Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Slightly Off Track...

I have mentioned my wistfulness for the velodrome and my attraction to beautiful track bikes before, and, let's face it - we all thought it was pretty funny and ludicrous. But the joke has now become an unexpected reality!

My friend Wolfgang in Vienna suggested that I try a vintage trackbike he happens to own in my size. He transported it to the Velodrome on his cargo bike, and the idea was for me to try riding it on the adjacent paved lot. The Velodrome here is closed for the summer and the abandoned lot makes for a safe practice area. We figured that even if I managed to ride the bike for a couple of yards, it would sort of count as having been on the Velodrome grounds (right?).

This bicycle is pretty special and once belonged to professional Austrian racer Kurt Schneider, but that is a topic for its own post. The size and fit were just right for me, really perfect. Having ridden my Sam Hillborne for a month back home, I was already used to the diamond frame and drop bars. But of course there were the small details of the fixed gear and the lack of brakes.

Well, apparently I survived. And what I thought would be, at best, a careful circling around the Velodrome lot, turned into an ecstatic 7-mile ride on paths and back roads on the outskirts of Vienna. Here are my impressions, from the point of view of someone who has never ridden such a bicycle before:

. The bike felt completely "normal" to ride. I expected to have trouble getting used to the inability to coast, but it did not need getting used to. It was not in any way difficult or strange, just felt natural.

. In general, I feel that the idea of "not being able to coast" is misleading, in that it suggests that the fixed gear cyclist is hard at work the entire time, always pedaling. That is not so, because the time you'd spend coasting on a regular bike, you still spend relaxing your legs on a fixed gear. Effort-wise it is no more strenuous than coasting, only the pedals are rotating your legs for you. Just relax and let it happen.

. I do not yet understand the mechanics of this, but the fixed gear did make me feel far more in control than did any other bike I have ridden. I was able to go through tighter spaces and trickier corners without panicking. To be honest, I have always been somewhat apprehensive of coasting, because it makes me feel as if the bike can be reeling out of control at any moment. By contrast, the fixed gear feels safe and predictable.

. While I do not advocate riding a brakeless trackbike on the street, I found that the stopping power was not much worse than when riding a vintage roadster with rod brakes. You just need to be aware of your speed, your surroundings, and plan your stops accordingly. I went slowly, and did not have trouble stopping when I needed to.

. The stopping process is similar to a coaster brake: just pull backwards with your legs. The bike will keep going for a few revolutions, slowing down more and more with each until it comes to a stop.

. I expected a bike with "track geometry" to be uncomfortable to ride. This bicycle was extremely comfortable, but I am not sure to what extent it is bike-specific - maybe it is just extremely well built. Even the 23mm tubular tires felt fine - including off road!

. The only aspect of the bike that began to bother me after a while, were the handlebars - the track-style drop bars don't have sufficient "shoulders" for me to place my hands the way I like.

I am not sure whether my feedback is typical or not. But that was my experience, and I absolutely loved it. It was especially wonderful to actually go exploring on this bike. I still have a hard time believing I did it.

A big Thank You to Wolfgang again for this experience. (And in case you are wondering, he is riding a Benotto time trial bike.)

I think that the popularity of fixed gear culture today has given us a lot of misconceptions about what riding a track bike is actually like. It was completely different from what I had expected, it wasn't difficult, and most importantly, it was enjoyable. The trackbike now (temporarily) lives with me, and I have been practicing riding it after work on the Danube Canal bike path and in the Prater park.

Could the crazy dream of the velodrome be not so crazy after all?

41 comments:

  1. The only thing I could see is that on a long-ish ride, the braking could have a notable impact on how tired your legs get, depending on the route and how much braking you had to do. Of course, having actual brakes would help with that a lot. And of course, the track bike specifically isn't really designed for long rides anyway.

