Fixed Gear!
April 7, 2003 11:53 AM   Subscribe

Who needs to coast? With a fixed gear bicycle, you can't. Not to be confused with single-speeds or multi-gear derailers, this minimalist setup is used in track racing, including Japan's Keirin. Messengers and others ride track bikes on the street (sometimes illegally without a brake): the simplicity means there's less to brake or be stolen. Not all fixies are tracks bikes though, with conversions often more focused on utility and comfort than speed. (Perfect for the commute!) They're great in the winter and offroad, too. You can make your own (you just need horizontal dropouts) and then learn some special techniques.
posted by Utilitaritron (53 comments total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
There's also a mailing list.
posted by Utilitaritron at 11:53 AM on April 7, 2003

I sense a passionate and thoughtful discussion on this topic coming.
posted by 4easypayments at 12:01 PM on April 7, 2003

That you, of course, will be participating in?
posted by gottabefunky at 12:14 PM on April 7, 2003

there's less to brake or be stolen

There really is less to brake if you're riding without one, but I meant break of course.
posted by Utilitaritron at 12:18 PM on April 7, 2003

Are these the speedy buggers that send you ass-over-tits when you try to stop, if you've never ridden one before? A road bike freak friend of mine has a fascination for these.

I don't know enough for a thoughtful discussion, but I'll read the links. Thanks!
posted by Shane at 12:18 PM on April 7, 2003

The pedals are always spinning when the rear wheel is, but if you apply some backwards force to the pedals with or instead of braking or it's no problem.
posted by Utilitaritron at 12:27 PM on April 7, 2003

I still miss coaster brakes...
posted by NortonDC at 12:31 PM on April 7, 2003

They're great in the winter and offroad, too.

I suspect that Utilitaritron has never ridden a fixed gear bike before. Sure, there's a growing subculture of cyclists who use fixed gear bikes for training purposes, or because they spend so much time on a bike (bike messengers, for example,) that they're looking for a way to keep things interesting. But make no mistake, these folks are _hard_core_. For most recreational cyclists, such as myself, a fixed gear bike is little more than a torture device.
posted by bicyclingfool at 12:31 PM on April 7, 2003

Unfortunately, these are especially popular here in Chicago; it's much easier to ride a fixed gear bike in a city that is essentially flat.

And you'd be hard pressed to find a faster bike. Indeed, I've seen some messengers at speeds that border on the suicidal. Tearing through the loop without breaks isn't particularly wise.

A Lecture: Those who flaunt basic safety and the rules of traffic - be it on a fixed gear bike or otherwise - make it nearly impossible for bicycles to be taken seriously by drivers. Indeed, we're seen by most as nothing more than a nuisance.

Fixed gear bikes, and the mentality that has popularized them, are troubling.
posted by aladfar at 12:34 PM on April 7, 2003

I've ridden fixed exclusively since last July, mostly for transportation. I had to skip January and some February because of ice, but otherwise I ride to school every day.

Same roads, Same rights, Same Rules. That means stopping at lights. And stop signs. The mentality and the machine aren't the same.
posted by Utilitaritron at 12:40 PM on April 7, 2003

I have nothing to add to the his post other than my congratulations to Utilitaritron putting together a fine example of a quality Mefi FPP. Well done! Thanks
posted by Witty at 12:52 PM on April 7, 2003

Living on what is probably the flattest part of the planet, I should consider one of these. On a non-windy day I probably only use a couple of gears anyway. And I will feel guilty about coasting from now on. Thanks Uti.
posted by teg at 12:52 PM on April 7, 2003

I used to be a bike messenger here in New York City. A lot of us rode fixed because 1. it's easier to maintain, 2. you can go really fast, 3. it's extremely manly and your legs get huge, but mostly 4. you can keep your balance while stopped (by rolling forward and back a couple of inches) so you don't have to de-clip and put a foot down, which saves you a lot of time aggregated over a day's red lights. (Not that we stopped for red lights.)

The main problem with it is that you can't really skitch.

And yeah, we were a nuisance, but since we were paid by the delivery, we really didn't care. And remember, in NYC, the drivers see pedestrians and other vehicles as nuisances too!
posted by nicwolff at 1:02 PM on April 7, 2003

Holy cow. I don't read mefi for a week and come back to a thread about something I know about!

