there is. The cost of derailleurs and shifters adds a significant amount to any bicycle.
Of course, a single-speed bike can still be stolen. But it won’t be the first to go alongside flashy multi-speed road bikes and MTBs, particularly if you lock it well.
5. Drivetrain Efficiency & Durability
When you remove the derailleur gears from a bike you eliminate the potential for cross-chaining, which reduces drivetrain efficiency. A straight line between the rear sprocket and front chainring minimizes friction.
On a single-speed bike, the chain doesn’t need the lateral flex that is inherent in multi-speed chains. Thus, it is thicker and will often sport a traditional full-bushing construction for extra durability.
Single-speed chains are among the cheapest to buy and their recommended lifespan is longer than that of narrower chains. You’d typically change a single-speed chain when it’s elongated by 1%, compared to the 0.5% “stretch” of a 12-speed chain.
Read more: Bike chain keeps falling off
6. Low Maintenance
An important consideration in a commuting bike is how much maintenance it’s likely to need. A single-speed bike is low-maintenance compared to one with a derailleur system.
There are several components in a derailleur system that need cleaning, replacing, aligning, tightening, fine-tuning.
Compared to internal hub gears, a single-speed bike has less of an advantage, but it’s still possible for hub gears to malfunction. Single-speed bikes never have shifting problems.
One thing you might want to adjust on a single-speed bike is chain tension. This is easy if you have horizontal drop-outs, as you can then adjust the tension by moving the wheel backward and forward.
On a bike that has vertical dropouts (perhaps one that’s been converted to single-speed), you can install a chain tensioner to remove any slack in the chain.
7. Choosing A Gear Ratio
Even on a single-speed bike, the single gear you have affects your cadence and how easy it is to pedal over any given terrain.
A gear ratio is found by dividing the number of teeth on the front chainring by the number of teeth on the rear sprocket. The bigger the difference between these two numbers, the harder that gear will be to push up hills.
You can factor gear ratios into a buying decision, but it’s always possible to change gearing after purchase. For fast riding on a flat commute, many people will find a ratio near 3:1 works well. A 2:1 ratio is better for hilly rides.
8. What Types Of Single-Speed Bike Are There?
Single-speed bikes come in various forms, including BMX bikes, MTBs, CX bikes, road bikes, gravel bikes, track bikes, cruisers, hybrids and urban commuter bikes.
You might reasonably argue a hybrid with one gear is an urban bike, though the geometry and handlebar on a purpose-built urban bike (aka city bike) may place the rider in a more upright position.
If you’re buying a commuter bike from scratch, a single-speed urban bike is ideal. It’ll be economical and perfectly fit for purpose if you ride mainly on roads. Cruisers or MTBs are more likely to have an easy gear (i.e. 2:1 ratio or below) from new.
9. Minimalistic Style
Cyclists have a sense of aesthetics with bikes that doesn’t necessarily extend to other areas of their life. The look of a bike counts for something, makes you want to ride it. With single-speed bikes, that look is uncluttered and minimalistic.
The “fixie” bike, which doesn’t differ much in looks from a regular single-speed bike (except in the number of brake levers), is the preferred mode of transport for many so-called “hipsters”. It’s strongly associated with uber-cool NYC bike couriers.
If you’re looking for a simple, low-maintenance bike that catches the eye with its clean lines, a single-speed is where it’s at.
Conclusion: So Can We Use Single Speed Bikes For Our Commute To Work?
Yes. A single-speed bike is a great choice for commuting. It’s relatively cheap to buy, easy and economical to run, and looks distinctive with its unencumbered design.
If you want to try something new, a flip-flop hub lets you experiment with riding a fixie. The ability to brake by resisting pedal motion gives you connected control over speed.
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