Loving the Commute: Fixed Gear Edition

13
Jul
2012

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…

I stop.

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!

Enjoy Your Ride

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14 Responses to “ Loving the Commute: Fixed Gear Edition ”

  1. Sebastian on November 25, 2012 at 11:29 am

    So I just got a fixed gear bike and I went riding this morning. I was standing on the bike peddling and going really fast, while standing peddling I stop peddling for coasting and the biked did a sudden stop and sent me flying across the pavement and I got beat up pretty good. Now does anyone know if that is a common occurrence or my bike was assembled wrong?

    • Irvin Varela on April 7, 2013 at 1:35 pm

      For your fixed gear to be able to coast it needs a free wheel cog, otherwise if you stop peddling you will lock your rear tire and it will cause it to break. That is why you were sent flying.

  2. Pamela on July 15, 2012 at 3:28 pm

    Great post! Half of it had me laughing like crazy, and the other half left me gripping my seat in horror!

  3. Jay Santos on July 14, 2012 at 2:35 pm

    that first fixed gear ride without brakes is indeed a scary one…they make it look so easy that it just takes you back to the days of having a coaster brake and skidding all down the hills in the neighborhood…not that easy at all…i would recommend learning how to skid stop in wet grass to get used to it…leaning forward is a big key too.

  4. Jonathan Davis on July 13, 2012 at 4:30 pm

    Having just bought my first fixie, this post was super entertaining. thanks Aaron! Your first experience sounds a bit harrowing. My intention was only to use it on the track, but I have a 3.5mi commute to work so would seriously consider putting it on the road…but only on dry days!!

  5. troy@bikeroots on July 13, 2012 at 4:15 pm

    I have an Iro that I had set-up to a fixie. It’s a sing-speed now. Call me an old man, but stopping on those things was a bit hard on my joints – my wrists in particular. I put brakes on it since, and now I just flipped the wheel around to single-speed mode and I’m enjoying it more. If my mandate was to drink craft brews, listen to synth rock and make ironic fashion decisions, maybe riding a fixie would be more important to me.

  6. S Johnstone on July 13, 2012 at 1:33 pm

    I really need to get a fixie. I’m not sure about buildling one, but I do need one badly.

  7. CharlieQuimby on July 13, 2012 at 10:07 am

    Missed hearing about the return downhill trip. Must’ve been uneventful?

    • Aaronthestrong on July 13, 2012 at 11:05 am

      It was terribly slow…and uneventful…because I was terrified :)

  8. Joel Phillips on July 13, 2012 at 9:54 am

    Single speed, fixie, climbing rings, 42-teeth…all the technical jargon confuses me. Remember in the movie “Days of Thunder” when Bobby Duvall was asking Tom Cruise how the race car was performing? “Was it running lose or tight, did it surge or sway”…Tom said, “I can’t, I don’t know what all that means”. Well that’s this kid, I am more about hopping on and riding than I am about knowing what it is I am riding. Maybe this is what separates cyclists from those that just ride a bike.

    At any rate I want to give what you described a try, sounds fun! I believe the cool stopping you refer to is called a power slide. All I’m going to say about power slides is that if you do it, make sure you stop on level ground and UNCLIP!

    Happy riding my friend…

  9. Ian on July 13, 2012 at 9:29 am

    I love my fixie and everything that it’s done for me. My pedal stroke is fluid and my leg endurance has gone through the roof. Riding a fixie is the simplicity of riding. Skid stops and track stands will all come in time.

  10. Aaronthestrong on July 13, 2012 at 8:08 am

    Since writing this, I have given “You’ve Probably Never Heard of It” (my fixie’s name) a paint job and attached some stickers. I’ll post some pics on the twitter if you are interested! Thanks for reading!

  11. Stevie Dexter on July 13, 2012 at 5:52 am

    I am also a fixie convert (none of that single speed rubbish thank you very much!) and love riding mine. I do have a front brake on mine which I think is essential if you are going to actually ride a fixie for anything other than trying to look like a hipster. If you are just popping wheelies and bar spins outside Starbucks then go for it but a commute on such a machine really is not safe without a front brake. And don’t listen to thise flannel-wearing hipsters, it’s not uncool to have a brake, it’s head-clever! (In fact depending on where you are in the world, it’s probably a legal requirement and nothing is uncooler than standing by the ride side with a man of the law!)

    Aaron, I still can’t do a skid stop! Whether it is the ratio I ride or my guns, I’m not sure but it’s a little secret (d’oh) guilty pleasure that I would like to learn to do that.

    Keep at it, fit that brake and enjoy learning how to ride again. The best thing about riding a fixed is your awarness will increase. You look ahead more, planning your pace and cadence to whats ahead so you don’t have to use that brake. Brakes are essentially evil, cancelling the effort you’ve just put in to the bike. Soon that constant, steady pedal stroke will feel natural and you’ll find that transfers to a simialr style riding your road bike. That is the beginning of whatthe French call, ‘souplesse’.

    Finally, chapeau on the finest line have ever read on LovingTheBike.com… “my head grew heavy and my site grew dim… I knew I would have to stop for the red light (drum break).” [sic]

    d8^)

    • Aaronthestrong on July 13, 2012 at 8:03 am

      Hahaha thanks for reading, Stevie! I have to say, now a few weeks after writing this, I just got back on a geared bike two days ago, and WOW. It’s crazy to suddenly remember you can stop pedaling. A riding mate of mine even commented that my cadence was much faster than it used to be, after just a couple weeks of regular fixie riding! Crazy!

      Also, thanks for noticing my Hotel California reference :-)

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