It’s an interesting thought that the oldest and most simplistic form of the modern bicycle also attracts the most diverse cultural groups and usage. For those unfamiliar with fixed gear bikes, they have no gears or even a freewheel – if the wheels are moving then so are your legs!
Historically, fixed gear bikes were the norm until some clever sod invented the freewheel, which then allowed you to ‘coast’ once you were up to speed (very useful when going downhill). Early professional road cyclists used them and track cyclists at velodromes still do. Track bikes also have the distinction of not having brakes, which is also how some people like to ride them on the road. This style of riding, which requires the rider to lock their legs to skid to a halt, became popular with New York couriers before spreading to the rest of the world. The current ‘fixie’ scene combines this often precarious form of riding with fashion, both for the rider and bike and has even spawned the sport of bicycle polo.
So what’s my involvement with fixed gear? Well for me, it’s nothing to do with fashion and everything to do with riding. What started as a cost-effective commuter bike (the obligatory Specialized Langster) developed into a whole new appreciation of pedalling. People often talk about the zen like quality of riding fixed and how you’re connected to the road in a more positive way and whilst I don’t disagree with such thoughts, here’s eight quantifiable reasons for riding fixed.
If you consider how much riding time you’d usually spend coasting, you begin to realise how beneficial this style of riding is for your legs. In 2010 whilst starting training for the Etape du Tour I spent long, cold, dark winter evenings hurtling round the flat lanes of Cheshire on the Langster, often up to 50 miles and was amazed at the fitness I gained. Coaches refer to a ‘base’ of fitness that you can develop and riding fixed is the old school base building method that’s been around for years.
2. Pedalling technique
Non-obsessive cyclists might assume that there is no real technique to pedalling – your legs simply turn the pedals round. Those of us in the know appreciate that it’s not quite that simple. You should be producing even power throughout the whole circle and riding fixed can help achieve that even pedalling style, even when going downhill with a ridiculously high cadence. For maximum fun, try riding a fixed gear bike indoors on the rollers – it’s nowhere near as easy as the pro’s make it look at the velodrome…
3. Ultimate control in traffic
I admit that I was initially apprehensive about riding fixed gear through city centre traffic. It’s only since doing it on a non-fixed bike that I’ve realised the benefits. Weaving through traffic at slow speeds is so much easier to control when you’re controlling your acceleration and deceleration with your legs.
4. Track stands
It was through riding fixed that I mastered the art of standing still on the bicycle. Not massively exciting, but useful at traffic lights as it saves you having to unclip your feet. This is due to being able to put your bars at 45˚ and control your forward and backwards motion. It’s not just a cool trick though, as the control and technique helps with the mountain biking.
5. Hill climbing
Hills with no gears? Oh yes! I’m not talking long alpine climbs, but any short ramp of up to 15% can be ‘attacked’ on a fixed gear bike in a way that you just wouldn’t on your normal road bike. Maybe it’s the lack of gears to wimp out with, or that if you don’t commit your whole body to it 100% then you’ll grind to a halt and fall over. Strava’s proved to me that my best efforts on short hills are when riding a fixed gear bike and the Monsal Hill climb course record set by Malcom Elliot in 1981 whilst riding a fixed wheel bike still stands to this day.
6. No gears, no hassles
Keeping your gears working well isn’t exactly rocket science, but if you’re going to be riding a bike through city centre grime and winter country lanes then it’s nice not to have to have any to collect muck in. All you need to do is give the chain a wipe and lube from time to time and occasionally re-tension the rear wheel as the chain inevitably stretches.
7. A cheaper bike
Whether you’re building or buying, a fixed gear bike is way cheaper than a geared road bike. If you’ve ever specced up your own road bike then you’ll have realised how much goes on the gear levers and derailleurs. Not a problem on the fixie so you either get a much cheaper bike, or if you spend the same money you’ll get a better quality of important components, such as wheels.
8. The fitness gauge
One thing about having to turn the one same gear is that you know how your legs are feeling, there’s no hiding behind easier gears. I used to commute in and out of town on a 48×17 fixed wheel every day and it was the best measurement of fitness I’ve ever had. If I ever started considering changing to a 16t sprocket then I knew I was on form. If I was struggling to turn the pedals it was time for an easy week…
Having already cycled up the height of Mount Everest 12 times this year, it’s nice to just enjoy the rhythm of some flat or gently rolling roads on a fixed gear bike. Too much of anything can wear you down and we all need variety, so the hills can wait whilst I recondition my legs and perfect my pedalling ready for 2014. It’s going to be a good year!
The current fixed gear steed