Wednesday, 26 October 2011

How many gears? - Part 1: intro and single-speed bikes

Bicycles can be bought with a bewildering number of choices for gearing.
Some prefer single-speed bikes, others prefer hub gears with between 2 and 14 gears, while still others prefer various forms of derailleur set up with between 5 and 27 gears.
So, is more better?
Is it just down to cost?
Or are there other factors to consider as well?

So let's start with the simplest set-up:
the single speed

  • Basically, the chain connects the pedals to the rear wheel (via two cogs). The faster you pedal, the faster you go.
  • This set-up is found on many children's bikes, and used to be used on delivery bikes - up to about 12 years ago, postman's bikes in Britain were single-speed models (at about that date, three-speed models were phased in).
  • Not much to go wrong - unless the chain breaks (very unusual for other than "extreme" users), or the chain tension is very badly adjusted (when it can fall off the cogs under some circumstances)
  • Low maintenance - just check the chain tension every now and then, and inspect for broken sideplates occasionally. Plus a bit of lubrication.
  • The chain is easy to enclose in a compact, fixed, case - this keeps dirt, grit, and fingers (especially with bikes for younger children) out, keeps the oil on the chain off your trousers, extends the life of the chain, and further reduces then amount of maintenance and re-lubrication required.
  • It requires quite a bit of effort to get up even a fairly modest hill, unless the gearing is set rather low.
  • It requires a lot of effort to achieve a decent speed, unless the gearing is set rather high.
Your legs get stronger with regular riding, but as you age, so does the creaking from your knees!
The best way to tackle hills is to stand up on the pedals, and really pump hard with your legs to keep your speed up and use the momentum to get up the hill - but you will need to be pretty fit to do this!
The other way of getting up a hill is to get off and walk :-(
The "standing on the pedals" method is OK for heavy exercise, but not the best way if you are using the bike primarily for transport!
The "walking" method, if used much, defeats much of the purpose of taking a bike in the first place.

Cycling on the flat and/or downhill is much better, assuming the gearing is not too high, but your maximum speed is rather restricted by the maximum rate at which you can move your legs around (this "natural" speed restriction can be an advantage on children's bikes, however, as accidents occur at a slower speed!)

Having ridden a single-speed bike almost daily for a bit more than five years (1993-1998), I would say that, as long as you don't live anywhere too hilly, single-speed bikes are reliable, low-maintenance machines, and a lot better than walking.
However, I would not recommend a "new-ish" cyclist spends serious money on a single-speed bike unless they also have another bike (with gears!) to ride as well.

If one is purchasing a
folding bike, single-speed machines are practical and lighter than multi-speed folding bikes, and as folders don't usually do much mileage, then in this case I would make an exception and say that single-speed folders are a good buy, although the gearing is invariably set rather low - no doubt to accommodate riders who just cycle occasionally.
I ride a three-speed folder every day, and would miss the gears when climbing the hill on the way home - it is a bit heavy, though, so if I wanted a lightweight folder AND had a decent budget, I would get a Brompton two-speed rather than a single-speed folding bike!

If you want to have a go at how riding a single-speed feels, just choose a gear on your bike, then leave it - no changing gear uphill!
See what you think.
You will probably find you end up selecting a gear which is less relaxed than normal on the flat sections of the journey, and downhill sections are best spent "coasting" :-)

So, overall, I find single-speed bikes to be a good way to exercise, and "OK" as a means of transport, rather than the best way to get somewhere.

You may have different conclusions than me, so why not share them with me in the comments section.
If you wish to thank me for this article, then please comment or click on one of the advertisers' links - you might like some of the cycling related stuff (I know I do!)