Fixed Gear bikes – The Good, The bad and the ugly

Fixed-gear bikes, also known as fixies, have become quite common in recent years, and virtually everyone has seen one at some point.

However, despite their distinct difference from other types of bikes, most people don’t realize they’ve seen one.

It takes the sharp eye of a true bicycle enthusiast to recognize a fixie. For the uninitiated, fixies are bicycles that do not coast. As the back wheel turns, so do the pedals.

This applies in either direction; a highly skilled cyclist can ride a fixie backward.

Image Source. Wikipedia

This simple distinction between fixies (fixed gear bikes) and typical bicycles may seem minor, and many cyclists new to fixed gears have cavalierly jumped aboard a fixie only to ride a short distance and crash.

Yes, the distinction is minor in the abstract, but actually riding a fixed-gear bike is extremely challenging, tiring, and sometimes dangerous.

Even the most experienced riders of traditional road and mountain bikes require some amount of practice on a fixie before it becomes a safe way to ride around town.

In the early 20th century, the most common place to see a fixed-gear bicycle was in a velodrome, which is an arena that houses a track for racing bicycles.

Velodrome tracks are oval in shape and are marked by steeply banked turns. Modern riders in velodromes still ride fixed gear bikes, and they regularly reach speeds as high as 50 mph.

Another common place to see fixed gear bikes was the circus, where riders would perform tricks on drop-bar bicycles that looked just like the ten-speed bikes the audience members had at home.

Performers would ride wheelies in all directions, including backward, and could keep their bikes motionless while juggling, breathing fire, or holding a second person on their shoulders.

Modern trick cyclists on fixed gear bikes have been featured in versions of Cirque du Soleil.

The one aspect of these bikes that enables circus tricks is the fixed gear.

For decades, fixies were a mainstay of bicycle messenger services. It’s still quite common to see messengers ride them in densely populated business districts of large cities.

Bike messenger culture, with its spirit of daring, distinctive garb, and surprisingly utilitarian carrying bags caught on among younger Americans, and in recent years the fixed-gear bicycle is almost everywhere.

Other Important Differences between fixed gear bikes and typical bicycles:

Fixed-gear bikes are most obviously a very different breed of bike because they don’t coast, but there are also some more subtle differences that make them stand out from typical bicycles.

A critical one is that brakes are optional. The racing bikes used in velodromes do not have brakes, but for those riders, brakes are not really necessary.

There are no cars or pedestrians darting in front of riders, and during a race there is no need to slow down.

Racers simply slow their rate of pedaling at the completion of the race until a complete stop is gradually achieved.

rack_sprocket_tool_by_Bruce_McAdam
Image Source. Wikipedia
Fixed gear bikes guide
Image Source. Canva

It’s also rare for veteran bike messengers to have brakes on their bikes.

While the urban environment does have many hazards that require a quick stop, an expert fixie rider can stop the cranks while shifting their weight forward and skidding to a stop.

Note that this technique takes a lot of practice and is somewhat dependent on gear ratio.

Big chainrings paired with tiny cogs make skidding to a stop incredibly difficult.

Another thing that sets fixies apart from other bicycles is that they are light.

With no rear cluster, no rear derailleur, no second or third chainring, no front derailleur, no brakes, and no cables, a fixed-gear bike can be made much lighter than a bike with gears.

Because weight and price usually tend to be negatively correlated, this affords fixie riders the opportunity to own a lightweight bike for significantly less money than they would pay for a typical lightweight road or mountain bike.

A final difference that appeals to many cyclists is that fixed-gear bikes are simple machines that are quick and easy to repair.

There are no derailleurs to adjust nor drivetrain cables to replace.

When riders do choose to have a brake on their bike, it’s usually a single front or rear caliper-style brake that is simple to work with.

There is no bleeding of hydraulic lines. Fixing a flat tire is no different, but removing the back wheel in order to do so is much easier with a fixed-gear bike.

Getting Started With Fixed Gear bikes:

Once they learn the differences between fixies and non-fixies, many aspiring riders assume that becoming a fixed-gear rider will require the purchase of a new bike.

Fortunately, those who are interested in trying a fixie can test the waters without spending much cash.

A cheap and relatively easy way to get started is to purchase an old, used bike and convert it to a fixie.

