Imagine flying down the avenues on a bike that has more in common with a tricycle than a traditional 10-speed bike. The rear cog is directly connected to the rear wheel so that anytime the bike is moving the pedals go round and round making coasting totally impossible. You just can’t decide to stop pedaling because the pedals are essentially connected to the wheel. To stop or slow you need to crank back on the pedals (essentially pedaling backwards), skid, or bail into the nearest garbage can. The bike has no derailleurs, no shift levers, no rear brake and sometimes no brakes at all. A bike stripped down to its essentials.
These bikes known as fixed gear bikes (and their close relative the single-speed bike) are taking over Utah’s city streets. Stand on any corner downtown Salt Lake or browse the bike rack outside of Squatter’s Pub and you’ll see an impressive array of bikes built with mixed and matched pieces of the past and present.
So why would anyone want to ride one of these fixed gear bikes? “Simplicity,” the fixie advocates declare in unison. “The simplicity is what originally drew me to the bike. They are just really simple, only so many things can break,” says fixie commuter Joergen Grepe.
Well we don’t chop off our opposable thumbs to return to a more simple existence, bikes evolved gears for a reason. Bikes have gears so that the rider can maintain an even cadence (pedal speed) with about the same amount of effort regardless of going uphill, downhill, against the wind, or on flats. With gears, there is no need to kill yourself going uphill or have your pedals spin wildly out of control on a downhill.
But for the fixed gear aficionado, challenge is what it is all about. Fixed gear bikes make you stronger. Instead of shifting to a lower gear to climb you need to push hard to get up those hills. Some even find fixies superior to geared bike, as Tour de France founder Henri Desgrange said in 1902 in his famous quote “I still feel that variable gears are only for people over forty-five. Isn’t it better to triumph by the strength of your muscles than by the artifice of a derailleur? We are getting soft… As for me, give me a fixed gear!”
So these fixed gear bikes are not for wussies and to some these retro bikes are also statement against the high costs of serious road biking. Killer, lightweight road bikes can run in the 2 to 10K range, whereas a fixie can be made from as little as $75-150 according to the Cyclesmith’s John Schott.
“There is something about taking an old classy 10-speed apart and turning into something new,” says recent fixie convert Chris Call. Chris built his first fixie out of his brother’s old 10-speed that he found buried in his parent’s garage. He first cut all the cables and pulled the brakes and derailleurs off that old Murray bike and then took a trip to the Salt Lake City Bike Collective to get a wheel set and flip-flop hub and then to the Cyclesmith for a new chain and some guidance.
The Cyclesmith is Salt Lake City’s go to bike shop for fixie frames, conversion supplies and advice. Riders bring in old frames they have found at garage sales, the DI, Craigstlist, or KSL and get the necessary parts to build their ultimate commuter ride or they simply pay the fixie folk to do the conversion. Although images of tightly jeaned hipsters flood my mind, when asked what types of people are taken over by the trend, Schott says that there is no real typical rider these days, “We see from upper 50s newly retirees from high school kids to college kids and even the pros. The older crowd is building a fixie for their second or even third bike and the high school kids are building cheap trick bikes and hopping stairs.”
Salt Lake’s Bike Collective’s mission is to get refurbished bikes into the community and is a great place to drop off your old parts. The collective also has plenty of old frames and parts and offers an open shop several nights a week where you can get help with your bike projects. If not into building a fixie from the frame up, the Cyclesmith has fixies and single-speeds for sale on their consignment racks and also carries a wide selection of new bikes from Surly, Soma, Raleigh, and more.
To non-riders, fixed gear bikes make barely any sense in the urban flatlands of New York and Boston where fixed gear riding first became the rage, but seriously leaves non-riders puzzled in the hills of Utah. But to riders it’s about much more than simply being hardcore. “It’s really hard to put into words – there’s just more of a connection between rider and road. Since there’s less between the two, when you’re riding you become more connected and more aware,” explains Grepe.
Originally popular amongst the downtown courier crowd, fixed gear bikes exploded on the U campus a year or so ago and are now making their way into the heart of anyone looking for a fun way to ride and a bike that is easy to maintain.
Fixie kids, formerly known as the skater kids, have taken to the bikes with great fervor putting on informal bike races, sometimes with scavenger hunt components, through town called alley cat races and holding clandestine bike polo matches in certain parking garages downtown SLC. You can count on the fixie kids to stage an impressive showing at Salt Lake’s Critical Mass ride that meets at the Gallivan Plaza the last Friday of every month. I hope the trend continues because as far as I’m concerned any trend that makes bike commuting cool and keeps more cars off the road is a blessing.
