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Fix-Curious? An Experiment in Fixed-Gear Commuting - Part 2

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


It’s been about six weeks since I started my experiment with fixed-gear commuting. It’s been a bit surprising, even though I started with a baseline of single-speed commuting.

So let’s start with the biggest revelation before moving into the technical details: A fixed-gear ride is the best ride you can have. The “connected” feel I wrote about when I first started the experiment hasn’t faded. If anything, it’s gotten stronger, and it’s a phenomenal sensation. Pedaling feels fluid, and there’s none of the chain suck you can get when coasting mid-pedal even on a single-speed bike (to say nothing of a geared bike). The ride just feels alive. And you can ride as slow as want, which is quite helpful when you need to ride on the sidewalk or navigate a tight parking garage.

Sure, it’s a demanding ride, because you can’t ever stop paying attention and just coast along. But the feeling of connection to the pavement makes it more than worthwhile.

On the technical side:

  1. Gear selection: The tricky part of moving to single-speed or fixed gear is finding that one gear that allows for decent speed but also doesn’t require you to push your bike uphill. A 48-tooth chainring and 17-tooth cog setup works well for my commute. But if I were riding somewhere flatter I’d probably go with 52/16 or 48/14. You can read more here on single speed gear selection.
  2. Cages or clips: I tried riding without either, but it was a no-go. It’s too easy to lose the pedals when descending. Because the pedals are always moving when you are, you need to stay one with your pedals. It also takes some getting used to clipping back in, as you can’t briefly coast to get your foot aligned. Once I accepted that I had to start a little more slowly than I’d like, this got a lot easier.
  3. Curbs and cornering: Tight cornering and jumping curbs requires a little more awareness, as you can’t momentarily stop pedaling or position your inside foot when cornering. However, while this was a major concern starting out, I’ve found it to be no more than a minor issue.
  4. Brakes: I had always assumed there was some logic to all of the fixed gear bikes I see with no brakes or just a front brake. I’ve now decided it’s really just a dangerous fashion statement. Despite daily riding over the last six weeks, I still can’t stop my bike in a reasonably short distance just by stopping pedaling when going over 8 to 10 miles per hour. And forget about it when going 25 miles per hour downhill. While there might be an aesthetic claim to the simplicity of a brakeless machine, or a desire to take on the challenge of developing the technique to stop without brakes, the greatly increased danger can’t possibly justify it. You can enjoy the ride just as much with brakes–and the sneers from fixie hipsters are just part of the fun.
Salsa fixed gear

Not a fashion statement

So what’s the verdict on fixed gear for daily commuting?

Well, let me put it this way: I’m not going back. In fact, I like it so much I’ve added a rack to my primary bike so I can ride fixed-gear to the grocery store and on other errands as well as on my commute.

In a way, it meets the “J.O.Y.B.A.G” spirit in that it’s hard to resist hopping on for ride.

While fixed-gear is not for everyone–those who are considering an electric-assist bike should look elsewhere–I’d encourage any bike commuter with a reasonable level of fitness and/or flat commute to give it a go. The low maintenance alone makes it worthwhile, and the happiness of the ride is a welcome bonus that will keep you riding.

 
Burley nomad 229

16 Responses to “Fix-Curious? An Experiment in Fixed-Gear Commuting - Part 2”

  1. Evan Remington says:

    25 miles per hour downhill on a fixed-gear? I can’t imagine how ridiculous that must look. Your feet must be spinning like crazy.

  2. Josh King says:

    Yeah, it still feels a bit ridiculous. That’s the only part of the ride I don’t really like.

  3. Josh says:

    I commute on a fixed gear in Philadelphia and I find that the most valuable aspect of the fixed cog in traffic is the higher torque and control at low speeds. Slipping between parked cars and traffic, navigating trucks parked in the bike lane, and avoiding traffic furniture is a lot easier with the direct drive. But for anything over 10 miles or so, out comes the road bike.

  4. Eric says:

    Interesting article and something I’ve considered myself. I too live in a hilly area, and I’m not sure I’d be comfortable with the fixie feeling going downhill although I could definitely see the benefit when ascending. With that being said, why not just go for the sigle speed free-wheel? You still get the simplicity and the low maintanence, without the risks and the steep learning curve.

  5. Chuck says:

    I gave fixed gearing a go a while back; for short rides it was great but I had to go SS freewheel eventually. With an 18 mile commute, I needed to coast.

  6. Joshua says:

    I have been commuting by fixed gear for a year now. This was a very interesting article. i wish I could share it my friends on facebook.

  7. Rick says:

    Been riding a fixed gear for commuting for several years now. I have another bike which I was planning on using as a touring bike for longer rides, however I find myself grabbing the fixie for longer rides now. Waaaay more fun than a single speed.

  8. Mikros says:

    I switched to fixed for commuting about a year ago.
    I was staying in a single gear on my road bike most of the time anyways, so I thought I’d give it a try.
    The thing that’s got me hooked is the incredible slow speed control.
    In traffic: you can ride super-slow and/or track stand. I ride through some dense urban traffic and I almost never unclip.
    In snow: awesome to feel the back wheel movement through the pedals. It’s like having traction control. I can feel it slip when accelerating or slowing down and adjust my stroke almost subconsciously to compensate.
    One more thing: brakes FTW. One of mine is geared pretty steep and if you think I’m riding that thing in traffic without a brake you’re nutso.

  9. BluesCat says:

    Hmmmm. Since my main ride is a ‘bent, I don’t think the fixie thing is gonna work for me!

  10. Cort says:

    I started commuting fixed, switched to free-wheel but now the majority is done on a geared cross bike. Memphis is relatively flat so any bike works well, but I’m still faster geared. Proponents of single/fixed say “It’s actually faster uphill.” But what about the downhills? FG/SS spins out while I drop to a smaller rear cog. Why do you think alley cat racers are abandoning the FG in favor of more traditional road bikes?

  11. Jonathan says:

    I used to commute fixed back when it was only 5km each way. I have since moved out to mortgage land and a 32km each way commute with crazy hills, so have gone the way of geared bikes. Sadly, my fixed geared bikes are hanging in the basement and don’t see the light of day too much…

  12. Sean says:

    This was a very nice, well organized review of Fixie. Thank you so much for posting it.

  13. Scottyent@gmail.com says:

    Great article! I was hoping for a bit of advice… I just ordered my first fixed gear bike, mostly because of affordability. However, I’m not realizing that my commute is going to be 6 miles gradual downhill, then back up. I don’t know if the descent grade will be so high that I’ll regret going with a fixed gear… But I guess we will see. Do you think on a long steady easy down slope I’ll grow real tired real fast of peddling my feet along?!

  14. Scottyent@gmail.com says:

    I just googled it, it’s about a 700ft descent over 6.5 miles… So not tereibly downhill, but steadily

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