Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Why Fixed Gear?

January Mercian
I have been riding fixed gear bicycles for about a year and a half now, and enjoy it so much that it is hard to talk about without getting embarrassed. Here in the Boston area, fixed gear is associated with a distinct cultural attitude and fashion sense, and I do not fit the mold. Seeing me on a bicycle with a fixed drivetrain often seems to surprise people, and I've been told on more than one occasion that I "don't seem like the type." While I suspect this is mostly used as a conversation starter by men, it still succeeds in making me self-conscious. What is it about fixed gear that I like so much and why do I "need" this type of bicycle?

I first tried a fixed gear bike in June 2010. I was staying in Vienna and pining over the nearby velodrome's summer closure, and a friend offered to teach me to ride a track bike so that I could ride around the velodrome building (this seemed very funny at the time - around the velodrome, get it?). I was afraid to try it at first, but as soon as I got on the bike I didn't want to get off it. It felt so natural and intuitive. My friend ended up leaving the bicycle with me for the duration of my stay in Vienna and I rode it in the park after work every chance I got. Cycling slowly due to the lack of brakes, I must have looked like an idiot, but didn't care. I discovered that on fixed gear, my bicycle handling skills somehow improved. I could make tighter turns, cycle through narrow spaces, control my speed better, and just be more in control. It felt as if I suddenly gained a better understanding of how a bicycle worked. The custom Italian track bike made for a now-retired racer felt unexpectedly comfortable, save for the curvature of the handlebars. I could ride this thing for hours with a silly smile on my face. It became clear during those rides that I needed a fixed gear bike of my own once I returned to the US. A friend of a friend sold me a good road frame for fixed gear conversion, and I mailed it to myself in Boston before leaving Vienna. 

Waiting for the road frame to arrive (it took over 3 weeks!) I couldn't stop talking about my experience with fixed gear, and just for the heck of it one weekend the Co-Habitant and I converted the Motobecane mixte I then owned to a single speed with a fixed/free flip-flop hub. Doing this was easy and inexpensive. We picked up a budget wheelset, modified the existing crankset, shortened the chain and that was pretty much that. I rode this bicycle around the city and out to the countryside, and it was great fun. But I mostly thought of it as a novelty. On an upright bike, I preferred a freewheel. This bicycle was a great hit around the neighbourhood though, especially when I fitted it with some colourful dressguards. The woman who later bought it planned to use it as a freewheel single speed, but liked the idea of having the fixed option by flipping the wheel.

Finally the vintage road frame I'd bought in Vienna arrived in the mail, and we quickly put it together. You might recognise this as the previous incarnation of the Moser I now ride as a geared roadbike. The tires here look huge, but they are 28mm Panaracer Paselas - the frame had just enough clearance for them if I did not use a rear brake. I rode this bike a lot, and particularly enjoyed it once it began to get cold. There was something about cold and dreary days on a fixed gear that was just magic. But while I loved riding the Moser, it became apparent over time that the frame was not really suitable for fixed gear conversion due to its very low bottom bracket. As my speed on the bike increased I started to get pedal strike when cornering on bumpy or uneven roads, and did not feel that this was safe. Last winter I began to look for another frame, which did not prove to be very easy given my criteria (lugged steel, horizontal dropouts, high bottom bracket, small size, and no toe overlap). I considered getting a frame from Royal H., but could not afford it. I considered the new SimpleOne from Rivendell, but learned that they would not be making one in my size. And that is how I came to be in possession of a Mercian.

By the time I ordered this bicycle from Mercian, I had a good idea of what I wanted in a fixed gear. I did not want a track bike, but a comfortable and somewhat relaxed roadbike that just happened to have a fixed gear drivetrain. I wanted to fit it with 28mm-32mm tires for road and occasional trails. I wanted it to have tame handling without feeling sluggish. All of this was done. When I began to ride this bicycle after we put it together, it was just the feeling I wanted. It is comfortable, intuitive, has no toe overlap or pedal strike, and I can ride it for quite a long time without getting tired.

