The excitement of getting the bicycle of your dreams may be the only euphoria in life that remains exactly the same from age 8 to 80. If you want to rediscover the joy that comes with the wind in your hair and endorphins coursing through your system, look beyond the traditional road and mountain bikes and check out a fixed-gear bike.
The two-wheeled craze that swept major metropolises a few years ago has settled down into a stable albeit robust community that is now a permanent feature of many urban roadways. (Incidentally, the first rule of fixed-gear bicycling is that aficionados don’t call them “fixies.”) You could say that fixed-gear bikes aren’t your parents’ bicycles, but that’s because they are more like your grandparents’ bikes.
“A fixed-gear bike is the quintessential first bike that ever came out,” says Thomas “Tj” Flexer, owner of Los Angeles-based Orange 20 Bikes, which caters to the fixed-gear community. “Fixed-gear bikes existed long before other bikes.”
The difference between a traditional geared bicycle and a fixed-gear bike is the latter has a drivetrain, which means it does not coast. If the back wheel is moving, then the pedals are moving. While this may seem arcane, in many ways riding a fixed-gear bike is a more pure expression of bicycling than a $6,000 carbon-fiber frameset and matching Lycra outfit. A fixed-gear bike actually reduces the buffer between the rider and the road. Think of it as barefoot running for cyclists.
If you are looking to burn some calories and build some conditioning, fixed-gear bikes are one of the most entertaining ways to do it. In fact, professional road racers will often spend the early part of their season on a fixed-gear model because of how the bikes demand a constant pedal cadence. (Flexer points out that if you watch a Tour de France, the riders are almost always pedaling. They rarely coast with still feet.) Fixed-gear bikes also even out the ups and downs of a ride. They make downhills harder (because you have to keep the pedals moving) and climbing hills a bit easier.
“Fixed-gear bikes recycle all your rolling momentum, so you just add some pressure to the cranks and you can get up and down hills,” Flexer says.
One of the best things about fixed-gear bikes is that they are incredibly low maintenance. For example, a gear shifter on a traditional bike may have 30 tiny moving parts in it. Fixed-gear bikes are uncomplicated, which also makes them tough, reliable and, best of all, economical.
Buying a fixed-gear bike: The modest price point is part of the attraction of a fixed-gear bike, but you don’t want to go too cheap. If a bike is made from steel, it should be chromoly steel, Flexer says. Cheaper bikes are made from high-tensile steel, a softer material that Flexer considers to be unsafe. If you find a new bike for $250, it’s probably not chromoly. “I would not sell a high-tensile steel bike because of the fear of liability. And I would not ride one myself,” Flexer says. “The average price should be a little over $400. That is my No. 1 word of advice.”
Learn the fixed-gear skid: The trademark move of a fixed-gear rider is the way they decelerate without using brakes. A rider will stand up, push his hips toward the handlebars and exert pressure on the pedals to slow the drivetrain. This technique will scrub off speed until the rider starts pedaling again.
Be responsible: Instead of relying solely on the skid to slow down, Flexer insists that all fixed-gear bikes be equipped with a front brake as well as toe cages and straps to keep the pedal lashed to the foot. This helps the rider maintain the necessary leverage on the pedals to slow the drivetrain.
“Riding a fixed-gear bike is something most people pick up almost immediately,” Flexer says. “It might take a little more experience before you really start pushing it, but once you do, I find it to be more engaging than multispeed bikes.”