First, some quick definitions for the uninitiated. In this context, a "single speed" is a road bike set up with a BMX-style freewheel: one gear, and you can coast. You definitely want brakes. Meanwhile, a "fixed gear" or "track" bike (most people use these terms interchangeably) is a road-style bike originally intended for use on special, flat racing tracks. They have no freewheel, but the gear on the rear wheel is screwed directly to the wheel. You can't stop pedaling, but you can regulate your speed by slowing down how fast your legs are moving. We recommend a front brake when using these bikes on the street, but many people don't listen.
So - what's so great about them? Well, they're simple as can be, which is always good. Ever seen the inside of a RapidFire shifter, or a "clean" Nexus 4 or 7 speed hub? Or an old 3 speed? Trust us, you don't want to. It's a nightmare. Once, all bikes were "fixed gears" - there was no option. Maybe you had a "flip-flop" hub like some BMXers so you had two options - uphill and downhill. The obsessive quest for more gears - and the current 10x3 speed setups are particularly absurd versions of this - has added lots of weight and complexity to what was once a superbly elegant and graceful machine. There are many situations in which having a few different gear ratios is a good, or even necessary thing - but there are times too when one speed, or two - pedaling or coasting - are more than adequate, and more fun to boot. We like derailleurs, but single speeds and fixed gears are where our hearts are. It's easier to spell "fixed gear," too.
The best thing about fixed & singles, though, is that it makes shockingly light bikes accesable. If you buy a road frame from us or any of our friends, you'd be a fool not to spend another several hundered, or even a thousand, dollars on parts. What's the point of a kick-ass custom frame if you're going to put crappy old parts on it? And how can you show off how shockingly light it is if it's weighed down with old parts? So before you know it you've spent two grand on a machine that won't even move by itself. You can get a 70s Moto Guzzi for that much, and that comes with a motor.
Fixeds & singles, though... you probably already have all or most of the parts you need, and when you build it up it'll weigh less than that guy's Dura Ace equipped Litespeed and you'll still kick his ass climbing hills. It's really a beautiful thing.
Is it really that simple? Almost. Here are some things you should know about building up a fixed gear bike.
- The "gear" is as simple as can be, and you can get them in a wide range of sizes - 10 or 11 teeth up through 18 or so. BMX freewheels are generally 16 tooth. In hilly Worcester we like 42-15 ourselves. These gears will thread on to any old (non-cassette) road wheel, but that doesn't "fix" it as such - the ability to slow down or lock the wheel with your legs is dependent upon a reverse-threaded lock ring that you'll only find on a true track hub, such as the fine Suntour Superbe Pro Custom. Try to slow down without that lock ring and you'll just unscrew the gear. That don't slow you down much.
- So if you don't have a track hub or if you want to run with a freewheel, brakes are in order. Don't dis brakes. They save lives, they aren't heavy, they're cool. Really.
- Track hubs are indeed narrower than regular road hubs, but not so much so that you can't painlessly flex your stays in (to put a track wheel on an old road bike) or out (to put a road wheel on a track bike). Just let us know what you plan to use the most and we'll build the frame accordingly.
- So - if you're building up a fixed gear, what do you need? - long dropouts. Without the
der. taking up slack in the chian, you need some room to slide the rear wheel to
keep the proper tension. Track bikes have what are called "horizontal dropouts"
- they're long, horizontal, and they open to the rear. That's best, but the
common road dropouts that angle at about 45 degrees and open to the front are
fine. The critical thing as that they have some length to them - no mountain
bike style sockets, please. If you have a frame that doesn't have the proper
dropouts, buy a Surly Singleator, or see our Courier Special below. Other bits
- headset and bottom bracket
- fork, if you didn't get one from us
- road crank set with outer chainring removed (or file the teeth a bit & leave it on as a pant guard... but see chainline below)
- 2 700c wheels, tires and tubes. We can do 27 1/4, 650c or 26" if you want (any size really). On a fixed/single wheels and tires are the next heaviest thing next to the frame, so get the best you can.
- a gear or freewheel
- a 1/8" (BMX/3 speed size) chain, although some freewheels work with 3/32" chains too. To test, just try wrapping your chain around the gear. It should fit. Any chain will fit the chainring.
Fixed Gear/Single Speed FAQ
Q: Aren't these bikes useful only in flat areas?
A: No! If you're used to riding around the city on a mountain bike, one ride on a fixed or single and you'll feel like you just learned to ride again. The tricks are: light weight and hard tires. Even a modestly appointed fixed or single will weigh about half the average mountain bike, and with nice hard tires - we like 700x28s where the roads are crappy, and shoot 'em up to 100 lbs - you will fly. You needed those 21 or more speed just to haul around that beast, and its 21 speeds! Seriously, next time you're in a bike shop ask to hold a multi-speed freewheel, 2 derauleirus and shifters in your hand. Now imagine all that weight, gone forever. You have to pick your gear - and it may take some trial and error - so you can make it up those tough hills on your route, but then the "average" terrain will be a breeze. Downhills, you coast on a single or spin like mad on a fixed. You will find yourself in 3 modes: bookin along at your preferred cadence and feeling like you have all the power in the world; working your ass off to get up that big hill; or spinning like mad going back down it. The pros have a word for this: training. Running fixed or, to a lesser extent, singles makes you a better rider.
Q: What about chain line? I mean, if I put a BMX freewheel on a road wheel it's all the way in to the left. Won't the chain be all crooked and come off?
A: Probably not. It's true that a freewheel or fixed gear run on a road wheel sits toward the center because the wheel is dished to account for all those gears. Track hubs are symmetrical so the gears sits way out by the dropout. Nice. But you can still use a road wheel if you make sure the chainring (that's the one on the crank) is as close to the frame as possible. That will generally mean mounting your single chainring on the inside ("low"-gear position) of the crank. It may mean grinding some stuff off the inside of the crank, using a narrower (low-Q) bottom bracket, or finding a BB-crank combination that gets you as close in as possible. It's true, this can be a hassle, and it's best if you have several combos to try, but it's not that bad.
Brakes. Really, put a front brake on that fixed gear bike.