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Ten-speed bicycles are significantly faster than 3-speed bicycles due to higher gear ratios.
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The 3-speed bicycle was all but phased out as the derailleur picked up in popularity before the 1970s, but it's recently made a resurgence in comfort and cruiser bikes. Next to a 10-speed traditional road bike, a 3-speed bike has many distinct differences. The nature of its drivetrain is completely unique from the derailleur-based gearing. Comparing the advantages and disadvantages of the two bikes is a good way to decide which best suits your riding needs.
A 3-speed bicycle uses just two gears to swap between three gearing ratios. On most 3-speed bicycles, the gears are arranged in a 2-to-1 ratio, so the wheel turns twice for every one rotation of the pedals. By swapping the two gears, the bicycle becomes a 1-to-2 ratio, with two pedal rotations per wheel rotation. By disengaging all of the gears, the ratio is simply 1-to-1. Three-speed bicycles are more complex than the typical derailleur system, consisting of several smaller gears arranged around a central gear arranged as a planetary or epicyclic gear system.
A 10-speed bicycle has a five-gear cassette and two chainrings with a chain, and is the most widely adopted multiple-geared bicycle design. This system uses a traditional rear derailleur arm to shift the chain along a cassette in the rear. A front derailleur arm shifts the chain between the two chainrings. This system allows 10 separate gear ratios in all, since each of the five gears on the cassette can be matched with one of the two chainrings. Ten-speed bicycles are often designed to place you in a much more aerodynamic riding position. Ten-speed drivetrains are the primary gearing system on most competition racing bikes.
Advantages and Disadvantages
A 3-speed bicycle has a few advantages, other than the aesthetic charm associated with these comfort and cruiser-style bicycles. Since a 3-speed bicycle is internally geared, it's very difficult for it to break down. With some regular maintenance, a 3-speed bicycle will often go much farther between repairs than a derailleur-based bicycle like a 10-speed. However, this comes at a cost; 3-speed bicycles have a much harder time with hills and high speeds than a 10-speed bike because their gears are closer together in ratio, giving it less overall range in potential gearing options.
Choosing a 3-Speed or 10-Speed Bicycle
If you're a very fit and active cyclist, the 10-speed is the obvious choice. Ten-speed bicycles give you a better range of gears for tackling tough climbs, fast hill sections, and long stretches of open road. For the casual cyclist, the upright position and carefully hidden drivetrain on a 3-speed is ideal for the simple pleasure-bike, since it's less prone to build up dirt and grime or get knocked out of alignment by a stray rock.