Are Single Speed Bikes Good for Commuting? [PROS + CONS]

As a measure of the positivity embodied in commuting by bicycle, we should take pleasure in confirming that the answer is… it depends. Many participate in cycling as a means of sustainable transport, a means of exercise, a means of exploration or an expression of freedom. Our reasons are our own. 

No two journeys are the same. The terrain, the weather, the distance, the mood; all play their part in determining the expectation and function of a bicycle ride. Its diversity and flexibility support the global movement for increased use and changing infrastructures to accommodate more journeys.

Commuting by bicycle can be utilitarian or sparse. It can be done under doctor’s orders as part of managing weight or mental wellbeing, or it can be necessary in order to win back some time from your employer, or from the mid-century town planners of cities you travel into and out of each day.

Different bicycles meet differing expectations. And specialisations. The gearing range and aerodynamics of road bikes and gravel bikes offer variations on a theme. And maybe stretch routes a little farther than a heavier city bike or hybrid bike. The suspension and geometry of mountain bikes defy nature’s obstacles and their electric assistance delays our dotage. Our choices and budgets are our own. 

There is, however, one unifying purity. The rhythmic and mechanical efficiency of a single speed bike. It is one of humanity’s most democratic and enduring engineering triumphs. You can find a single speed variant of any style of bicycle.

What Are Single Speed Bikes Good For?

You present a single speed bike with many tasks. It performs them without difficulty. Favouring routes with no steep upward ramps or long downhills. They excel in flat cities and country lanes ridden at a steady tempo. Observe them in The Netherlands. Shopping, school-runs, commuting. Not racing.

The single speed bike gear ratio can be any configuration you choose. A hipster atelier may arrange something bespoke for efficient pedalling based on the landscape where you live and how you like to ride. A box-fresh single speed bike from the factory may have a standard gear ratio of 2:1. In practical terms, something like 38 teeth on the chainring and 19 teeth on the rear cog. For comparison, this ratio would be in the mid-range of a geared road bike or hybrid bike.

Difference Between Single Speed and Fixed-Gear Bikes

Single speed bikes and fixed-gear bikes are essentially the same aside from the fact single speed bikes have a freewheel while fixies do not. The freewheel allows the wheel to continue turning without the pedals also turning and allows riders to coast, which isn’t possible on a fixie.

To look at, both types of bikes are very similar. They each have one chainring at the front and one rear cog at the back. The essential frame structure is the same. They weigh about the same and share the requirement for components. You may see fewer fixed-gear mountain bikes than single speed mountain bikes.

A single speed bike gives you one gear ratio with a freewheel. The freewheel permits you to pedal or to pause pedalling. This is useful when you go downhill or if you need to rest a while moving on flat ground. It feels more relaxed, sociable and some would say it is safer, especially for a beginner. Because most children’s bicycles are single speed, like a BMX or the first bicycle with stabilisers, riding them as an adult feels more natural. 

A fixed-gear bike also gives you one gear ratio but it doesn’t have a freewheel. This means that your crank is not independent of the rear cog. It rotates whenever you are moving. Even downhill. Or backwards. 

Stepping onto a fixed-gear bike increases your need for feel, better pedalling efficiency and control. You have to become integrated. Your awareness of its angles and agility sharpens. Your pedals could ground onto the road surface when you turn a corner.

Most fixed-gear bikes rely on the rider to use a back-pedalling force to assist in slowing down, in conjunction with a standard front brake operated at the handlebars with a lever. There is usually no standard rear braking lever mechanism. Some single speed bikes employ a back-pedal braking mechanism to complement or replace the lever braking system.

History of Single Speed Bikes

Single speed bikes developed in the latter part of the 19th Century, during a period of engineering and design change which resulted in the bicycle being brought to the masses. The diamond frame, familiar today, took us away from the precarious ‘high-wheelers’ like the Penny Farthing and permitted safer use for all. 

Wheels became the same size and chain-driven rear wheel propulsion was invented. Pneumatic tyres were designed at the turn of the 20th Century. Although the design for a ratchet freewheel was patented in 1869 by William Van Anden in New York, it was to the front wheel; momentum still came by direct input onto pedals.

