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Fixed Gear Fever
New York cyclists have been riding fixed gear bikes for years. The ultimate bike for them was a track bike; single speed “fixed” transmission, no brakes. Films showed the messengers darting in and out of traffic, clinging to taxis and buses and portraying themselves as cycling outlaws, if not jesters.
This minimalist bike has now made a comeback among colleges and urban centers. Bikes have fewer parts to break or wear, cost less, and are less desirable to thieves, or at least they were before the new popularity. This article will explain what all the fuss is about and how this unusual bike can be a valuable part of the adult recreational cyclist’s bike stable.
First, let’s discuss the background of this interesting bike to explain how it got to where it is today. By the end of the 19th century, all bicycles had single-speed “fixed” gears, and the “freewheel” did not appear until the early 20th century. When people are unfamiliar with a fixed gear bike, they wonder, “How can you stop it?” and “Can you hang on?” I like to use the analogy of a child’s tricycle to explain. The trike has pedals and cranks attached directly to the front wheel and when you pedal the trike moves forward and when you resist the pedals it slows down. This is exactly how a track bike can change speed without brakes.
When cyclists ride a track bike in a velodrome, they are all riding bikes without brakes, so no one can slow down faster than the other. This allows a group of riders to safely coexist on the banks of the track. When one rides a crawler bike on the road with no brakes other than the braking ability to resist the pedals, the situation changes. Cyclists think it’s extremely cool to ride a bike in traffic without brakes. However, they tend to be experienced drivers who are able to plan far enough ahead to avoid collisions in most cases. The interesting thing about this concept is when a college student or recreational rider with undeveloped skills takes one of these machines into service and can’t handle the limitations. This is not only incredibly dangerous, but insane! Many cities, such as Austin, TX, ban brakeless “fixers” from their urban settings for legitimate safety reasons.
I have a track bike that I race in the velodrome and I also have another that I ride on the road. How can this be done safely? The answer is simple; I installed a front brake on the road fork and now have a bike that can stop as easily as any. It also has the benefits of fixed gearing, which I’m about to discuss, revolutionizing my training and riding experience. It can be for you too.
Fixed gear road bikes were actually used in the Tour de France until the 1930s. Organizers knew that a single-speed bike was much more demanding than bikes with multiple gears, so they banned “sissy” bikes for years. These bikes actually had two gears. The rear wheel had what was called a “flip-flop” hub that had a sprocket on each side. Smaller cogs were used on flats and descents, while larger cogs (read: lower gear) were used for mountain climbing. Riders had to stop at the bottom of steep climbs and remove the rear wheel, flip it over and install it with a lower gear. They climbed the mountain, stopped at the top, and reversed course.
As a side note, Tullio Campagnolo invented the “quick release skewer” in 1927, which not only made the race repair business easier, but revolutionized wheel switching in races like the Tour de France. Riders had the huge advantage of a quick release rather than having to deal with the wing nuts that were standard issue.
Enough about the background! Why on earth would an adult recreational cyclist want to train on a fixed gear bike? I think there is a better answer than the one Sir Edmund Hillary used when asked why he wanted to climb Mount Everest. (The answer was, “Because there is.”) The answer lies in the concept of cycling as a fountain of youth: intensity.
While we spend a lot of time discussing the best ways to shift, we don’t spend a lot of time working on pedaling and cadence. With a fixed gear, you don’t have to worry about gear selection because you only have one! Well, you don’t just have to worry about choosing a gearbox, you just do while driving! It is very important to choose the right gear before driving.
Assuming you agree that intensity is a key ingredient to enjoying cycling as a way to stay young, and the fact that we tend to get busier rather than less busy as we age, a fixed gear bike is an incredible way to , how to pack an awesome workout. in a short time horizon. Here’s why: a 30-mile road bike ride will involve a significant amount of inertia. 30 miles on fixed gear is 30 miles! Plus, there’s a bonus not available on regular road bikes: downhill spin.
When I go out with the fix on the road around San Antonio, I have to select a gear to go up hills and still be able to hold after going over the hill. It’s an interesting challenge to think about a ride before it happens in order to choose the right gear. I have a collection of chainrings and sprockets, so over time I’ve learned which sprockets work and which don’t. That’s one of the best parts of cycling. We can “fail” by making something like a bad gear selection, and the worst thing that can happen is that we have to go uphill, hit the brakes on a downhill, or get dropped by other riders. This “failure” forces us to learn. This is why we train and why cycling is so incredible.
Every time I ride a fixie I am blown away by the elegance and simplicity of the bicycle. It’s amazing that cyclists like us have ridden incredible distances and incredible terrain on the same type of bike, but were born on a different day. The options are simple. Pedal faster, walk faster. Pedal slower, walk slower. When the hill comes, your energy is what gets you over the top using the tools you chose before the ride. When you climb a hill and everyone else coasts along, your real work has begun, the descent that turns your legs into a whirling dervish. At the end of the ride, you know you’ve really accomplished something.
This sense of accomplishment is what drives morning cyclists to brave the elements, traffic and their demons, and ultimately sets us apart from the rest of the sedentary crowd. Cyclists are a hardy breed indeed, and strangely enough, we can become cyclists at any point in our lives.
I know this article may not convert you all into fixed gear fanatics, but I hope you get some insight into how we achieve the Fountain of Youth. It is through effort that exceeds our limits and recovery as our bodies respond by becoming stronger and more capable. A fixed gear bike isn’t the only way to get fit, but it sure is an interesting one!
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