Have you have looked at buying a bike with one gear? Do you own a bike with a single sprocket? it may have the ability to stop pedalling (freewheel) or not (fixed). If you have then you will have heard a range of terms for these bikes; Fixed gear, single speed, track bike and fixie. They all appear to get used interchangeably. But what is the difference? What makes a track bike a track bike and not a single speed? Why a fixie and not a fixed gear? Is there a difference and should we care? Is it relevant if you are looking to change parts?
Well yes, there is a difference between them. One will be more suited to you and how you intend to use the bike. Do you commute and just want a simple bike? Or race on the velodrome? Are you a messenger who needs to get from A to B as fast as possible? All the terms that we just mentioned serve to describe different bikes for different uses.
So now what is the difference? Well lets start with the easiest to differentiate. Track bike. This is a bike that you will see used in the indoor (velodrome) Olympic racing. They are designed for speed above all else. With very aerodynamic frames, wheels and bars. Every part made as stiff as possible. If you are looking for a no compromise speed weapon this is the bike for you. So are the parts different? Yes, track bike wheels are very aero, stiff and often with the tyres glued to the wheel (tubular). Every thing on the bike is designed to save every last watt from the track wheels to the pedals. There are also strict regulations as to what parts can be fitted to the bike. For indoor tracks (velodrome) cranks must be 165mm at the longest and with no extra thread showing from the wheel axel. It’s less strict on outdoor tracks like Herne Hill but the same idea applies. They are very uncomfortable to ride on the road plus can’t be fitted with a front brake.
Okay so what is a fixie bike? And does it have the same design/ intended use? Typically no. You could use a fixie to race on a velodrome, but it wouldn’t be the fastest bike for it. Fixie is used to describe a cheaper bike that has one gear. They often have a flip flop hub on the rear that let you fit both a freewheel (let you stop pedalling) and a sprocket (you have to constantly pedal). This is done by turning the wheel around. They are intended to be simple, cheap to maintain and hassle free. As a result of this the parts are heavier and tend to be of lower quality than other bikes. they are great for commuting if you just need a bike. Fixie wheels often have lots of spokes, deep rims and cheap hubs. They are more for style than speed or comfort
So what’s a single speed then? Well this is where it gets less clear cut. A new single speed bike is often used interchangeably with fixie bike. In reality it should be a bike that only has the ability to be used with a freewheel. Take the Genesis One Day as an example. It has disc brakes on the front and rear and this stops you having both a freewheel and sprocket. However these bikes very often are the same as fixie bikes. This is because the term single speed has be used to make it clearer to people that the bike has only one gear. Single speed can also refer to a bike that has been converted to have a single gear. The parts on single speed bikes tend to be of similar quality to the ones found on fixie bikes with some exceptions. If the bike is truly a single speed, then the wheels will be different with lighter hubs, plus occasionally disc brakes. They can also use hubs or bb that are not circular to help get the chain to the right tension. Plus they will tend to have both a front and rear brake.
So lastly fixed gear bikes. What is the deal with them. Well this category is for the bikes that are a mix of track and fixie. They have better parts compared to fixie’s but are less performance driven compared to track bikes. With a fit similar to track bikes, they are very quick without being as uncomfortable to ride on the road. These are the kind of bikes you will see messengers, red hook and other fixed gear crit riders use. Fast, simple and strong.
So does it matter if you order a fixie wheel for your track bike? Or if you get a fixed gear wheel for your single speed? Well in these cases yes. Remember when we said that track bikes have strict standards, well a fixie wheel very rarely meets those standards. If you are using the bike on roads or outdoors then yes. You can use fixie wheels as the wheel size wont change but we wouldn’t recommend it as the bike will ride very differently. Its likely to feel sluggish. In the case of a fixed gear wheel for a single speed bike, there is a good chance that the wheel wont take a freewheel as a lot of fixed gear wheels have 2 sprocket fittings. Sprocket and freewheels use a different thread on the hub. This often means that for a dedicated single speed bike you need to get custom wheels. (See our page on custom wheel builds)
Would the same apply if you put fixed gear wheels on a track bike? Not as much. Fixed gear wheels are still light and aero but they will have wider rims plus normally a brake track for at least the front wheel. As a result they are great if you are looking to take your track bike on the road. The same is true if you wanted to use a fixed gear bike on the velodrome. If you put tack wheels on it this will make the bike more competitive.
We do a range of track wheels, fixed gear wheels and fixie wheels. Our Always Ride Wheels are fixie wheels that blur the line as they are fast and light with a reasonable spoke count but still affordable. Our Corner Slicer Wheels are much more targeted at fixed gear riders. With aero spokes, rim and tubeless ready, they are designed to be fast on any road. For track bikes, we have our Velodrome Starter Wheelset. These are very aero and stiff but sacrifice some rim width to do this and don’t have a braking surface. We have options in carbon and alloy for all bike options. You can see our full range here.