Josh 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.
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.
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.