Fixed gear—fad or for real?

Some cycle enthusiasts espouse the merits of riding fixed gear. They speak of purity, fitness, and oneness with the bike and road. But why not consider single speed instead? After commuting through a couple of wet winters in New West, I was annoyed with the maintenance requirements of my gearing, and decided to exchange the ease of hill climbing and speed on flats and descents, for the simplicity of riding in the same gear, up, down, wet, or windy.

Photo: Geoffrey Badner
Photo: Geoffrey Badner

Certain bicycle enthusiasts heartwarmingly espouse the merits of riding fixed gear. They speak of purity, simplicity, fun, fitness, and oneness with the bike and the road. Their followers sometimes ask me if I can convert an older road bike into a fixed gear. My answer is: yes, but have you considered single speed? Often their reply is “single speed?, yeah, that’s what I want, a fixie”.

To briefly outline, fixed gear refers to the original incarnation of bicycle pedal power. The pedals never stop moving, and neither do your legs. Whether powering up 1st street or sailing down 7th ave, your feet will be rotating along with the crankarms. As you can imagine, effort will be exerted not only when climbing, but also when descending. That’s okay, though, because effort is what bike riding is about, right? I mean, what is biking without physical exertion? Motorcycling? Perhaps the distinction between bicycle and motorcycle is the subject of a future post. For this post, my question is: why pedal madly down a hill, when a freewheel/hub/cassette provides a carefree coast?

After commuting through a couple of wet winters in New West, I was annoyed with the maintenance requirements of my gearing (okay, I was too lazy to clean the gunk off once a week), and decided to exchange the ease of hill climbing and speed on flats and descents, for the simple commitment of riding in the same gear, up, down, wet, or windy. My conversion was simple. Retaining the existing freehub, I shortened the chain to fit from the middle front ring to the third smallest rear cog, ditched both deraillers, shifters, and all their cables. My ride was cleansed! My sore knees soon coaxed me to get off my butt on the ascents, where previously I would have sat back with ol’ granny (the easy gear) for a spell. Feeling “less than Lance” on the flat stretch of Marine Way to Market Crossing, I discovered the peacefully tranquil ride through the countryside between 22nd st. station and Byrne Road. Overall, it’s been a happy transition.

I have not experienced oneness with the bike and the road, and my lack of experience riding a fixed gear may be the reason. I just can’t swallow the absence of coasting! Earned by pushing through tough climbs, heavy winds, and sprinting to make a green light, coasting is my reward. My primary ride (The Beast), is a single speed, and I truly appreciate the simplicity of riding without the need to shift gears. Until you’ve tried it, you cannot know the relief of never needing to gear down to prepare for an ascent, trim your friction lever, or deal with a chain falling off. My single speed is one gear that my body is used to, and it gets me from downtown to uptown and cruises at scenery-enjoying speed along Columbia Street.

So it seems I am a hypocrite (the case more often as I age—I happily accomodate conflicting viewpoints, as long as they support my needs). I claim that single speed can only be appreciated once you’ve tried it, but reject fixed gear out of hand. I promote single speed to those who are frustrated with the distracting maintainence and attention required by gears, yet I resist the true purist’s ride: fixed gear. I suppose I owe it to myself to resist my resistance, and expand my pedal prowess. For now, I’ll just coast.

Travis Fehr

Travis Fehr is a really valued member of the Tenth to the Fraser community. Interested in joining our pool of writers? Please see these submission guidelines.

4 comments

  1. I ride fixed in New West. Love it. My legs love it, my knees love it.

    Once I'm over the Q'boro bridge and on the flats I'm off at an average at or above 30kph. Thank you New west and Richmond for some truly epic bike lane planning.

    Silent, efficient, lightweight and maintenance free. The only thing I ever do is pump up the tires to 120psi.

    It's not for everyone. If you are a avid cyclist, want stronger legs, stronger knees, weight loss and serious fitness workouts from spinning then it could be for you. My tri-bike sits forlorn in the corner.

  2. Funny how everything old is new again. As you mentioned, fixed gearing is the original bike drivetrain system. In the 40's/50's large bike manufacturers started to produce 3-speed rear hubs and every kid on the block had 3 speeds. As time and technology progressed, more gears were offered on new bikes, which made riding 'easier' and, in turn, got more people riding bikes. The fixed-gear was all but forgot by the public, relegated to time-trials and lowly bike couriers.

    But the fixie (and single-speed) has made a comeback! Kevin Bacon rode fixie in 'Quicksilver' in 1986, Tokyo teenagers took notice and started digging up classic road frames to create works of art, and now hipsters everywhere are riding fixed!

    I like it, at least I like the idea of it; I'm too old to start riding fixed/single speed. Due to my job I don't bike commute as much as I did even 3 years ago but when I do I really enjoy my 24 gear road bike. Whatever bike you ride, enjoy the ride.

    I've added a couple of links!

    1. Krazy fixie riding;
    http://vimeo.com/5501568

    2. For a bit of comedy, whatever you ride;
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Vn29DvMITu4

    R

  3. I've converted several geared bikes to single-speeds, and the owners love 'em! On average the bike can shed 3 pounds removing the derailleurs, shifters & cables, 1 or 2 front chain rings and all rear cogs but 1. The difference in the feel of the ride is amazing. a 50T by 16T drivetrain seems to suit most, with more advanced riders wanting 53×16 teeth.

    Only one was a fixie.

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