    I'd be really interested to ride a fixed gear at some point, like you, just to see what it's like. I'd want to start on one with more upright bars, though, as I've never ridden with drop bars :)

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  2. I also recently tried a fixed-gear and it was pretty fun. It does feel like you have more control over the bike, but a quick stop is not possible so that scares me. In any case I think they are really a neat experience and it is cool that you tried it.

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  3. Thankyou for your assessment. In over 40 years of cycling, I've never ridden a fixed gear bike, so your perspective is very helpful.

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  4. Yes, I am so proud of you! :)

    Of course now we'll need to somehow get a pair of fixed bikes... And, just when I thought that my bike triplet gives me everything I need.

    The off-roading on tubular tyres bit is just wonderful.

    I also thought that the track bars will get tiring after a while, but they just look so good... Heh.

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  5. What a beautiful bike!


    As far as comfort goes... I've ridden the same 80 mile loop with big ups and downs on both a brakeless track bike and a 6 speed road bike... I don't remember one being easier than the other, but after doing it on the road bike I was completely impressed with myself for having done it on a track bike.

    ... the real fun of riding fixed is skidding though... an even better feeling of control! have fun!

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  6. You really should use those toeclipsand straps if you haven't got brakes. And pushing backward on the rear-facing crank is a very slow, unreliable way to stop. Pull upwards on the forward-facing crank as well (this is why the clips and straps are important, or clipless pedals) and you will slow extremely quickly; pretty much just as using a front brake (at least in a non-emergency situation). It requires some peculiar muscles in your legs you may not have discovered yet, and prolonged hard skip stopping, as it's called, can cause knee damage, but hey, it's fun.

    In my opinion, there's no funner bicycle to ride than a fixed gear (with a front brake, of course). It is the ULTIMATE in control, which is why if you know what you're doing, there's no better bike for city streets.

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  7. Velouria, I knew you could do it! And the best thing is that if you continue riding a fixed-gear bike, you'll feel even more confident--on the fixie as well as on your bikes that freewheel.

    It's true that you're more in control of the bike on a fixie. I think it has to do with the way the bike synchronizes your bodily movements and helps you to spin your legs more smoothly.

    If you ever build yourself a fixed-gear bike, build it with regular road handlebars. That's how mine is set up. Track bars sweep forward and drop almost as soon as they leave the stem. They are designed for aerodynamic efficiency. If you're not going to race on a track, you needn't worry about that.

    Velouria on the velodrome: I like that!

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  8. Velouria,

    I'm hesitant to even post this, as I'm a little freaked out by it...

    Last night (Tuesday) I dreamed I was back in Europe and an acquaintance persuaded me to try out a fixed-gear bicycle. I found the handlebars odd, but the rest of the ride easier than I expected. I remember thinking that the braking was more or less like a coaster brake and being pleasantly surprised by the whole experience.

    Then, a dozen hours later, I saw your post. I'm at a loss for words.

    I've noted in the past that your posts seem to be in synch with my riding experiences -- your primer on Brooks saddles came as I was deliberating on which model to buy, etc. But this... well, this takes the cake.

    Speechlessly yours,
    Michael

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  9. Thanks everyone : )

    portlandize - That's a good point. At fist, my knees and ankles hurt quite a bit, because I was always in the "ready to stop" mode. But gradually I learned to relax them unless I actually needed to stop. I would not be able to ride a bike like this on major hills, but as you said, it was never meant for that.

    Re my not using the toe clips: I absolutely agree that you need a foot retention system in order to stop properly. But I can't use clips or clipless pedals yet, and there was clearly more chance of me falling as a result of using them than as a result of not being able to stop. I went slowly enough, so that riding without them was safe. At a slow enough speed and away from car traffic, I feel that this is not a risky thing to do - as I said, it takes me longer to stop on my bike with rod brakes, and I actually *do* ride that in traffic!

    A related question: When riding a fixed gear roadbike *with* brakes why would you still need a foot retention system? I mean, if there are brakes, how is foot retention more necessary than for a freewheel bike?

