Bicycle messenger culture and the equipment messengers use is hip right now, a growing legion of people are becoming involved in cycling not via the exploits of traditional racers like Chris Hoy or Lance Armstrong but through a growing fashion in the fixed and singlespeed bikes used by messengers and the ‘diy’ alleycat races that they organise and are involved in. ‘Fixies’ are like the NoFX of the cycling world, there’s nothing inherently wrong with them but they’re a little too popular for most people’s liking, you would hope some people who discovered fixed gear bikes would then embrace cycling culture as a whole but I’m sure there is a large proportion who don’t
Anyhow to help all you uncool people like me survive in the jungle of ‘urban’ cycling here’s my dummies guide to fixies.
‘Braking’ the law.
The general principle of a fixed gear on a bike is that when you pedal the rear wheel turns and when you stop pedaling it doesn’t i.e. there is no ability to ‘freewheel’. This means that in theory you have no need for brakes as you can stop by not pedaling. In practice this is harder than it sounds and the debate rages as to whether you should equip a fixed gear with brakes. Many just fit a front brake which also helpfully gives you a way of stopping if you chain breaks or your real wheel skids.
In fact with no front brake the only means of braking is by pushing back against the motion of the rear wheel thereby skidding to a stop, this is known as a skid stop and there are even competitions to see how far you can maintain this skid as demonstrated by the Leeds Fixed Gear guys.
The highway code is ambiguous as normal stating “You must ensure your brakes are efficient” leaving it pretty much down to preference as to whether you ‘rub stoppers’ or not. Personally I would even if you don’t use them most of the time and you definitely should if you have a ‘freewheel’ because the “Foot on wheel” method is far from ‘efficient’!
Drop bars not bombs.
More hotly debated than brake vs no brake is the choice of handlebars you choose for your metal steed. Your basic options are flat bars (which may be ‘riser’ bars) or drop bars and variations on these forms. Those who build up fixies in the vision of pristine track bikes often favour drop bars for that authentic Italian or Japanese look. The other end of the spectrum are bikes modeled on the urban warrior bikes of messengers with incredibly narrow flat ‘riser’ bars.
As an aside I spent ages looking for a good shot of some riser bars before resorting to this shot of Greg from Chillerton looking particularly hip and ever so slightly camp.
Although this topic divides many the various pros and cons of what bar set up to have can be distilled into two main arguments. Drop bars give you more hand positions to choose from and therefore also more body positions to adopt, which can be useful if your ride is anything but short. Flat bars enable you to have a more upright position which is useful in traffic and can at times be more comfortable (or at least feel more natural). When it comes to bar width, anything that is narrower than shoulder width although often cited as useful to enable you to pass through small gaps will actually limit how well you can ride by restricting your chest and therefore your full ability to breath.
Simple huh? Well I should mention ‘bullhorns’ the bastard son of both flat and drop bars. The origin of this shape is attributed to people ‘flipping’ their drop bars and then removing the bottom of the drops, however they have developed over the years into an almost entirely unique bar shape in their own right.
The only time ‘flip flops’ are cool.
So I’ve defined what a fixed bike is, however many see these going in hand with ‘singlespeed’ bikes. Singlespeed bikes are basically single ‘geared’ they have a freewheel but no derailleurs or mechanism of altering the gearing in which you ride. The benefits of this and fixed bikes is that they are relatively easy to set up and low maintenance as there are no gears to index, clean, lubricate and break. The drawback is that you may not have the appropriate gearing for the terrain you are cycling, either your gearing is too high and you will struggle to climb a hill or too low and you end up pedaling frantically down a slope.
The solution to this problem? The ‘flip-flop’ hub! There are two types of flip-flop hub those that are fixed/fixed or those that are fixed/free. The difference here is that the fixed/fixed hub has two sets of threads on each side one for the cog and one for the lockring, the fixed/free only has one set of threads on the ‘freewheel’ side. This is because as you pedal with a ‘freewheel’ the force tightens the freewheel unit onto the threads of the hub, however with a fixed cog if there were no lockring in theory if you pedaled backwards you could unscrew the cog on the thread. With the aid of the flip flop hub we can have a choice of gears either a low gear to climb with and a high one to descend or alternatively we could power up the hill with our efficient fixed gear and then flip the wheel before we leisurely freewheel down again.
Pedal to the metal.
There is probably a lot more I could write about especially as I haven’t even touched upon frame choices but before this turns into an essay I’ll bid you adieu and ride off into the sunset. Some of you may think I’m a pompous old bore so if you want some real rofl humor on the subject of bikes head over to http://bikesnobnyc.blogspot.com/ for your daily dose of hipster baiting and bike salmon tales. FYI my fixed/singlespeed project is still in the garage and progressing slowly but should see the light of day before the end of the year fingers crossed…keep it pumped and ride safe!