Fixed gear bicycles have become the ultimate item in urban chique. Messengers glide effortlessly in and out of traffic in a show of defiance and freedom among lines of cars chained to the grind of the daily commute. Fixie bikes are simple and elegant, with clean lines and a genuine beauty which springs from their lack of complexity, stripped to the bare requirements of pedaling, steering and rolling. And they are becoming more popular as more people discover the joy of riding single speed and fixed gear.
Single speed riding requires a different kind of approach. The fixed gear does not allow you to coast. In fact, going downhill can be hard work. The cog on the rear wheel is bolted directly the hub so that your pedals must go at the same speed as your rear wheel. This also means your pedals can be used to slow down the bike, and the ability to pedal backwards make the impressive track stand you sometimes see messengers doing when the traffic lights are at red, all the easier to perform.
But where did the fixie come from? Some of the first ever bikes were fixed gear – look at the Penny Farthing, and you will see that the pedal cranks are connected directly to the hub of the front wheel. Before the advent of the derailleur, which allowed bicycles to have gears, single speed bikes the only race bike available. And they were big news in the sporting world. In 1876, Madison Square Garden was built to accommodate a velodrome racing track. Bike racing on the original fixed gear track bikes attracted huge crowds and turned bike racers in to stars. In fact, bike racers back in those days could earn almost $150,000 per year compared with a tradesman’s salary of around $5,000. One of the best known events in the sport of track racing, was the hour record where world riders would pit themselves against the clock in an attempt to ride as far as they possibly could in an hour. Some of the greats of the sport have held the hour record, including Francesco Moser, Eddy Merckx and Miguel Indurain. Graeme Obree successful record attempt on a homemade fixie, partly made from old washing machine parts, was made the subject of the movie “The Flying Scotsman”.
The halcyon days of track racing in the USA are perhaps behind us, although the sport has enjoyed a resurgence of interest as an Olympic sport, and more nations are putting resources into track racing. But the legacy of the fixed gear bike is alive and well.
Some of the features of those old track bikes, you might think, make the fixie less than ideal for riding in an urban setting, as opposed to riding indoors on a banked track, with no traffic or pedestrians to contend with. Others disagree. Fixie riders who ride without brakes have to anticipate their next move much further in advance than their free-wheeling colleagues. Fixie riders talk of the feeling of Zen-like peace and flow as they become as one with their bike, flowing through the streets and cars of downtown. Others compare riding their fixie to a game of chess, anticipating the movement of the traffic as a chess player would anticipate the moves of his opponent, and reacting accordingly. In any event, the history and the evolution of the fixie has moved on to accommodate the needs of every rider, and in particular the urban rider.
Fixie bikes are probably best known for their uniqueness and variety. You will see track bicycles in the city with their dropped handlebars, but you will also see machines with flat handlebars, bikes with brakes and bikes without brakes. Experience fixed gear riding for yourself – it really is an entirely different style of riding and transport that allows you to feel very connected to your bike. Whether you choose a track bike or an urban machine, you too can get the feel of cycling on one of the oldest and best established types of bicycle – a form of cycling that is as enjoyable today as it ever was.