So why fixed gear and what do I like about it so much? If I have to pin it down, there are two distinct elements of this type of bike that I enjoy. First, I simply find it soothing and pleasant. The motions my legs make on a fixed gear feel different - more circular and rhythmical. In that sense it is really not about speed at all, but about being able to ride with smooth and regular pedal strokes and enjoying the state of mind this puts me in. I find this to be very relaxing when I am stressed out. Even just riding in circles around the neighbourhood, the magical sensation of the drivetrain never fails to calm me down and clear my head. 

January Mercian
Second, I feel that riding a fixed gear roadbike helps me with technique. My movements feel more elegant and precise, and I can sense that I am developing a more intuitive sense of balance. I play games where I try to keep the bike going at all costs - slowing down to a crawl before a traffic light rather than stop as I wait for it to turn green. I also like to see how fast I can accelerate under different circumstances, and play "sprinting" games until I get out of breath. This is much more interesting to do on a fixed gear than on a freewheel bike, because once you get the drivetrain going it feels as if it "helps" you. All this may sound silly, but somehow I feel that things like this really help. Fixed gear bikes feel playful and very safe, which encourages me to try all this stuff that I would not normally try. Slowly but surely, I can tell that it improves my geared roadcycling skills - including the somewhat "duh" realisation that if I continuously pedal and feather the brakes instead of coasting, then I will feel more in control of my geared roadbike as well.

But all this talk of technique is probably beside the point. When it comes down to it, we do things that we enjoy and fixed gear is for me simply one of those things. I can't imagine not owning a bike like this. I begin to get fixed gear cravings if I don't ride one for more than a week. Luckily, that should not be a problem. 

51 comments:

  1. It is kind of funny how folks think fixed gear riders have to fit into a certain mold. I'm glad you're having fun with your bikes.

    http://kentsbike.blogspot.com/2005/11/thing-about-fixed-gears.html

    Some of my favorite rides have been on fixies.

    http://www.carsstink.org/peterson/NorthRoad/NorthRoad.html

    Keep those pedals spinning,

    Kent

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  2. Oh, you make me miss my fixed gear bike!
    I've always been intrigued by the path racer variety.
    I often rode mine on the Fells fire roads & reformatory branch.
    Populaires were also particularly enjoyable.

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  3. The reason you feel the fixie's drivetrain "helping" you is that you actually have a longer power stroke than with a free wheel. You can start really pushing on the downstroke pedal from "12 o' clock" on a fixie as opposed to about "2 o' clock" of a free wheel. So, you get significantly more out of each stroke. There's a great little physics pdf about fixies on the web from someone (I think) at UC Berkeley that explains this phenomenon well. This extra power is the reason why it's easier to go uphill on a fixie, with a given gear ratio and bike weight, than on a free wheel.

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  4. what do you mean exactly that the bike feels safe?

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  5. " including the somewhat "duh" realisation that if I continuously pedal and feather the brakes instead of coasting, then I will feel more in control of my geared roadbike as well.

    But all this talk of technique is probably beside the point."

    Incidental benefits from a pleasurable activity. BTW I should lecture the girl who ran a red and dented my car due to a technique failure. I think I'll call her.

    "Second, I feel that riding a fixed gear roadbike helps me with technique. My movements feel more elegant and precise, and I can sense that I am developing a more intuitive sense of balance. I play games "

    I see all kinds of cyclists staring straight ahead, concentrating really hard, holding a good line. Tense.

    It makes me think that a lot of people do not have a sense of physical play. The bike is fun, people. Enjoy the ride.

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  6. Okay, you've sold me... I have to build up a fixed gear for my next project :).

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  7. Anon 1:53 - The "safe" feeling is basically the sense of having complete control of the bike. It does not do anything I don't want it to do, is the best way I can put it, whereas with a coasty bike I feel less involved in the handling. This probably speaks more of my poor handling skills than anything else, but if so than others with the same problem might want to consider fixed gear for the same reasons.

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  8. I love this post! I feel the exact same way about my fixed gear bike, to the point that I ride it exclusively (although I am saving up for a road bike, it's just hard to find one that fits just right).

    If you don't mind my asking, what brake levers do you use on your fixed gear, and I guess on your road bikes in general? As a woman with small hands (I'm 5'3 and very petite), I still haven't found a pair that are truly comfortable. The hoods are always too thick for efficient climbing, which matters even more on the fixed gear, and aren't really comfortable for breaking from the top either. The latest ones I've tried at the Cane Creek short reach levers, which are supposed to be good for small hands but totally aren't!

