About four years ago I came across a video of some people riding fixed-gear bicycles, and I was instantly intrigued by the simplicity and aesthetics of these single-speed bikes. Since that time I’ve become more interested in biking both as a culture and as a mode of transportation. I’ve met a number of people who all have fixed-gears and swear by them. In fact, I’ve never met someone who has a fixie who doesn’t swear by it, saying something like, “I can’t imagine ever going back to having gears.” And so for quite awhile I’ve contemplated switching over but it wasn’t until recently that it was practical for me to do so.
Consequently, two months ago I converted my 12 speed Univega Viva Sport into a single-speedfixed-gear bicycle. What this means is that, similar to a tri-cycle but more like a track bike, whenever the rear wheel turns so do the pedals. Because the cog is fixed to the wheels it cannot coast but can be ridden in reverse. Another result of the fixie is that you speed up or slow down by pedaling faster or applying resistance (to slow or stop the bike).
Building a Fixed-Gear Bike
The most fun part of the whole conversion was tearing the bike apart and re-building it with new parts. With the help of my friend Seth, the total process was about a two week ordeal (mainly due to not having enough time in one sitting).
You basically strip the whole thing down, put some new wheels on it (ones that have a fixed hub) and ADD A FRONT BRAKE!
Some of the things I added to the bike can be seen on this picture (roll your mouse over the image).
Why I Like Ridding One
There are two questions people have when they see you with a fixed-gear bike typically. The first is why? For me I do really like the simplicity of one gear as pictured below.
I also enjoy the overall aesthetics of the handlebars, and lack of wires and cables and unnecessary accessories. If much of our world revolves around excess then think of the fixie as the exact opposite, a practice in having as little as possible.
Since we moved to Pasadena I don’t have to deal with the huge hills of Los Angeles, and so it’s more practical to have only one gear because it requires far less maintenance, there’s no slippage of gears while riding and it’s lighter. This fixed version of my Univega is hands-down the most hassle-free bike I’ve ever ridden. And despite initial assumptions, it’s not hard to ride with only one gear (versus many), I find it fairly easy and plus it’s a great workout!
Are Fixed-Gear Bikes Safe?
The second question, which is harder to explain than it is to just experience for yourself, is, “How is that thing safe?” I have to be honest, it’s not the easiest thing to learn. Be forewarned this isn’t for newbies! It took me a good week or two to feel comfortable on it, but then again this is true for learning how to surf, skateboard, snowboard, ski, rock-climb etc. Yes, it takes some learning and getting used to, but I don’t see that as a reason to not have one, or to consider it unsafe. You can be safe if you take the time to learn how to ride it.
This is what frustrated me so much about the overly critical and uniformed article that appeared on Tree Hugger the other day (and what prompted me to write this). The article is basically seeking to drum up support to be against fixed-gear bikes. They are mainly picking on riders who don’t use brakes. I am of the mindset that all fixie riders have no good reason not to have a brake (they’re cheap, easy to install, don’t weigh much and are nice just in case), why not ride responsibly? But then again snowboard’s don’t have brakes either, and people who know how to ride fixies (I mean professional Messangers, etc) can typically stop just as fast as people who have brakes.
Slowing down (without resorting to use the front break) isn’t hard once you get accustomed to doing it, this is why for the first week I rode my bike I took it nice and slow and on back roads. Then adding the extra security of having a front brake makes the bike as stoppable as any other regular road bike. Finally, I think this bike is safe because you can only go as fast as your body will allow you to go. Unlike free-wheel 10 speeds where you can get up to speeds over 30 miles an hour, this is physically impossible (so far as I know) to do on a fixed gear bike. I can only go as fast as my legs can pedal, and when it starts getting intense you slow your legs down (and pull the brake if needed).
I am having a blast with my new bike, and since I blog about my bicycle from time to time I really wanted to show you all my new ride. I also hope that these bikes aren’t banned or feared for being unsafe. Yes there will always be the irresponsible people who careless about their own safety or the safety of others (whether on a bike, in a car, or on a snowboard), but if you treat this like anything else, you can not only have a good time but also be safe.
Fixed Gear Resources
- Sheldon Brown’s all-encompassing page on fixed gears.
- How to build a fixed gear.
- Here is a set of posts on how to ride fixies, and tips on safety.
- Why some people have no brakes (and why I will always have one).
- A great web-gallery of bikes.
- Find more on my delicious page.