Single-speed mountain bikes for the brave are not for everyone. They are appreciated for their simplicity, strength, durability, light weight, ease of use, and affordability. But mountain bikers love to ride on mountains. Using a single gear on a bike can make it difficult to climb hills. The challenge can be too much for some riders. A small number of riders have adopted the single-speed as their preferred mountain bike. If you’re up to the challenge or if the trails in your area don’t feature leg-busting climbs, a single-speed might be right for you.
Single-Speed or Fixed Gear: What’s the Difference?
Many people use the terms single-speed, fixed-gear, and “fixie” interchangeably. There’s still a difference, technically. One front chainring and one rear drive wheel make a single-speed bike a single speed. This means that you have only one riding gear. You can still use the freewheel to keep the pedals in place and coast.
You might also like:
Fixed Gear Bikes – The Good, The Bad and the Ugly
True fixed-gear bikes have no freewheel. If the rear wheel turns, the pedals turn. Fixed-gear bikes do not usually have brakes. Instead, the rider uses his pedals to stop the rear wheels. Fixed-gear bikes can be difficult to ride downhill because your legs must keep up with the pedals. Slipping at the wrong time can lead to injury from pedal strikes.
If you’re shopping for a single-speed bike and someone offers you a “fixie” there’s a good chance that they’re using the term to describe a freewheel single-speed. It’s still a good idea to make sure there’s a freewheel, unless you’re ready to keep up with those spinning pedals!
About Gears & Wheels
A single-speed bike can only have one combination of gears, so you must choose the right one. There are two ways to describe single-speed gears. Single-speeders often use the number of teeth on both the front and back gears. A 32 x 18, single-speed uses a front chainring that has 32 teeth and a rear cog that has 18 teeth. Some people also use the ratio between front and rear rotation. For every turn of the pedal, the rear wheel makes 2 full rotations. Common starting points are 2:1 and 2. A lower ratio means that pedaling is more natural and easier. Higher ratios feel “heavier”, making it harder to climb or to get the wheels moving, but help you carry speed better on flat surfaces.
Back in the days of 26” wheels either of these measurements gave riders a good idea of how much power they would have to put on the pedals to move the bike. Multi-wheel size standards have changed this. With the same gear ratio a 27.5” wheel will take more effort to turn than a 26” wheel and a 29” wheel will take more effort to turn than a 27.5” wheel.
Unless you’re very familiar with how a given gear ratio feels with a specific wheel size, your best bet is probably to try it out and see. You’ll be in that gear a lot – any time you’re on the bike – so it has to be comfortable on the terrain you ride. You don’t have to try out the specific bike you’re considering, but you should try to take a spin on a bike with a similar gear ratio and the same wheel size.
What can you expect from the rest of your bike?
Single-speed mountain bikes that are fully assembled are few and far between. Single-speed riders tend not to be novice cyclists, and they prefer to assemble their bikes according to their needs. There are still some fully built options from major manufacturers, and if you’re looking at built single-speed bikes, there are a few things you can expect to see.
- Hardtails – Single-speed riders value simplicity and prefer hardtail frames.
- Short travel or rigid forks – Single-speed bikes with front suspension typically use forks that provide 100 to 130mm of travel. Many use rigid forks.
- Traditional geometry – The trend in modern mountain bikes is toward “slacker” designs that rake the fork forward and place the front wheel farther in front of the rider for more stability on steep downhills. Head tube angles of 65° to 66° are common on modern trail bikes. Single-speed bikes tend to use more traditional designs with head tube angles closer to 70°.
- Minimalist builds – Many built bikes will be simple and use only high-quality parts.
- Low weight – Stripping off chainrings, cogs, derailleurs, and shifters doesn’t just keep a bike looking sleek. These parts are heavy, so single-speed bikes tend to be lighter than their geared counterparts.
These features allow for riding on smooth trails with no steep climbs or drops, which is in keeping with single-speed mountain bikes.
The best single-speed mountain bikes
If you’re looking for a single-speed mountain bike you’ll be reviewing a fairly short list of built-up options. You’ll want to consider these options, and you may consider assembling your own build as well!
Best All-around Single-Speed Mountain Bike Niner SIR 9.
- Steel Frame Material
- Fork: Fox 34 Float, 120mm travel
- Wheel Size: 29”
- Brakes: Shimano XT M8100 Hydraulic Disc
- Gear Ratio 32 x 20
- Seatpost: KS Lev Dropper
- Head Tube Angle: 68°
- Weight: 28.8 lbs.
- Price: $3500
If you want to buy a fully assembled off-the-rack single-speed mountain bike designed for serious trail riding, you won’t find an option better than this. SIR stands for “Steel is Real”, and the frame at the heart of the SIR 9 is hand-welded from Reynolds 853 steel tubing, taking full advantage of the renowned durability and shock absorption capacity of high grade steel frames and providing a sleek slim-tubed build. The Fox 34 float fork offers high-end tuning that maximizes the 120mm of travel. The 68° head tube angle is still on the steep side for trail riding by the most modern standards, but it won’t send you over the bars on the steeps: only a few years ago 68° was considered quite slack and was used on hardcore trail bikes.