    Right now I'm using bullhorns because of that, but wouldn't mind the extra hand positions from a drop bar (I use a small women's specific drop bar--the Salsa Poco--when I put drops on the bike). I'd love to hear your recommendations/experience with specific levers!

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  9. I spoke with a friend who loved her fixed gear bike and she said a lot of similar things. It made me want to give it a try. Someday perhaps. As I was riding today I was thinking about one actually as I am so very clumsy on a two wheeler. I wonder what it would be like.... On the other hand, most of my biking is based on a coasting method. I don't know how I would feel about not coasting. Or how I would train myself to stop coasting. Esp on the downhill, I like to sit and relax....

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  10. I quite liked riding fixed/singlespeed because it's virtual silent (although not if you're freewheeling with a singlespeed). It's nice to be out on a bike in the countryside and not hear that constant drone of a derailleur or clicking of a IGH*.

    * Obviously only certain gears of an IGH make a clicking noise, and I've only ridden older 3sp SAs.

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  11. This whole fixed gear fascination is something I have hard time understanding. I see absolutely no benefit of using these bikes in the city, yet most riders use them exactly that way. Except the Dutch, Danish and Chinese. They are too smart to fall for it.

    I can totally see benefits of a fixed gear bike on a track (that's what these bikes were designed for) but city streets are not a velodrome. I prefer to rely on my brakes to have "a complete control of the bike" in the city traffic.

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  12. "This probably speaks more of my poor handling skills than anything else"

    Not. Fixed = fiber optic cable to brain.
    Geared = 3G.

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  13. I love my Pompino

    http://lh5.ggpht.com/_HD1YM0HgTfk/Sj0AxsHBGRI/AAAAAAAAACs/izmCUEdznco/RIMG0204_thumb%5B2%5D.jpg?imgmax=800

    How often do you forget you're on fixed? For me its about once a week, but you're soon reminded.

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  14. It is unfortunate that fixes have become overly associated with the machismo and "false zen" (IMO) of brakeless riding. There really is something different about the feedback you get from the rear wheel on a fix and I think it does change your connection to the bike and the road.

    That said, I also think we owe a debt of gratitude to all those obnoxious fixie kids who in large part helped to make cycling cool again. Thanks kids!

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  15. @bostonbybike - I wouldn't argue that fixed in more practicle in any sense and if I only had one bike....But there really is a subtle difference to riding fix that goes beyond "you can't coast". Second, you're confusing fixed with brakeless. These are two completely separate issues, though often conflated.

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  16. bostonbybike: fixed gear bikes weren't designed for track, they were simply the first iteration of moving away from direct drive (where you straddled the wheel) to "safety" bicycles (where you sit the modern way). At some later point, a freewheel was invented, making safety bicycles even more safe.

    But you are correct that track bikes are still fixed.

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  17. "what brake levers do you use on your fixed gear, and I guess on your road bikes in general? As a woman with small hands, I still haven't found a pair that are truly comfortable. "

    Tektro short reach brake levers (R200a I think). They work well for small/weak hands, and they are what I used on my geared roadbikes as well until I switched to ergos (integrated brake/shifter levers).

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  18. Yes, It's the feeling of complete control that fixed gear bikes give you. When I was working I used to ride a fixed gear in the business district with greater confidence than riding a geared bike. Fixed are great for that purpose.

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  19. Aren't fixed geared bikes the preferred choice of many bike messengers, maybe for those reasons of control?

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  20. boston/anon - street cred plays a part but fixed are simple, durable, very low-maintenance, cheap, drive trains. From what I understand most of the underdeveloped world is running single speed/fixed for these reasons.

    In SF the newer msgrs prefer geared bikes for the hills.

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  21. @MDI - Sure I know that freewheel was not here first. I was referring to modern fixed gear bikes that were essentially only track bikes before the whole hipster thing happened.

    @maxutility - You are right about brakes. Still, how many times I have seen a fixed gear bike without them. Apparently its owner went a bit too far in "simplifying" it.

