Feel like being a little bit retro – and right up to date at the same time? Then how about riding a “fixie” (also known as fixed gear bikes) - old-fashioned but up-to-date machines that are also quite practical and have something of a cult following?
Fixies offer an entertaining mixture of really old technology, really modern styling and really practical reasons to buy.
Typical Fixie - in this case, a 6KU that's available with a flip-flop hub
It’s a mixture that has birthed sub-cultures of fixie enthusiasts all over the world.
- Really old technology – because it is virtually what was used when bicycles were first invented. For instance, the Tour de France, which started in 1903, was a fixed-gear event until 1937, when derailleurs were allowed for the first time.
- Really modern styling - because today’s marketers of fixed gear bike brands offer many, many styles, colors and designs, from retro to bang up to date.
- And really practical – they’re easy to ride, easy to maintain, more efficient and above all, fixie bikes are cheap.
Fixie does not equal single-speed
The term “fixie” is often used in the same breath as “single-speed” - but not always correctly.
Certainly, not all single speeds are fixies (think of all the single-speed machines that allow you to freewheel – and by definition, fixies have a fixed drivetrain and cannot freewheel).
And not all fixies are single-speed. For instance Sturmey Archer offer a three-speed, fixed-gear hub for those fixie riders who are looking for a gearing option.
So what is a Fixie?
A true fixie has a drivetrain with only one-gear – one chainring at the front and a single cog on the rear hub.
That rear hub also has a lockring with a reverse thread that does not allow you to freewheel.
- Which means that if the bike is moving, your legs have to move as well.
- Even if you’re going downhill.
- You can’t coast.
On the other hand, you can ride backwards if you feel like it – and of course have the skill!
So a fixie is almost always a single-speed – but just to complicate matters, what most people mean when they say “single-speed” is a bike with a one-gear drivetrain but which also has a freewheel hub.
Advantages of a Fixed Gear Bike
So why would anyone want a bike that forces you to keep pedaling?
More fun to ride
Fixie owners talk a lot about the quality of the ride; they love the smooth ride the bike offers.
They will tell you that a fixie offers the purest form of cycling there is, that they feel more connected to the bike, more attuned and more in control.
There’s more focus on the ride and your surroundings. No need to think about what gear you’re in and whether you should shift to another.
Riding just becomes more fun – even on a daily commute to work.
And there’s a nice side benefit. You have to pedal all the time, even on a downhill. You will be working harder, but you’ll also be getting stronger and fitter.
Fixie bikes are lighter
The bikes are lighter because there are no shifters, derailleurs, cables and cable guides, or multi-chainring cranksets.
The difference in weight isn’t huge – a matter of a pound or two compared to an equivalent geared bike.
But when you’re tired, those few pounds can make a real difference.
Easier to manoeuvre
Because the bike is lighter it is easier to manoeuvre.
The riding position is generally more upright and therefore more comfortable. It also allows you to watch the traffic around you much more closely.
Look Mom - no derailleur! Fixed gear rear sprocket. (Photo - Wikipedia)
From a purely mechanical point of view, a fixed gear drivetrain is the most efficient type of bicycle drivetrain available because the chain length is shorter, the chainline is straight, and there are no derailleur pulleys gobbling up energy.
Bottom line – this is the most efficient way to transfer power from the rider to the wheels.
So a fixie needs less energy than a geared bike would if it were in the same gear.
Higher efficiency means the rider (you!) saves energy.
Cheap to buy and maintain
Fixie bikes are simple. There are no shifters, derailleurs, cables and cable guides, or multi-chainring cranksets.
Fewer components means lower costs.
They are also likely to be made of less expensive materials – think steel (for a more durable bike) or aluminium (lighter and easier to handle) instead of carbon fiber.
So cheap fixed gear bikes are certainly easier to find than their equivalent modern road bikes, and it’s not because manufacturers are skimping on quality.
In fact, for the best fixie bike brands, the opposite is often true. Because of the simplicity, manufacturers can afford to spend more on the components they do use and still come in at a lower price than most geared commuter bikes.
