Why ride a fixed gear? Most fixed gear riders ask instead, “why ride anything else?”
A fixed gear bike is one that does not coast. If the rear wheel is turning the pedals must turn with it. The rear wheeldrive cog, and therefore, the chain, cranks and a pedals, are locked to the rear wheel. All the reasons to ride a fixed gear listed below follow from the simple modification to eliminate coasting and keep the pedals spinning at all times.
1. Safety and control. A fixed gear ride through mid-town Manhattan recently reminded James of the value of the exquisite speed control of the fixed gear. Your legs must spin the pedals in exact register (according to the gear ratio) with the rear wheel, and the rear wheel must turn in time with your legs. Therefore, you can slow the bike by slowing your legs without using a hand brake. Interestingly, there seems to be a faster reflex pathway from perception to leg slowing than from perception to deciding to apply the hand brake. I find that in an threatening traffic situations, I unconsciously hesitate and slow my legs, and therefore, start slowing the bike, even before consciously deciding whether to squeeze the handbrake.
The urban environment in many cities, especially in Manhattan and increasing in Cleveland is being made more "bike-friendly" by adding bike lanes between the sidewalk curb and the motor vehicle lanes. In any urban bike lane, there are all sorts of things jumping in your way. In a one hour long ride in Manhattan I observed in the bike lanes in which I rode: taxis, cars, and e-bikes using the bike lane to pass slower cars, joggers using the bike lane to pass the slower crowds on the sidewalk, pedestrians jay-walking or hailing a cab, taxis and cars pulling into the lane to pick up and drop off passengers, wheelchairs using the smoother asphalt lane in preference of the jointed sidewalk, even dogs darting out to seize a tasty piece of garbage. I may not have been as fast on a fixed gear but I was immensely more at ease because I was already slowing down by the time I became consciously aware of an obstacle. I propose that the fixed gear is the bike of the future for bike lane laced cities.
2. Simplicity. The fixed gear is simple. Its drivetrain is the simplest. Simpler drivetrains are cheaper, produce less friction, run more reliably, are easier to clean, and work better when they are dirty.
3. Sufficiency. Some places, one gear is plenty. The usual argument is: if you live in a flat, gritty city like Cleveland, the fixed gear is a viable way to ride a bike. We have not found any terrain in the Cleveland metropolitan area that is too difficult for a fixed gear. We have to drive down to the Cuyahoga River valley and seek out specific climbs to find inclines that are too great for our fixed gear bikes. Otherwise, we usually leave the multi-speed bikes at home. Inevitably, once you get hooked on a fixed gear, the definition of ride too difficult for a fixed gear keeps getting pushed back. James has done several centuries a year (including TOSRV and circumnavigating Cleveland's Emerald Necklace), ridden across the state of Indiana in a 160-mile day, and ridden halfway across Wisconsin with one 80-mile day and one 120-mile day, and all of these rides when James was over 50 years old. Join us for our Cleveland Metropark Fixed Century every summer.
4. Training benefits. The fixed gear has been a traditional early-season training tool for bicycle racers. You don't coast so you generate heat with constant leg motion. On climbs, you have to pedal harder, so you build strength. On descents, you have to spin faster, so you build suppleness and fluidity in your pedal circle. When you don’t have much of a fitness base, you are less likely to get carried away and over train on a fixed gear. For example, after fighting the headwind on the outbound leg, you are pedaling home tired but with the tailwind. On a fixed gear, you cannot shift to a higher gear and hammer yourself into exhaustion, you are forced to spin easily.
If you use low gears, you (may) ride a fixed gear forever: James has ridden fixed gear ratios between 65 & 75 inches, and he is a miracle of knee health. Although he has damaged both knees in other activities (abraded right patellar cartilage, broken left ACL, broken left kneecap), they have healed and he has never experienced any pain riding. Would this be the case on a multi-speed bike on which one could push bigger gears? Who knows -- but so far fixed gear riding has not damaged the knees of this 65-year-old.