As a college student I've used my converted fixie for commuting for a few years now, leaving my car for trips over 20 miles. One nice option any one looking into a fixed gear bike for transportation should take a look at would be a "flip-flop" hub. Basically it serves to give you the option to either ride Fixed Gear or Single Speed. The difference being Fixed Gear, as stated above, the pedals move as long as rear wheel does where as with Single Speed, you get the one speed but can coast as well. That usually comes in handy here in Oregon where it isn't really flat.

Great FFP Utilitaritron!
posted by asterisk at 1:03 PM on April 7, 2003

The main problem with it is that you can't really skitch.

posted by Witty at 1:07 PM on April 7, 2003

I actually learned to ride as a kid on a fixed not knowing there was any other kind, (eventually the only alternative at the time was a banana seat--now whatever happened to those). The first time i saw one of those fancy "other" bikes, I thought i was some miraculous invention.
posted by Duck_Lips at 1:08 PM on April 7, 2003

Flip-flop hubs are cool, but it seems like it'd be cooler if you could switch between fixed and coaster on the fly, rather than having to re-mount your back wheel every time.
posted by hob at 1:25 PM on April 7, 2003

For fitness riding, fixed is the only way to go. You can ride miles and miles over hilly terrain on a geared bike, and really spend very little time pedalling. It's coast, coast, coast, whenever you can. What's aerobic about that? On fixed, you put your whole body into pedaling, and you can feel the frame straining under your weight. It is virtually a different category of activity from geared riding. It has so much integrity. And it makes your legs feel delicious.
posted by Faze at 1:28 PM on April 7, 2003

i live in san francisco and ride a fixie.
it's a lot of fun, it's fast and with a little training you can power up almost any hill.
i used to race road and track and found the simplicity of the track bikes really compelling; they're not that hard to get used to the acceleration is truly awesome and they are really good for developing a truly circular pedal stroke.
the one potential problem with them is they're not so good for your knees. if you have to stop in a hurry it can HURT.
posted by dolface at 1:33 PM on April 7, 2003

So my childhood banana-seat was really a fixed gear? I remember the feeling of pedalling downhill really FAST and my feet losing grip, the pedals spinning uncontrollably beneath my raised feet.
posted by Shane at 1:51 PM on April 7, 2003

But make no mistake, these folks are _hard_core_.

The legendary Team Hugh Jass (Harrisonburg, VA) used to ride fixed-gear/rigid fork/hard tail bikes in 24-hour mountain bike relays. They also restricted themselves to a single pair of never-washed shorts for the entire team for the entire race. Check out Hugh Jass vs. Trek East-Coast at 24-hours of Snowshoe (2001).
posted by eddydamascene at 1:53 PM on April 7, 2003

A note on bike laws -- vehicle codes often contain language which makes front brake only fixed-gears illegal for road use (e.g. "no person shall operate a bicycle on a roadway unless it is equipped with a brake which will enable the operator to make one braked wheel skid on dry, level, clean pavement" - CA vehicle code 22101a). Bicycle laws by state.
posted by eddydamascene at 2:20 PM on April 7, 2003

I'd have to learn how to effectively stop and swerve on one of these things... I ride a regular old derailer type bike, and on many occasions get up to a good clip only to have to slam on the brakes and swerve out of the way of some little child who has stumbled onto the path... since I ride on an old railway trail, there's a lot of those little buggers playing on the side of it, not to mention dogs, cats, squirrels and a whole host of other urban wildlife. However, the trail is completely flat and paved, so it would be an excellent place to use such a bicycle...
posted by FiveFrozenFish at 2:25 PM on April 7, 2003

You sick freaks!

Seriously, making a single-speed or a fixie just got a whole lot easier this year with White Industries' new elliptical hubs. This makes it much easier to pick a gear ratio on a normal frame. No need for cumbersome chain tensioners.