The safety bicycle is a catch-all term given to machines recognisable at the foundation of modern design and included a rear wheel chain drive system taking propulsion away from direct input of pedals onto the wheels. The template for the modern bicycle was the Rover Safety Bicycle, produced in the United Kingdom in 1885.

Gearing of bicycles was being developed at the same time as the popularity of cycling attracted people further afield from only their travel to work. Cycling as a sporting pastime began to develop. The manufacturer Raleigh began building bicycles with three speed Sturmey-Archer internal hub gearing. Requiring little maintenance, they became popular with those who wished to venture farther away from towns. They were beloved of vicars, postmen and village policemen too.

However, the mass production of bicycles still focused on the single speed. Racing bicycles went on to develop the derailleur system in the 1920s and 30s. Single speed bikes with no internal hub gearing could be altered to give another gear but this involved disconnecting the rear wheel and turning it around to engage a differently-geared cog on the alternate side.

Although there were niche requirements, mass-produced bicycles still tended to be single speed. They became popular as children’s toys and their utilitarian nature supported a harmonious design. BMX bikes and pioneering mountain bikes were single speed. 

Single speed availability and popularity in developed countries in Europe and the developing world has ensured that they remain the most popular type of bicycle produced in history. Enduring images of commuting cyclists dominating the egalitarian landscapes of Utrecht, Copenhagen and Beijing reflect the popularity. 

Single Speed Bike Specs

Single gear ratioFreewheel mechanism Drivetrain components longlasting 
Efficient ‘chainline’Frames usually steel or alloyFrame design can allow you to adjust the chain tension
Tend to be robustFlip-flop hub: fixie or freewheel riding from same wheelRear wheels tend to fasten with bolts

Why Are Single Speed Bikes so Popular?

Their ubiquitous design makes production straightforward and efficient. They are functional and utilitarian. They require low-touch maintenance. They are the most reassuring initial form of cycling that most enjoy. They are cheaper to own and maintain than other forms of pedalled transportation.

Single Speed Bike Pros + Cons

PROSCONS
You’ll enjoy cycling as a pure and uncluttered form of transportSingle gear selection will compromise your routes (or knees)
Very low non-routine maintenanceLimited scope for efficiency – there will be a ‘dead spot’ in your pedal stroke
Any type of bicycle can be single speed and they are usually cheaperYou may be disinclined to make longer journeys

Single Speed Bicycle FAQs

Are Single Speed Bikes Good for Long Distance?

This depends upon how quickly you need to get from A to B and how steep any hills are en route. Gearing provides better pedalling efficiency than a single speed bike. However, single speed bikes may be more reliable due to the increased durability and reduced number of working parts. 

Is it Hard to Ride a Single Speed Bike?

The fluid and enthusiastic rides of the commuting Dutch are not only due to flat roads and a world-leading cycling infrastructure. Cycle-rack hubs are festooned with single speed bikes. Yes, many are of the robust, upright type, but they are reliable and the single gear is easy to live with.

Are Single Speed Bikes More Efficient?

Not every road is pan-flat. You have to go up and down during your ride. The wind will influence the effort needed. Pedalling a standard single speed gear bike will carry one revolution of the wheels less distance than a geared bike can. And those gears improve your cadence and efficiency further. 

Can Single Speed Bikes Go Up Hills?

As the gradient goes up, so does the difficulty in pedalling a single speed bike. You need to build up some speed to drive momentum into the incline. A bump over a railway line can be overcome. Longer pitches of more than five minutes effort will be awkward. Steep gradients may be out of scope.

Can You Commute on a Single Speed Bike?

Of course. Millions do. It’s simple to ride. You’ll enjoy the consistency. You may not want to build up a sweat. Components are less likely to fail. Few should want to race you. You will travel a little slower than if you were on a geared bicycle. You will want to avoid going up steep gradients.

Best Place to Buy a Single Speed Bike

If you’re looking to buy a single speed bike, Discerning Cyclist recommends Santa Fixie, who have a vast collection of single speed and fixies available for reasonable prices.

Kevin Glenton

Kevin Glenton

Kevin is a freelance sports journalist. He cycles on towpaths, defunct railway lines, national cycle routes and minor roads in order to explore. His home is Manchester, hemmed in by the Peak District and Pennines. A love for their steep roads remains unrequited. You can read more from Kevin here

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