Freewheeling? The Single Speed vs Fixed Gear debate

A few weeks ago I took part in a roadrace group training session. They wouldn’t let me ride fixed gear so I turned my back wheel over to put my bike on its freewheel setting (most fixies come with this Single Speed option).


My custom bike “Umlaut” in single-speed mode. Want one? Visit the builder’s website at


I have a confession to make: I’ve left it on the freewheel setting ever since.

Why is this a confession? Because like many I believe in the word: Fixed = Zen. Freewheel = No zen. I have been riding my bike on it’s zen-free setting, and liking it.

2012 was my Fixed Gear year and during that time I didn’t really consider the option of using the bike’s freewheel setting, since it was outside the terms of my quest. I used it only twice – on my first 50mile ride because I wasn’t sure if I would make it, and during my first 80mile ride, for the same reason.

Now that it’s 2013 I’ve actually used the freewheel setting quite a lot. There are a lot of Fixed Gear vs Single Speed debates out there so here’s my contribution.

In riding SS (Single Speed), I did immediately feel that I was giving up a portion of the freedom that FG (Fixed Gear) allows. As soon as I freewheeled I felt out of contact with the road. I was just being carried along by the bike, I was no longer part-of-it. This is the zen-factor, or lack of it. However, part of the feeling of connection to the road does come from the single gear, so all is not lost.

In some respects maneuvering feels a little less controlled SS, as does speed. I have a front and back brake on my bike and when riding FG I use those for harsh braking. But if I want to control my speed or gently slow down then I push back on the pedals. This method of speed control felt intuitive and automatic and I miss it when I ride SS.

Having said this… there is one thing for certain about SS – it’s faster and it’s easier.

This is something that I wanted to deny at first, but test after test showed me that it’s true, especially in the following situations:

•    Downhill – I peak at about 26mph riding FG. I can get up to 34 for short bursts, but if it’s a long hill I’ll stick to the mid 20s in case I run out of stamina. Riding SS I can still pedal like crazy if I want to, but I can bail out and freewheel at any time. I can let go at 30mph and freewheel down the hill easily in the mid 30s, picking up pedal cadence again when the speed drops to the mid 20s.
•    Uphill – Technically, uphills will be the same. But, often uphills are proceeded by downhills, in which case extra speed provided by the freewheel on downhills gives you a head start, as well as having had a little rest during the descent so you’re fresher for the climb.
•    Stop starting – Around town, freewheeling towards an approaching red light is easier than braking with the legs as I would on a Fixed, giving me more energy to pull out quickly when the lights turn green.
•    Corners – As a FG rider, I can pedal round most corners, but let’s face it, there are plenty of corners that I can take faster when I’m freewheeling.
•    Rest – When I’m tired on a SS bike, I can take a few seconds rest at almost any time. This means I can stay on the bike for longer.
•    Avoiding Freewheeling – I don’t much like freewheeling so I find myself pedalling even faster than I would on a Fixed sometimes, just so I don’t have to freewheel. I often use a higher pedal cadence for longer too, knowing I can bail out and freewheel if it gets too much… then I don’t freewheel.

All of these points show that SS adds up to a longer or faster ride for a less energy

Now… which is better, FG or SS?

It’s still impossible to say. Just because SS is less effort per mile doesn’t make it better. Just because FG is more maneuverable and connected doesn’t make it better either.

I would say that it would be wise to commute on a Fixed Gear and use it for training, and use SS for longer rides. I have a 20min commute each way, so I can gain some strength around town, and enjoy the safety FG provides when negotiating traffic, and then use SS for long rides where I might want to get the maximum distance out of my current fitness level.

I’ve always said that the advantage of FG is the same as its disadvantage: Its harder to ride.

Or to put it another way

pro: coasting
con: coasting

pro: no coasting
con: no coasting

Of course the advantages of SS over multispeed bikes is much in the same vein. A multispeed bike would allow me to go faster and further for the same effort. Riding a SS bike would automatically keep me fitter. A FG bike would keep me even fitter. But at the same time, there are plenty of people who ride multispeed bikes who are much fitter than me. They must be more disciplined than me if they can push themselves hard on their training rides without being forced to by the nature of the bike.

Having said FG makes you train harder, there’s no reason not to train hard on a SS or a geared bike for that matter.

My FG year in 2012 was excellent training, since I’m now in good cycling habits which in theory would allow me to train effectively on any bike if I had the discipline. I can pedal around most corners, and I don’t freewheel unless I have to on downhill stretches. I’m comfortable at a variety of cadences and I don’t mash my gear (I don’t think). Provided I don’t get lazy with those elements on a SS there’s no reason why it shouldn’t be almost as good for training as a FG.

In many ways, I think I am lazy and couldn’t stay fit without a FG bike. But in some respects I would love a multispeed bike right now, because there are plenty of long rides that I’ve wanted to do for a couple of years, and I’m just beginning to accept that I’m never going to be fit enough to do them on a SS/FG bike unless I make cycling the centre of my life and train all the time (which I don’t want to do). I could probably do 100miles on geared bike. I could also ride through Dartmoor in low gears.

Right, that’s my confession over. I think I’ll go outside and flip my back wheel now. It’s time to get back to Fixed Gear and get training.