Of course, personally, I think this invention is highly useful on a single-speed too.
posted by bonehead at 2:33 PM on April 7, 2003

unless it is equipped with a brake which will enable the operator to make one braked wheel skid on dry, level, clean pavement

On second thought, you can lock the front brakes while pedalling down the rear wheel, right?
posted by eddydamascene at 2:56 PM on April 7, 2003

Good point about the knees. Anyone have to stop riding due to fixie-caused injuries?
posted by tomharpel at 3:32 PM on April 7, 2003

I remember when single gear bikes were the standard, except for the lucky ones who had the three-speed in-hub shifters. Unless you live in a very flat area, you would have to be a masochist to choose a single-gear over a multi-gear bike, although the number of gears on bikes these days has got way out of hand, IMO and this would contribute to the amount of time and thought that goes into using the gears effectively, as well as to the maintenance and general complication of owning what used to be a very simple machine to maintain.

Oh, and I remember banana seats too, and ape-hanger handle-bars and making extended forks for our bikes then putting a tiny wheel on the front to turn them into a "chopper".
posted by dg at 3:42 PM on April 7, 2003

unless it is equipped with a brake which will enable the operator to make one braked wheel skid on dry, level, clean pavement

ugh, stupid law. skidding on a bike == loss of control. in truth the front brake is all you should ever need on a bike (rear brake can be useful downhill to share the drag, prevent overheating, etc). also annoying that most shops in the US sell bikes with the right-hand brake lever tied to the rear brake.

I see rather a lot of faux-fixed-gear bikes in manhattan, with rear brakes only. idiots.
posted by dorian at 3:55 PM on April 7, 2003

posted by Joeforking at 4:01 PM on April 7, 2003

I see rather a lot of faux-fixed-gear bikes in manhattan, with rear brakes only.

There's a lawsuitin' waiting to happen.
posted by bonehead at 4:03 PM on April 7, 2003


Did you read the page that 'derailers' links to? Hint: it's called 'Derailer, Not Derailleur!' :)
posted by Utilitaritron at 4:08 PM on April 7, 2003

My roommate Steve used to ride a brakeless track bike around town, I thought he was nuts for doing that, hopping the back wheel up, locking it, and bringing it back down to slow the bike.

But really, are you people still using half-bikes? Get with the program!
posted by planetkyoto at 4:29 PM on April 7, 2003

Oh, and I remember banana seats too, and ape-hanger handle-bars and making extended forks for our bikes then putting a tiny wheel on the front to turn them into a "chopper".

Indeed! The cheapest way was to just hacksaw the fork and jam in two broomsticks. Not very durable though, but that wasn't the point.

Regarding the front-brake only, has anyone actually ever gone over that way, or was that just a mythical fear.
posted by HTuttle at 4:31 PM on April 7, 2003


i can't ride a bike. so this is the type of thing that i get from a discussion like this. maybe i'll stop laughing eventually.
posted by oog at 4:44 PM on April 7, 2003

the front/rear brake thing is a regular source of flaming on the usenet tech cycling group. jobst's summary is here.

sheldon brown (main link) seem like a good shop (i've bought from them by post before).
posted by andrew cooke at 4:50 PM on April 7, 2003

Please explain the White Ind. elliptical hub. I don't see, at all, what the deal is. How's it used? Why is it supposed to be better than normal hubs?
posted by five fresh fish at 4:51 PM on April 7, 2003

Gosh. Why didn't I see this post earlier?

All I ride these days is a fixed-gear. I've become so attached to riding fixed that I feel odd on a geared/freewheel bike.

Regarding the law that says you need to be able to make a wheel skid on clean, dry pavement: I can skid my rear wheel without much hassle.

Contrary to popular belief, those of us that ride fixed aren't masochists. There's a few reasons I choose to ride fixed (and being a masochist isn't one of them):

1) I love the simplicity. On days like today any derailler would have frozen. I don't have that sort of problem.
2) It just feels good. No, not the pain, just keeping the legs spinning.
3) I always get a "what's up" nod from other fixed-gear riders. There's sort of an unspoken brotherhood amongst us. That's how it is here in Milwaukee anyway, and there's always a little stop-light conversation.
4) The asthetics. To me there's nothing more beautiful, bicycle wise, than a fixed-gear. Gears and deraillers and brakes are just so ugly.
5) I'm told, though haven't had any luck myself yet, that trackstanding at stoplights is a good way to meet girls.
6) As bicyclefool said, fixed gear riders = hard core :)

on preview: five fresh fish, the white industries hub is useful because on most modern bikes, the rear dropout (where the axle sits) is vertical. thus, there's no way to adjust chain tension. with a fixed gear you need to have some way to move the axle horizontally to achieve some level of tension on the chain so it doesnt fall off the cogs. the elliptical hub allows the axle to be moved horizontally 15mm to achieve proper tension on the chain. that help?
posted by fore at 4:58 PM on April 7, 2003

