Loving the Commute: Fixed Gear Edition
Several months ago I decided to use some of the old bike parts in my garage to try to assemble my own fixed gear bike. For those that don’t know, fixed gear bikes are not just for people with mustaches. Fixed gear bikes actually started out as track bikes before slowly becoming the universal designation for bike messengers and hipsters. Bike messengers adopted these bikes primarily because their inner-city travel didn’t require too much gear changing due to the stop and go nature of traveling in a traffic heavy area. As fixed gear bikes are simply composed of fewer parts, the bikes naturally require considerably less mechanical work and likewise, don’t have nearly the mechanical issues.
There is a big difference between a true fixed gear bike, and the more popular, commonly mislabeled, single speed bike. Many manufacturers that sell pre-made “fixies” often really mean “single speed”. A single speed bike typically has a freewheeling hub to allow for coasting, while a fixed gear has a fixed hub. Meaning that on a fixed gear, when you pedal, the bike moves and when you stop pedaling the wheels stop turning… or at least they try to stop turning. Some people are brave (read as crazy) enough to ride a fixed gear with no hand brakes, relying solely on their leg power to slow and stop the bike. Single speed bikes typically have to have a hand brake of sometime or you would never stop the bike.
If you look around online you can find a plethora of tutorials on a simple way to build a fixed gear bike from any old parts. With only investing about $50 dollars, I have managed to recently complete my fixed gear using a frame from an old 1983 Schwinn Traveler. I had never ridden a true fixed gear bike until I hopped on the saddle of this beast to give it a shot. I decided a while ago that I needed to quit riding my nice bike to work, because the commute was just beating it up too much; my new fixed gear was the replacement plan. I used some 700×37 sized hybrid tires (which fit perfectly thanks to the large frame) which made the whole thing look rather meaty. Basically I decided I never wanted to be afraid of falling over on the unexpected patch of gravel again.
The one thing I didn’t do, primarily because I thought my now sculpted legs were hardcore enough to work fine for brakes, was apply a front or rear brake. I hopped on the saddle and rode out of my driveway. Now, any cyclist that has been riding fairly seriously for a while will likely be not be intimidated by the prospect of not being able to stop pedaling unless you actually wanted to stop. Going to the gym and hopping on a trainer typically means a full hour of non-stop high cadence pedaling for me. I assumed that this ride would be similar. Of course, what you forget is that riding in the gym typically means you don’t need to randomly stop quickly. I did a couple of laps around the block, and while it was a little strenuous due to the rather intense gear ratio I chose, I was confident that I could handle my 5-6 mile commute to work the next morning. On the recommendation from an experienced track cyclist, I went ahead and also moved my clips to the fixed gear from my road bike because apparently you really do not want to slip off the pedals of a fixie whilst rolling at any kind of speed. I was a little nervous, but excited.
The next morning I woke up bright and early, put on my short shorts and my favorite v-neck, and took the bike out to the sidewalk to prepare for the ride. I also drank an extra cup of coffee and a bit of OJ to make sure I had plenty of extra oomph to keep those legs moving. Just to recap… I was about to clip myself into a bike that had no brakes besides the stopping power of my legs, and ride through town, for 5-6 miles, uphill all the way. Yes…stomach of anger, suitcase of courage, head of idiot. The first mile was not a big deal. I felt comfortable with my speed and ability to keep up the pace. My legs were feeling strong, pulsing with the power of coffee. Then… up ahead in the distance… I saw a shimmering light… my head grew heavy and my site grew dim… I knew I would have to stop for the red light (drum break).
The 1,000 feet leading up to the light began the slight incline that is my hill to work, so naturally I lifted the hammer to allow gravity to naturally slow the bike. I had seen a million videos of those guys on fixies slamming on the brakes and sliding their bikes to a stop, and yes, I am pretty sure that in my delusional mind this is what I was expecting to happen. 100 feet, 50 feet, 30 feet to the light… I try to tighten my legs to bring the bike to the stop, but besides the immediate pulsing of the veins in my legs… nothing happened. 20 feet, 10 feet, 5 feet… I‘m still moving forward. I stood up out of the saddle pulling up with my left leg and pushing down with my right, hoping that my clips will stay engaged and my internal pleading with the bike to stop will somehow be heard…
Wow… the first mile… the first red-light… and I am a little terrified. I had come this far already and if I am anything, it’s stubborn. Sure I could have rode back home and 4-wheeled it in… but I’m not AarontheQuitter… I’m Aaronthestrong. “No big deal”, I told myself that as I approached the next light I would just increase my stopping distance by a mile or two. The light turned green and I rode on. Fortunately the next three lights managed to stay green as I approached with caution. Then, halfway through the relatively crowded college campus I ride through, a light turned red. This time it caught me a little off guard… I was only 500 feet out from the stop and moving faster than I had been at the first light. I was pretty sure that I was going to die. I tried to extend my legs to brake like I had the first time. I’m pretty sure my legs and bike both laughed at me. The only thing I could do was hang a right at the light. I was a little proud of myself, actually, for my ability to think quick and relieved with my handling skills when I leaned into the turn and kept myself in the tight bike lane and away from the SUV that was 3 feet to my right. Still… this was dumb, and I was not feeling very good about my remaining commute.
I rode on. The bike gods must have taken pity on me because the rest of the ride was uneventful. I made sure to give myself plenty of stopping time at the next few lights and made it to work a short while later. The entire trip took me only 3 minutes more than my average commute. My legs felt like I had just left the gym after leg workout day. The veins were pulsing in my calves and popping out at my knees. It was one of the most intense rides I have had to date.
So what did I learn from my first fixed gear experience? Well, brakes are important…for one. I am pretty sure that if I had not gone with such large tires then perhaps I might have had a little easier time…but one thing is certain, I have no idea how those guys do the slide stop thing that always looks so cool. I also learned just how important it is to stay aware during a commute. You never know when something is going to happen and you won’t be able to stop or might have to react quickly to someone else. The last thing I learned is that riding a fixed gear bike is not just something the “cool kids” are doing these days. I have since ridden this bike quite a few more times around the neighborhood and I am pretty confident that it is going to be a great way to work on my leg strength and improve my riding skills. If you have a spare frame, wheels, and a chain hanging around you can pretty much put together one of these rides. At most you might need to throw down 30-40 dollars for a fixed hub rear wheel and cog, but those can be easily created on your own if you need to as well. If you don’t want to ride one yourself, I at least recommend you swing out to your local shop and just take one for a spin, it’s an experience any cyclist will appreciate!