Sept 2016 Update – now, nearly 4 years after my fixed gear year ended, I’ve settled into Fixed Gear for city cycling and Single Speed for touring or distance riding. See this fun video to watch me ride a 5 mile hill Single Speed:

Kimwei / FullTimeFixie – Fixed Gear Bike Maker, Exeter

Also check out my new alternative lifestyle blog: Symphony For Happines Blog

Symphony For Happines Vlog

… and connect with me @:

Hear my original music @:


Filed under Uncategorized

21 responses to “Freewheeling? The Single Speed vs Fixed Gear debate

  1. I pondered over this for ages…in the end I felt that my heart was off road, where there’s no traffic, and I just can’t see myself spinning my legs on a FG down high speed descents over rubble and tree roots.

    So I was going to try single speed on my new bike, but my physio said “No! If you want your knees to recover, get gears!” so I got a three speed, that was the compromise.

    As an aside, if you one day want gears but your fixie frame wasn’t designed to support a derailleur, you could probably still get hub gears which come in three speed, five, nine, eleven speed variants. You just swap the back wheel and add a cable.

    My three speed hub is quite small and discreet, there are no derailleurs or other complications, so it does confuse other cyclists who think I’m riding a SS when I pull away from the lights and disappear.

    I reckon the fixie is king of the city streets amongst traffic, but for general touring including off-road use I prefer a freewheel and some gears. Not loads of gears, just between three and nine with a large range of ratios.

    I’m loving all the honest confessions on your blog! Makes your experiences so much more useful to everyone else…

    • I tour regularly on both SS and FG. Though have let my FG bike sit idle for a while. Plan on changing that over the coming months, thanks to you for reinvigerating my desire for FG.

      • Thankyou for reading. These days it sounds like you cycle more than I do.

      • At the moment in sun probably.. That’s set to change in March as I come back to the UK. Fixer will be back on the road and my geared bike will undergo a metmorphisis respray rebuild as a single speed though considering using a double chainset so to gears !

      • In Majorca I’m riding a light road bike 10 at back and triple on front so 28 usable gears. The fixie will be a wake up call ! Though will have flip flop for my ride North. 50×21 ss or 50×20 fw.

  2. to me , its just a bike, just enjoy your ride, the kids will always ostracise people just because oh fg oh geared oh ss.

    from what i see , a huge part of fixed gear culture , is about looks and hanging out at coffee shop. and its very impractical .
    eventually i got out of the fg scene and ride an ss purely for commute.

  3. hogoose demoose

    to me the main advantage of a bike is that you you can coast down the hills and only have to pedal up them, why give up the best half of your ride, it you want more exercise just ride further

  4. Tim

    Great article’s loved reading an honest and no macho bs on fixed and ss .
    Regularly ride 200 km on ss but still have not stepped up to doing it on fixed, thank you might have inspired me for 2015.
    Happy spinning.

  5. Nik.C

    Just bought a SS to spice up my commute to work, and possibly replace my mountain bike I’d kitted out in semi slicks. The issue of gears over just one gear can be countered by the heavy vs lighter argument, my Kona comes in at 13kg ( without bike rack) my Bombtrack Arise, 10kg, I’ll be using a messenger bag or small rucksack for my gear, forcing me to slim down what I can carry, so ill be saving possibly another Kg there, (my lock is at work)
    If I need gears, bike rack, I can add them, but I’m hoping I can commute the 9miles to work without the need for gears, there is a decent climb in there, but I’ve always tried to do it in one gear, the 3-4kg weight saving will help me up and over.
    But for me, the main reason to get a SS, was enjoyment, lighter bike, better looking bike, a less maintenance bike, a cheaper bike to run, and another challenge! 18miles a day on a SS, currently 45 min each way( same time it takes to walk to station and get train, then walk to work from station) I hoping to get it down to 35-40, the bike will then a) be quicker, and b) pay for itself.

    • All of those reasons are totally up my street. It’s 4 years later now, and I’ve not had to replace much on my beloved steed. It really has stood the test of time, and it’s light and fast. I can go out on rides and not worry about maintenance. Parts are cheap. The whole thing is elegant and simple. How have you been getting on with it?

      • Nik.C

        Had it for 18 months, and it’s been great, apart from falling off, cracking my ribs, taking the skin of a knee and elbow and bleeding everywhere!
        A reminder to replace worn clears in future!

  6. Ron Nettleton

    Yep I hear you currently riding a felt carbon converted to ss dam that things quick a fair bit lighter too and it wasnt heavy before tossed the drops though for flat bars into touring and audax After a few hours tend to suffer in the hands a bit not so much with the flat bars though will have to go ultra light with the carbon though still love my fixie
    missus says I got too many though ha ha

    • They say the correct number is n+1, where n is the number of bikes currently owned. This equation may also be re-written as s-1, where s is the number of bikes owned that would result in separation from your partner.

  7. Update – now, nearly 4 years after my fixed gear year ended, I’ve settled into Fixed Gear for city cycling and Single Speed for touring or distance riding. See this fun video to watch me ride a 5 mile hill Single Speed:

    Kimwei / FullTimeFixie

  8. Pingback: What is a Fixie? – ReCycling

  9. Pingback: What Is A Fixed Gear? – ReCycling

  10. Mike

    If you ride a single speed freewheel, you’re a poser

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s