Deciding to ride a fixed gear bicycle seems counterintuitive. You give up a couple dozen gears for just one. You forever renounce coasting. You have to explain yourself to the abundantly geared the same way someone who listens to phonograph records has to explain himself to electronic enthusiasts. To an outsider, riding fixed seems like the rough and thorny way to heaven. Those who've ridden fixed, though, know that it is something that has to be experienced to be appreciated. Not coincidentally, those who do give it a turn often never go back.
First off, no one is so obsessed with weight as the cyclist. I've seen some compare different brands of bar tape hoping to save a few grams. One way to save not only ounces but pounds is to start ripping off any parts that aren't absolutely necessary. Take off the rear brake (or for some wayward souls, take off both brakes). Scrap all but one chainring. Derailleur and chain tensioner? History. Shorten up that chain. Rebuild the rear wheel with a new hub and a cog. Align the chain and then lift the bike and feel how much lighter it is. Going titanium will surely save you some weight, but if weight is a major factor, it is easier and much more economical to just start dropping parts.
On an abundantly geared bike, there are a number of things that can go wrong. Adjustments are often necessary. New parts are frequently needed. Every little part needs to be in harmony with every other little part. Little clicks, big clanks. All kinds of clunking and clanking going on down there. Fixed bikes have a need for a bit of oil on the chain every once in a while, and when something does go wrong, which is rare, spotting the culprit is instantaneous because there are only a couple of things that could possibly be amiss.
As the name implies, the rear wheel and the cranks are fixed together in their movement, which means no coasting. The bike is also fixed in the sense that there is obviously no shifting of gears. As long as the bike is moving, the cranks are moving. This gives the rider an intuitive sense of the speed at which the bike is moving because the cranks will inevitably be spinning at a speed in direct proportion to the rear wheel. On a bike that is able to coast, the rider can simply stop pedaling and when it comes time to start again, there is no guarantee that the gear the bike is in will be the right gear. This leads to a sort of tentative game of catch up and disorientation. Granted, the experienced rider will be able to adjust without much effort, but it is never as direct a connection as on a fixie.
For those who ride a bike primarily to exercise or train, there is another advantage. It is far more likely to get a damn good workout and get into good shape on a fixed gear bike than on its more popular counterpart. Because you cannot stop pedaling, it is like having a coach with you every time you venture out. If you try to stop pedaling and take a little breather, there is an immediate (and for the inexperienced fixie rider) sometimes startling reminder that no pauses in pedaling will be permitted. This is why at first it seems like you have an obnoxious drill-sargent on your heels, but after some getting used to, it becomes more like having a good-natured coach that you know is ultimately on your side. Fixed gear riders never have to think about how much or little they are coasting because it is quite literally not an option. Because your feet can be pushed off the pedals on the upswing of the cranks, straps or clipless pedals are a must.
When shifting from one gear to another, oftentimes there must be a tiny, sometimes imperceptible hiatus in pedaling so the gear can work itself into place, which of course detracts from the power of your pedaling. Once again, as with other aspects, this is an impossibility on a fixed gear bike. Because the chain never leaves the single chainring and cog, there is never a lapse, and pedaling can be continuous and without the slightest pause.
The mental and physical energy used up in operating an abundantly geared bike is often overlooked. Think about the steps. Say you approach a moderate hill. You assess the terrain, you think of what gear you need to be in, reach out and change gears, make sure the gears change smoothly by the time you get to the hill, start up the hill and think about if the gear is working well, change it if it's not thereby slowing down a bit while doing so, keep pedaling, reach the crest and then go through the same steps more or less to go down the other side of the hill and on and on. Granted, many of these steps become almost reflexes for an experienced rider, yet there is a significant amount of effort whether you realize it or not.
Now look at the same situation on a fixed gear bike. You come to a hill and you pedal the bike. That's it. Inevitably you are forcing your legs to become stronger because you've got no choice but to make the gear work, and the hills will become more and more fun because they will seem easier and easier as your legs get stronger.
Without a doubt, though, the most desirable thing about the fixed gear bike is the intimate feeling of being at one with the bike, as if it is an extension of your own body. It would kind of be like the difference between playing tennis with your bare hands or playing while wearing oven mitts. With fixed, you can feel every nuance of speed, balance, acceleration and deceleration, giving you that mystical connection that so many fixed gear riders speak of.
Which brings me to the cult mentality aspect. Upon seeing that other rider with that unmistakable chainline, there is an immediate knowledge that he or she understands. This is strikingly similar to the way, for example, that two hare krishnas might greet if they happened upon one another on the street. There would be an immediate and unspoken connection and bond. To the layman, a fixed gear bike and a traditional road bike look to be the same breed, so there is even more of an underground connection. Fixed gear riders don't even need to have little pigtails and peach colored togas to spot one another. It's just that single gear that's needed. To be fair, too, I haven't ever had anyone try to convert me to fixed gear in the airport, so, granted, the analogy has its flaws. Nevertheless, the cult mentality remains.
Another not to be underestimated aspect of fixed is the ability to slow the bike down without using brakes. You can rely on your own power to slow the bike down as well as speed it up. Subtle pressure on the pedals in a reverse direction slows the bike down, of course, because the cranks and the rear wheel are fixed together (this is why some ride brakeless, giving their legs total control over speeding up and slowing down).
(Fixed gear bikes do have cousins called single speeds, which are basically fixed gear bikes with a freewheel instead of a fixed cog. They possess all the weight and mechanical advantages of fixed gears, but they lack the continuous pedaling, breaking with your legs and of course that intimate feel.)
Walking in downtown San Francisco several years ago, before I'd ever even ridden a fixed gear bike, I remember seeing a messenger riding through slow traffic, weaving in and out, looking like a needle stitching all the cars together. This memory sticks with me for some reason, and I suspect it was because of the utter grace of seeing him work his way through the cars, unintentionally making a mockery of the drivers sitting in traffic. I'm positive that it was a fixed gear bike he was riding, not only because they are more often than not the choice of messengers, but also because I remember seeing him pedaling when he sped up and when he slowed down, which took me by surprise. The subtle adjustments he made in his speed and direction were like the subtle adjustments a bird makes in flight. If my niece ever asks me what grace means, I will take her downtown and wait for a messenger on a fixie to pass.
I realize that I've romanticized fixed gear to an extent. Needless to say, they are not the best bikes for all types of riding. If you plan on doing some major uphill and downhill on the same ride, it would be thoroughly impractical. For certain types of riding, though, like city streets and around town with moderate climbing and descents, now that I've tried it I would never think of riding anything other than a fixed gear.
© Scott Larkin , 2004
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