Condensed answer: Single speed bicycles are not optimal for long-distance riding.
The lack of gears prevents the rider from reaching optimal cadence and causes excessive energy expenditure.
Nonetheless, single-speed bikes can be used for long distances if one has the will to do so.
What Are The Downsides of Single Speed Bikes?
It’s been proven that high cadence (rotations of the cranks per minute) results in faster average speed and minimized energy output.
Single speed bicycles make it impossible to benefit from this principle because the gear ratio of the machine is non-changeable, and optimal cadence can be reached only during brief sections.
In consequence, the bike is either “under” or “over” geared most of the time.
During ascents, the cyclist has to get out of the saddle to increase the transfer of power and propel the bike forward.
Meanwhile, when descending, the rider is often spinning out because the speed of the bike is higher than the one obtainable by pedaling.
A Word On Gear Ratio
The term gear ratio describes the relationship between the chainring and the rear cog.
If the gear of the bike is 42/11 [42 chainring + 11 rear cog], then the gear ratio is 42:11=3.8:1.
This information reveals that for every rotation of the large chainring, the smallest cog and subsequently the rear wheel spins almost 4 times.
Conversely, if the gearing is low, e.g., 32 chainring + 34 cog, the gear ratio would be 32:34=0.9:1.
Or in other words, a rotation of the 32 chainring would result in slightly less than one spin of the rear cog and wheel.
This explains why climbing is so much easier in low gear – the bike moves less per pedal stroke and therefore the rider doesn’t have to exert as much effort.
When the gearing is high, however, the bike has to move further. To make this a reality, the motor has to generate more force. And since the rider is the engine, the cost is mental and physical energy.
2. Marathon vs. Sprint
Marathon runners run at a far lower intensity than sprinters. This is the only way to cover long distances.
Cycling isn’t much different because, at the end of the day, it’s human-powered.
Gears keep the legs of the cyclist in a position of mechanical advantage reducing the energy needed to spin the wheels regardless of the terrain.
The result is low intensity pedaling – the kind needed for long distances.
Single speed bikes do not offer that possibility unless you’re on flat terrain, and your gear ratio is optimized for it.
Note: Low gears aren’t beneficial just for climbing hills. They’re also helpful when there’s a strong headwind.
3. Joint Pain
Single speed bikes can harm the joints, especially the knees and hips.
Constantly pedaling in high gear could cause a repetitive stress injury.
Conversely, geared bicycles reduce the strain because the rider can find a gear ratio that matches their level of preparation and abilities.
4. Mental Stress
Just the thought of climbing a big hill with a single speed bike may be exhausting to some.
And since long distance rides will undoubtedly include more than one climb, some people frown at the idea of covering such distance on a single speed bike due to the level of exercise and joint strain involved in the process.
5. Greater Fatigue
The higher energy expenditure required by single speed bikes results in fatigue which can accumulate and become quite pronounced when touring/riding long distances.
6. Limited cargo
A long trip would require extra equipment which will add to the weight of the bike. The effort needed to pedal the bicycle would greatly increase due to the extra mass that has to be moved.
For that reason, you would have a hard time seeing a single speed touring or cargo bike.
In this case, physical strength and endurance aren’t the only “bottleneck”. The rider’s stability is affected too.
Getting out of the saddle and pedaling aggressively when your bike isn’t loaded is one thing. Doing the same when you’re hauling 2 sets of heavy panniers is another story.
The Advantages of Single Speed Bikes
Technical minimalism is the strongest advantage of single speed bikes over geared ones.
Single speed bikes do not require derailleurs (a chain tensioner is sometimes necessary) nor shifters of any kind. In consequence, the rider doesn’t have to bother adjusting those components.
Another benefit of single speed machines is that they have a stronger, thicker chain that’s harder to break.
(Unlike the chains on geared bikes, single speed chains don’t have to fit between adjacent cogs and can therefore be “fatter”.)
The simplicity of single speed bikes makes them more reliable because the system involves fewer moving parts.
A derailleur could bend and go into the spokes causing a complete failure of the wheel. A single speed bike eliminates this possibility completely.
3. Low price
Shifters can be very expensive, especially when designed for road bikes. A set of brake-shifters could easily reach USD 200.
When you add in the derailleur, the cassette and the extra chainrings, it may turn out that 2/3 of the bike’s price go to gears.
Conversely, a single speed bike needs only one rear cog and chainring.
If you start riding a single speed bike, your legs will have no choice but to get stronger over time.
When you return to a geared bike, it will feel like cheating.
5. Mental Toughness
Riding a single speed bike is tougher and requires a touch of tough character to keep doing it, especially over long distances.
6. Street Credibility
My longest ride is 110km. It’s not a lot by cyclist standards, but it certainly sounds impressive to people who aren’t into the sport.
