There is a WHOLE LOT of information on gearing systems so we thought we would break this up for you!
Part 1: Fixed gear / single-speed / multi-speed /internally-geared
Fixed, free, multi and internal are all types of bike gears. We'll tell you the difference (Part 1) and why it matters (Part 2).
In the beginning, all bikes were fixed gear bikes. Imagine a penny farthing or a kids tricycle; the pedals are directly connected to the front wheel. So if the wheel is turning, the pedals are turning. You can’t freewheel or coast.
On a modern fixed gear bike, the pedals are separated from the wheel but connected by the chain. At the pedals, there is a big sprocket (also known as a cog*) called a chainring. The chain goes around that and around a similar, smaller sprocket on the rear wheel. Now, the smaller sprocket on the rear wheel is fixed to the wheel and can’t turn without the wheel turning. There’s no ‘freewheel’ in the system.
So just like the penny-farthing or the tricycle, if your wheels are turning your pedals are too. That’s a fixed gear.
A singlespeed is similar but the rear sprocket can spin backwards on the wheel and it can stop spinning while the wheel keeps spinning. This is because the sprocket is attached to a ‘freewheel’. When you coast along without pedalling, it’s the freewheel you can hear making that lovely clicking sound. So you’ve got one gear and you can coast without the pedals turning - that’s a singlespeed.
Both singlespeed and fixed gear bikes have just one gear but we call the ones with a freewheel singlespeeds to tell them apart from the ‘fixies’.
A ‘flip-flop’ wheel is a kind of wheel that has a fixed gear sprocket on one side and a freewheel on the other. If you install the wheel one way, your bike will be a fixed gear. Take the wheel out, flip it around and reinstall it and it’ll be a singlespeed. The Reid Griffon, Harrier and Wayfarer can all be used as a singlespeed or fixie, with the later two coming with a flip-flop wheel (while you need to upgrade the Griffon wheel set).
A conventional multi-speed bike is a bike with many gears. It will have 5 to 10 sprockets on the rear wheel and usually 2 or 3 sprockets (chainrings) at the pedals. Different combinations of sprockets give harder (taller) or easier (shorter) gears. Gears are changed using a derailleur, which actually derails the chain from one sprocket to another. Examples include all Reid Road Bikes & Mountain Bikes.
An internally-geared hub bike is a bike with multiple gears built into the hub of the rear wheel. The earlier ones had 2 or 3 gears all hidden away inside the hub. Modern ones might have 3, 5, 8 or more gears. These bikes might look a bit like a single-speed because they have no derailleur but they still have a range of gears. The Reid Ladies Vintage Deluxe runs a 3-speed Shimano internal hub.
Part 2: So which one is best?
In general, singlespeed bikes and fixed gear bikes are the easiest to maintain and have the fewest parts, so they make great basic commuters and cruising bikes.
Singlespeeds are much easier to ride and are great for new riders as there are no gears to worry about.
Fixed gears are harder to ride as you must constantly keep pedalling. This is fine on a track and there are advantages to riding a fixed gear, but generally it’s better to get very comfortable on a singlespeed bike with a flip-flop hub when riding on the road and try riding fixed gear later.
Multi-speed bikes are a real bonus if you have hills to climb, loads to carry or just want to make things a bit easier on yourself. For road-riding at high speeds or mountain-biking, a multi-speed bike is pretty much essential.
Internally-geared hubs have most of the advantages of a conventional multi-speed bike plus you can change up and down without pedalling which can be nice when you're stopping and starting. However, they tend to be significantly more expensive and they generally have fewer gears and a narrower range. They often have the clean lines of a single-speed but are usually heavier, more complicated and less robust.
Most bike riders would love a wardrobe of bikes so they could pick the best one for the kind of riding they’re going to do. But if you only have one bike, which should it be? Generally new riders find singlespeed or basic multi-speed bikes will suit their needs best.
The best way to figure out what suits you best is to talk to someone at your local bike store, and try a few out. Reid Cycles have stores around the country and would love to be able to help you choose the right bike for your specific needs. So come on in! If our stores aren't close, give our expert customer service team a call on (03) 9329 1222.
*A cog and a sprocket are different things. A cog turns another cog but a sprocket has a chain going around it. Only bike nerds like me care about these things but you might impress someone by knowing the difference.