    @GRJim - The low maintenance argument makes a lot of sense and this is one I can definitely accept. Still, I think that most cheap bikes are simply single speed not fixed gear vehicles.

    Fixed gear bike is pretty much a bike in its purest form. It is great on the track but not ideal for an average Joe.

    (BTW, I remember a black&white movie I saw long, long time ago. It was a comedy about a classic road bike race. The main character was one of contestants and also an inventor who designed the first freewheel hub for his bike. He had a huge advantage on steep downhill where the rest of the cyclists had to slide their feet out of the toeclips and keep them up, clear of the fast-spinning pedals. Anyone has any idea on the title?)

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  22. bostonbybike - You are mistaken in believing that fixed gear was only for the track pre-hipsterisation. It has always been fairly common for road cyclists to use fixed gear for training, as this is said to improve one's pedaling technique. A fixed gear road bike is not a track bike; the geometry is different and it is equipped with brakes.

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  23. It is odd how fixed gear bikes have been assimilated by the urban hipster brand, to the exclusion of other types of riders.

    In a way, I guess it's good that bicycling has now evolved to the point that there are a number of subcategories--even if they don't have a lot of internal cohesiveness.

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  24. Back when I was in High School the lake behind my Dad's northern Illinois home still froze over the winter. Some relative gave us a fixed gear track bike. It was a blast riding that thing on the ice.

    I bought a set of the Phil Wood Special Japanese Earthquake Relief fund raiser fixed hubs. They are shiney silver with swell Japanese etchings in red. If there are plans for a Velouria special fixed gear bike, I'ld be willing to donate them.

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    1. Cycling on ice! I am not quite at that level yet, unless you count puddles! Did you have those tires with spikes in them?

      You are making me want to do a special edition fixed gear bike now...

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    2. No spikes. In fact, it was the first bike I had with tubulars - although us suburban know nothings called them sew ups.

      Not making any claim to being skilled so much as a whack high schooler who didn't know to be scared.

      If a special edition comes to fruition, it would be great to see the Phil's find a purpose.

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  25. Well I'm clearly a fan of fixies. I hear the urban hipsters find the term fixie derogatory, but I was riding fixed, while most of them were still riding a big wheel, so I don't care what they say :-) And since I don't have the mandatory tatoos or piercings, I can't be an urban hipster anyway.

    I started commuting on fixed because of simple maintenance. Once a year, I remove the old salt abused rusty chain and throw on a new one. (OK, I do ocassionally oil the chain) I never have to deal with frozen (from ice) derailleur cables, and as you have noticed, you just have great control. Of and it's warmer in the winter, especially if you have a downhill commute home!

    Then, of course there is the lighter weight of not having a cassette and shifters and derailleurs and excess chain. This is why I use one for Mt Washington. That and the OMG exclamations from other riders.

    And I must thank the urban hispters for this part: Fixies/single speeds are now so popular, that you can get them relatively cheap. I bought one that I leave at my dad's house for less than the cost of flying a bike back and forth twice!

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  26. Fixed gear cycling has a certain following in the ultra cycling crowd. We introduced a fixed gear division in our Furnace Creek 508 (mile) race in 2004 and have had fixed gear finishers every year since then (solo as well as relay teams). Our rules for that division also require a steel frame, traditional wheels, no gear changes, and prohibit aero bars. Since then, we've also had people enter all of our one-day, century and double century events on fixed gear. Some of these riders are also fixed gear randonneurs. Info here: http://www.the508.com/divisions/fixedgear.html

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  27. a friend of mine once compared riding a fixed gear to driving a stick shift vehicle— you are definitely more aware of the machine you are controlling.

    after my first fixed gear was destroyed, i replaced it with a vintage motobecane and had intended to keep it all original. but i took one ride on it after biking fixed for years and i felt so out of control that i decided to convert it basically for my safety: http://kittycatstevens.wordpress.com/2011/12/01/1982-motobecane-jubile-sport/

    and don't worry if people think you're not the "type" . . i am a "fashion consultant" by day and people freakout when i bike six miles in a skirt to work. i don't mind though— i live for those cold winter night rides home when no one is on the road but me and my silent conversion just gliding along.

