I recently bought myself a second hand fixed gear bike, from the LFGSS forums. My aim was to try out fixed gear riding around London.
The steep learning curve
Fixed gear bikes are different from the freewheel bikes most of us are used to. Put quite simply, if you stop pedalling on a normal freewheel bike, the bike will continue to move forward. On a fixed bike if you stop pedalling abruptly then the back wheel will stop spinning. If you are travelling at speed then you are likely to skid or, worse, be thrown off the handlebars.
As you can imagine, this gives the bike a bit of a learning curve. Especially, going around corners and pedalling down hills.
The first challenge
When cycling I always start pedalling by spinning the pedals into the correct position. With the right leg ready to push down and go. However, on a fixed gear bike if you spin the pedals backwards you’ll move the bike back. Therefore, you end up using one of two alternatively strategies.
The first is to simply lift the back wheel off the ground from the seat and spin the pedals. This isn’t very practical but I found myself doing it quite often. Alternatively, it comes down to timing. You have to stop the bike when the crank is in the correct position. This is tough to do. (Those with fixed gear riding experience: am I missing anything here?)
This makes coming to a full stop tough on a fixie bike as you know starting again will be a bit of a pain. I can see now why it is so important to master the track stand on a fixed gear bike. This is one thing that after riding for a while I’ve still not got the hang of.
Climbing a hill without gears
Whenever you tell someone you ride a fixed gear bike they may well retort “that must be terrible uphill”. However, things aren’t quite that simple. I found riding fixed on a short hill (just under a mile) no harder on a fixie bike than it is on a bike with gears. I might venture as far as saying that it is easier. I don’t know what it is about being connected to the back wheel or perhaps the fact that you know you have no gears so you just hunker down and get on with the job at hand. I have no doubt that on serious inclines however, gears will always win.
Going around corners
Feeling the speed as you pedal around a corner at speed is a part of cycling I thoroughly enjoy. This manoeuvre on a fixed gear requires a little more thought. You can’t stop pedalling so you have to give yourself more room for the manoeuvre and slow things down a little. None the less, this once again is something you get use to after a few rides.
Going downhill at speed
Like a child taking their first few steps I was cautious when going down the first hill. I had heard you had to “pedal backwards” if you wanted to slow the pace by resisting the downward pull of the hill. In practise this didn’t feel particularly comfortable or easy to do.
Another thing you notice with fixed riders is they spin the pedals like they are taking part in a spinning class and rushing to the finish. However, having a high gear ratio meant I didn’t really have to do this.
The fun factor
Riding fixed for the first time was a little like when you first hop on a bike. There’s an excitement in discovering a new part of the cycling world. One that is as challenging as it is rewarding. The simplicity and the style of control that you have over the bike is, in one word, fun.
I found myself wanting to try it again, learn more and get better at it. The only thing that was putting me off was the seeming lack of practicality. However, I’m sure with practise, my thoughts on fixed gear will change again.
The converted Raleigh fixed gear bike that I purchased comes with a double fixed hub. The next step is to switch it over to a flip-flop hub so that I can pick between fixed and single speed. The difference being that with a single speed you can freewheel. I’ve already purchased a new rear wheel that has the flip-flop hub and I need to follow that up with a new set of brakes.
I’m interested to hear from other people’s fixed gear experiences, especially surrounding the parts I found difficult and the parts I found incredibly fun. Leave a comment below.
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As seen on The Guardian, BBC and The Independent.