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  10. Mike - don't be alarmed, it happens all the time : ) I am a bit psychic and have been honing a telepathic connection with readers. It is still in the beta stages, so apologies for any strange visions you may have in the meanwhile!

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  11. Brakes/braking aside, you can get smacked with a pedal on a fixie. Also, if clothing catches there is no safe way to get out. But, otherwise, it's not strictly required (from what I gather).

    Since you haven't tried clips yet, maybe you should go directly to clipless when you are ready to try that. I feel clips are harder and can be more dangerous.

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  12. Very cool! I thought you would find it interesting. Did you try to ride backwards as well? Or track stands? I think these are great exercises for balance.

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  13. Go Velouria! You're braver than I am. Sounds like the most incredible learning experience though and you do look comfy on the bike. Fixies are all the rage worldwide right now... nice to get a genuine first-timer's experience. I did giggle at your description of not being able to coast - my goodness, you've described my purple two-wheeled childhood best friend! A one-speed with "backpedal" brakes. No coasting allowed. Not a bike I'd ride today. I loved this post, and the bike is a stunner.

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  14. Thanks for this post! I've been curious about fixed gears myself, and it's nice to get the perspective of someone who I identify with in terms of cycling level and ability. Thank you! S.

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  15. MDI - Based solely on my experience, I think the "getting smacked with a pedal" thing is exaggerated. I can see how it would happen at high speeds or with slippery shoes, but I was going slowly and wearing my housemate's grippy sneakers (don't have anything other than sandals and high heel shoes with me here). My feet haven't shown any inclination to come off the pedals so far.

    Carinthia - You should try it! Your mixte Petunia would actually be a great candidate.

    Anna - No, I haven't done that : )

    Justine - Thanks for your spiritual support (I am referring to a recent comment of yours!); looks like it worked. I am indeed now scheming of how to get a fixed gear bike once I get home, on a budget of zero. I would like to practice, so that when I am back in Austria in November I can get a velodrome license and ride. And yes, I will get Nitto Noodles; can't really imagine using the track drops for long rides. How do you have the brake(s) set up on your fixed gear Mercian?

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  16. That is an awfully harmonious-looking little track bike. And you look quietly triumphant riding it. Go Velouria!

    Like Mike, I question the timing of this post.
    You must lead a very busy life, putting out all these tendrils of personalized psychic suggestion!

    This week, I have ridden *two* bikes with flip-flop hubs- a Bianchi San Jose at a local shop, and yesterday, my stepson's newly delivered Dawes SST AL. (Aluminum frame, CF fork, and yes, the welds were textured like piped buttercream. Feh. Light as a feather, though.)

    I did ride the Dawes as a fixed-gear, and my impressions were much like yours. Climbing and descending the little hill on my street, and taking the tight turns on the corner at 2-3x walking speed, it seemed not so much like biking as roller-jogging. This was not a bad thing, all told, and being able to "saunter" here and there without fear of coasting into a ditch or suchlike was pretty liberating.

    I am not sure that such a bike would be a good idea for me or the place in which I live, but I am glad I tried it, and might just take the plunge sometime.

    Corey K

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  17. "I am indeed now scheming of how to get a fixed gear bike once I get home, on a budget of zero."
    Just started following your blog recently, I built myself a fixie/single speed out of an old road bike recently for the grand cost of about 150 bucks (and I splurged a bit for the bright red rims) When you're back in MA check out Simple Living Cycles in Framingham, they have very good prices on fixed gear wheelsets, and whole track bikes if you wanted to go that route. I had an old roadie with drop shifters that I stripped off all of the shifters and bolted on the new wheels.

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  18. @Velouria,

    This is a bit (lot) off topic for this post but I remember in one of your early posts about your DL-1 you mentioned that you loved the feel of the bike but somewhat lamented the limitations of the older components. I also believe you mentioned the possibility of rod-actuated drum brakes being of interest to you. If that is still the case I have a link you may be interested in http://manchestercycling.blogspot.com/2010/06/raleigh-tourist-dl-1.html

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  19. Wolfgang is like a bicycle lending library! If only such a thing existed.

