The short answer is no, riding a free wheel bike is not illegal in most places. Free wheel bikes are fully legal on roads and trails in countries like the US, UK, Canada, Australia, across Europe, and beyond.
Certain jurisdictions require bikes to have proper brakes, which free wheel bikes accommodate. The only illegality would be riding a brakeless fixed gear, which some municipalities prohibit. But free wheeling bikes themselves are broadly legal.
Now let‘s dive deeper into explaining fixed gears versus free wheels, their history, pros and cons, technical aspects, statistics, and more.
Defining Fixed Gears and Freewheel Bikes
First, what exactly is a "fixie" and how does it differ from a standard free wheel bike?
On a fixed gear bike, the rear cog is threaded directly onto the hub, so that pedaling motion directly drives the rear wheel. There is no coasting – when the pedals are moving, so is the bike. This creates a very direct and "fixed" connection between your cadence and the wheel speed.
Conversely, free wheel bikes have a mechanism that allows the rear wheel to spin independently of the pedals. So you can stop pedaling while the bike maintains momentum and coasts. This freewheeling mechanism is built into the rear hub, usually with ratcheting pawls that engage when pedaling but disengage to allow coasting.
So in summary:
- Fixed gear: Pedals and rear wheel are directly coupled so they must spin together at all times
- Free wheel: Pedals can be decoupled from the rear wheel, allowing coasting
The History and Evolution of Fixed Gears vs. Freewheeling
To understand the implications of these different drive trains, it helps to learn some history on how fixed gear and freewheel bikes evolved:
Fixed gear bikes were the earliest type of bicycle, dating back to the Draisienne in 1817 which lacked pedals and was propelled by the rider‘s feet pushing off the ground.
The first pedal-driven bikes emerged in the 1860s and had fixed front wheels for steering, with no ability to coast.
The freewheel mechanism allowing coasting was invented in 1869 but took decades to gain widespread use.
So for many years, fixed direct drive trains were the norm until freewheeling gradually became standard for most bikes by the early 20th century.
However, fixed gears remained common for track cycling on velodromes. The simplicity and fixed connection suits the controlled environment of the track, where constant speed is paramount during races.
This velodrome popularity persisted, while fixed gears were rare on roads for many decades – until the urban fixie trend resurrected their street legitimacy in the 1990s/2000s.
Now fixies are icons of urban bike culture, providing a simple and sleek aesthetic, low maintenance, and a direct riding feel prized by enthusiasts.
Meanwhile, multi-speed freewheel bikes continued dominating everyday riding, commuting and leisure cycling for their gearing flexibility and ability to coast.
Fixed Gear vs. Freewheel Bike – Pros and Cons
So given that basic distinction in how fixed and freewheel bikes operate, what are the comparative pros and cons of each when choosing which to ride?
Benefits of fixed gears:
- Simple and low maintenance with few moving parts
- More efficient transfer of power from pedals to wheel
- Encourages maintaining pedal momentum vs. coasting
- Allows advanced riding techniques like track stands and backwards pedaling
- Generally lighter weight and more affordable than geared bikes
- Cool, minimalist aesthetic that‘s iconic in urban bike culture
Downsides of fixed gears:
- No ability to coast – can be tiring for longer distances
- Can‘t shift gears for varied terrain, may spin out on descents
- Requires learning skid stopping vs. hand brakes for speed control
- Higher risk of injury if awkward pedal positioning occurs at speed
- Less suitable for hilly routes due to difficulty climbing in high gears
Benefits of freewheeling bikes:
- Ability to coast allows resting legs and building speed
- Multiple gears to suit riding conditions and fitness levels
- Widely available off-the-shelf parts and accessories
- Hand brakes provide greater speed control and braking power
- Less risk of injury if pedals start moving unexpectedly
- More convenient for commuting and everyday transportation
Downsides of freewheeling:
- More complex parts mean higher maintenance
- Less efficient power transfer through drivetrain
- Heavier than fixed gears, especially on multi-speed bikes
- Easy to develop "lazy" pedaling habits vs. maintaining momentum
- Less connection to the classic cycling experience
In summary, fixed gears excel at simplicity and drivetrain efficiency for experienced riders, while freewheeling offers more versatility and convenience for the average cyclist.
The Legality of Riding Brakeless Fixed Gears
A key debate around fixed gears relates to the legality of riding them without brakes. The absence of hand brakes is common in the fixie community, where riders perform skid stops by locking the rear wheel instead.
But how does brakeless fixed gear riding align with bike laws around the world?
In the United States, regulations vary by state – but riders generally must have at least one hand brake when riding on public roads. Many urban riders flout this requirement, leading to periodic crackdowns by police.
In the United Kingdom, fixed gear bikes must be equipped with a front brake by law if used on roads. However, enforcement is often lax except in cases of collisions.
In Canada and Australia, front and rear brakes are mandatory for road cycling. But fines for riding brakeless are rare.
Across most European Union countries like France, Germany, Belgium, Italy, Netherlands, Spain, etc. – two independent brakes are technically required, though single front brakes are often tolerated.
So in summary, riding completely brakeless anywhere outside a velodrome goes against road regulations in most major countries. But enforcement is patchy, leading to ongoing debates between fixie riders seeking legal clarity versus road safety advocates.
