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Fix Your Bike, Even If It Ain't Broke

timv's picture

Not a bad article in this past weekend's Washington Post about converting a road bike to fixed gearing. If you've never tried it, riding a bike that doesn't coast and that only has one gear is more fun than you might guess.

When I tried it for the first time, almost twenty years ago, it was as simple as getting a BMX rear sprocket to spin on in place of my bike's six-speed freewheel cluster, plus an extra bottom-bracket lock ring to hold it there and a spare chain. People seem to want to make the process harder than that, as the article shows, and I'll admit to having a dedicated bike set up for fixed gear riding these days.

One thing I'll take issue with is his description of Sheldon Brown as a "crotchety bike mechanic from Massachusetts." I had the pleasure of talking with Sheldon for about a half an hour at the Cirque du Cyclisme last year and I can say that he's remarkably gracious and erudite, and as eager to talk about history or literature or music as bicycles. And his page on fixed-gear bicycles is as good a place as any to start if you want to learn more about the topic. (Warning: If you're at all squeamish, don't look at the icky pictures of severed fingers at the bottom. But that is a real hazard to be aware of.)


timv's picture

Fixed Gear Gallery

Related to the previous posting, a great source of inspiration for fixed-gear cyclists is the Fixed Gear Gallery website. It's mostly made up of pages contributed by readers, just showing their bikes and saying what parts they used and where they came from. But I think it's great fun to see how people have taken these mostly mass-produced items and made them their own with such passion. And the lines and forms of the bicycle in all its variations still have powerful and iconic associations, for me at least and apparently so for the site's 3500+ contributors too.


I can't begin to think of a way to summarize what's on the site or to say where to begin, but I'll put two groups of links here. Hetchins is an English brand of bicycle that was always known for its distinctive (even garish, some would say) paint and lugwork.







Another interesting group of bikes are the "Keirin" machines, based on the bikes used in a Japanese form of track racing where frames and parts must all meet the strict "NJS" standards. These bikes are steel-framed and fairly traditional, but also have compact geometry and the fairly radical riding position of a real track bike. They are also, sadly, almost universally too small for me.











Even the ratty Peugeot bike put together by the author of that Washington Post article can be found on the site:



roadskater's picture

Fixed Gear Fixation

Neat stuff. Great to see so many legacy machines out there, to use a pc (personal computer i mean) term. I loved the extra information conveyed by this photo:


The dog must've been in the flower beds and I don't know who made enough room for him to slip out, but there's a "fixed gear" kind of repair to the fence there too, with the red rope and white wire grid.  

I have a few questions and even though I might guess the answers, better to ask. I hope there are no stupid questions:

  1. What do you especially like about fixed gear riding vis-a-vis sprocketing, and
  2. What do you especially not like about fixed gear riding, if anything.
  3. How is overall experience different after a number of miles (beyond what I know immediately that there's no coasting for the feet and legs...when the wheels are moving the cranks are moving...and only one "speed" (gear)...how is the feel of a ride as a whole different after, say, an hour?
  4. Severed fingers? Ouch. I guess this is more likely because there's no tensioner to give way if your finger or anything else gets in between the gear and chain?
  5. What's the general ruling on braking systems, toe clip usage, lights, electronics, etc.? I assume most work for attachements only available at the period of manufacture?

Thanks for the interesting links to photos and info!

timv's picture

The Fix is In

Good eye on catching the bit about the dog and the fence in that picture! I totally missed it.


Regarding the question of "fixed gear riding vis-a-vis sprocketing," I'm not quite sure what you're asking. I see two ways to take the question, so two answers...: If the question is about fixed vs freewheel (coasting possible) riding, the answer would be that fixed-gear riding is a simpler experience. If the rear wheel is turning then you're pedalling. I feel more connected to the bike and the terrain. It also encourages, requires even, a smoother and more consistent pedalling stroke since there's no chance to take a even moment off. Being able to subtly modify speed by reversing pressure on the pedals is also pretty fun.


