You’ve seen them at stop lights, weaving in and out of traffic, and likely cruising through the park… they look like any other ten speed or mountain style bike, at least at a glance, but you’ve probably noticed many of them don’t have gears or a derailleur and they appear to have no hand brakes either. They’re called fixed gear bikes – fixies, singles speeds, track bikes are all known aliases as well – and they’re all the rage. They were once almost the exclusive domain of bicycle messengers, but in the last decade or so they have come to be a staple of urban culture and lifestyles. Thinking about getting yourself one? Be aware, these aren’t quite like any other bike you’ve ridden and it takes some adjustment to get used to the challenges of these unique two wheelers.
At a Glance
A fixed gear bike looks like a ten speed, but look closer and notice that the rear hub only has one sprocket, and not the multiple sizes set-up most ten speeds and mountain bikes have. This means that the bike will always move in the direction the pedals are going – no coasting. Stopping on a fixed gear bike is a bit tricky too – initially, you have to learn to slow the bike momentum by applying force to the pedals. And since you only have one chainwheel and one sprocket, the chain tension is absolutely vital to the correct operation of the crank.
The Ease of Maintenance
Now, not having a derailleur with multiple sprockets on the rear hub means changes in how you ride, and how riding feels, but it also means a cleaner look for the bike and a mechanical advantage of sorts too – without the shifters and multiple chain rings there is a lot less to maintain and fix, making a fixed gear a great economical choice for those looking to avoid having to spend time working on their bike, or spend additional money to replace extra parts. Generally, fixies are brakeless too – this is another area where a track bike can save you some time spent on maintenance as well as save you some money (although you may find your back tire needs replacing a bit more than usual). Less time spent on maintenance, save money by using fewer parts and get a great workout for your legs in the process!
It would generally be recommended that riders who are new to fixed gear bikes should begin with a low gear ratio as this will make learning to ride up and down hills a bit easier during the transition to your new bike. Also, it is highly recommended that newbies have a front brake while learning; much the same way you required training wheels when you first learned to ride a two wheeled bike as a child, a brake can be removed once you’ve mastered the bike and feel comfortable. Having a brake lever to pull will also ease you into brakeless riding a little more smoothly – you may find yourself instinctively grabbing for it if you immediately jump to riding brakeless (note – some bylaws require a brake for all bikes, so check your local bylaws regarding bike safety standards and regulations first).
Because of the way a fixed gear bike must be ridden – with much more attention paid to the actual riding experience – you may find after a while that it feels far more natural to you, and more natural than a freewheel driven bike. Having to remain more focused and aware during the ride and adapting to the brakeless and gear-less experience will feel like you’re learning to ride a bike all over again, but once you’ve adapted to it, you may never ride a standard freewheel bike again.
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Citations: Images by Big Shot Bikes