Another inexpensive part that will likely be necessary is a chain tensioner.

This is a spring-loaded arm that pushes against the chain to keep it tight. Derailleurs perform the same function on bikes with gears, and chain tensioners often look like derailleurs.

On an old bike that once had a derailleur, a chain tensioner can be easily bolted right onto the frame’s derailleur hanger.

The rear wheel is where the mechanism for coasting or not coasting resides, so that will need to be replaced.

These days, there are many bike shops that sell inexpensive fixed-gear rear wheels.

Many rear wheels come with a “flip-flop hub” that allows the rider to switch the bike between fixed-gear mode and coasting single-speed mode simply by taking the rear wheel off and flipping it over.

This type of wheel is highly recommended for anyone who isn’t absolutely sure they will like riding with fixed gears.

It should go without saying that if a person opts for a dual-mode rear wheel, they should make sure the bike has at least one functioning brake for use in single-speed mode.

While a chain tensioner may seem like a mere accessory to improve performance, on many bikes it is required.

If the conversion bike originally had multiple gears and a derailleur, it likely has vertical dropouts.

Dropouts are the slots the axle fits into when it is bolted to the bike.

Vertical dropouts work well on geared bikes because they eliminate the need to make fore and aft adjustments for chain tension.

The wheel is simply dropped into the slot and tightened, and chain tension is achieved with the derailleur.

A fixed-gear conversion bike with vertical dropouts will absolutely require a chain tensioner.

While initially acceptable tension might be achieved by adding or removing links in the chain, stretching will eventually loosen the chain and make the bike unsafe to ride.

A conversion bike that originally had only one speed or an internally geared three-speed hub will usually have horizontal dropouts.

For these conversions, a chain tensioner is not necessary. Chain tension is achieved by pulling the axle back in the dropout and tightening the wheel to the frame.

Use Caution When Learning

A first-time fixie rider should exercise extreme caution. No matter how much experience a rider has on bikes that coast, jumping on a fixie and blasting down the road with no practice is a recipe for disaster.

A rider’s mind and legs must be trained away from the impulse to simply stop pedaling in order to slow down.

Many experienced and overly confident riders have found themselves with damaged knees and ankles as a result of forgetting that the pedals don’t stop turning, and in worst-case scenarios those riders find themselves on the ground or flying over the hood of a car.

It’s highly recommended that new fixie riders have at least one brake on their bike.

Home-built conversion bikes will usually have at least one already, and it’s a good idea to make sure it’s adjusted properly because it will almost certainly see some use.

Those who purchase new fixed-gear bikes may find that their bike comes with one or two brakes installed.

However, it’s important to note that many fixies come with only a single front brake.

Whether a bike is new or converted, having only a front brake can lead to problems. Relying too heavily on a front brake can result in a fast trip over the bars, so it’s important to begin learning other means of stopping as soon as possible.

Aside from using a hand brake, the most basic way to slow or stop a fixed-gear bike is to slow one’s rate of pedaling.

Riders with extremely powerful legs can do this better than others, but almost nobody can employ this technique for a quick, emergency stop.

It’s therefore imperative that a new rider adjust their thinking about riding and stopping. Riding a fixie safely requires a keen focus on one’s surroundings so that stops can be anticipated as early as possible.

The more advanced technique of skidding to a stop is an important skill to develop for riders who choose not to have brakes on their bikes.

It looks easy, but it absolutely isn’t. A great way to practice skidding to a stop is to ride on grass.

It provides more slip and enables a rider to more easily get the feel of throwing their weight forward and locking the cranks. And of course, crashes on grass are much more rider friendly than those on pavement.

Pedals are an important consideration for new fixie riders. Again, any rider, regardless of experience, should take the more cautious route and opt for platform pedals.

Toe clips and clipless pedals are not just a hazard for a new rider who needs to stop quickly.

They are also much more difficult to get both feet into while starting to ride.

The first foot is easy because the rider is stopped. But once the rider is moving, the pedals are also moving, so the second foot is attempting to connect to a moving target.

It’s surprisingly difficult and probably much harder than it sounds.

In Sum: They Can Be Good Or Bad

Fixed-gear bikes are fun to ride and easy to maintain, but they are definitely not for everyone.

Any cyclist who is considering building or purchasing a fixie should consider a number of factors before diving in.

