Single-Speed Mountain Bikes: Are They Actually Any Good?

Single-speed mountain bikes divide opinion more than any other.

The single-speed MTB is a rare beast on the trails, probably because it is a bit of a niche bike. The fact that you don’t see many single-speed mountain bikes may put a doubt in your mind about buying one.

They might seem like a strange concept to the uninitiated, but for the backers of single-speed off-roaders, there’s much to love when you look below the surface.

We’re here to give you an unbiased account of the good, the bad, and the ugly when it comes to single-speed off-road cycling. We’ll be covering:

  • How Does A Single-Speed Mountain Bike Perform Off-Road?
  • Why Do People Ride Single-Speed Mountain Bikes?
  • What Are Single-Speed MTBs Like To Own?

Ready to get into the details of owning a single-speed mountain bike?

Let’s get started!

Single-Speed Mountain Bikes: Title Image

How Does A Single-Speed Mountain Bike Perform Off-Road?

If you’re looking to buy a mountain bike with the best outright off-road performance, a single-speed MTB may not be the obvious choice.

The mountain bikes that perform best on the trails have a range of gears. When you have multiple gears, you can select the optimum one for the hill you’re climbing or descending. This is not something you can do on a single-speed mountain bike.

When you come across a single-speed mountain bike, you’ll notice that it may have a suspension fork if it is a higher-end version. However, you’ll never see a full-suspension single-speed mountain bike. Riding a hardtail has advantages, but riding a single-speed mountain bike is already hard work, exacerbated by the lack of squish from suspension.

A cyclist rides a single-speed mountain bike through a forest with snow-capped mountains on the horizon.

Why Do People Ride Single-Speed Mountain Bikes?

If a regular mountain bike with gears performs better than a single-speed mountain bike, then why bother?

Well, there are a few factors that draw cyclists to single-speed MTBs:

#1. Fitness

A regular mountain bike’s gears allow you to pedal uphill while casually sitting in the saddle, but this isn’t the case with a single-speed. 

A single-speed won’t let you get away with taking it easy, as you’ll need to stand on the pedals and call every ounce of torque from your legs, spinning the pedals at a low cadence.

If you prefer riding a bike for fitness or strength training, the extra effort you need to put in means you’ll reap extra rewards. 

However, you may be the type of person that wants to enjoy their ride without turning it into a strength workout every time. Also, if you ride with others on regular mountain bikes, you’ll likely be left at the back unless you have the fitness and power to keep up.

If the thought of going to the gym to do lots of squats, lunges, and calf raises doesn’t appeal to you, a single-speed may suit you better. The extra resistance will go a long way to building leg strength without needing to step into the gym,

#2. Skills Development

Advocates of single-speed off-roaders argue that they are excellent for improving your MTB skills – and they’ve got a point!

Riding a single-speed forces you to modify your riding for the better. One of the aspects of riding that is improved is learning to maximize your momentum.

On a single-speed mountain bike, you have to push on at slow speeds because you have no gears to change into. When you start out riding one of these bikes, you’ll either need to power on or push your bike up when you get to challenging uphill sections. But, once you’ve ridden it a few times, you’ll discover new ways to keep your momentum, so you don’t have to get off and push uphill as often.

Before long, you’ll be picking out better lines as second nature – building up one of the key skills of mountain biking. 

Choosing a smoother line will help you to maintain momentum and require less pedaling. You’ll also find that you’ll brake less and carry more speed. All this will contribute to becoming a smoother and faster rider. This will be familiar if you’ve ever ridden a mountain bike with a broken chain or derailleur.

That’s not to say you can’t develop these skills on a regular mountain bike – but the added challenge of a single-speed bike adds a sink-or-swim element that forces you to improve fast from the deep end!

#3. A New Challenge On The Same Old Trails

When you ride the same trails over and over, you may want to keep the spark alive by tackling them in a different way. This is where a single-speed bike can spice things up by providing a challenge and a fresh look at your regular trails.

Riding a single-speed in familiar territory will highlight things you’ve never noticed or considered before. This will come from choosing different lines and riding it with a new perspective.

You’ll also find the trail more challenging to ride, boosting your skills and giving you a sense of satisfaction.

#4. A Simpler, Purer Cycling Experience

The other thing about riding a single-speed MTB is the sensation that comes from its simplicity.

As there is less componentry on these bikes – with no need for derailleurs or shifters – they are very quiet and have a very smooth drivetrain. The straight chain helps the quietness, as it doesn’t whip up and down when riding over bumpy surfaces.

This stripping back of the bike’s components also makes a single-speed noticeably lighter.

The smoothness and quietness create a unique sensation that is enhanced with your newly found flowy riding style. This makes riding one of these bikes a great way to simplify your riding experience.

A cyclist in red shorts performs a jump on a red mountain bike.

What Are Single-Speed MTBs Like To Own?

#1. They’re Cheaper To Buy

Let’s start with the purchase price of a single-speed mountain bike compared to one with gears.

You could go silly and build an extortionately expensive custom single-speed mountain bike if you wanted to. But, in most cases, these bikes are cheaper to buy than regular mountain bikes.

The reason why they’re cheaper is that they have simpler and fewer parts. For example, buying a high-end single-speed mountain bike with a quality frame, fork, wheels, etc., would be cheaper than a comparable high-end bike with multiple gears.

#2. They Are Less Expensive To Run

As the single-speed setup is so simple, the components don’t need to be anything special. Considering that a mountain bike with gears needs robust and complex components to work, the price of parts is bound to be higher.

#3. They Require Less Maintenance

The simple characteristics of a single-speed mountain bike lead to less maintenance too. The only things you need to check on a rigid single-speed bike are the brakes, tires, chain lube, and handlebar grips.

As there are fewer moving parts, these bikes are excellent for winter riding. The mud acts as a grinding paste, wearing out the expensive components of a bike with gears. So, leaving your regular mountain bike at home on a muddy day in favor of a single-speed mountain bike will preserve its drivetrain.

The parts of a single-speed bike are also less vulnerable during crashes on the trail.

However, all mountain bikes are there to be ridden. If you’re too concerned about getting your bike dirty and are not prepared to do any maintenance or cleaning, you may want to look at another sport!

A mountain biker rounds a berm on a dirt trail through a forest.

Final Thoughts – Are Single-Speed Mountain Bikes Any Good?

As you can see, there are two sides to every characteristic of a single-speed mountain bike. So, before you buy one, you have to consider what you really want from your mountain bike.

A regular mountain bike is probably your best bet if you want to enjoy straightforward off-road cycling and want something more versatile and less punishing.

A single-speed is excellent for your fitness and riding skills, but you must prepare yourself for lots of hard work and compromise. Get a single-speed mountain bike if you want an alternative way to exercise, a challenge, or to ride your usual trails differently.

Love them or hate them, a single-speed mountain bike is never boring!

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One of BikeTips' regular content creators, Tom lives in the French Alps. When he isn't writing, he can be found charging downhill on a mountain bike or snowboard. Tom's other passion is fitness, which goes a long way to help him make the most of the Alpine lifestyle.

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