Why ride a fixed-gear bike?

  • I must confess, I don't know much about bikes. Until fairly recently, a bike was just that thing that I rode to work each day. I've been slowly learning more about bikes but I still have some newbie questions. This is one of them.

    If I recall correctly and have got the terminology correct, a fixed-gear bike is a bike with only one gear (so you can't change it) and no freewheel (so if the rear wheel is turning, so are the pedals).

    Why do people ride fixed-gear bikes? Isn't it either hard to get started (if fixed in a high gear ratio) or hard to get to a good speed (if fixed in a low gear ratio)?

    I'm not trying to insult or flame riders of fixed-gear bikes - I'm just curious! :)

    It's also hard to turn sharply (pedal can hit ground). Many don't have brakes and rely on either resisting pedaling or skidding the rear wheel, which means stopping can be hard.

    Good question! After I started riding three-speed bikes, I can understand the lure of simplicity. I'm looking forward to some answers from fixed-gear riders.

    I've created another question to track the single-speed portion of the question. http://bicycles.stackexchange.com/questions/1983/ Here we can talk about "why no freewheel?"

    Hipster says, "Because yolo. If I'm going to ride a 1000km then I'm going to *pedal* 1000km."

  • Your understanding is correct.

    Why do people ride them? Some random answers:

    1. Maintenance is very, very low. You have to keep the tires and chain in good working order and, on a bike you ride on the road, hopefully some form of a brake. That's it.
    2. On most velodromes, you have to ride a fixed gear bike, so if you race track, you have no choice.
    3. There is something to be said for how a fixed gear will force you to develop a smoother pedaling style since you simply cannot stop. Due to this, they are somewhat popular for 'off season' training by serious road cyclists.
    4. (Hesitating to mention this...) There is a certain segment of the population that loves retro and simple things. In addition to being possibly the most efficient people moving device that exists, the fixed gear bicycle can be an important fashion accessory.

    Hard to get started/Hard to go fast?

    Yes. Generally someone who has a road worthy fixie will have selected a gear that works well for the terrain and speed that they like to ride at. I've only ridden fixed gear bikes on the track, but I'd imagine for a city fixie, you'd optimize for a fairly low speed but someone who takes these more seriously can answer better.

    Also it is hard for most people to steal them, due to "Hard to get started"

    For #3, I usually use rollers for that - after you've surged forward over the front roller once or twice you learn good pedaling mechanics (or good first aid).

    I wouldn't be too hesitant to mention #4, it's pretty objectively true. The sheer number of brightly coloured/ultra minimalist fixies is enough evidence that form seems to be at least as important as function for a lot of people.

    Right. I would imagine that 4 is key. It's the only one that can really explain the lack of brakes, too. one that you missed is that dérailleurs suck - that's partly a maintenance thing, but also a bike without dérailleurs can have a chain guard, and the chain is less likely to slip off while riding.

    #1 is almost entirely applicable to single-speed with free-wheeling hubs too. Those things take almost no maintenance.

    You miss one important point: The weight is lower (it's lighter).

    If the question was 'Why *so many people* use fixies', the order of your points should be inverted. I think you should not hesitate about the 4th point. +1 from me

    LOL. There a lot of bad replies here. Firstly a fixie is not generally lighter. Very few are under 8kg as most are made of alloy or steel. Secondly, on most velos, you need a horizontal drop-out to classify your "fixie" as a true fixie or track bike, and to be allowed to ride on a velo. If you've turned a normal racer with vertical dropouts into a single-speed (even with flipflop hubs), congratulations. But don't expect to be called a fixie rider.

    Also **theft deterrent**, anyone who tries riding off with a fixie will get bucked off at the first corner.

    Is there actually any evidence to support #3? You could argue that it allows your to be sloppier in your pedalling, since the pedals carry your legs around with them.

    Good answer(s), but you forgot to mention they are also more fun to ride ... don't ask me why, they just are!

