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A bicycle with multiple gears features a front or rear derailleur, or both.
Oli Scarff/Getty Images News/Getty Images
Comparing multiple-gear bikes to single-gear bikes is a true apples versus oranges scenario: Sure, both are fruit, but they are wildly different fruit.
Choosing between a single-gear bike or a multiple-gear bike depends entirely upon the intentions of the users and the terrain they want to tackle. And this choice is further compounded by the multiple options that fall under each category.
As bike use in the United States goes back to the future, reclaiming its place as a means of transportation in order to beat commuter congestion, stay healthy and help the planet, choosing the right bike comes down to your goals.
The Culture of Bike Use
Originally, bicycles were used as an affordable way to get from point A to B that bridged the gap between a horse and buggy and the inefficient and clunky first attempts at cars. As technology advanced, transportation fell increasingly to cars, trains and buses, which move people in greater numbers, and at much greater speeds, and bike use was relegated to a recreational weekend pursuit.
A bike's ability to move effortlessly through clogged streets, their lack of reliance on fuel sources and their affordability as compared to cars is now prompting car-loving Americans to take a second look at bike use. Every May, which has become National Bike Month, more and more Americans are ditching four wheels for two, pedaling their way to work in an effort to get in shape and help the planet stay in better shape by reducing carbon emissions.
If you want to get back into the saddle again and give biking a whirl, there's no shortage of wonderful new bikes to choose from, from technological marvels with dozens of gears and full suspension systems to basic, one-gear bikes that move with you with a surprisingly fun simplicity.
If you dream of heading out into the wilderness and losing yourself on hilly trails, a mountain bike set with lower gears will serve you well. Gears allow you to choose at what ratio your pedal power propels the bike forward by adjusting the chain, working with you to tackle varying levels of terrain.
With multi-gear mountain bikes, the gears are constructed expressly for traveling over undulating landscapes and the gears are set low, which means that the bike is set up for climbing rather than for distance and speed. Each push of your pedal allows you to cover trickier terrain more easily, but you sacrifice how much distance you cover.
Just as you start a car from a standstill in first gear, working your way up as you gather speed, multi-gear bikes work in the same way. Lower gears allow you to move forward at lower speeds, or climb hills, and then you can adjust your gears as you pick up speed in order to cover more ground since each push of the pedal translates to a bigger push forward.
This ratio also translates to road bikes with multiple gears, which can range from three to thirty, and more. Road bikes need to cover both distance and hills, which means they have the highest number of gears for multi-tasking.
The Single-Gear Fix
If your cycling goals are to commute easily through streets choked with cars, a single-gear or fixed-gear, bike, offers a simple, and extremely affordable option. As the name implies, a single gear bike has just one gear, which means you need to work within that gear alone. You do have a braking option, but you can't adjust your pedaling ratio to make climbing hills easier or to gain maximum speed on flat roads.
Like a true workhorse, though, a single-gear bike gets you to where you need to go with minimal fuss. These bikes are a favorite among commuters who only have flat terrain to negotiate and who don't want the hassle, weight, and expense of a multi-gear system.
Taking the single-gear bike a step further, many flatlander cyclists and commuters truly enjoy what's called a fixie, or fixed-gear bike. A fixie has no gear set-up whatsoever and the wheels are directly tied to your pedal. When you pedal, the wheel spins. When you stop pedaling, so do the tires. There are no brakes, and you can even pedal backward since the wheels are directed by your pedals.
Enthusiasts of the fixie love the feeling of complete and direct control over the bike's motion, without the interference of a gear system.
The best way to figure out which option is best for you is to take a good hard look at what your cycling needs are and then go to your nearest bike shop and take a few different options for a spin. Tackle terrain you'd likely be covering with your bike to make sure you find the perfect bike for your needs, and pleasure.