At Loca Bikes, we create bikes using both solutions. In this article, we’re going to give you some advice on who may be most suited to one or the other type of riding, what to pay attention to when buying a single speed or fixed gear bike, and how to adapt your current city/road frame or even MTB to a fixed gear drivetrain.
Let's start with the definition of a fixed gear and a freewheel...
...so let us explain, in the shortest way possible, the basic differences between a fixed gear and a freewheel:
In Poland, the phrase "ostre koło" literally means "sharp wheel" but it’s used as a translation of "fixed gear". The problem is, it's been adopted as the term for a type of bicycle that's characterized by one gear, a minimalist look, low weight, and has 700c road wheels. This term is particularly bothersome because this type of bicycle, in many cases, doesn't have a fixed gear at all. So what exactly is a fixed gear? Well, it's really nothing but a kind of drivetrain. The point is that just like the first bikes from the 19th century, the crankset and the sprocket on the rear wheel are rigidly connected. This means that when you turn the crank forwards, the rear wheel turns forwards, and when you turn it backward, the wheel turns backward. When riding a bike with a fixed gear, you can't stop pedaling because the crank turns all the time.
It’s a type of drivetrain with a mechanism (pawl system) that doesn’t constantly connect the pedal motion to the motion of the rear wheel, so you can stop pedaling when you want, for example, when riding downhill. It’s a well-known solution used on city bikes, road bikes, mountain bikes, and on our single speed bikes. It's safe to assume that every cyclist has ridden a bike with a freewheel and already knows what it's all about, even if they weren't familiar with the term itself beforehand.
Thanks to the bearings and the ratchet mechanism, the inner part of the freewheel can be locked, and the part with the teeth can be turned. With a fixed gear, this isn’t possible.
Both solutions have their ardent supporters and opponents, so let's take a look at their advantages and disadvantages.
Fixed gear - advantages
- better dynamics and acceleration through direct transmission. As a rule, with a fixed gear, pedals are fitted with foot straps, and because of that power is transferred from the legs to the wheels much better, as the bike is driven not only by pushing on the pedals but also by pulling upwards
- greater synergy between the rider and bicycle.
- a pure form of riding, known from the very first bicycles
- different, for many, a much better riding experience. On a fixed gear you can skid, i.e. lock the rear wheel and go into a controlled skid.
- reduced bike weight due to the elimination of brakes, gears, shifters, brake levers and cables
- likely to get into better shape by having to constantly pedal
- reliability - fewer parts that can fail
- aesthetics - supporters of the fixed gear emphasize that a bike without brakes and brake housings simply looks better
Fixed gear - disadvantages
- you need to pedal all the time
- much higher load on your knees and ankles due to the need to brake by counteracting and resisting the crank movement
- problems with mastering emergency braking with only the front brake or skidding
- the necessity of having to secure your feet to the pedals using SPD cleats or straps
- the possibility of clipping the pedal on the ground when cornering or riding on uneven surfaces, known as pedal strike
So, who would we recommend a fixed gear bike to? For sure, bicycle enthusiasts, lovers of fast and dynamic riding on relatively flat urban surfaces, and lovers of bike tricks who can casually do a track stand or skid on their fixie - transferring their body weight to the front wheel causing the rear wheel to lock. The advantages of fixed gear bikes have been appreciated for years by bicycle couriers, among others, for whom the speed of delivering packages and the reliability of these models are the most important assets. The best ones can ride the entire route without ever coming off the pedals. We also recommend a fixed gear to followers of the return to the most classic way of cycling and... fans of chess strategies. Because, as Sheila Tabita writes in her blog, "some people compare riding on a fixed gear to a game of chess where you anticipate your opponent’s moves and react to them in advance".
Freewheel - advantages
- a type of drive that is widely known
- the possibility to stop pedaling
- greater control and safety (of course, experienced fixed gear riders can also control their bike perfectly, but this comes after a lot of practice)
- easier braking
- a more comfortable ride
Freewheel - disadvantages
- less synergy with the bicycle
- it is harder to transfer power from your legs in all pedaling positions
- a bicycle with this type of mechanism is slightly heavier
- a freewheel can be unreliable and prone to failure
- a slightly higher price for a freewheel compared to a fixed gear sprocket
A bicycle with a freewheel is undoubtedly a more relaxed and safer solution for the vast majority of people. It should certainly be chosen by people who are just starting out their cycling adventure in the city and still feel unconfident when facing curbs and uneven surfaces, or having to brake unexpectedly. We also offer a compromise between a single speed and a city bike. With these bikes, you have the option of installing, among other things, full-length fenders, a rack, and wider tires. You can find everything you need to get around the city comfortably.
In our range of single speed bikes, the rear hubs are equipped with two threads. On one side, it’s possible to screw in a freewheel and, on the other, a fixed gear cog. This allows you to enjoy the advantages of both solutions by quickly flipping the wheel. Many people start their adventure with a freewheel and then try their hand at fixed gear riding over time.
What to pay attention to when buying a fixed gear or single speed bike?
Let's start with the fact that if we want to ride with a fixed gear drivetrain, we don't have to buy a new bike for this purpose. Most of the frames can be adjusted accordingly, which we are going to explain in the next paragraph.
Not every frame, however, will allow you to feel the real fun of riding on a fixed gear. Below, in a few points, we have tried to capture the essence of what to pay attention to when buying a single speed or fixed gear bike to make it reliable, serve many years, please the eye, and provide high levels of adrenaline and dopamine while riding it.
The frame is the basis.
Other parts can always be replaced by better ones over time, but investing in a bike with a poor frame doesn't make much sense to us.