    • It's harder work than a normal free hub, your legs are constantly moving so there's no rest.
    • Going up hills without having to think about gear selection forces you to think about optimisation of effort
    • Going down hills is hard, too - spinning your legs in a way you can rarely achieve on a free hub
    • This constant movement translates to a much smoother rhythmic style of pedalling, which will have a beneficial effect on your free hub cadence
    • There are fewer components to maintain
    • As a consequence of the fewer components, the machine is lighter, so the experience is more responsive, which means you're able to maintain speed more easily.
    • Traditionally fewer people knew how to ride them, so they were alleged to be less attractive to thieves.
    • In wet weather you can stop much more easily, brakes/rims are obviously variable, but braking using the fixed wheel drive train is not impeded by wet conditions

    If I had to summarise in a single word: work. It's harder work, I expend more energy, I get more benefit from my training/commuting miles.

    I converted an old bike to fixed gear in college for several of these reasons: it made it lighter, harder to steal, improved my road bike fitness.

    +1 for its harder work. I totally agree, there is much to be gained from not always doing something the easiest way possible.

    "In wet weather you can stop much more easily, brakes/rims are obviously variable, but braking using the fixed wheel drive train is not impeded by wet conditions". At least I would disagree with the last point and I can't see how this is true. Braking with the rear wheel is always less efficient than with the front wheel, and applying the correct amount of "brake" on a fixed gear is much harder.

    @Kai The point is that tires slip across wet brake pads (and other brake parts get wet and either immediately malfunction or rust and then malfunction). Of course, there are other types of brakes (e.g. disc brakes), but back-pedal pressure is much better in the rain (or snow) than standard brakes.

    @Quinn: So braking is so bad to start with, that wet weather does not make it significantly worse? ;)

    @Kai - braking is, erm, *different* with a fixed. Emergency stops and sudden decceleration will always be easier with brakes and pads, but there's plenty of slowing down and just reacting to the world which is more easily done with the drive train. Think of it as a third brake, less effective in extremis, but also less consuming of resource (e.g. pads), so doing your bit for the over-consumption of rubber :)

    @Kai Ha. It's not bad to begin with, just different; one must plan one's stops a little ahead of time. Why do you think it's worse?

    @Quinn having two kids <5y old I don't think planning ahead is always possible. E.g. in traffic kids might do things without giving people very much time to react. Skidding the back tire, with the drive train or breaks, is an inferior way of stopping the bike compared to the front brake. If anyone claims anything else, I like proof, lots of it. Anyway, if someone likes to break "without brakes", sure go ahead, but claiming that it's as good or better than breaks is just wrong. And I don't say this to offend anyone or anything like that.

    @Kai But for my purposes it _is_ better. So it depends on what one needs from one's brakes. Of course, for someone who needs to stop quickly, a handbrake is a must. But for most people--most able-bodied adults, at least--I don't think sudden breaking is necessary. In fact, I'd go so far as to say that most adults would benefit from riding a handbrake-less fixed since they'd be forced to pay closer attention and not rely on sudden stopping ability.

    @QuinnCulver: Sudden braking is only certainly unnecessary on a track. But anywhere on a road, you're eventually going to have idiot drivers, animals, or kids kicking balls out in front of you. Then sudden braking *is* necessary, and what do you do? I mean, in Syndey, there are car drivers who actively try to maim cyclists. Yes, riding on roads without *using* brakes is good, but riding *without brakes* is just stupid.

    @naught101 It's only stupid if you value your life. And preparing for a negligibly probably event, like encountering a driver whose trying to maim cyclists, would be silly. Personally, I've never had a problem riding without brakes that would've been solved/avoided with them.

    @QuinnCulver: There are many countries where riding a bike without brakes on public roads is illegal, and for very good reason: it's not only about your life, but also about the life and health of *others*. What exactly is your plan if a small kid jumps in front of your bike chasing a ball? Just run them over?

    @fgysin F ya. Right over their soft skulls. Joking; but your question seemed ridiculous so warranted a ridiculous answer. No disrespect. :*)

    The 'uses less rubber' and 'teaches you to anticipate stopping' arguments are patently ridiculous. On a fixed bike, you could set up a front rim brake and still not use it, gaining the above benefits, and it would therefore not require any maintenance, but would be there in case of an emergency. In the u.k., the law very sensibly states you must have two brakes for the purposes of redundancy: https://youtu.be/o2Q5ldUE-u8. (what happens when a fixed rider's chain fails). if you want no proper brakes, fine, but don't pretend that it's safer or better

  • Reasons I ride:

    1. There is a direct feel of the road. There is no slack going forward or backward before the "catch" on the chain.
    2. No derailleur maintenance. No clicking. No wait on gear shifts. No finding the right gear.
    3. Where I ride, it is completely flat, in and out of neighborhoods, constant speed changes. I could shift gears all the time, or I could just ride one gear and absorb it with my legs.
    4. It puts me out of my comfort zone. When I ride a regular road bike for fitness, the temptation is to pick the most efficient gear and go at the heart rate I can sustain for the distance I want to travel. All efforts are pretty much identical. With a fixie, the gear is picked and I must choose the effort expended to match the distance I'll travel. I don't really ride it for fitness but I've found it puts me through paces I never went through on a regular road bike.

    Along the same lines as #4, I find myself putting more effort in throughout the stroke.

    If you have serious problems with #2, then I think you've just had bad luck with your derailleurs -- I don't have issues like that except when the bike is new and the shift cable is still stretching a lot.

    #2 could be achieved by never changing gears. It does not _solve_ the problem. It's like saying you will never write because you don't like when pencil points breaks.

    @BillyONeal : I know you most probably didn't MEAN to actually stay in a specific gear, but doing so in a multi-geared bike will certainly wear out that gear pretty fast, because the cog plates are much thinner. And since one is worn out, most probably all the cluster will go to the trash can...

    @heltonbiker: 1. My last bike was 30 years old and had not worn out it's cassette or chainrings. (It did go though several sets of bearings though) In any case, I see no reason why the metal on cassettes or chainrings would be any thinner than that on a fixed gear bike. (Frankly, if you're riding enough that it becomes a problem, you're riding enough that the investment is probably worth it) 2. Did I say anything about staying in one gear? All I'm saying is that if there's clicking or rubbing going on, or it takes a long time to shift, something needs adjusted or oiled.

    @BillyONeal : Sorry, so sorry, I confused your comment with gcb's. He proposed not changing gears...

    @BillyONeal ... _no reason why the metal on cassettes or chainrings would be any thinner_. So you run a 1/8" chain with a derailleur? If you use the more usual 3/32", most fixed gear bikes will have 33% more material to absorb wear on each tooth

    @Useless: I'm saying that there's nothing about derailleur gears, as a technology, that forces the chainrings or cassette to be thinner. I'm not saying that they are the same thickness in practice.

    If you want to derail the chain, it needs to be able to flex sideways a bit. If you want to fit multiple sprockets between the dropout and spokes, it limits their maximum thickness and the spacing between them. Fixed, singlespeed and hub-gear chains don't need that flex and are thicker and stronger.

  • Um, elephant in the room I'll address the answer to you: because it's trendy. C'mon, you can't tell me that fashion is not a major factor.

    Not that that's a bad thing, anything that gets people into cycling is a good idea if you ask me.

    I completely agree, more bicycles is better than more cars, no matter what's the reason.

    I ride fixed and it's got nothing to do with being trendy. So maybe that's a factor to some people but it's most certainly not a major factor.

    Fashion is indeed high, but for me it is not only a perfect training machine, but also a perfect replacement for a motorcycle in fair weather heavy traffic (just as my trekking/touring/commuter is a replacement for a car)

    +1 For daring to say the truth. One shouldn't dare: people won't like it.

    I suspect that the person who rides fixed is not going to be the same person who just decided to start cycling.

    This is true for some people, but definitely not for me. I don't give a **** about being trendy. I just like how it makes the bike simpler (because I have never taken mine to a mechanic and don't intend to), and I appreciate the weight reduction as I live up a flight of stairs. For me the question is why ride a bike with gears? They require maintenance (lubrication at least) and can be damaged easily and increase the weight of the bike. I never ride up or down hills. I'm not racing and don't need to travel as fast as possible, so no need for the gear ratio to be perfect for my current speed.

    I beg to differ it's trendy. It was trendy, but it's no longer trendy in most Australian capital cities. The roadie is back and so are the hard tails and MTBs. Fixies are seen as "gay" these days.

    Well I did make that comment four years ago. Trends have a way of going away to be replaced by something else. I mean, how else would capitalism keep selling us stuff?

    Also: "gay" ...Really? Are you ten years old or something?

