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Fix-Curious? An Experiment in Fixed-Gear Commuting - Part 1

by Josh King

Josh KingJosh King lives in Seattle, where he commutes by bike every day, rain or shine.  He switched to full-time single speed commuting in 2010. You can read his thoughts on going gearless at www.singlespeedseattle.com


At the beginning of 2010, frustrated by the mechanical problems and constant derailleur adjustments necessitated by riding through Seattle’s winters, I switched to single-speed for my commute.

I ended up riding to work nearly every day last year. It turns out that having a simple, low-maintenance and fun-to-ride bike made a world of difference. I recommend single speed to anyone with a relatively flat and/or short commute–or to anyone with a masochistic streak compelling them to test themselves against the hill before time takes its toll.

Fixed-Gear Rear Cog

Fixed-Gear Rear Cog

But this year I got curious. If I like single speed so much, how would I like fixed gear? (For those unfamiliar with the difference, single speed has a freewheel; there’s no coasting in fixed gear)

Would it up my enjoyment of riding even more? I had played around with it in the past, but I had never done any meaningful fixed gear riding. So a week ago, I flipped my rear wheel around and decided to give it a go for a month.

Now, I’ll admit that I labor under some stereotypes about fixie riders. They’re playing polo in the tennis courts at the park, pushing their bikes up Pine Street and riding downhill sans brakes or helmets. I also had some assumptions–and fears–about what it would be like to ride fixie on a daily basis in the city.

So here are my assumptions, along with my initial impressions of fixed gear commuting after four days of riding. I’ll follow up with a full review once I’ve got at least a month of rides in.

  • The transition would be difficult: I assumed that the transition to fixed gear would similar to any other new form of riding. On that front, I’m pleasantly surprised: Changing to fixed gear is much less of a transition than taking up regular commuting in the first place, or changing from a geared bike to single speed.
  • The ride would be more “connected”: Many fans of fixed gear rave about the “connection” you feel to the ride, the pedal strokes, your environment and even the terrain when riding. And so far, I think I agree. It’s a very connected ride, even more so than single speed thanks to the lack of freewheel. And having to think about “pedaling through” everything and dealing with stopping and unclipping (see below) definitely leads to a more attentive ride. Time will tell, however, whether this is just a novelty that will fade into the background as I get more used to the ride.
  • Descents will be scary: My commute is short but steep, with over 300 feet of vertical drop in the last two miles on the way in to work. I assumed this would be crazy-making, with my legs churning furiously to keep up with my wheel as I dropped into downtown. Check–although by the second time I did it, the descent felt a lot more normal.
  • Clipping in will be a challenge: This continues to be the trickiest part. I didn’t realize how much my leg position at lights and habits for clipping depend on the presence of a freewheel. And once you get going, getting the second foot clipped in while the pedal is moving is a challenge. My suspicion is that this issue is a combination of lack of experience (it will get much easier with practice) and my equipment, as I’m running BMX pedals with deep clips. I’m going to change to more traditional pedals and clips in the next week and see if that makes a difference.
  • I would never ride fixed gear without hand brakes: Many fixie riders ride without brakes, or without a rear brake. My assumption was that it’s too dangerous to rely on stopping the rear wheel with the pedals when riding in someplace as hilly as Seattle. Sure, I’ve seen people do it, but their braking time appears long, and the technique erratic and unpredictable. So far, this assumption is playing out. It’s really hard to stop the wheel without brakes when going downhill or at any kind of speed. And I certainly can’t stop as quickly as I’d want to for obstacle avoidance. I’m sure I’ll get better at it with practice (and I need to read up on technique, as I imagine there’s some basic thing I’m doing wrong), but at this point I can’t imagine ever losing the hand brakes.
  • Riding fixie would not require a different fitness level: This is obviously true with respect to the uphill stretches, where riding fixed gear is indistinguishable from single speed. However, I’ve underestimated the impact of all of the spinning required, and the force on the legs when trying to brake by stopping the pedals. The first day I rode, the effect was like being a boat all day–I was walking around in the evening with fixie legs. I’m also not sure all this kicking back on the pedals is good for my 43-year-old knees, either.
  • Cornering will be a problem: I anticipated a lot of pedal strikes from having to drive through tight corners. So far, this has been a non-issue.

Josh King with his bike

I’ll report back after a month of fixed-gear commuting fun.

In the meantime, any questions, comments–or tips or pointers on fixed-gear technique–are welcome.

 
The Chariot Summer Sale - 2013

13 Responses to “Fix-Curious? An Experiment in Fixed-Gear Commuting - Part 1”

  1. Bruce H says:

    In regards to the braking issue, I find that I plan my immediate route much more carefully. When riding sans breaks, it’s critical to maintain situational awareness and proceed slowly in situations where you can’t be certain of the situation. Is a car going to cross the intersection in front of you? Not sure? Better slow down. Are there people about who might step into your path? Better slow down. Etcetera, etcetera.

    When coming to an intersection, be prepared to make a sudden right turn, and check to make sure that path is clear also. If not… yeah. Slow down.

  2. Bruce H says:

    I’ve been riding fixed for about 6 years. I’ve never used clips, just platform pedals, but living in Houston I don’t have many hills to contend with. Do you find that clips help a lot when stopping or slowing?

