How Slow Can You Go?

Bike culture, and Western culture in general, can have a real fixation with speed. How fast can you get from A to B? What's the fastest you can ride? How low can you get your time? And so on and so forth.

But when designing our bikes, we focused on something different — how slow can you go?

Why? Because you can raise your top speed through training and exercise, but your minimum speed is determined by the design of your bicycle. And your minimum speed, not your top speed, is what actually limits where you can bike.

If the minimum speed for your bicycle is too high, you just won't be able to tackle certain hills, bridges and climbs. This is why you don't generally see fixies used to climb mountains.

If you've ever stalled out while biking uphill, this is why.

Here's how it works:

  1. Depending on how strong you are and what kind of shape you're in, you can generate a certain amount of power by pedaling.

  2. Based on how steep a hill is, the amount of power you generate will translate into a certain speed in miles per hour.

  3. Depending on the gear ratio of the gear you're in, that speed will mean you're turning your pedals a certain number of times per minute. This is called your cadence, and is measured in revolutions per minute (RPM)..

And here's the important part — if your cadence is too low while going uphill, you'll either stall out or tire out, or even hurt your knees from having to mash on the pedals. If you've ever stalled out while biking uphill, this is why. The gear you were in, combined with your power output, resulted in such a low cadence that your pedals basically stopped moving at all and you got stuck.

The general rule is that you want to maintain a cadence of over 60 RPM while climbing. And if you get under 40 RPM on a hill, it's bad news bears — you'll be coming to a stop very soon. So the minimum speed of your bicycle when you're climbing a hill, then, is the speed you'll go if you turn your pedals at 40 RPM in the lowest gear.

Let's try an example. Say you have a fairly standard single-speed or fixie with a gear ratio of 70 gear inches. At a cadence of 40 RPM with that gear ratio, you travel at 8.2 MPH, and that's going to be your minimum hill-climbing speed.

Now let's say you want to climb a long hill that has a fairly steep 8% grade:

  1. We'll say that you're a fairly fit commuter who can generate a continuous 200 watts of power for an hour.

  2. On a 8% grade hill, that's going to result in a speed of 6.2 MPH.

  3. That speed of 6.2 MPH is a fair amount lower than your minimum speed of 8.2 MPH, so you're going to be in a world of pain after a few minutes of this. Your cadence at 6.2 MPH is going to be about 30 RPM, which is just too low.

If you're wondering what climbing a hill at 30 RPM looks like, here's a guy on a fixie who's happy to demonstrate:

Sure, you can do a short sprint at a higher power output than 200 watts, but if this is a long incline, you're screwed.

For comparison, on our bikes we have the 3-speed drive setup so that if you're in the lowest gear, your minimum hill-climbing speed is 5.8 MPH. If you were climbing that same long 8% grade hill with the same average speed of 6.2 MPH, you'd be able to keep on trucking for at least an hour.

If you want to play around with the numbers yourself, here's a fun calculator that lets you try different hill grades and power inputs. Give it a whirl:

  1. Select hands on the tops and enter your weight and a bike weight of 25 lbs.
  2. Enter a slope of road of 8% or whatever grade you'd like.
  3. Enter a power output of 200 watts or so, and hit Calculate.

You'll get out a speed in MPH. If that MPH is lower than your bike's minimum hill-climbing speed, you'll have trouble with the hill. For reference, here's some minimum speeds for various bikes:

  • Fixed gear @ 70 gear inches: 8.2 MPH
  • SHIFTY CYCLES bike in 1st gear: 6.2 MPH
  • Road racing bike in 1st gear: ~4 MPH
  • Mountain bike: ~1.5 MPH

I hope this post helped you understand how your bicycle's gears determine what kind of terrain you can tackle. If you enjoyed it, please share it on Facebook and sign up to the be the first to hear when we launch!

Wait, what! Only three speeds?

With SHIFTY CYCLES, I've worked very hard on designing a beautiful bike that's excellent for all types of rides and roads. One critical part of this is making sure our bikes have the right gearing to let you take on flats, slopes and big hills.

So why do we have only three speeds when your local bike shop is full of 18-speed, 21-speed, and 24-speed road bikes? Isn't more always better?