5. A fixed gear gives back. Most the above praises could be sung of riding with only a single speed freewheel as well. The direct chainline and total lack of losses to derailleur or internal gear train friction make the fixed gear and single speed drivetrains unassailably more mechanically efficient than multi-speed drivetrains. In addition, it seems that the fixed gear has an momentum advantage over even a single speed freewheel. The momentum of the bicycle and the fixed connection between the rear wheel and the pedals make the bike’s continuous motion iron out the rough spots (e.g., top and bottom dead center and thereabouts) in the rider’s pedal circle. This is most noticeable when climbing on a gradual hill suited to the fixed gear bike—you just fly away from freewheel bikes with what seems like no great effort. Of course, the unique experience of having the bicycle giving something back to help with pedaling efficiency affects the rider’s subjective experience, and is a big part of what fixed gear riders refer to when they talk about being one with the bicycle.
6. Grooviness. If you probe a fixed gear aficionado, you will find that they ride their fixed gears in preference to other bikes because riding a fixed gear is just more fun than any other kind of bike riding. I think the reason for the fun factor has to do with our biology. It feels right. The multi-speed bicycle is wonderfully efficient, but it does not match our experience or evolutionary history (i.e., nervous system programming) for any other self-propelled travel. While walking or running we do not coast or cruise along at the same power output; rather, we are accustomed to and, I venture, set up to work harder uphill and go easier downhill. Grinding and spinning a fixed gear feels familiar to this nervous system used to ebb and flow in effort. It takes some training to get fit and comfortable enough with the fixed gear to get in this groove, but it is powerfully reinforcing experience.
Fixed Gear Road Set-Up
James has been riding fixed gear bicycles since 1985. We have built track bikes and converted road and mountain bikes to fixed gears, and we know how to resolve key issues that make a good one. If all you want is to ride on the velodrome, buy a track bike. If you want a more comfortable and versatile bike for fixed gear road riding, we can custom build one for you or advise you while you build your own. Here is a summary of the salient issues:
1. Chain tension. It is almost essential to have a frame with horizontal dropouts to allow for tensioning the chain by pulling the rear wheel back in the dropouts.
2. Chain line. The smooth, low-friction ride that makes fixed gear riding such a joy depends on a good chain line.
a. To get the front chain ring close enough to the centerline of the bike to line it up with the rear cog, you need a short bottom bracket spindle and you often have to grind off the low gear support tabs on the inner side of the crank spider.
b. A true track hub rather than a converted road hub helps with chain line because the cog is usually mounted further outboard.
c. Steel frames that can be cold set to a rear dropout width of 120 mm are best, as that is the width of most track hubs.
3. Bottom bracket height. The higher the bottom bracket (BB), the less your chance of striking the inside pedal during turns. I have found a height of at least 11 inches is required for safety. Most road bikes have BB heights of 10½ inches or less. If you find one with a high enough BB height, hang on to it. Two other alternatives are possible. You can equip a frame built for smaller wheels with larger wheels (such as putting700c wheels on an old three speed with 26 X 1 3/8” wheels). Another solution is to replace the front fork on an old touring bike with a cyclocross fork, which will raise the front end and the bottom bracket height.
4. Brake. You must have at least a front brake on a fixed gear road bike, unless you want to ride slowly and cautiously enough to be able to stop by skidding the rear wheel. I would rather be able to go as fast as I want to and be able to stop when I need to, so I use a front brake. The brake lever also serves as an additional handlebar grip, so I recommend a dummy brake lever opposite the real one.
5. Lock ring. Track hubs have a reverse-threaded shoulder for a lock ring just outboard of the cog. The idea is that if you apply reverse torque to the cog because the bike is going faster than your legs want to, you will not unscrew the cog. It turns out that actual track racers rarely use a lock ring, and on the road a fixed gear is actually safer without a lock ring. With a lock ring, if your chain dumps and gets tangled in the wheel or crankset, you will probably break something and/or crash. If the same scenario happens without a lock ring, the cog just unscrews and you coast peacefully to a stop. The lack of a lock ring does not keep you from using your legs to slow the rear wheel in concert with your front brake. I takes a real jam on the cog to loosen it, so you may not be able to skid the rear wheel and keep your cog on. Since the emergency unscrewing of the cog prevents it from serving as a brake, you should have a rear wheel brake if you do not use a lock ring.