That same simple build means that not only is the bike reliable, it is also easier and cheaper to maintain and repair. There’s much less to break (probably only spokes and/or chain) and replacement parts are cheap.
Maintenance equals regular oiling and cleaning, checking bolts and the chain for tightness, and occasionally replacing the (inexpensive) brake pads – if your fixie has front brakes.
Less attractive to thieves
Initially at least, fixies are more difficult to ride, so thieves will find it more difficult to make a quick getaway.
Because they are more difficult to ride, the pool of potential buyers is smaller.
They don’t look valuable, so don’t make attractive targets.
And because they really are inexpensive, they can’t be sold for much on the black market.
Improves your Cadence
In the past it was common for professional riders to train on fixie bikes during the off season because they believed it improved their cadence and pedaling style.
This is what Wikipedia has to say about cadence:
"In cycling, cadence (or pedaling rate) is the number of revolutions of the crank per minute; this is the rate at which a cyclist is pedaling/turning the pedals.
"Cadence is directly proportional to wheel speed, but is a distinct measurement and changes with gearing—which determines the ratio of crank rpm to wheel rpm.
"Cyclist typically have a cadence at which they feel most comfortable, and on bicycles with many gears it is possible to maintain a preferred cadence at a wide range of speeds.
"Recreational and utility cyclists typically cycle around 60–80 rpm. According to cadence measurement of 7 professional cyclists during 3 week races they cycle about 90 rpm during flat and long (~190 km) group stages and individual time trials of ∼50 km.
"During ∼15 km uphill cycling on high mountain passes they cycle about 70 rpm.
"While fast cadence is also referred to as ‘spinning’, slow cadence is referred as ‘mashing’."
More Efficient Rider
And here’s a modern cyclist, Chelsey Magnes, writing in Gear Junkie:
"Not only is a fixie fun to pedal, but it has made me into a more efficient, focused, balanced, and more intelligent rider."
“When I go out for a ride, I am not one for computers — too many buttons, cords, and directions. Instead, I ride a fixed-gear bike.
“Not only is a fixie fun to pedal, but it has made me into a more efficient, focused, balanced, and more intelligent rider.
“Because there is no freewheel in the rear hub, there is no way to coast. You are forced to keep pedaling on all gradients, which forces you to keep your pedal strokes smooth and efficient.
“A high cadence (100-110) is more efficient and better than a slow cadence (70- 80) because your muscles don’t take such a beating, your lungs and heart recover faster, it is less torque on your knees, and it allows for faster accelerations with less effort.
“Before the fixie, I was at an average of an 80 cadence on my road bike. After only two weeks of consistent riding on my fixie, I have already bumped my average up to 95.
The fixie helps because it never lets you get lazy and coast. It makes you pedal, which forces your legs into a perfect drive ratio with the speed of your gearing.”
Fixies fall into two main categories.
The first is also the biggest - most fixies are used for commuting and/or recreational riding. These bikes will have a relaxed geometry (meaning you sit more upright), usually have front brakes, and may be fitted with useful accessories such as fenders and racks.
Velodrome machine from Motobecane
The second major category covers fixies that are used for velodrome racing (oval track, either indoor or outdoor). These bikes have short wheelbases and head tubes and drop handlebars that allow riders to adopt a much more aggressive riding position.
They also have very stiff frames to cope with the amount of power that riders pour through them. These velodrome bikes have no brakes, for a number of reasons. Weight is reduced slightly, there are no sudden corners, and safety is improved because no one is able to brake suddenly.
Fixies without front brakes
There are ways to stop a brakeless bike.
- You can hold back on the pedals to show the machine down.
- You can skid-stop (and wear out your tires).
In many areas it is illegal to ride a bike without brakes.
And anyone who rides in urban areas knows that drivers are unpredictable, as are other cyclists, children, dogs and cats.
Potholes and other obstacles can appear with little or no warning..
Any trip is likely to involve dodging and sudden braking – and it takes a brakeless fixie twice as far to stop as one fitted with brakes.
Fixieswith rear wheel braking only could be significantly less safe than bikes that have rear wheel braking and brakes on the front wheel.
