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Single speeds are common among bike messengers and city riders.
Darren McCollester/Getty Images News/Getty Images
Single speed bicycles are simple and durable, making them one of the most common types of bicycles. The term "single speed" refers to the drivetrain of the bike, which is made up of the gears and chain. On bikes with multiple speeds, one or two derailleurs facilitate gear shifts to change how many times the wheel rotates in relation to the cranks, which makes pedaling easier during different inclines and speeds. A single speed bicycle has inherent advantages and disadvantages over bikes with multiple speeds, all of which relate to the drivetrain.
Know the Differences
There are two main types of single speed bikes. A freewheel bicycle features a freely rotating cog mounted at the rear wheel. This allows the bike to coast without the cranks spinning when the bike is moving. This style is popular with beginner riders. A second variation to the single speed drivetrain features a fixed rear gear, which keeps the cranks spinning any time the bike is moving. This allows the rider to slow or stop the bike using the pedals, and is popular with advanced riders and city riders.
Enjoy the Simplicity
Single speed bicycles have no additional gears at all. The only moving parts on a single speed bicycle are the wheels, brakes and cranks, which makes adjustments over time minimal and simple. Single speed bicycles use horizontal dropouts on the rear of the frame to allow adjustment for chain stretch over time, which keeps the chain in tension after normal abrasion begins to expand the effective chain length. Even beginner cyclists can make adjustments using the drop-outs, because little knowledge is needed to properly tune the drivetrain of a single speed bicycle.
Because of this minimalist design, there is little on a single speed bike that can break under normal use and care. Single speed mountain bikes are popular because the lack of derailleurs makes them a bit more resilient to off-road riding, where a bad landing can wreck the alignment of a derailleur arm. A single speed drivetrain is also great for city riders who rely on their bike for travel over flat ground. Because their speed on even ground isn't variable, there's little need for a derailleur.
Consider the Disadvantages
The main disadvantage of a single speed bicycle is, unfortunately, a large one. The lack of multiple speeds means a rider cannot shift to a larger cog for uphill riding, nor can he downshift to a smaller cog at high speeds. This severely limits the comfortable performance of a single speed bicycle on hilly terrain. A single-speed bicycle could not keep up with a bike that features multiple gears across variable inclines. Multiple geared bikes also require replacement gears less often, because abrasion is distributed among multiple chainrings rather than a single chainring.