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Fixed-Gear or Freewheel: Getting in Gear
Not everything is as easy as riding a bike, but picking the right ride can be. Below, Groupon’s guide to bike styles gets you closer to never making another decision again.
To coast or not to coast? When buying a bike, it’s one of the most consequential choices you can make, and the answer depends on the kind of riding you plan to do. Fixed-gear bikes have only one gear, but that’s not the only difference between them and freewheel (or free hub) bikes, which can also be single-speeds. The distinction rests on the bike’s mode of propulsion. If you’ve ever ridden a multispeed bike, you know that you can stop pedaling or pedal backward at any time while the bike keeps moving forward; that’s coasting, and it’s possible because the freewheel—that is, the toothed, chain-bearing cog attached to the hub of the rear wheel—can move independently of the wheels.
On the other hand, on a fixed-gear bike what you see is literally what you get: without a freewheel to allow coasting, whenever the bike moves forward, the chain and pedals move forward at the same pace. As you speed up while riding downhill, you can pedal backward, thereby moving the chain backward and slowing yourself down, a mechanism many fixed-gear cyclists use as a brake.
Each bike style brings its own benefits in terms of where and how long you plan to ride. The simplicity of a fixed-gear bike is in its single gear, as it has none of the components multispeed bikes require to change gears. Without those, fixed-gear bikes tend to be lighter and potentially less prone to breaking down. These bikes are great for short commutes, sightseeing in flatter areas, or for riding shorter distances, since their operation is simple, fast, and doesn’t require any attention to gear changing. The late cycling guru Sheldon Brown once wrote, “When you ride a fixed gear, you feel a closer communion with your bike and with the road…that can be quite seductive.” Fixed-gear cycling can also be a great workout, since taking a break to coast is impossible. On the other end of the spectrum, a freewheel bike’s many gears allow riders to conquer almost any terrain over longer distances, since changing gears allows a rider to exert less energy on climbs and to coast on flat roads or downhill. Having many gears allows the rider to be more efficient on varying terrain, making freewheel bikes a good choice for hillier areas, mountain biking, and multiday excursions.