another pufferfish drawn by rekka yet another pufferfish drawn by rekka yet another pufferfish drawn by rekka
building a fixed gear bicycle
2020-12-20

originally posted 2020-07-02

I have owned many bicycles over the years. Most of them have been excellent
travel companions, but one thing has always bothered me. No matter how well I
maintained them, my gears would grind and slip eventually, and I never had any
idea why - there were too many dang components crushed together down there.

I like to fully understand the things I own.

Bicycles are deceptively complicated! I decided to put together my own bicycle.
This meant I had to simplify as much as I could - and because I also care about
reliability, I decided to build a single gear bicycle.

I wanted to share a little bit about why I decided to do this, what the
decision points were, and how you can get started if you're interested.

Most people say that buying a fully kitted single speed will be cheaper than
building your own - I say we can build a better _and_ cheaper bike all on our
own. Let us begin.

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## Theory

So here's the sitch.

Typical road bicycles have many speeds - this allows the rider to adjust the
gear ratio to match the terrain. One may use a very low gear to climb a hill
with little effort, or a high gear when riding very fast. There is no doubt
that modern multi-geared bicycles are efficient.

However, they are complicated - and come with many hidden costs. Especially if
your goal is to ride around relatively flat terrain (a city, perhaps).

-- Types

There are generally two types of single-speed bicycle:

* Fixed Gear
* Freewheel

Both types are very similar - they have a single gear that turns at a fixed
gear ratio. The difference is simple - a freewheel allows for coasting, while a
fixed gear does not. If you ride a fixed gear bicycle, you must rotate your
legs along with the gear.

At first glance, it may seem that fixed gears have a strict disadvantage to
freewheels, but this is not true - fixed gears come with their own sets of
benefits, including:

* the ability to ride without brakes
  (simply pedal backwards to slow down)
  (this is not an endorsement of brakeless riding, always have at least 1 brake)
* extra exercise
  (fixed gears exercise muscles that are not used while riding freewheel bicycles)
* drifting/skidding
  (the ability to lock your back wheel in order to make sudden stops or sharp turns)

Regardless, the choice is yours - there is a large subset of the single gear
community that prefers freewheels. I say try both for a few weeks each, and see
which you prefer.

-- Simplicity

Every part is visible and easy to understand. If a single speed bicycle breaks,
a novice can figure out why. I suggest that people who like old Ford Rangers,
or vim, are the same people who would like single speed bicycles.

On a single speed bike, there are no:

* derailleurs (front & rear)
* shift cables
* shifters
* long chainz
* spoke guards
* rear brakes/brake handles (this is not always true)

-- Cost

Single speed bicycles are cheaper than bicycles with many gears because they
have fewer parts. They can often be built for half the price or under. They are
also cheap and easy to repair.

-- Reliability

Properly built single speed bicycles are reliable. They require less
maintenance less often than their many-geared counterparts. They can be ridden
in the rain, thrown down on the ground, and tied to the top of a rusty car
without a single worry.

-- Fun

Single speed bicycles are more fun to ride (especially if you choose a fixed
gear, imo).

-- Exercise

Single speed bicycles are much better for your body - you must stand up and
pedal hard to make it up hills, and actively fight to go down them. This opens
up a whole new area of muscle usage.

-- Efficiency

Single speed bicycles are more efficient than multi-gear bicycles in very
particular conditions. Technically, the chain is shorter, more direct, and
doesn't have derailleur pulleys - so we gain something like 5% over our
multi-geared friends. While this may not seem like much, it makes a huge
difference if we're in a single gear on flat terrain.

However, on inclines or declines (where your single gear isn't efficient), your
efficiency will fall off dramatically - like, 50% or more. There will be hills
you cannot bike up. You'll be red-faced and huffing while a multi-geared
bicycle gently drifts by. So don't be too snooty, that loss is part of the fun.
:)

-- Weight

Finally, single speed bikes weigh less than their cousins, which definitely
will matter seeing as you'll have to carry your bike up steep hills. :>

## Parts

Common sites to source parts from are:

https://bikesdirect.com
https://bikeisland.com
https://retrogression.com
https://ebay.com
https://craigslist.com
https://pinkbike.com/buysell

-- Frame

(at most $200)

It is critical that your frame fits you. Before you do anything else, measure
yourself and pump your figures into a calculator. I used this one:
https://www.ebicycles.com/bicycle-tools/frame-sizer/road-bike

If you're an ordinary person, you'll want a steel frame. Aluminum frames, while
lighter, are harder to repair and cost more. Aluminum also feels worse to ride
on than steel. Steel can be repaired at any shop, bent back into place. It's
durable and will last a lifetime if you care for it properly. It does rust, so
be sure to lubricate your frame if it gets all wet.