I have an ancient Peugeot that I would like to convert to a fixie. Anyone here have suggestions for what kind of pedals to use? I have a spare pair of Speedplays lying around -- would those be OK?
posted by Holden at 5:00 PM on April 7, 2003

When I started out riding fixed I used toeclips/straps. I just recently switched to SPD-style a couple of weeks ago and I haven't had any problems, but I'd already become used to riding fixed. If you can get a pair cheap (ask your local bike shop if they have an old pair laying around) I'd recommend starting out with clips/straps and moving to clipless later.
posted by fore at 5:07 PM on April 7, 2003

To amplify fore's post: The problem with vertical rear dropouts is that the distance from the hub of the rear wheel and the "bottom bracket" pedal axle is fixed. Bicycle chains only come in inch long segments. Gear diameters come in fixed increments; the number of teeth has to be an integer. Acceptable tolerances are tiny; a bike won't work with a loose chain, particularly a fixed-gear bike. So, with no room to tension the chain, you probably don't get the gear ratio you want for any given bike.

Common solutions (for single-speeds, which allow coasting) include chain-tensioners, sort of an abbreviated derailler, but that won't work for a fixie. Until the White hub came along, the only options were to play tricks with your axle or use an older (or track) frame with horizontal dropouts. Neither were very satisfactory.
posted by bonehead at 5:57 PM on April 7, 2003

witty: to skitch is to hitch a ride on the back of a car or bus while still sitting on the bike. can also apply to skateboarding, in-line skating, etc. there was a game about it a few years back, on the sega genesis platform.
posted by complex at 6:00 PM on April 7, 2003

Holden: Anything witha fairly shallow profile is good. Speedplays should be fine. Set the tension fairly loose to begin with. Remember that you have to keep pedalling around corners. Check the bottom bracket height on anything you might want to convert to fixed - the higher the better. Old criterium frames make great fixers. Old touring frames (low BB) are a bad idea.

Wow... just when I thought mefi was getting samey, a bike thread. My faith is restored.

Once you get used to it, its amazing what you can do on a fixed and there's really nothing comparable for feeling at one with your bike.

Some folks take it to the extreme and complete long and hilly events like Paris Brest Paris (scroll down to '1995') and The Rocky Mountain 1200 on a fixed gear.
posted by normy at 6:00 PM on April 7, 2003

Anything witha fairly shallow profile is good.

Ow. I hadn't thought of that 'til this post. Sorry, but you're mad.
posted by andrew cooke at 6:08 PM on April 7, 2003

posted by five fresh fish at 6:23 PM on April 7, 2003

Sorry, but you're mad.

It's not that bad, really. You've got to be cornering pretty aggressively to ground a pedal on most frames. Unless you're racing its not that much of a worry. Most modern clipless pedals aren't very deep. I was thinking of quill pedals like Campag Record from the 70s. Pre-clipless pedals often used to be sold in 'track' (for fixed wheel track racing) and 'road' versions. They were the same except the track version had the outside of the cage cut away, for cornering clearance, supposedly, though in practice I'm thinking the difference must have been pretty small.
posted by normy at 6:24 PM on April 7, 2003

The least efficient way to get from Point A to B? No thanks.

