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
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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
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.