When selecting a frame, I recommend the following general priorities:

* frame size (make sure it fits you!)
* cost
* material (steel preference)
* room for 28' wheels (for road biking)
* room for 45c tires (if you want to winter bike)

Recommendations:

* Garage sale
* Kilo TT
* Allcity

-- Gear Ratio

Chainring = large gear that you pedal
Sprocket = small gear on your wheel

You will see the abbreviation Nt where N is a number like ~38 or ~50, and it
represents the number of teeth on the chrainring of your crankset.

47t = 47 teeth on the chainring
16t = 16 teeth on the sprocket

You will also see a ratio, which represents the chainring size (in teeth)
versus the sprocket size (in teeth). There are many combinations.

48/17 = gear ratio

Very very generally speaking, you'll want a larger gear ratio if you're riding
long flat distances (i.e. commuting). You will want a smaller ratio if you're
doing lots of stopping or hill climbing. Here are some more harmful
generalisations:

52/17 = long, flat distances with no stopping
48/17 = medium flat distances with some stopping
46/17 = flat distances with some hills and some stopping
44/17 = lots of stop & go (traffic biking) / hills

I will mention here that it is very critical to line up the two gears that will
be on your bicycle - they should be in as straight a line as possible.

-- Crank Set + chain ring

(at most $100)

The actual crankset you select is very likely to be unnoticed to you,
especially if you're a newer biker.

Recommendations:

* The one that came on your garagesale bike + a new chainring
* Sugino RD2
* Sram Omnium
* S3000
* Andels

-- Pedals

(at most $40)

Preferences, preferences. There are a lot of choices in this realm, but they
can be condensed into 3 major categories.

pedal/cage: a steel trap for your shoe
pedal/strap: a fabric trap for your shoe
clipless: requires special shoes

I like pedal/strap because I care about my shoes, and pedal/cage is very hard
on them. I also find the whole clipless system to be too complicated and
expensive for what I'm after (I don't want to buy a special pair of shoes to
ride my bicycle).

Recommendations:

clipless: Shimano m520
pedal/cage: MKS GR9
pedal/strap: Fyxation gates + a strap

-- Chain

(at most $30)

3/32 is the most common chain size, so use that if possible. Otherwise,
whatever your crankset + sprocket supports.

-- Wheels

(at most $200)

700c is the standard wheel size for road bikes, I recommend sticking to it.
Most frames will accept it.

Aero wheels are nonsense unless you want to look cool or go very, very fast -
in which case riding a single speed doesn't make much sense.

Imho you're best served buying a nice 700c "basic bitch" set of wheels that are
light and proven, or just using the ones already on your beater.

Recommendations:

* Wabi
* Weinmann DP18
* H + Plus Son TB14
* Miche Pistard

-- Saddle

(at most $30)

Nobody but you can decide which saddle is comfortable. If you really want to
buy something on the internet and cannot wait, do not spend more than $30.

Recommendations:

* go to a bike shop and try some out
* use the one on your beater
* Wabi

-- Handlebars

(at most $50)

Handlebars are another personal matter. There are a few popular types:

* bullhorns: for the cowboy
* drops: for the speed demon
* risers: for low-riders

Recommendations:

* go to a bike shop and try some out!
* use the ones from your garbage bike

-- Brakes

If you're riding fixed gear, you only need a front brake since the pedals can
be activated to break your rear wheel.

## How did we do?

Let's assume we capped out on all of our budgets. That would be:

* $200 frame
* $100 crankset
* $40 pedals
* $30 chain
* $200 wheels
* $30 saddle
* $50 handlebars

total max: $650

Compare that to paying $469 for a brand new Kilo Stripper TT, which comes with
such low quality tires that the community consistently recommends upgrading
them. I'd wager that even at our maximum price point, our bike is a better
value.

And of course, that's our hypothetical maximum - you could easily pay next to
nothing for a reliable (but maybe not flashy) road-ready fixie.

## What's next doe?

I'm going to be building my first fixed gear bicycle from stock purchased
components - my budget is $500. After it's put together, I'll add another blog
entry, and maybe a video of myself putting it together.

After that, I want to build the cheapest possible single speed bicycle that I
can. Stay tuned.

## Wild Ideas

pcpartpicker, but for fixed gear bicycles.

guide to build a fixed-gear bicycle for less than $100.