  • Fixed-gear bikes, as compared to single-speed bikes:

    Trackstands. The ability to move the bike backwards with the pedals makes it possible to keep balanced while stopped. This is useful (while waiting for cross traffic, for example) and is a demonstration of the skill of the rider.

    Brakes are optional. You can apply back-pressure to the pedals to slow the bike gradually. Alternately, you can throw your weight forward (to unweight the back wheel), and apply very strong back pressure. Once the wheel is locked up, you skid to a stop.

    This is also a safety issue, as you can't stop nearly as quickly without the benefit of a front brake (where most of braking happens on most bikes), and it depends heavily on the skill level of the rider.

    No brakes (or front brake only) simplifies the bike even further, compared to a single-speed bike.

    Image and exclusivity. Fixed-gear bikes are unusual, and not everyone can ride them. Heavy people with heavy loads in hilly areas are pretty much excluded. They require unique skills, and have an element of risk that repels most cyclists. In my area, they have been adopted by the "hipster" subculture.

    Fun and variety. For someone who rides a conventional multi-speed bike the contrasting experience of riding a fixie can spice things up, keeping bikes interesting.

    A fixed gear makes track-standing a lot easier, but isn't really necessary -- there are certainly people who can trackstand on freewheel equipped-bikes as well.

    I can trackstand for a short time facing up a hill, but how do you do it on the flats?

    Trackstand with a free wheel on flat ground: use your brakes and use different body parts as counter weights. If you start falling to the right you throw your left leg out and vice versa.

    I can trackstand downhill without a fixed hub (even with a kiddie trailer on the back). You basically have to synchronise pushing forward and squeezing your front brakes to bounce off the flex in the wheel. Helps to be in the right gear though. Oh, wait..

    I think riding without brakes is a pretty much irresponsible thing to do. Locking rear wheel WON'T STOP the bike on an emergency. You coul plan ahead, but emergencies are always unplanned.

    note that in several countries, brakes are not optional by law.

  • Some people ride a fixed-gear bike to play Cycleball, the most awesome of all competitive cycling sports.

  • To throw a spanner in the works (this was a huge religious debate in some fixie communities.) Brakes are not "optional". And in some states (MN & WI iirc) are required by law.

    You should have at least one brake on a fixed gear bike in case your chain breaks (they can and will if you don't keep up on maintenance.)

    Otherwise as others have mentioned better/smoother pedal stroke, better understanding of your body & endurance since you can't change gears to accommodate hills, simpler mechanics.

    Riding no-brakes is irresponsible. It is not possible to stop in an emergency, there's no magic. I think it's ok to skid metal sparks off a tire if one wants, since the front brake is at least installed on the bike and available to use.

    I experienced this on my fixie just a few weeks ago: pedaling (on flat, level terrain thankfully) at a pretty high cadence, going quite fast, and *thunk* chain snapped completely off the bike. There was a curve coming up and if I'd not had a front brake to hit I'd have caromed right into a Dutch countryside canal (or "stopped" by falling off the bike). So yeah, if you ride fixed, have a front brake. Seriously.

    Brake are outright banned in some track events. Which makes the Olympic velodrome events irresponsible, I guess.

    What, do they have to explicitly say "riding no brakes is irresponsible *..except if you're riding on a track*"? Really?

    Followup from 2017, https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2017/sep/18/cyclist-charlie-alliston-jailed-for-18-months-over-death-of-pedestrian To quote the Judge to the convicted cyclist "You chose to ride at a speed and on a bike which you could not stop, your attitude being that everyone else would just have to get out of your way...”

  • There are multiple kinds of "fixed gear" bikes, each appropriate for different purposes:

    Track bike Intended for the velodrome. Horizontal rear-facing drop-outs, no quick release on wheels, no brakes, drop bars for most events, 1/8 chain, gear-inches no less than 81" (48x16) and as high as 100+, riders frequently change cogs/chainrings during workouts. Geometry is steeper than road bikes and handling is twitchy, tires no wider than 25mm. Example: Bianchi Super-Pista.

    Street fixed gear Intended for riding/training on street surfaces. Horizontal drop outs, front brake, drop-bars or bullhorns or flat bars, gear-inches typically lower. Geometry like a road bike, accommodation for tires wider than 25mm. Typically has a flip-flop hub with a freewheel on one side. Example: Surly Steamroller

    Fixed Trick bike Intended for doing stunts that involve pedaling backwards, walls, ramps, hops and other wild stuff. Lots of back-pedalling. Geometry like a big BMX bike, very low gear-inches. Example: see prolly is not probably blog.