In this case, more isn't actually better. In fact, with bicycles, more speeds sometimes is decidedly less good. "Lots of speeds" is a great way to advertise and sell bikes — in the same way that "lots of megapixels" is a great way to sell cameras. But in both cases it's easy to end up making a bad choice if you don't know what's behind the sales speak.

Understanding bicycle gears really comes down to one question: what distance does your bike travel when you turn the pedals one full revolution?

That distance is what changes every time you shift gears. Lower gears result in a shorter distance traveled, while higher gears mean a larger distance. This is why pedaling feels different in each gear.

Let's say you're in a low gear. Your bike is traveling only a short distance when you turn the pedals, so it's probably pretty easy to pedal. Each time you turn the pedals, you aren't really doing that much work, so it doesn't take that much effort. But you're also not going to be traveling all that fast — that's the tradeoff.

On the other hand, in a high gear your bike will travel pretty far with each turn of the pedals. But you're doing quite a lot more work each time you pedal now, and you're going to feel it in terms of the effort it takes to mash down. Though if you can keep those pedals spinning, you'll speed handily along.

This whole concept is called the gear ratio. The gear ratio is different for every speed your bicycle has. Lower gear, lower gear ratio, less distance traveled, and less work to pedal. Higher gear, higher gear ratio, and more work.

How does all this factor into designing a bicycle, and why do I think three speeds is the perfect balance?

Well, to recap, the measurement that really matters is gear ratio. Each gear on a bike has a different gear ratio, which affects the effort it takes to turn the pedals. Lower gear ratios mean you're not traveling as fast, but they make pedaling easier so you can climb hills or just set a leisurely pace.

Higher gear ratios mean pedaling takes more effort, but let you really haul — especially if you're going downhill.

Notice that this is all independent of how many speeds your bicycle has. Even if your bike has twice as many speeds, if they all have similar gear ratios then you're really not gaining anything.

This is why advertising for 18-speed and 21-speed bicycle is deceptive. Those bikes might have a lot of different gears, but 30-50% will have very similar gear ratios. Sure, there might be 21 speeds, but they're not really distinct and you won't use most of them when you're riding around the city or commuting.

You're actually losing out with 18+ gears by having a more complicated system, with more parts that need maintenance, without giving you much benefit. But when you have just 3 gears, you can seal them inside a protective shell and get rid of the need for maintenance altogether.

SHIFTY CYCLES prototype with SA 3-speed hub

This is why we have the 3-speed philosophy — three different gears with the right gear ratios to take you where you want to go. A low gear for climbing hills, a middle gear for flats and slopes, and a high gear for downhill sprints.

Each SHIFTY CYCLES prototype today has three gears with three different gear ratios: 49.1 gear inches, 65.4 gear inches, and 87.2 gear inches. [1]

This gearing is really well-suited to cities and commutes and works great for hills. The middle gear is perfect for flats, and with the low gear an average rider can tackle fairly steep hills without stalling out.

Decades ago, 3-speed bikes like this were extremely popular, prized for their practicality, durability, and low cost. Over the years, though, the bicycle industry became more and more influenced by the needs of road racers, and (to a degree) mountain bicyclists. This led to some amazing innovations and wonderful road bikes and mountain bikes, but it's also been at the expense of everyday folks who want to use a bike to get from A to B.

You can see this when you walk into almost any bike shop in the USA or most of Europe. Racks upon racks of expensive race bikes and hardcore mountain bikes, but barely any practical, affordable day-to-day bicycles.

I started SHIFTY CYCLES to provide an alternative — a beautiful 3-speed bicycle that can get you where you're going in style and with no fuss.

[1]: Due to a quirk of history, we measure ratios using gear inches, which are actually based on penny-farthings. In second gear, a SHIFTY CYCLES prototype has a gear ratio of 65.4 gear inches. That means it takes the same amount of effort to pedal as a classic penny-farthing with a wheel that's 65.4 inches across. So the next time you're riding your bike down the street, just imagine yourself sitting atop a 5½-foot tall beast.

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Steel Is Real

If you're wondering why our bikes are made with steel frames, Mission Bicycle has a great article about steel vs. aluminum.

TL;DR: Steel really is the best, strongest, and most durable material for a bicycle that's meant to get you from A to B.

What's particularly important for us is the part about durability. When a high-quality steel frame is taken care of, it has no defined expiration date. Steel can take a beating, rebound to its original shape, and keep going.