Here’s a comment published on Quora by Sam Harwood, a mechanical engineer.
“As you decelerate, your momentum tries to carry you weight forward.
The force travels mostly through your arms and is transferred to the handlebars, frame, front wheel, and to the ground.
At the same time, weight is shifted off the rear wheel.
“In a perfectly balanced braking system, the front brakes account for as much as 75% of the stopping power of a vehicle.
In fact, if you compare the front brakes to the rear on a car, you’ll likely find that the front brakes are larger.”
Having 75% less braking power might not be such a great idea!
If the only way you can slow down or stop is to jump on your pedals and/or skid, you could be facing a world of hurt.
Only one gear? Which one?
You need to give a little thought to the gear ratio you choose.
Too high a ratio and you end up over-geared and find yourself struggling to get up hills or to get up to speed from rest.
Too low and you’ll be under-geared, pedaling like crazy on even a gentle downhill.
So think about whether you pedal fast or slow, what kind of terrain you’ll be riding, and your level of fitness.
If you are already a reasonably experienced rider, remember that the extra efficiency of the fixie geartrain will allow you to use a slightly higher gear than you usually would.
One gear ratio that is used quite often is 2.75 to 1, which you could achieve via a rear sprocket with 16 teeth and a chainring with 44.
To avoid localized wear on the chain, it’s a good idea to make sure that the number of chainring teeth is not an exact multiple of the number of socket teeth.
And if after considering all this you are not quite sure whether the whole fixie thing is for you, there is a way to have your cake and eat it – you could fit a flip-flop hub.
A flip-flop hub is a rather special rear wheel hub that allows you to install your rear wheel in two different ways.
One side has a fixed cog that makes the machine a fixie.
Turn the wheel around and you have a single-speed machine that will allow you to freewheel, so if you try the fixie approach and find
Typical flip-flop hub
you don’t like it, you can switch sides and have a perfectly good single-speed machine.
Another option, of course, is to put a different size cog on the second side instead of a freewheel unit, so that you can use an alternative gear ratio if you are going to be riding in markedly different terrain.
There is some discussion and disagreement about picking the right frame size for a fixie. Most riders seem to feel that if you are already a biker, then select a fixie the same size.
Some, however, feel that it sensible to go down one frame size – they argue that slightly smaller is better as it makes it easier to get your feet on the ground at a traffic light or if the prevailing traffic situation demands more control or a quick stop.
There are some obvious downsides to a fixie.
There is a natural tendency to freewheel when approaching an obstacle or a corner – but try this on a fixie and you could lose control, or at the very least get a nasty smack on your leg from the pedal.
With no gears, your cadence will be changing all the time as the terrain does. Steep hills can be a particular problem, whether you’re going up or down.
While maintenance of a fixie is generally simple, you do need to make sure that the chain is tight enough to ensure that it cannot derail from the front chainring or the rear sprocket.
If your fixie has no front brakes, any derailment means you will have no brakes at all!
Or you can build a custom fixie
Given that fixies appeal to those with a somewhat independent mindset, it is no surprise to find that there are many custom fixie bikes on offer – either already complete, or available as individual components from suppliers of fixed gear bike parts.
You can start with an old frame rescued from the scrapheap, or alternatively choose a supplier of fixie bike frames.
After that, you’re limited only by your imagination and budget.
Enter “custom fixie” or “customized fixed gear bike” in your favorite search engine and you’ll find dozens of helpful sites that offer fixie bike parts. Customize the wheels, the tire colors, the fork, the drivetrain, the handlebars, the pedals ...you get the idea.
For instance, an outfit called Peace Bicycles (https://www.peacebicycles.com/advice/fixie-bike-parts) offers you 50 ways to customize your fixie, and groups customizable options as follows: saddles, pedals, gears, lights, fenders, brakes, frames, tires and wheels.
There are many other helpful sites to browse for ideas and options for custom fixed gear bikes.
And if DIY doesn’t appeal to you, you can find a wide range of quality fixie brands online that will welcome you to the world of simple cycling.