    Conversion fixie Road bike frame that has been converted. You can tell because the drop outs are not rear-facing. Everything else same as "street" fixed gear. This is a good way to experiment with fixed gear if you don't want to shell out $700-$1000 for a dedicated bike. You're not going to be allowed to race one of these on the velodrome because of the drop outs. Examples: See fixed gear gallery blog.

    It is a good answer but to a subtly-different question. Obvs too long for a comment.

  • Ride nothing but a fixed-gear bike for 3 months, then get back on a standard geared/freewheel'd bike. After you get over the initial shock of being able to coast and backpedal, you'll feel like friggin' Superman. Riding a fixie turns your legs into tree trunks.

    +1 for the "shock" of being able to coast. Actually, when I ride freewheel now, it's like some important feature of the bike is missing, because I have to brake (with hands) to control speed...

  • It's a trend, that's all. Give it a few more years and all that will remain are a bunch of vandalised classic frames that we will look at sadly, wishing those lugged and brazed steel beauties had not been modified for some hipster's vanity.

    There's one actual reason which is lower maintenance - less complexity does mean less to adjust. Get your chain tension right, keep it lubricated, things should stay smooth for a long time.

    Against the fixie there are so many more - being in the right gear only 10% of the time is the big one. A fixie is for the track where the gradient is zero and the road is always smooth. (You go up the embankments of course but race tactics is a whole separate, big discussion.)

    "trackstands" - many skilled cyclists and even a lot of plain old commuters can balance indefinitely on mountain bikes, cyclocross, road bikes or whatever.

    "direct connection" - huh? There's no slack in my drivetrain, nor on any properly adjusted bike. There is the direct link that keeps your pedals rotating any time the wheels are rotating of course, which can be very dangerous if you lean into a corner and find your inside pedal lifting the back wheel off the ground as it comes around...

    "lighter" - modern frames and group sets are so light anyway. The UCI (governing body for the world road championships etc.) has set a minimum weight of 6.8kg because it is easily possible to make a lighter geared bike than this. There's a point beyond which it just doesn't matter any more, and both geared and fixies are there already.

    "efficiency/fitness" - there are two sides to this. A fixie can help you learn to keep constant pressure on the pedals I guess. But gears are there for a reason. Lance Armstrong doesn't have the cadence of a hummingbird because it's more fun that way, it is more efficient. When you're travelling downhill fast and your legs are spinning to keep up with your pedals that's awesome, but it's the time you least need efficiency. You need it going uphill, but that's when you're standing up in the saddle pumping slowly. Which leads to a warning - fixies may be bad for your knees. If you ride in hills and you tough it out with a tall gear you will cause more wear to your knee and hip joints than if you were able to change down and keep your legs spinning. 20-somethings, you think you're invincible now but you may well regret that attitude once you turn 40.

    Brakes don't enter into the debate because a fixie can have them or not.

    Take your fixie shopping on weekends. For riding with an actual purpose, accept that technology has advanced a bit. As per Lance Armstrong's cadence, they don't ride bikes with gears in the Tour just because it's more fun or they like to tinker.

    I don't think "that's all", even though fashion is a significant component. I hope in the near future there will be a lot of good offers on eBay and such!

    +1 for the knees bit. I've torn both my ACLs and at 30 years old must keep a cadence of at least 60 pedals per minute or else there is too much pressure on my knees. Coming out of a dead start on a fixie is just not possible.

    I'm amazed there's not more discussion of how "fixies" impact your knees. I have had knee surgery 3 times - used to bike everywhere - and am back to biking now, finding out that (for some reason) single-speed bikes are common, despite the #1 obvious reason for multi-speed bikes - to keep a relatively constant cadence, which is the most efficient and best for your knees. I've now been reading around trying to find any discussion of whether these single-speed bikes are not as good for knees - and, I'm just shaking my head at the lack of discussion. Am I in the twilight zone in 2016?

License under CC-BY-SA with attribution

Content dated before 6/26/2020 9:53 AM