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  28. Thank you for satisfying my curiosity about fixed gear-itous. It's a different breed of bike, I see, and not for everyone, but at least I can appreciate all of the conversions I spy around town. It has a strong following here in Burlington.

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  29. To the tiny lady with tiny hands: I had the Tektro short reach/tiny hand levers on my last road bike, and have them again on my current one. The difference in profile is mostly at the tip of the lever (end opposite the hoods), so they really only make a difference braking from the drops, which, as a tiny, I almost never do. They don't perfectly solve the problem, but they are better than nothing, if you're in a position where you're going to buy levers anyway. The other option that I have on my commuter bike is cross levers (aka interrupter or in-line levers) - they're smaller, mtb-type levers that go on the tops of drop or bullhorn bars. This shows them on my bike: http://www.flickr.com/photos/tinyhonkshus/5557235740/
    and you'll find more info if you google "cross levers". They give me a LOT more stopping power than my tiny hands do on normal drop bar hood levers.

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  30. I find it ironic that you get a greater sense of control and safety from your fixed. Especially since I've gleaned from the blog that you can sometimes be a little cautious and tentative. I, on the other hand, rode fixed for the first time the other day after about 5,000 miles on geared road bikes. And I felt much less in control, particularly when hurtling downhill and needing to make a 90 degree turn into a side street at the bottom. Concern over slowing down adequately, about being able to corner within my own lane if an oncoming car appears, and over pedal strike if I corner too tightly... Safer? Really?

    The instinct to coast momentarily while I pause to make a hand signal prior to turning... Well, I imagine that muscle memory teaches one to stifle that eventually. Yeesh.

    I accept that this is my feeling after only one experience, and I will be out there again soon. But I'm still surprised to hear anyone describe riding fixed as a more controllable experience than geared/freewheel cycling. It seems to just objectively not be the case; after all, the pedals are driving *you*.

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  31. So, you've got me curious enough now to want to try riding a fixed gear. I worry about the hills though. Fixed gear bikes always struck me as being more practical in urban and/or flat to flat-ish lands. I also have height disadvantage. You mentioned having trouble finding a frame small enough that also had a high BB. Were there any close runners up before the Mercian? My height is always a problem, more so when looking for road frames. Even the 53cm Motobecane I'm working on now is to tall. I can't actually stand over the top tube and stand flat foot on the ground. I know! Not really the safest thing, but It was love, I couldn't help it. :)

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  32. I live in a very rural area and enjoy riding fixed gear. To me, the momentum of the bike helping to keep me pedaling almost borders on a feeling of virtual motion; unless the hills I'm climbing are too steep. :) My fixed gear bikes have front and rear brakes, too, because after I go up those hills, I usually have to go back down and my knees can't take leg braking!

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    1. I don't like leg braking and see no reason for it when brakes are available. Just seems to be a sure way to damage the knees.

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  33. No urban hipster here...I first rode fixed gear back in the 1970's we had track frames that we used on the road for winter training rides. I still have a fixed gear bike, but I travel incognito now. It has fenders and a rack ;)

    Fixed has a lot of advantages and few disadvantages IMHO. I enjoy the simplicity of it, and it forces me to realize my limitations in terrain.

    Aaron

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  34. Peppy (cat like reflexes, let me show you thems)January 11, 2012 at 11:17 PM

    I ride a 3 speed fixed tall unicycle.

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  35. Peppy, if the humans tell you that you need to go to the vet in order to ride a "fixed gear", look upon them with skepticism.

    Me, I want to try riding a fixed gear again, and for more than a mile.

    hmmm.

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  36. I first rode fixed gear back in 1994 and still have a track bike today. I enjoy it but I have to admit I never felt the experience was as magical to me as some fixed fans say it is to them. When I started the only people in Vancouver I saw riding fixed gear bikes were velodrome racers and road racers doing winter training. I think I got into it just because I loved the stripped down to the bare essence look of a track bike and was kind of intrigued by how wild an idea riding a brakeless, freewheel-less bike was. Mind you I only rode my current track bike brakeless on the street for a couple of short, very cautious rides while I was waiting for the clamp-on front brake to arrive. I'm not as wild, reckless and brave (or as skilled!) as I'd like to be.

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  37. Fixed geared bikes were common in the United Kingdom/France long before the hipsterisation of them in America. Just look at photos of old English bikes.

