A Fixed Gear Cyclist I am Not, and Yet I Like It Quite a Lot!
Successfully smuggled and equine neighbour-approved, my Mercian fixed gear has now made it over to the Emerald Isle, making my Roadbike Trinity (paved, dirt, fixed) complete again. I have been riding it around for the past 3 days, and it's been so utterly weird, that honestly I don't know whether to laugh or cry.
So what exactly is so funny/sad? Oh nothing. It's just that... How can I put this? Right. I can't actually ride a fixed gear bicycle!
Even in my early days of unbridled fixed gear enthusiasm, I never harboured illusions of being any good at it. As I've freely admitted here before, my fixed gear style was not so much cycling, as toodling: Short rides on flat, gentle roads at comfortable speeds, tame and sheltered, punctuated by theatrically quirky stops and starts. And for the first year or so that was enough, that was lovely. Ineptly and awkwardly, I rode my fixed gear bike up and down the same gentle roads and enjoyed the heck out of it.
Then, little by little, as my overall cycling competence grew, I began to want more out of the experience. And more just wasn't happening. My handling skills on my geared roadbike improved, but my fixed gear skills stagnated. I had a hard time with every aspect of it - from transitioning to clipless pedals, to managing hills (both up and down), to attaining a decent level of handling proficiency in tricky and unexpected situations.
But it was only after cycling with the likes of Pamela Blalock and Emily O'Brien that I realised just how great the divide was between myself and "real" fixed gear cyclists. These ladies nonchalantly used their fixed gear bicycles to do exactly the same rides as they would on geared bikes - 14% gradients and all. One time I remember being on a club ride with Pamela where everyone was on a geared bike and she was on fixed. Cycling behind her on a long descent, I watched her pedal so fast that her legs became a blurry circle of motion, like in one of those animation flip-books. All I could do was try and keep my jaw from hitting the ground! So when Emily and Pamela began inviting me on fixed gear rides, I had to laugh. "Oh no, you don't understand. I can't actually ride fixed in the same way as you can."
At this point, the realist in me began to re-evaluate the fixed gear situation. If I am not improving, and if I no longer find "toodling" satisfying, what is the next step? Do I really need a fixed gear bike? My move to Ireland made this question all the more pressing. But whenever I considered selling the Mercian, something in me resisted. I just had an intuition that, despite my slump, this bicycle was a keeper. So I hung on to it, putting it in storage after my move - until a year later an opportunity arose to bring it over.
Once the bike was in my possession again I immediately made several changes to it. To improve my position (I wanted to be lower and closer), I replaced the long-reach handlebars with compact modern bars, then "slammed" the stem. To improve braking power I replaced the Campagnolo Veloces with Tektro mid-reach calipers.
And to avoid flats, I fit the bike with the same Clement Strada LGG tires I've had on my Seven roadbike for the past year, except the gumwall version.
Once all this was done, I immediately took the bike out on its post-hybernation maiden voyage: a 14 mile ride to the nearest town and back. Despite this being the tamest possible route I could choose in the area I now live, I had not felt so much adrenaline on a bike in some time. Unfortunately - or fortunately - it is not really possible to "toodle" around these parts. It was more like a baptism by fire!
Not giving myself time to indulge in the clipless pedal fears that had plagued earlier fixed gear forays, I simply clipped in as I would on a geared roadbike and pushed off. Then, on an open stretch of road, I gingerly tested what it was like to unclip while the drivetrain was in motion. And - wonder of wonders! - it was no more difficult or time consuming than unclipping while coasting. Soon I forgot this was ever an issue.
After a year's absence, the fixed derivetrain felt both delightfully new and familiar. That sensation of the pedals "pushing themselves" once you accelerate, so that the bike almost feels as if it's equipped with a motor - wow, how I've missed that!
It helps that my gearing (49/19t) feels just right here, be it on flats, uphills or downhills. This is interesting, because in Boston this same gearing felt not quite right anywhere and I was dreading having to figure out what to change it to. Happily, now it looks like I won't have to. Uphill stretches at gradients below 8% or so feel only marginally more strenuous than flats - easier than on a freewheel bike for sure. Even on sustained hills, the bike really does feel as if it's propelling itself and I am just along for the ride. In this manner, I can relax and allow myself to arrive to the top of the hill. Or, I can put in effort and get to the top faster.
Downhills in the same gear are also manageable. I can go 20mph at only slightly above my ideal natural cadence, and 30mph at a cadence that initially feels scary but once I relax becomes manageable. But it's that "once I relax" part that's been giving me adrenaline rushes so strong I can feel them in my throat and fingertips. The hills here, with their sudden dramatic flicks, have a way of making me feel as if the floor has given out beneath me. Even on routes I consider "flat," this happens more than can be fully appreciated on a freewheel bike. But on a fixed gear, my legs feel every bit of the sudden, wild acceleration, and the sheer panic that initially sets in from the sensation of my legs spinning uncontrollably is hard to articulate. On that first ride, I used my brake a lot to shave off speed. But the next day, I didn't.
So what's the deal here, I ask myself with brutal honesty: Can I ride this bike beyond horsing around, or not? Well, here are the facts: There is a huge discrepancy between the sort of cycling I can do on this bike compared to a geared roadbike. But unlike earlier, I sense that at this stage I am at least capable of making progress.
And then of course, there is the simple fact that I enjoy it. Even if I am remarkably, laughably bad at riding fixed gear, I cannot help but love the sensations of it. And is being bad at something you love a valid reason to stop doing it?
My Mercian Vincitore is an interesting bike, in that it's designed for a fixed drivetrain but with "Sportive" (slightly relaxed) road geometry. It is ridiculously comfortable, and even more so on Irish roads than on American ones, I must say. Though it takes a 28mm tire, I am riding it with 25mm, which feels cushy and fast and overall perfect. And I'm in the process of ordering mudguards/fenders, though not yet sure which ones. It is going to be a long, crappy winter - and, I have a feeling, the rekindling of a beautiful friendship.