Avoid frames made of HT (Hi-Ten) steel, because they are made of simple, heavy steel with increased carbon content. Instead, it’s much better to choose a frame made of Cr-Mo steel, i.e. with the addition of chromium and molybdenum. It’s lighter and absorbs vibrations better. Particularly noteworthy are the frames made of butted tubes (double butted or triple butted), especially tubes from Columbus, Reynolds, or Dedacciai.
We, at Loca Bikes, have opted for an Al6061 T6 triple butted aluminum frame. This is an additionally hardened aluminum alloy, which is characterized by its very low weight and excellent rigidity. Our frames weigh only 1500-1700 g depending on the size, which means they are about 300-600 g lighter than good steel frames (except, of course, for steel frames made with top-quality tubesets, which would have a similar or even smaller weight).
You could write a book on alloys, their advantages and disadvantages (besides, more than one has already been written). But, in our opinion, when buying a fixed gear bike, it's worth getting a good quality Cr-Mo steel frame (it'll be a bit heavier than aluminum, but the bike will be better at dampening vibrations). Or even a butted aluminum frame (which will be lighter than steel and will make the bike more responsive because of its high stiffness. The frame will carry vibrations a little more, but this can be partly remedied by lowering the tire pressure a little or investing in a carbon fork).
The frame geometry of a fixed gear is also crucial.
A fixed gear is all about making the bike fast and maneuverable, so that it reacts to our movements instantly and allows us to weave seamlessly between cars.
On the other hand, considering the above assumptions, a frame should still be as comfortable as possible and offer comfort on longer routes and at higher speeds (even in the range of 45-55kmh). Many parameters are important, although for the sake of simplicity, in our opinion, we should first pay attention to the distance between the wheels (wheelbase), length of the rear fork (chainstay), length of the top tube, fork offset (rake) and the angles of the steerer tube and seat tube.
A fixed gear rides and looks good if the wheels are close to the frame, so the chainstay should be about 390-395 mm, and the wheelbase 960-995 mm depending on the size. Fork offset should be between 30-40 mm, headtube angles between 73 - 73.2 degrees and seat tube 74-73.5 degrees depending on size.
We have written a separate article on frame geometry for fixed gears (soon in English), which is worth reading if you’d like to delve deeper into the subject.
There are several other important details associated with the frame.
Above all, the frame should have track ends rather than dropouts. Track ends are horizontal slots in the frame in which the axle of the rear wheel sits. The openings face rearwards, and by pulling the rear wheel back in the track ends, we can tension the chain. External or integrated tensioners (that come standard on our frames) make this process even easier.
In Polish conditions, it is important for the frame to accommodate 700x28c wheels, because on cobblestone or rough tarmac, they are, after all, much more comfortable than the 700x25c wheels and their rolling resistance is only slightly higher. The spacing of the rear forks should be 120 mm, which will allow the installation of typical hubs for fixed gear and track.
The handling and stiffness of the bike are also improved by the tapered frame headtube (wider at the base), but frames with this solution are generally more expensive.
The last detail that assures a minimalist look is the internal cable routing (if you use brakes).
Fixed gear gearing and comfort and speed
The relationship between the size of gears on single-speed bikes is a key parameter to ensure a comfortable ride.
With too high a gear ratio, we won't be able to move off at speed even on a straight street. Too low, on the other hand, will guarantee a not so pleasant experience when going downhill, our legs will spin like a hamster on a wheel.
The gearing on a fixed gear is also a very important factor that affects how fast and for how long we are able to ride and how easy it’ll be for us to skid.
For more information, please refer to our blog post on this subject (soon in English).
For a single speed, simple platform pedals will be completely sufficient.
A fixed gear, on the other hand, requires the use of some kind of foot retention system. This will allow us to skid and ride safely with a large cadence.
The most popular solution for the city are straps, i.e. wide strips interwoven through the pedal, which we can put our foot into.
SPD pedals, which provide the most secure, stable connection to the bike, are also very popular.
You can read more about pedals in this post (soon in English).
The last point worth paying attention to is the weight of the bike and the quality of the parts on it.
Of course, it's more fun and better to ride on a lighter, fixed gear or single speed. The weight affects the bike's response to our movements, acceleration, and handling.
But it’s not just all about that.
It's the weight of the bike that reveals the class of parts it's made of. Generally speaking, we can assume that the poorer the part is, the heavier it is.
The difference in quality between a bike weighing 11kg and 8kg is, therefore, pretty big. As for the parts themselves, it’s worth paying attention to the wheels - they should be as light and as durable as possible. The crankset is also very important - a good quality crankset ensures even chain tension throughout and better power transmission to the wheel.
Can every frame be adapted to a fixed gear drivetrain?
The chain tension is very important when riding a fixed gear. The rear wheel should be moved back far enough so that the chain is well-tensioned. When pressed from above, it should flex by about 1 to 1.5 cm. Otherwise, the chain may not carry the drive well and may fall off.
The easiest way of tensioning the chain is with track ends and long horizontal dropouts. If the frame has vertical dropouts then an additional chain tensioner will have to be fitted.
Another point worth noting is the geometry and spacing of the rear fork. It’s better if the frame is suitable for road wheels, e.g. 700x26c or 700x28c because then the clearances between the wheels and the frame and fork will be smaller and the bike will look much better and thus retain its sporty character.
As far as the rear fork is concerned, it’s good to have a frame spacing of 120 mm because this is what typical hubs with threads for a fixed gear cog require. If this width is 130 or 135 mm, then a hub with spacers, e.g. from Sturmey Archer, can be used. However, these are generally heavier and of lower quality.
If you are looking for a good quality single speed bike or fixed gear, contact us and we'll create a custom bike for you that you'll have a lot of fun on.