The best way to exercize? Sure.
posted by omidius at 7:04 PM on April 7, 2003

Cool link. Sheldon pretty much rules the Internet roost on bikes, at least bike tech stuff. He is the man! Funny too. If you ride, and especially if you repair your own ride, check out the rest of his site and catch the best of him on
posted by caddis at 7:05 PM on April 7, 2003

Man. I've caught the bug. I want to make one now. Heck, tho', I don't even have a usable frame. And I'm tired of being 6' tall getting lower back pain from an 18" mountain bike, I think I want to spend more time on the road and step up to a larger size hybrid or even a road frame. I loved my fixed-gear when I was a kid. It hasn't been the same since.
posted by Shane at 7:10 PM on April 7, 2003

It's (getting to be) spring, so look for old road bikes at garage sales. (You're not going to use the old downtube shifters anyways.) Police auctions are supposedly another source, but I went to one once and came away thinking they're overrated.
posted by Utilitaritron at 7:41 PM on April 7, 2003

fwiw a few years back I made a fixed gear out of an old steel trek frame (330 to be precise)...

it almost worked b/c the dropouts are nearly horizontal and even have adjusting screws so chain tension was not too big a problem. but, the dropouts are forward-facing like most non-track frames. eventually spokes started pulling out of the rear rim from all the stress, heh. just could not get the qr clamped tight enough...maybe a solid axle with nuts would have worked.

still have the frame (solid!) but it's a city bike now. sigh, even my beloved crit frame is now doing duty as a city bike.

jobst and sheldon are both gods. just that one is demonic, the other saintly. in the last ten years, I cannot recall seeing either one be wrong about something. well, brandt can be pretty pigheaded at times, and I do find the derailer-derailleur thing amusing.
posted by dorian at 7:43 PM on April 7, 2003

I love fixed gear bikes. I built (or stripped down) a really light Bianchi racing frame a few years, ago, took off all that gear junk and sprockets (except one), and it was the best ride ever. Tricky to stop at first (hopping the rear wheel in order to skid worked), but when the road was smooth it was like riding a bullet, especially at night.
posted by hama7 at 9:18 PM on April 7, 2003


Regarding the front-brake only, has anyone actually ever gone over that way, or was that just a mythical fear.

Yes, it is possible to go over that way and no, it is not just a mythical fear. :)

Late night. Mountain road. In Japan. Smooth sailing.

Suddenly a car drives up from behind and passes by much too close for comfort.

I panic.

I am on the pavement. My forehead is covered in sweat. I stand up, wipe the sweat from my hair and glance at my hand.

It is pitch red.

This isn't sweat, I tell myself.

As if things are not bad enough, try getting a car to stop when:
1) It is late at night.
2) It's a dark, mountain road.
3) You are in Japan but obviously not Japanese.
4) You're head is covered in copious amounts of blood.

Cars slow down but then speed away when they see my blood-covered face.

Finally, I clasp my hands and bow my head to the next car as if paying respect at a temple.

The car stops and a man gets out.

"You OK?"

"Um... you tell me."

He looks at my head.

"There's a lot of blood but the cut doesn't seem too deep. You should be OK."

I relax. We chat. I joke about the accident. He offers to take me to his mother's place nearby to clean me up.

The man and his mother not only get me cleaned up and bandaged, they give me orange juice and then the man drives me over 50km to get me and my mountain bike home safely.

Although my memory is not clear about exactly how I ended up on the pavement, the fact that I flipped over and the injuries were mainly to my head and shoulder lead me to believe that I squeezed the wrong brake much too hard.

So yes, it is possible and no, it is not a myth.

Sorry for the long post... m(_ _)m
posted by cup at 11:03 PM on April 7, 2003

Ah, a thread close to my heart (and my nickname). I messengered on a fixed wheel in London for a year. Best. Job. Ever. Flying and weaving through taxis and buses, facing them off on a race for that small gap between the parked car and the lights, yelling at tourists stepping out in front of you along Piccadilly...

And then for a year or more just lately, my favourite bike ever: the Kona single-speed Humuhumu-Nukunuku-A'Pua (named after the Hawaiian trigger fish). God, what a joy to ride... Never had so much fun. Never overtaken.

And then, of course, it was stolen... Now, I've had plenty of bikes nicked before, and I've had plenty of Kona's nicked before, but they were all replaceable. But not this one. Not made anymore. Can't afford the new Kona 'A', can't find the Unit and the new frames aren't what they are. So I grabbed a heavy Specialized at half-price and it's back to 18-gears of uselessness. And of those 18-gears, I use approximately one (1). Someday I'll find the time to convert it, but it still won't be a Humuhumu... *sniff*
posted by humuhumu at 1:52 AM on April 8, 2003

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