Utah fixie riders are now a diverse crew and training on a fixed gear bike is gaining popularity with road racers and mountain bikers for a variety of reasons. Fixie riding is known to promote a more effective pedaling style. “Before riding a fixie, coasting was an option. Now when riding a fixed gear bike I have to maintain a continual pedal stroke –which has made me a better climber and more efficient rider,” says Call.
Fixed gear riding also increases souplesse meaning flexibility, which translates into better performance on any type of bicycle. Fixed gear riding is also preferred in wet and slippery conditions since the rider constantly receives feedback on traction and back tire grip.
I should warn you that riding a fixed gear bike takes a bit of time and practice to get comfortable with. That age-old saying “it’s just like riding a bike” means nothing when it comes to riding a fixie. Most cyclists try to coast out of habit once the bike gets up to a certain speed but the pedals just keep turning and turning, freaking the hell out of the rider and most often tossing them off.
It takes a bit of practice to suppress the urge to coast so it’s a good idea to learn in a safe area like a grassy park or a street without too many hazards. The first time I pedaled a fixie, I bailed into the grass before the pedals made a complete revolution. I could feel the pedals start to move without me and panicked. At first it feels like the bike is controlling you instead of you controlling the pedals.
Something most geared riders never think about is taking corners but on a fixed bike if the pedals are not equalized when taking a corner the pedals can hit the ground resulting in a fixed gear ass beating.
Think pedaling uphill is going to be hard on a fixie? Descending the hill can be even more challenging since the crank will turn at very high speeds. Since coasting is not an option, downhill riding requires excellent balance, some serious dexterity of the limbs, and loads of practice to master.
Fixie riders typically ride without brakes and stop by applying backward pressure to the pedals or locking up the rear wheel in a technique called a skid stop. It’s highly controversial whether fixed gear bikes are actually legal since most city and state laws require bikes to have brakes and in Salt Lake City the law states that bikes “Must be equipped with brakes capable of stopping from 10 mph within 25 feet on dry, level, clean pavement.” It seems as if there’s some room for interpretation in Salt Lake’s laws since experienced riders can stop within the required distance.
Although having brakes lowers the rider a notch on the fixie-hipster-meter, it’s a good idea to install a front brake for emergencies for the occasional cut-off or the right-hook bike commuters face.
Building a fixed-gear bike can be a creative endeavor, piecing together old frames and parts into shiny new commuting machines and once you get the hang of it, fixie riding can be a fun way to cruise around town and strengthen up those road legs for racing season. So start browsing the classifieds and hitting garage sales to find that perfect old frame. Get yourself a fixie hub and relearn how to ride a bike so you can have a styling new way to get to the festivals and farmers market this summer.
Converting a Bike to a Fixed-Gear
1. Get a bike. Most older road bikes are good candidates for conversion. It’s preferred that the bike has a horizontal dropout, the slot in the frame where the rear axle attaches. Most modern bikes have a vertical dropout, but a horizontal dropout can accommodate a variety of cog sizes and can more easily allow for chain tension adjustment.
2. Strip the bike down to its essentials. Take off the front and rear derailleurs, rear brake, cables, and levers, and remove all but one chain ring. Now is the time to paint the bike if you so desire.
3. Purchase a new rear hub. This is where you need to visit the bike shop. You’ll need to purchase a new back wheel with a track or flip-flop hub. A flip-flop hub has threads on both sides and can be used as a single-speed freewheel or track hub. It’s possible to just use your old wheel and remove the freewheel component and replace it with a track sprocket but it’s safer and more reliable to just purchase a new hub.
4. Attach new chain. With the new rear wheel attached, you’ll now need to decide what type of gearing to run. The most common gearing for a fixed gear bike is 48-16. Slap on the chain and adjust accordingly.
• Make sure the chain tension is set appropriately. The chain should be set tight enough so that it doesn’t fall off when you shake the bike from side to side but loose enough so that it doesn’t prevent the wheel from spinning. Also to prevent the chain from coming off make sure that the chain line is straight.
• Careful when the bike is in the repair position. When hand pedaling the bike, keep your fingers and clothing away from the chain because the force of the rear wheel will keep the whole drive train moving and this can be a terrible way to lose a finger.