gear bicycles have become the ultimate item in urban chic. Messengers
glide effortlessly in and out of traffic in a show of defiance and
freedom among lines of cars chained to the grind of the daily commute.
Fixie bikes are simple and elegant, with clean lines and a genuine
beauty which springs from their lack of complexity, stripped to the bare
requirements of pedaling, steering and rolling. And they are becoming
more popular as more people discover the joy of riding single speed and
Single speed riding requires a different kind of approach. The fixed
gear does not allow you to coast. In fact, going downhill can be hard
work. The cog on the rear wheel is bolted directly the hub so that your
pedals must go at the same speed as your rear wheel. This also means
your pedals can be used to slow down the bike, and the ability to pedal
backwards make the impressive track stand you sometimes see messengers
doing when the traffic lights are red.
But where did the fixie come from? Some of the first bikes ever were
fixed gears – look at the Penny Farthing, and you will see that the pedal
cranks are connected directly to the hub of the front wheel. Before the
advent of the derailleur, which allowed bicycles to have gears, single
speed bikes were the only race bike available. And they were big news in the
sporting world. In 1876, Madison Square Garden was built to accommodate
a velodrome racing track. Bike racing on the original fixed gear track
bikes attracted huge crowds and turned bike racers in to stars. In fact,
bike racers back in those days could earn almost $150,000 per year
compared with a tradesman’s salary of around $5,000. One of the best
known events in the sport of track racing was the hour record where
world riders would pit themselves against the clock in an attempt to
ride as far as they possibly could in an hour. Some of the greats of the
sport have held the hour record, including Francesco Moser, Eddy Merckx
and Miguel Indurain. Graeme Obree’s successful record attempt on a homemade fixie, partly made from old washing machine parts, was the subject of the movie “The Flying Scotsman”.
halcyon days of track racing in the U.S. are perhaps behind us, although
the sport has enjoyed a resurgence of interest as an Olympic sport, and
more nations are putting resources into track racing. But the legacy of
the fixed gear bike is alive and well.
Some of the features of those old track bikes, you might think, make the
fixie less than ideal for riding in an urban setting, as opposed to
riding indoors on a banked track, with no traffic or pedestrians to
contend with. Others disagree. Fixie riders who ride without brakes have
to anticipate their next move much further in advance than their
free-wheeling colleagues. Fixie riders talk of the feeling of Zen-like
peace and flow as they become as one with their bike, flowing through
the streets and cars of downtown. Others compare riding their fixie to a
game of chess, anticipating the movement of the traffic as a chess
player would anticipate the moves of his opponent, and reacting
accordingly. In any event, the history and the evolution of the fixie
has moved on to accommodate the needs of every rider, and in particular
the urban rider.
Fixie bikes are probably best known for their uniqueness and variety.
You will see track bicycles in the city with their dropped handlebars,
but you will also see machines with flat handlebars, bikes with brakes
and bikes without brakes. Experience fixed gear riding for yourself – it
really is an entirely different style of riding and transport that
allows you to feel very connected to your bike. Whether you choose a
track bike or an urban machine, you too can get the feel of cycling on
one of the oldest and best established types of bicycle – a form of
cycling that is as enjoyable today as it ever was.