Perspectives on Brakeless Fixed Gears from Riders
Within the fixed gear community, there are diverse opinions around brakeless riding. Many argue that with proper skill, riders can control speed and stop safely without hand brakes using techniques like skidding. They feel targeted by overzealous police and antiquated bike equipment laws.
But others promote a more cautious approach – highlighting that in busy traffic, brakes could prevent collisions and save lives. Using just a front brake preserves simplicity without the extremes of total brakelessness on public roads.
Most seem to agree that education and common sense by both riders and lawmakers are the solution. The fixie culture brings together free-spirited riders around skill development, bike control, and urban exploration – which need not compromise overall road bike regulations.
Key Components to Consider on Fixed vs. Freewheel Bikes
Beyond debates around brakelessness, what technical differences will you encounter when buying and riding fixed gear or freewheel bikes? Some key components to compare include:
- Fixed hubs have threads for cogs to screw directly on
- Freewheel hubs use a ratcheting mechanism and pawls
- Flip-flop hubs allow fixed gearing on one side, freewheel on the other
- Shorter crank arms around 165mm suit fixed gear riding
- Chainline is important for ideal cog alignment
- Track cogs provide fixed gearing, typically 13t to 22t
- Freewheels have between 1 – 7 cogs for a gear range
- Cassettes have 8+ cogs and fit on freehub bodies
- Closely managing chain tension reduces slack on fixed gears
- Tension is less critical on freewheel drivetrains
- Front caliper brakes are common on some fixed gears
- Freewheel bikes typically have front and rear brakes
- A beginner fixie ratio is around 2.8:1 (e.g. 48x17t)
- Higher ratios for speed, lower ratios to assist with hills and acceleration
For urban use, single fixed gearing is often adequate with flatter terrain. Road bikes benefit more from the multiple gearing options freewheel cassettes provide.
Comparing Freewheel and Cassette Gear Clusters
On geared bikes, the rear gear assembly will either be a:
- Freewheel – single-speed, threads directly onto hub
- Cassette – multi-speed, slots onto a freehub body
Some key differences:
- Freewheels max out around 7 speeds, cassettes can have 9+ speeds
- Cassettes are lighter, use smaller cogs enabling bigger gear range
- Cassettes cost more but tend to be more durable long-term
- Freewheels are simpler and cheaper, common on single-speed bikes
Most modern performance road and mountain bikes now use a cassette with derailleur gearing. But freewheels still have a place in providing affordable single-speed simplicity.
Additional Technical Insights on Fixed and Freewheel Bikes
Here are some other technical points worth knowing around fixed and freewheel bicycles:
- Performing an emergency stop by skidding won‘t damage a well-built fixed gear wheel or tire
- On flat terrain, a fit track bike rider can reach speeds around 30 – 35 km/h in a 53×15 fixed gear ratio spinning at 120 RPM
- Ideal beginner fixie gearing for urban riding is between 2.6 – 3.0:1, depending on strength and topography
- The clicking sound from a freewheel comes from light lubrication inside – thicker grease will reduce the noise
- Rear hub freewheel bearings have a lifespan around 5000 – 15000 miles depending on conditions
- There is lower drivetrain friction and drag on freewheels versus freehub cassette systems
- Freehub magnet pawl technology further reduces resistance for near frictionless coasting
- Fixed gears require proper foot retention systems – like toe clips or clipless pedals – to avoid spin injuries
In summary, many small engineering nuances distinguish how fixed vs. freewheel bikes perform and feel on the road.
Statistics on Fixed Gear Ownership, Injuries and Accidents
Some revealing statistics around fixed gear bikes:
- Fixed/single-speed bikes accounted for around 2% of new US bike sales in 2020
- Fixie popularity rose initially in the 2000s but sales have stabilized in recent years
- Fixies make up 3-4% of bike trips in major cities like Chicago, NYC and San Francisco
- In one survey, 22% of fixed gear riders had experienced a crash in the past year
- Brakeless fixies are involved in only 4% of reported urban bike accidents, and tend to cause less serious injuries on average compared to geared bike crashes
So while a niche overall, fixies represent a visible presence in urban bike culture and their accident rates appear comparable to freewheel bikes. But the lack of brakes on some fixed gears remains a concern among safety advocates.
Key Takeaways: Fixed Gears vs. Freewheel Bikes
To summarize this detailed explainer on fixed gear and freewheel bicycles:
- Fixed gear bikes provide a simple, direct riding experience but require skill to manage braking, tricks, and lack of coasting
- Freewheel bikes give versatility at the cost of more maintenance for multi-gear components
- Legality for brakeless fixed gears varies – but most regions require at least a front brake
- Gear ratio, crank arm length, chainline and tension are important fixed gear fit factors
- Freewheels work well for single speeds, while cassettes enable multi-gear ranges
- Numerous technical nuances like lubrication and drivetrain drag affect efficiency
- Despite steady popularity, fixed gears still represent a small subset of total bike sales
In the end, fixed gear and freewheel bikes each have their pros and cons. Experienced riders may relish the connection and mastery fixed gears allow. But freewheeling better suits most everyday riding, commuting and recreational uses.
There are many technical and historical facets around these two classic bicycle drive trains to consider. Ultimately your riding style priorities will determine if a simple fixed gear or versatile freewheel bike is the ideal choice.
I hope this detailed article has provided an insightful overview explaining fixed gear and freewheel bicycles for anyone curious to learn more about their differences and riding characteristics. Please let me know if you need any clarification or have additional questions!