I was chatting to a guy the other day who was curious about riding fixed gear and I’ve noticed in my conversations with road bike riders that fixed has a kind of reputation as the choice of hipsters or danger loving loonies.
Perhaps the roadies’ assertions are correct, but only some of the time, and that’s got to be true of just about everything right? Anyway, I’ve only been riding fixed, pretty much on a daily basis for about a year, and I have to say, it is a thoroughly enjoyable form of riding. Why? Well that one’s pretty difficult to put into words, especially if you don’t want to sound like a wanker, because all those claims about fixed giving you a greater connection to the bike – a sense of oneness – are true. It’s like Zen cycling.
And again, like everything, you’ll only really know if you like it if you try it. It’s supposed to be summer in London and when it’s not pissing it down you might find yourself mulling the prospect of getting out on the bike or even buying a bike. So if you’re keen to try fixed and haven’t been on a bike for 20 years or something then I’m with Sheldon Brown here when I *strongly* recommend that you go fixed first instead of a regular freewheel bike.
If you already cycle and want to go fixed then practise and dedication are required. I’d suggest riding fixed every day or so for about two weeks just to get the feel for it. If after that time you still don’t like it, then maybe it’s not for you.
The reason for this, on both counts, is that you need to reprogram your brain. You can’t coast/freewheel on a fixed – as long as the bike is in motion then the pedals are turning. If you want to stop, you have to stop pedalling – absorbing the energy that would drive the bike forward into your legs.
When you first start riding fixed you will, I guarantee, try to coast. Even if you think you’ve got the hang of it you’ll get distracted by something and forget and then try to coast. At this point you’ll get a bit of a shock and wobble all over the place and you will, for the first few weeks, get into some embarrassing situations. Especially when stopping at lights etc. and finding your legs in the wrong position and then having to adjust while people are losing patience behind you. Just keep relaxed and keep calm. If you panic about getting your pedals rearranged you’ll only make it worse.
But if you persevere it’ll take you about a month to get used to riding fixed and then you can focus on experiencing the benefits. After my first week of trying and having a few embarrassing moments, I started every ride by chanting a mantra in my head “do not coast, do not coast,” which went in rhythm with my pedalling. It just helped to drill it into my thick skull.
Once you’ve got that down you’ll start learning how to tackle other challenging aspects of this form of riding, such as standing up on the pedals as you go over potholes or speed bumps. The natural reaction when approaching these it to coast over them, but with fixed you need to just lift yourself out of the saddle and keep pedalling.
You’ll work out how to judge distance and come to a stop with your feet in the right position to start off again, as the only way to re-arrange your pedal position when stopped is to either lift the back end up with the saddle and spin the pedals round, or hold down the front brake and hop the back end up to do the same (you are running a front handbrake right?).
When you get really confident you’ll learn how to trackstand at lights. This is where you come to a stop with pedals at 3 and 9 o’clock and just balance without putting a foot to the ground. It really helps to turn your front wheel 90 degrees, then as you rock backwards and forwards on the pedals the bike only rocks side to side. The benefit of this is that you’re ready to go and you don’t have to unhook your foot from your foot retention.
Yes, foot retention is really important on fixed – either clipless pedals (the ones that you actually ‘clip’ into with proper cycling shoes) or toe clips and straps are highly recommended. If you slip off the pedals on a fixed not only will you have a hard time stopping, you might break your shins as the pedals spin.
By far the hardest thing I found when I started out fixed was the stopping. You learn pretty quickly that you have muscle groups in your legs you didn’t even know about and turning your legs into giant springs to absorb the power and press back against the pedals is pretty tiring at first. But once you get used to it, it becomes much easier – perseverance is the key. Just start to slow down earlier. And run a front handbrake just in case. Actually you should run one anyway – what you gonna do if your chain snaps or comes off? This is part of the attraction though – not the chain snapping – but this sort of dynamic acceleration and deceleration. You tend to keep a constant speed because you’re not slowing down by coasting over bumps and corners, and you learn to judge when to start slowing your pedalling or even, just as a gap appears, how to coax a bit more speed out of your bike and use the opportunity. If you want to brake slowly you just stop applying pressure and let the cranks spin down. To stop quickly you stand in the saddle and put all your weight on the pedals just as they’re coming up. It’s impossible to go over the handlebars when using the front brake in unison because the weight’s always at the back, and while you may see some hipsters skidding around, it’s because they’re doing it deliberately. You have greater traction on a fixed and can feel what the surface of the road is like in rain or icy conditions. It’s almost impossible to skid if you don’t want to. Learning how to skid is for another day though as it falls into more advanced fixie riding.
Without having to worry about shifting gears up and down you get to concentrate more on enjoying the ride. You get a better ‘feel’ for the road and your environment, it’s like you can concentrate on what’s happening further ahead – you see new gaps appear and become a better judge of patterns in the traffic flow. Your ‘spin’ – the ability to get the best performance out of your legs and cranks – gets better because you’ve got no choice, and you break all those lazy habits cyclists tend to pick up when riding with a freewheel.
What’s more, your bike often ends up lighter because of less stuff attached to the frame, and maintenance is minimal because there’s less stuff to go wrong. But the biggest benefit, is just that it’s fun. What more reason do you need?