Whether a person is new to cycling or has been riding for decades, there is a learning curve.

Minor crashes are common at first. People who live in hilly areas may struggle with only a single gear. If a person purchases a new fixie, they may have some difficulty selling it if they decide it’s not their thing.

And an important consideration for many people is the level of fitness required to ride a fixie.

Constant pedaling can very quickly become tiresome, and some riders find that fixies wreak havoc on their knees.

On the other hand, riders who dedicate themselves to learning to ride a fixie safely and regularly will likely find that their fitness improves rapidly.

They are also likely to discover improved riding ability when they switch back to a bike that coasts, and their ability to anticipate hazards is often heightened.

And finally, the most dedicated of fixie riders can develop the ability to impress both friends and strangers with track stands, slow-speed wheelies, and the fact that they can ride around town without incident on a bike with no brakes.

Fixed-Gear Bike FAQ

There are many reasons, both practical and personal. Many messengers just like the way fixies look.

They’re sleek and cool, and because they’re more difficult to ride, they carry a certain amount of cred within the messenger community.

People who don’t ride fixies often think they’re odd looking and impractical, but many messengers see this as a plus.

Their bikes set them apart from the crowd.

But image aside, messengers will cite a variety of reasons why they prefer to ride with fixed gears.

One of the most common is the ease with which an experienced rider can track stand on a fixie.

Track standing is simply standing still on a bicycle, and it’s much easier on a bike that can move forward and backward in small adjustments.

It’s also a skill that is used frequently in urban stop-and-go traffic. For a rider whose job requires hundreds of starts and stops each day, easy track stands are often the single most important reason for riding a fixie.

Messengers also tend to like the fact that fixies are a somewhat less desirable target for bike thieves.

They are more difficult to fence, and they don’t have many parts that can be stripped off and sold. And an advantage of fixies is that a typical thief won’t just jump on one and ride away.

Messengers often use big gears that take longer to get up to speed, so quick getaways are unlikely. And a thief who isn’t an experienced fixie rider will often not get very far before having an accident.

There is also a wide range of reasons non-messengers are passionate about fixies, and many of them appeal to messengers as well.

A common reason is that they are light and cheap. People who use bikes for daily transportation, whether for work or not, appreciate having a bike that they can easily carry up multiple flights of stairs.

Flat tires and broken chains put bikes out of commission for some period of time, but a daily rider on a budget can still afford two or three fixies.

It’s not uncommon for true fixie aficionados to have five or more of them.

Many racers like to train on fixed-gear bikes because they believe that the inability to coast creates a better, more fully circular pedal stroke that generates constant power.

Training on a fixie creates muscle memory that translates to their pedal stroke on a racing bike.

Non-racers who ride for fitness also like fixies because they force the rider to pedal.

There is no resting on a fixie; if the rider is moving, the rider is working.

In the fairly recent past, it was unusual to see a fixed-gear bike with brakes. But many new bikes have at least one hand brake.

To stop a fixie with no brakes, a rider can simply slow their pedaling cadence until it reaches zero.

This is often not a practical approach for quick stops though, so riders should become comfortable with skidding stops.

This requires quickly shifting one’s weight forward while locking up the cranks. It sounds quite easy, but it isn’t. Practice makes perfect.

Some of them are, but most are probably single-speed bikes that will coast. Single-speed mountain bikes have become somewhat popular in recent years due to their simplicity and light weight.

They also force a rider to grind up hills in the same gear they use to descend them, and this almost certainly increases climbing ability.

Fixed-gear mountain biking is for experts only.

It requires a fluidity of riding that many will never achieve. In addition to having only one gear for climbing hills, a rider must also control speed on descents to prevent out-of-control pedal spin.

Manuals, normally used to control the bike through rough terrain and when doing drops, are nearly impossible on a fixed-gear bike.

Jumps must be taken while pedaling, and this requires impeccable pedal timing and bike control on the approach.

Once airborne, a rider must continue to pedal in order to avoid a jolting, skidding landing that would likely lead to a crash.

But with all of that said, fixed-gear mountain biking enthusiasts are passionate about their sport.

They often describe a connectedness between the bike, rider, and terrain that is difficult to fully describe but impossible to replicate on a bike that coasts.

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