  3. Marc C says:

    I have ridden a fixed gear for several years both on and off road. I use SPD clipless pedals and mountain bike shoes. This gives me the attachment for good spin and climbing and the ease of getting into the pedal on the move. I also run a front brake. I find I can control my speed on downhills and coming to a stop best with this setup. I just don’t trust myself in traffic without a brake.

  4. Mark says:

    Incidentally, I too ride a fixed Salsa Casseroll, and am quite fond of it. It sounds like you’re getting the hang of it well enough, but there is one thing I must say: DO NOT ride without brakes. You are absolutely right that stopping without them takes substantially longer. This is because static friction (i.e. your wheels rolling) exerts a much greater force than kinetic friction (i.e. skidding). You don’t need rear brakes on a fixed gear (but they’re not a bad idea, just in case your chain breaks), but front brakes are essential.

  5. Simon says:

    I have ridden fixed for about 2 years now and agree with you regarding brakes. Just today i was riding through Golden Gate park and an unleased dog ran out in front of me. With rim brakes i stopped no problem, if i’d been riding brakeless a skid would have had me hit the dog, which had stopped dead in front of me! No amount of “Situational Awareness” would have helped. _Maybe_ a swerve instead of a skid, but that may have seen me hit something else (say, the ownner, who was a few feet away).

  6. Hi Guys -
    I picked up my fixie about 2 years ago. I put it back down about a year ago, after faltering in traffic. To keep it short, I will share my experience without too much hyperbole.
    - For me, the ‘switchie to Fixie’ was a “no-brainer.” Who wouldn’t give up cost, maintenance, and gear-management for the simplest drive system in the world?
    - Yes, the ride can be: Scary; Unpredictable; Difficult; Demanding; and Dangerous. It is also: Effective; Efficient; Satisfying; Simple and Stimulating.
    - Yes, Clipping-In can be problematic and complex… A better solution may be cages – Simple to mount/dis-mount, and much less demanding.
    - And Cornering – I have not had a pedal strike – I would like to take the credit for this, but it really is the Redline Engineering team’s success in design which helped here…

    I rode a 9-2-5 for these 12 months. It was a fair sized frame, though a little tall for me at 56cm, putting my center of gravity a little higher than normal. As I’m not the most stable rider in the pack, this may have contributed to my last crash:
    I was running an errand, when I noticed the road narrowed ahead. With traffic on the left, and a tall curb on the right, I needed to make a choice: #1: Bump the Car to my left; #2: Try to jump the curb, or #3: dismount and take my chances. “Well, Bob,” I thought, “Let’s see what is behind door number three.” I dismounted abruptly to the right, rolled twice on the sidewalk, stood up, brushed the dust off, and took a bow. The two guys standing on the corner gave me a round of applause. I picked up the intact bike (try this with gears!!), got back on, and finished my errand (ironically, to get my car from the shop.)
    I came away with a broken 5th metacarpal bone in my left hand – an intact bicycle, and some wisdom to boot. One thing led to another, I sold that bike and moved on to a NORCO Ceres – the diametric opposite to the 9-2-5. Lots and lots of complexity: 9 speeds in the rear hub alone; belt drive, and a cool stay-clamp to steady the rear wheel – very high-tech, but that is another story…
    I miss my Fixie.
    Micki Detroit – Green-Iron Bicycle Co., San Diego www,green-iron.net

  7. chunky monkey biker says:

    W/a fixie, you learn how to use the terrain to you advantage: conserve energy coasting down small hills, etc. You learn not to take the topography for granted.

  8. Josh King says:

    I find I need the clips the most when descending, simply to keep my feet on the pedals.

  9. I ride a fixed 925 as well. I love it. It’s my go to bike for running around the city, running errands, etc. In the 5 years I’ve owned this bike, I’ve only had pedal strike issues a few times and those were probably due to my own dumb ass not paying attention. About clipping in: give Crank Bros Eggbeaters a try. With 4 entry points, they’re ludicrously easy to clip into while riding fixed.
    And yes, use your brakes!

  10. Dewber says:

    Fixies without a brake are just plain unnecessary. It’s just bravado. But, did I ever enjoy riding to work and back on my fixed townie. The only reason I went back to gears was that my knees just couldn’t handle it. Wish I even knew such a thing existed when I was younger and more pliable.

  11. Mike A says:

    On fixie bike, terrain gonna ride you!

  12. don says:

    So if the problem was the derailleur why don’t you try something with a nexus 3 or 7 instead?

  13. Luis jimenez says:

    So, I been riding Road bike for years, single speed for about 1 year and 2 days ago I finally started with a fixed gear. I built the bike myself with the help of my local shop and the Internet. Everything was going smooth until
    I started riding it. WTF is all that “kickback” from the pedals. It happens every two or three spins the pedals kick back(at least that’s what it felt like). Also, I don’t have pedal straps momentarily so I try to lock the pedal with my left leg and the force of the spin it’s just greater than mine legs. Is this normal or something is wrong? I also thought about me unconsciously trying to coast because of all those years riding the other kind! Any help will ge appreciate it.

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