Recently over at Cold Fury, Al Maviva wrote about the joy of accidentally learning how to do a particular move on his fixed gear bike. The comments section lit up with a myriad of comments, some inquisitive, some insightful and some… well some were just taking up space. One of the comments asked "What are the advantages of riding a fixie?" It got me to thinking about the fixie phenomenon.
Here’s what advantages I perceive from a fixie:
First, just like a vibrating car engine is not ideal. A cyclist whose knees oscillate and pulsate and rotate rather than just rotating is not ideal. A fixed gear bike demands a smoother pedalling action which has incredible benefits for power production. That smoothness migrates with you back to your other bikes.
Second, a fixed gear bike forces more exercise out of each ride. If you ride 20 miles over rolling hills it is quite likely you are only pedalling for 12 or 15 miles. The rest is coasting, or at best soft pedalling, and effectively wasted. On a fixie you pedal every inch of the way.
Third, maintenance of a fixed gear bike is a breeze. There are a mass of moving parts on a geared bike. Levers, cables, derailleurs, cluster. A fixie has a chainwheel at the front. A sprocket at the back with NO ratchet. A chain that joins the them. Right there you have removed over 50% of all problems and maintenance issues with a bike.
Fourth, along with the lack of maintenance and adjustment from three above, you also have a huge reduction in weight. Apart from the derailleurs, cables, levers and cluster you are also removing about 10-15% of the length of the chain. Depending on the quality of components involved, you could be talking about anything from 1.5 up to 4 pounds saved.
Fifth, with less to fiddle with and/or think about, there is more time and brain power that can be dedicated to the glory of pedalling.
Here’s what Al had to say in response to a visitor confused with the terminology fixed wheel and fixed gear:
While we call it a “fixed gear” what it really means is that there is no freewheel hub (usually) on the rear wheel, so the rear cog is locked directly to the race of the rear hub. In other words, when the wheel turns, the cog rotates in phase with it, and vice versa.
I’ll just add a couple points to Mike’s comment.
The inability to shift into easier or harder gears means that the terrain and traffic pattern dictate your workout. Joe Friel, the dean of bicycling coaches, calls this great “mixed workout” – it forces you to build general fitness in all areas of your riding. He is right, not surprisingly; not only has my spin gained smoothness and speed, but my strength, hill climbing ability, sprinting power and general endurance have all improved.
The simplicity of the drivetrain is important if you want to ride in bad weather. It takes about three minutes to clean the fixed drive train. The geared drivetrain – with two or three chainrings in front, and 8 to 10 cogs in back, takes much longer to clean. No big deal if you only ride in the summer, in the sun on good asphalt. If you ride in the winter, in the rain, sometimes tool down gravel roads – you notice the dirty drivetrain because it sounds like the metal-to-metal interface of chain and gears is being moderated by 120 grit sandpaper. This *destroys* nice chains, derailers and cogs.
The fixie is also really nice to ride, in that it’s as quiet as a ghost. On a long, moderate effort ride, you can easily slip into a zen-like state, where you are putting out some effort, tooling along, but in a state of bliss. It doesn’t seem like you are working, and you feel very much absorbed into the scenery, kind of like laying on the beach on a languid summer day after you’ve had three margaritas. It’s an intensely pleasant experience, and while you can get to the same mental state on a geared bike, it just seems easier on the fixed gear.
I have to agree with Al on the last point (and the others, but especially the last). You can go to some very peaceful places in your head while riding, but you can get there faster and stay there longer on a fixie. There is less noise to distract you. There aren’t any gears to bother you with choices. Just sit and breath and pedal. Gearlessness is next to Godliness (I will not provide a cartoon because I don’t want to be boycotted by the effigy police).
Questions were also asked about the relative benefits of difference styles of bikes being used as fixies. There’s a huge selection: stripped road bike, track bike with a brake fitted, track bike without a brake, purpose built single speed, stripped MTB.
I personally have never seen a fixed gear MTB, but I’m sure that they exist somewhere. Just the sheer diversity of the MTBing population means there is bound to be someone out there willing to attempt hari-kari in a wilderness setting whilst searching for the Zen-state.
When I was at university the first time around, I rode my brakeless track bike about 25km (15.5mi) through the middle of Brisbane (pop. 1,600,000) in peak hour to get from where I was living on campus to the Wednesday night training at the nearest velodrome, and back again.
Before and after that time in my life my main fixie action was my road bike. As soon as the road season wound down in late September I would take off the derailleurs and cluster and use a 42×17 until the middle of March. This was done initially on the advice of the self appointed coach of our cycling club, an old Englishman with his techniques deeply rooted in tradition. This complimented very nicely all the motorpacing and velodrome activity that was the backbone of the summer track season.
These days, I have managed to hang on to one of my previous road bikes which I have converted to a fixed gear. This gives me the luxury of having a geared bike and a fixie fully outfitted for the road. I don’t have to take the tight angles, twitchy handling and fragile wheels of my trackbike anywhere near the heavily trafficked and heavily potholed roads.
I honestly don’t know or remember what Al rides other than the 39×18 gearing. At 30kph (18.6mph) that would give Al 114rpm to my 100rpm. Personally, if I want to pedal at 114rpm I’ll just wind up to 34kph (21mph). If I can.
Fatty is a user of (believer in?) the track bike with a front brake fitted. A noble pastime indeed. If you can tolerate the twitchy nature of a bike constructed for use on smooth-as-glass velodromes. But he’s a tough customer, our Fatty.
Purpose built single speeds are becoming more and more popular and it is inevitable that some of them will have the freewheeling sprocket replaced with a fixed sprocket.
Gearlessness is next to Godliness (is this my next bumper sticker).
Just sit and breath and pedal.
P.S. This afternoon I was riding through a round-about (traffic circle) completely legally when a woman tried to enter the same piece of road. I unclipped my close foot but missed her drivers door. It’s not like I’m so small she could miss me at 5pm on a clear summer afternoon. She never even looked at me on my red bike with my royal blue jersey, even after I made my vocal cords bleed less than 5 feet from her right ear. So if any of you see a woman driving a white Daewoo Tacuma with registration plate 411-IEZ, feel free to run a coin or a key or a handful of dog turd down the side of her car.