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.
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.