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  38. I like fixed gear better for winter. I ride a folding bike with a flip flop rear hub, and when the roads are slippery, I find I have a little more braking power (although I keep the hand brakes on, even when I'm riding fixed)

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  39. Totally safer, at least if you have a front brake for when you occasionally need it (and you will), more in control, soothing, more natural once you learn to pause the habits ingrained in you by coasting bikes. Once-boring rides through our stucco wastelands become interesting again. who cares why? It's there.

    I live in LA, with long distances and hills everywhere, and I don't even have a geared bike right now, riding about 6,000 miles a year.

    And oh, yeah, I'm 58--no young hipster.

    Here's a little article I wrote on the history of the fixed-wheel bicycle:
    http://bicyclefixation.com/alphaomega.html

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  40. Combine an expensive custom with a fixed gear drivetrain and you get the best of both worlds! For the relatively short (a typical ride is two 11 mile legs) errand/commuting riding that makes up most of my riding, a fixed gear is an excellent choice, adding challenge and therefore interest to the ride by requiring one to do more with less and to anticipate and adapt to terrain and conditions in a way you don't have to with a freewheel and multiple gears. I had my custom road bike professionally converted to a fixed drivetrain after I found myself riding almost nothing but fixed. (Tho' as I age I am seriously considering a second, coaster-brake 3 speed rear wheel for one of my fixies for those days when cold, headwind, hills and loads conspire to discourage one from taking the bike.)

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  41. This was such a fun post to read! I'm currently in the market for my first fixed-gear road bike, and I found your points very informative. Thank you!

    Also, don't ever feel self-conscious in the way you mentioned. If anything, people are impressed. If they are judging, it is likely in a positive light. Others are likely just surprised because they associate fixed riding with crazy daredevils antics. Be proud you are giving fixed riding a clean image. Lol.

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  42. I'm a fixed gear rider and have been for about 4 years. I started on a Motobecane fixie and then purchased a Specialized Langster Las Vegas and put a custom rear wheel with card suites fully encompassing the rim with red and white spokes. I sold the Motobecane for extra dollars for the new fixie. While I love riding fixed gear bikes, I'm also a double century rider on an SWorks SRAM red bike. Almost all my practice riding is done on my fixie to work and back every day, 16 miles twice a day - mostly flat except for ramps over freeways and RR tracks. I only have a front brake and use it only rarely as I rely mostly on slowing with my legs. I've even done many long rides and a century with some friends while riding the fixie. The century made my legs (knees mainly) hurt for a couple of weeks, but I love the controlled ride of a fixed gear bike. I have five other bikes that have gears and cost a lot of money, but the fixie is my favorite and most ridden bicycle of the lot. What I tell people is that to ride a fixie well, it takes about two weeks of everyday riding about 30 miles a day with regular traffic and stop signs to get used to it. After the training period, the fixie will be your new favorite bike to ride and you won't have to think about what to do when stopping happens and downhills come along. Maintenance is far reduced compared to shifting bikes and light weight is yours as there are so few parts. Just make sure you add a wheel nut wrench to your tube repair kit :))

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  43. Greetings from a born again fixie rider (60 on thursday!).
    I've cycled more or less all my life as a commuter and last year went all serious to do a century. I read about fixes in St Sheldon Brown and decided to build one to ride through the winter.
    Oh joy! I'm now committed to a fixed century in May and 24hrs next spring. Yes, you summed it up: soothing and pleasant. And fun!

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  44. I found your blog through a random search for pieces on Fixed Gear Bikes.

    I also live in the area near BC. It's quite hilly around my home so I was wondering how you've adjusted to downhill pedaling.

    Thanks. Great blog. Love the pictures.

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  45. I didn't start riding fixed until I was 40, and I don't fit the mold either, but I love it. Why? Pretty much all the same reasons you listed- very eloquent. Thanks for the post!

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  46. So true, fixies are so much fun.

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  47. Great post!

    Quella wrote a similar post not too long ago with some of the same inspirations.

    Take a look here '4 Reasons to Ride Fixed Gear'

    http://quellabicycle.com/blog/4-Reasons-to-Ride-Fixed-Gear/

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