    Sounds like such a fun accomplishment. Also, I am so jealous of the weather you are apparently having. It is humid and gross in Boston. :-(

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  20. When it comes time I will share my own fixed story. One such gorgeous fixed lives in my space (it belongs to my co-hab). My co-hab has only ridden fixed and use to do competition, you know the Velodrome thing.

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  21. Re: foot retention. My bicycle has smacked me a couple of times for not paying attention and slipping when riding the back of the pedal. It's one of those things that will happen when you become used to the bike and thus more complacent.

    I ride with a front brake, so the clips are also nice to have for my non-emergency stopping needs.

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  22. Velouria,

    I have the brakes set up the same way I have them on my road Mercian. I'll send you a photo.

    I've mentioned your adventure on my blog:

    http://midlifecycling.blogspot.com/2010/06/velouria-gets-fixed-up.html

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  23. Welcome to the wonderful world of FG riding. Be careful, though, you might find yourself wishing all your bikes were fixed. I have a hard time getting used to the feel of coasting when I switch back.

    The reason you feel more in control of a FG bike is because your body is directly linked to the wheels and the road, so you can control the speed and motion of the bike with your legs and feet alone. This makes FG bikes especially more stable on ice or slippery surfaces (once you get a feel for it).

    Rather than clipless or clips, I'd highly recommend PowerGrip toestraps. I use them on all my bikes. They are very easy to get in and out of (even in different sizes of shoes), and give you plenty of connection to the pedal.

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  24. Velouria,

    Imagine my relief at checking your blog today and finding that you posted no content related to having found yourself taking an exam in a class you forgot you were in. Our telepathic link, thankfully, is intermittent only.

    Best,
    Michael

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  25. Yeah, I never tried PowerGrips. I wonder how they feel.

    I've probably put in ~100 miles in my clipless setup since I got them and I am so far very pleased. No ill effects. Really great in the rain, too.

    But, there are definitely situations where I creep forward on my bike because of laziness to unclip where I would normally just step down with platforms. I see that as a disadvantage (which applied to me with clips, too).

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  26. Way cool! Fixedgears are the model T Fords of the bike world, nothin there that don't need to be there. I love 'em.

    Spindizzy

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  27. Anna, I always thought trackstands on a fixie were sort of like cheating, they are the easiest bike in the world to trackstand once you get used to it, now riding backwards is a different story...THAT'S a big deal(at which I am pathetic)but actually only possible on a fixedgear.

    I built a pathracer with a 3 sp. Sturmey Archer coasterbrake and that is the most difficult thing ever to trackstand, every time I try to position a pedal backwards or even shift my wieght rearward I seem to hit the brake and fallover like a Fred. 'Specially when there are people to see it.

    Spindizzy

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  28. Jason - Thanks for the suggestion, I will check it out.

    MDI - But keep in mind also that you have better bike handling skills than I do. Imagine me, in clips, trying to make an emergency stop at an intersection. Disaster.

    Mr Colostomy - It's getting a coasterbrake installed!

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  29. This is awesome!

    Have you seen the movie Keirin Queen? It's an old Japanese film about a woman who takes up velodrome racing. You totally remind me of the main character, who actually gets her bicycling legs by riding a heavy old loop frame bike around her village. I watched this at the Bicycle Film Festival last year, so it may be hard to find.

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  30. Dottie - I've heard of that film but haven't see it : ) Maybe can get my hands on it, as I know some people affiliated with the Festival. I am trying not to get ahead of myself and not to start imagining myself as a velodrome star just because I'm able to ride a track bike slowly along the river path... but it's difficult : ))

    Spindizzy - Have you ever turned a vintage loop frame into a fixed gear? I have this 1936 bike, and now it has me thinking....

    Justine - Thank you for the write-up, and thanks in advance for the brakes info. I don't like interruptor brakes and can't see myself fusing one of those.