The components on the SIR 9 are set up for serious mountain biking: this is not an urban cruiser with fatter tires, it’s a true mountain bike. Shimano XT hydraulic disc brakes have 180mm front and 160mm back rotors. They provide excellent control and braking power. A stock tubeless setup with Schwalbe’s highly regarded Nobby Nic trail tires provides maximum traction with minimum drag. If you’re looking for a bikepacking ride, the SIR 9 comes with a full range of mounts for almost any frame-mounted luggage carrying system. The SIR 9 is compatible with either single-speed or geared setups, so if you decide that single-speed riding isn’t for you, you can convert your bike to a high-end geared hardtail.
The only serious disadvantage of the SIR 9 is the price tag, which is right up there with what you’d pay for a premium geared hardtail. This bike is a top-of-the line single-speed mountain bike. The price tag is not worth it if you are looking for a truly premium bike.
Best Single-Speed Mountain/Urban Crossover
- Frame Material
- Fork: Surly Lowside Rigid
- Wheel Size: 26”
- Brakes: Tektro Hydraulic Disc
- Gear Ratio: 32×17
- Fixed Seatpost
- Head Tube Angle: 70°
- Weight: 29 lbs. 15 oz.
- Price: $1250
Minnesota-based Surly has always embraced niche markets, and they’ve always had some single-speed bikes in their lineup. The Lowside, Surly’s current entry in the single-speed mountain bike market, embraces the traditional style, with a rigid fork, 26” wheels, BMX-style bars, a slim-tubed steel frame, and relatively steep geometry. The primary “mountain” feature of this mountain bike is the tires. Surly is a leading maker of fat bikes, and while the 3.0” Surly Dirt Wizard tires on this bike are not quite in fat bike territory they are certainly plus-sized, providing plenty of contact surface and aggressive knobs for traction. They are also big enough to absorb some shock, though they won’t provide the fully cushioned ride of a full-on fat bike.
The simplicity of the Lowside doesn’t leave it with a lot of components to talk about. The SRAM NX crank comes straight out of the mountain bike parts box. It can withstand real abuse. Although the Tektro hydraulic brakes are not as flashy as their higher-end counterparts from Shimano or SRAM, they still have a low price and will stop you well. You have the option to upgrade the Lowside if simplicity is not your thing. The frame is dropper post-ready, the head tube will accept a short-travel suspension fork, and there’s a derailleur hanger to support geared riding.
The Lowside is the big-kid version your first bike. It’s perfectly suitable for urban riding, whether you’re ripping up alleyways and throwing stunts or just riding to work or cruising down to your favorite craft brewery. It’s also quite at home on singletrack, making it a perfect all-around ride for both around town and trail riding. The rigid fork and steep geometry mean you probably wouldn’t want to take it down the technical steep stuff, but even there, if your kung-fu is up to the task the bike will deliver. It’s also a relatively affordable entry to the world of single-speed mountain biking that gives you the option of converting to a geared setup with suspension, an attractive feature for riders who want to try single-speed riding but aren’t sure if they want to commit to it!
Santa Cruz Chameleon is best for custom single-speed builds
- Material for the frame: Aluminium or Carbon
- Wheel Size: Fits 27.5 or 29”
- Recommended Fork: 120 – 140mm
- Head Tube Angle: 67.3°
- Weight: Aluminum 4.6 lbs, Carbon 3.75 lbs
- Price: Aluminum $749, Carbon $1299
Single-speed riding requires a lot of skill and experience. These riders love a custom build. The Santa Cruz Chameleon is the best hardtail bike. It allows you to choose the components that are most suitable for your riding style and terrain. It will accommodate single-speed or geared builds with 27.5” or 29” wheels. You can choose from aluminum or carbon frames. If you choose to roll this way, the chainstays can accommodate plus-sized tires. The Chameleon is a single-speed hardtail that will do whatever you ask it to.
The Chameleon is an extraordinarily versatile frame, but it’s definitely oriented toward mountain bikers. The frame can accommodate forks with up to 5.5” (140mm) of travel, and the 67.3° head tube angle provides a distinctly modern geometry oriented toward steep, technical riding. The Chameleon can be converted to a full-fledged trail bike for riding single-speed on gnarly trails. The Chameleon can be modified to fit long distances on groomed trails.
The bottom line
Single-speed bikes are a niche product, and single speed mountain bikes are part of that niche. Boutique bike manufacturers often serve these smaller markets, and single speed mountain bikes are no exception. I haven’t included these bikes here because most of them have limited production capacity and small dealer networks, and their bikes are often hard to order or to find in shops. If you have a regional bike maker that’s popular in your area or if you see a small-brand bike available, they are certainly worth considering.
Single-speed mountain bikes aren’t right for everyone, but they might be right for you. You’ll have to consider your own fitness, the type of riding you do, and what your approach to cycling is. If you want simplicity and getting back to the roots of the sport appeals to you, a single-speed might be your perfect ride, especially if you’re a strong rider or if your riding doesn’t include steep climbs. Although it will be challenging, the joy of cycling lies in facing and conquering challenges.