If you're asking about what range of gear to use, it's a compromise and a much-discussed one. I have my bike set up with a fairly short gear (40 teeth front, 17 teeth back) which I can grind up any hill in Greensboro, if not always comfortably. But I'm limited on top speed and will "spin out" (hit the limit of my pedalling cadence) on most reasonable downhills. And on a fixed gear bike, there's no choice but to keep pedalling no matter how fast you get going. A taller gear would mean less spinning out, but also more distress on climbs.


What I don't like: Obviously the need to compromise on gear choices is a big drawback, and the reason why multi-speed bikes have come to dominate. It's nice sometimes to be able to take a break on a downhill and just let gravity do the work. And while I can grind my way up pretty big hills with the gearing I use, Greensboro is a rolling city and doing this for a long time beats up my old legs pretty good. I don't think I could manage a daily commute this way for example. It would be too tiring, but it's a good occasional workout.


I should add that there are also people riding around on single-speed freewheel bikes, so they can coast down hills but can't shift. Looking at bike stuff on the web, it's sometimes confusing as to whether someone is talking about a fixed-gear (single-speed by definition) or one-gear freewheeling bike.


Long rides... An hour or maybe an hour and a half is about the most I've ever ridden fixed, so I'm not an authority on this. One thing I'd say is that it takes a while to settle into it if you don't ride fixed gear exclusively, so it feels more natural after I've been at it for a few miles. Since you're always pedalling, you're probably getting a workout faster. Lots of folks do centuries and other big rides on fixies, but I've never seen or heard anyone claim that they could ride further on fixed vs. free. Also the effects of fatigue are magnified, since you can't just select an easier gear to pedal.


Also, on a freewheeling bike I tend to stop pedalling and stand up on the pedals every once in a while, just to let some air blow through the saddle region and reposition my weight when I sit back down. It's harder to do this when I can't stop pedalling, so I guess I'd say that saddle compatibility and chamois quality are more important for this reason.


Icky severed finger business: The deal is that with a freewheel the crank can turn the rear wheel but the rear wheel can't turn the crank. The real danger is when you have the bike on a repair stand and you spin the crank by hand to get the rear wheel spinning quickly. With a freewheel, a finger between the chain and the chainwheel is no big deal. You might get a little ouchy, but your finger will stop the crank from turning. But without a freewheel, the inertia of the rear wheel (multiplied by the mechanical advantage of the crank and and sprocket) will keep the whole works spinning, despite having what-was-once-your-finger stuck in it. Serious buzz killer... It's probably less dangerous than an engine's fan belt with the hood up, as your dad can attest to. But it's definitely something to be aware of, that an average bike mechanic who doesn't see a lot of fixies might not be anticipating.


Braking: good! Real track bicycles don't have any brakes, and you can actually stop them just by resisting the turning pedals with your legs, and some badasses ride on the road like this, trackie-style. But this is a Really Bad Idea. You can stop a whole lot faster with even one caliper brake, and when dealing with car traffic or even a moderate downhills it really does help. A lot.


Toe clip usage: Some kind of shoe retention is a good thing. You don't want a foot to slip off a pedal while spinning hard, because it's just about impossible to get it back on without coming to a complete stop first. I've used traditional clips and straps, but I found that it was pretty hard getting my feet in them on my current fixed-gear bike, despite having used them for many years and generally being really comfortable using them. That has a lot to do with pedal-to-road clearance (ie, bottom bracket height and crank arm length.) If the toe clip on the free pedal smacks the ground every time around, it's tough getting it oriented properly to where you can slide your shoe in. I think using a clipless pedal system that you're really comfortable with is probably the best way to go here most of the time.


As for lights, computers, and other accessories, no differences that I'm aware of. There might be some issues due to frame style and choice of handlebars and such, but no difference on account of using fixed gearing vs. free that I know of.

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