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  31. I haven't done that yet but I have accumulated all sorts of old 1930 era componants that are screaming for me to build them into a fixedgear. I have a beutiful 1936 New Departure Model D coasterbrake I was thinking of using but if I can find a vintage steel track hub I'd use that. If you are into vintage bike porn I should show you the crank and the perfect 1" pitch skiplink chain I have for this project.

    It would'nt be too difficult to turn your High Nellie into Fixie Nellie( the geometry might be counterproductive if you are wanting to recreate the dynamics of a track bike though...). It might be more satisfying to build a replica 1930s style pathracer with 28" wheels and roadster style bolt-on seat stays etc. I have any number of old Raleigh ladies 3 speeds that would be happy to donate their bottom brackets,tubing, seat clusters, headtubes etc. for such a noble endeavor. Inverted Northroad bars,original chrome cottered cranks, nice semi-relaxed angles but the shortest chainstays that would accomodate 28" (cream) tires, probably 25 pounds or less in your size with black alloy Araya rims. Maybe a spoon brake...Hmmm. I think I just described a budget version of the SO FINE Scorcher that Mike at ANT builds.

    Spindizzy
    (how come your site only lets me comment as anonymous lately? Likely something I said...)

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  32. Spindizzy - I haven't changed any of my permission settings, so no idea why it's not letting you post under your name; sorry about that!

    Oh, I didn't mean that I think a 1936 loop frame can become a track bike; I just think it might be neat to make it a fixed gear ordinary bike... inasmuch as a Raleigh Lady's Tourist of that age can be considered "ordinary" : )

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  33. No, no no! That's craziness. The 1936 Lady Tourist has:

    a) a beautiful lever shifter
    b) a hub that's "PATENT APPLIED FOR" and has the most "organicaly clicking" prawls that I've ever heard
    c) rod brakes that are brazed on to the inside of the fork, no ugly clamps
    d) original rubber-style pedals that would need to be replaced

    Should I go on? That thing has a glass rear reflector in a rubber holder... It's rusted and needs a strip & repaint, not stripped of components!

    You're a bunch of single-speed nuts, I tell you.

    Now, regarding the new Sturmey Archer fixed 3-speed hub... :)

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  34. So, Velouria, when do you start moonlighting as a bike messenger?

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  35. MT cyclist - as soon as I get my Shaker costume back from the cleaners ; )

    MDI - Okay, okay. But then you have to restore it. Otherwise... chop chop hack hack - oops, there go the historically precious braze-ons!

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  36. Maybe you should just fix your Motobecane. My Motobecane needs a better rear derailer (maybe front, too) and I'd get your 6-speed cassette too.

    When it comes time to parking in P-town, you'll just take your Hillborne and use a D-lock + cable. True, P-town is a free-for-all in terms of bike parking carelessness, but you can always use mine as a buffer between yours and the crowd. I think theft would be deterred by a nice Kryptonite. And my Motobecane has seen enough scratches/gouges. Besides, have you seen your Sam? It's a filthy mess, not fabulous at all :)

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  37. @Velouria - I'd bet good money that you could do it :)

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  38. What a fun adventure! I've wondered what the attraction was about fixies, and now, thanks to your post, I have a sense of that. Such a well-written, articulate post! Thanks.

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  39. MDI, Don't worry about me aiding in the desecration of Velourias "velo anciens", I'm not even sure I could support a repaint(just a regular wipedown with WD-40, the only thing it's good for). What you have to be on the lookout for is attempts by me to bamboozle her out of it like some slick T.V. preacher...

    Spindizzy

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  40. I rode a converted fixed commuter for three years. It was a lot of fun and the control was wonderful. But I really killed my knees.

    I think what people find curious about the fixed phenomenon is not track bikes themselves, but how they've been repurposed (like messenger bags) for a use they are really not suited for. I imagine ride a real track bike on a velodrome is a lot fun.

    It would be nice to have a light, fast track bike.

    I've since acquired a larger tooth freewheel and added dynamo. Incremental steps towards grouchery.

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