Having said that, even dedicated cyclists would be impressed by such a distance if it’s all done with a single speed bike.
7. Transfer of Power
The absence of a derailleur results in a more direct transfer of power to the rear wheel since the mechanism is simplified.
However, the gains are too small to matter on a long tour.
Gears = Endurance and Speed
If single speed bikes were faster than geared ones, all participants in Tour de France will smash their derailleurs with a hammer before tomorrow morning.
The reality is that gears boost your average speed on all-terrain regardless of your level.
Gears win when there are multiple ascents which is the case for long-distance riding.
Gears win because they allow you to modulate your speed on flat terrain too.
Gears win because they provide a higher gear ratio that reduces the chances of spinning out.
Speed isn’t the only benefit. The strongest point of gears is that they spare your body and central nervous system.
If you can hit 100km in a day on a single speed bike, you will greatly increase that number with a geared bicycle.
Single Speed Is Doable
Despite the drawbacks of single speed bicycles, it would be inaccurate to conclude that they can’t be used for long distance.
In the past, single speed was the only option. This didn’t stop cycling enthusiasts from conquering the world on a bike.
Standard gears weren’t a part of Tour de France until 1937 when the derailleur was introduced and allowed cyclists to change gears while riding.
Before, the riders had to remove the entire wheel to switch to a cog more appropriate for the terrain ahead.
Despite the lack of gears, the cyclists of those times were covering amazing distances.
In 1903, when the first installment of the competition was held, the winner Maurice Garin, rode 2,428 km (1,509 mi) between July 1 and 19. His total riding time was 93h 33m 14s.
The competition was divided into stages some of which were brutally long.
For example, the first stage was Paris – Lyon and consisted of 467km/290mi.
Garin needed 17hr 45min 13sec to finish that section.
You can see all stages in the table below:
|1||July 1||Paris – Lyon||467km/290mi|
|2||July 5||Lyon – Marseille||374km/232mi|
|3||July 8||Marseille – Toulouse||423km/262mi|
|4||July 12||Toulouse – Bordeaux||268km/166mi|
|5||July 13||Bordeaux – Nantes||425km/264mi|
|6||July 18||Nantes – Paris||471km/292mi|
The bike of Maurice Garin was roughly 18kg/39.6lbs and was as single speed as it gets.
The other participants in the tour were on similar machines too.
This is undeniable proof that men can ride serious distances on a bike even when it doesn’t have extra gears.
Below is a short list of long-distance cyclists who made their achievements prior to the invention of gears:
Thomas Stevens from Britain was the first cyclist to circle the globe. His journey begins in April 1884 and ends in December 1886.
He rode a large-wheeled penny-farthing bicycle.
Dora Rinehart was an American cyclist from Colorado. During the mid-1890s, she earned the title America’s Greatest Cyclienne for her accomplishments as a long distance cyclist. She had over a hundred 100-mile rides.
Alfredo Binda was an Italian cyclist who won five editions of the Giro d’Italia in 1925, 1927, 1928, 1929 and 1933. As you can already guess, his bicycle didn’t have conventional gears.
Note: As I said earlier, this is a very short list. Prior to the 40s, every dedicated cyclist was riding large distances without gears.
It Can Be Done, But Should It?
A single speed bike could be used for long distances as shown by early cyclists.
However, one should also take into consideration the fact that people rode those bikes because nothing else was available.
The advantages of single speed bikes fail to outweigh the cons when it comes to marathon itineraries.
Sure. A single speed bike is mechanically simpler and less prone to damage, but modern derailleurs are not as fragile as people often say. And even if a derailleur breaks, you can find a new one in every bike shop.
Besides, there’s a chance that the derailleur hanger would receive most of the damage during a crash.
For that reason, long distance cyclists carry a spare derailleur hanger to minimize the possibility of having to ride “gearless”.
The Front Derailleur Is Tough
Many people love to have on front derailleurs, but the truth is that front derailleurs are less prone to damage due to their function and position.
A rear derailleur can easily touch an external object whereas the front derailleur is protected and rarely fails catastrophically.
If your rear derailleur or shifter fails, you may still have the ability to change gears via the front derailleur.
Obviously, this won’t be possible if the rear derailleur is completely destroyed because there will be nothing to tension the chain.
What About Fixed Gear Bikes?
Fixed gear bikes are less desirable for long distances than single speed bikes.
Fixies have all the downsides of single speed bikes plus the inability to coast.
The lack of coasting could be dangerous during long descents when high speed is reached.
Another shortcoming would be the non-stop movement of the chain.
If your pants or shoelaces get caught in the chain when riding fast, you may quickly end up on the ground because the chain will keep pulling your foot.
FAQ: Can You Put Gears On a Single Speed Bike?
The short answer is yes. For a mode detailed explanation, consider reading this article.