Freewheel vs Cassette: What's the Difference & Which Is Best?
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Although the bicycle may seem like a simple invention, it has drastically changed over the past couple of decades. We have seen groupsets go electronic, self-adjusting brakes and bikes that can work with multiple wheel sizes and go on all different terrains.
Technology has advanced so much, and it does get very confusing when it comes to understanding the components of a bike. Our amazing readers often ask a common question: “What is the difference between a freewheel and a cassette?”. In this article, we’re going to be answering that question for you by discussing the following:
- What Is A Freewheel?
- What Is A Cassette?
- Key Differences Between A Freewheel And Cassette
- Which Is Best For You: A Freewheel Or A Cassette?
What Is A Freewheel?
A freewheel isn’t seen so much in modern times. Years ago, it was standard technology that most bikes had. In modern days you will find freewheels on classic bikes and some budget bikes. They are not very common anymore.
The job of a freewheel is to give the chain multiple options of cogs to be used on. It’s one of the most important parts of the drivetrain. It also has the ability to let the bike coast as the inside has a ratchet system.
A freewheel sits on the side of the rear wheel hub. It generally has multiple cogs, and you will normally see between 5 and 7 speeds. A freewheel is typically one single piece that cannot be split apart.
To attach a freewheel, you need to screw it on the bike’s rear hub, and then it will lock into place. It’s an incredibly simple system that is very different from the cassette and has a lot more function internally.
What Is A Cassette?
A cassette is what you will see on most modern bikes. They have become the new standard and nearly made freewheels obsolete in the past couple of decades. They are on pretty much every bike that is now released.
A cassette like a freewheel allows the bike to use multiple cogs, but it doesn’t allow the bike to coast like a freewheel can. That job is fulfilled by the bike’s freehub, which is on the rear wheel.
A cassette sits on the hub of the rear wheel. They generally range from 7 speeds on the budget side and go all the way up to 12 speeds on high-end groupsets. Unlike a freewheel, a cassette comprises multiple parts, and generally, you will find that some of the cogs are separate from the main block.
To attach a cassette, you have to put it onto the freehub of the rear wheel. This is a simple process of just dropping the cogs on and you use a lockring to secure it.
How Can You Tell The Difference Between a Freewheel vs Cassette?
If you want to tell the difference between a freewheel and a cassette, you need to look at the wheel when it is removed from the bike.
A Freewheel will generally have 5 to 7 speeds, and you will see a small ring on the outside of the axle where it is screwed onto the hub. On a cassette, you will have 7 to 12 speed; instead of this small ring, you will just have a locknut.
Failing this you can just look at the rear wheel hub body. If it has a threaded design it is for a freewheel. If it has a ratcheting mechanism then it is designed for a cassette sprockets.
Key Differences Between A Freewheel And Cassette
Now for the fun bit, let’s run through the key differences between a freewheel and a cassette. It’s important because, essentially, they actually do the same job as each other but are completely different in design.
The first thing to mention is compatibility. A freewheel will only generally work on older bikes and the odd modern budget bike. They attach to the rear wheel in a completely different way and require a rear wheel with a screw-on hub.
A cassette is designed for modern bikes. It is seen on both budget, mid-range, and high-end bikes. They are only compatible with wheels with freehubs on and are not interchangeable with classic screw-on wheels.
Regarding cost, freewheels are generally very cheap, and as the technology gets older, companies are generally slowing down or stopping production. You will find a 7-speed freewheel for roughly around $15.
Cassettes hugely range in price. You can get a budget 7-speed cassette for as little as $20, or a high-end cassette can be as much as $180. They hugely range depending on the materials they are made of and the number of speeds they contain.
Gear Range and Speeds
Regarding gear range and speeds, the cassette wins hands down. On a freewheel, you get no more than 7 speeds but on a cassette, you get up to 12 speeds. The same goes for gear range. A new cassette offers much better ratios than you will ever get from a freewheel.
Reliability And Maintenance
Bikes are very reliable, and when it comes to a freewheel and a cassette, they are both pretty evenly matched but for very different reasons.
A freewheel has much more to it than a cassette as it has a ratchet system inside, so it’s always fairly new if it is changed regularly as the cogs wear down. If it goes wrong, it isn’t easy to get inside, and they are not made to be repaired, just replaced.
A cassette is essentially just a set of cogs. Instead of having a ratchet system inside like the freewheel, all the moving parts are on the hub. This makes it much easier to service and very reliable, providing you look after it.
When it comes to performance, you definitely want to use a cassette. They are much lighter, even with the extra weight of the parts in the hub. Also, you will find they are smoother, and you can save wattage here.
A freewheel doesn’t have the same performance, the range is very limited, the weight is heavy, and they can’t offer the speeds, range, or smoothness you get from a cassette. There’s a reason why you don’t see them on modern racing bikes.
Which Is Best? A Freewheel Or Cassette?
We often get asked which is better, the cassette or the freewheel. There’s no doubt in our mind that the freewheel could never compare with a cassette. The cassette has more speeds, better ratios, is lighter, performs better, and works with modern bikes.
A freewheel is very old technology now. It’s very limited in speeds and range. Not only that, it doesn’t work with modern bikes, so unless you are only happy with classic bikes, there’s no avoiding the cassette.
Are the rear cogs a freewheel or a cassette?
The rear cogs can either be a freewheel system or a cassette system. If you have a threaded hubs it’s a freewheel. If you have a cassette hub then it requires a cassette. Both the freewheel and the cassette systems do look very similar.
What do mountain bikes have? A freewheel or a cassette?
A mountain bike can be seen with both a freewheel or a cassette. On a modern bike you will only see cassettes but on classic bikes it will normally be a freehub. Generally now mountain bikes only have a cassette compatible hub.
Do cassettes and freewheels require different tools to remove?
Yes, they have a different tool fitting for each. A bike cassette will need a lock ring removal tool and a chain whip. A Freewheel will require a freewheel removal tool to take it off the freewheel axles.
What are cassette freehubs?
On modern bikes, to give you the ability to coast you have hub systems (ratchet) on the wheel and not in the cassette. This means you can stop pedaling while cycling and the bicycle’s drivetrain can still spin and not damage the hub splines.