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Fixies are minimalistic, low-maintenance bikes loved for urban agility. However, they lack gears, making hill climbs challenging. Safety and practice are essential. Popular for their aesthetic and online community.
In the realm of cycling, few bikes celebrate a cult status quite like the fixie. From an urban environment to the velodrome, fixies dominate when it comes to speed and style. But what is a fixie, and what are its advantages over its counterpart?
In this article, we’ll look at a few of the questions you might have about the humble fixed gear. We’ll start with a brief definition, looking at the more technical aspects of what ‘fixed-gear’ really means, before exploring some of their pros and cons.
Lastly, we’ll try and unpack why it is that they’ve become so popular, before looking at some of the benefits and potential dangers. After all of this, we’ll decide if they’re worth the hype, and ultimately, if they’re the right type of bike for you.
What is a Fixie Bike?
A fixie is a bike where the rear cog or ‘sprocket’ is attached directly to the rear wheel. When the cog turns, the wheel turns. If your back wheel is turning, so are the pedals, and vice versa.
Chances have it you’re probably more accustomed to a ‘freewheel’, where the rear wheel can spin independently of the pedals. And, unless you’ve had experience with a single speed (not to be confused with the fixie), you’re probably used to shifting gears in order to facilitate climbing hills. Unfortunately, the fixie affords no such luxuries.
With a fixie, the constant engagement with the pedals can be challenging at first, especially when tackling steep inclines. Whilst potentially a challenge to adapt, it can be rewarding, offering a simplistic, efficient and minimal approach to cycling that’s refreshing in the context of ‘smart’ everything.
A fixed-gear, or fixie, is a bike with a direct link between the rear cog and the rear wheel. This means that when the bike is moving, the pedals are also moving with it, so there’s no coasting. In other words, your feet move as long as the bike does.
There’s also only one gear, so there’s no possibility of ‘gearing down’ to climb, the ratio you’ve got is the one you’re stuck with.
When you pedal a fixed gear bike, the motion of your legs is directly translated to the rear wheel via the chain, chainring and rear cog.
Here’s a breakdown. You push the pedals forward, the chain tightens and rotates the rear cog. As the cog turns, it rotates the rear wheel, pushing the bike forward. If you pedal backward or stop pedalling, the chain remains taut, so the cog and the wheel also stop moving.
In other words, the connection between your pedalling and the bike’s movement is constant, and if the bike is moving, so are your feet.
It’s a simple and efficient design that offers a uniquely engaging experience, as well as a minimal maintenance system.
So now we know the technical stuff, what are the pros and cons of fixed-gear bikes?
Fixed-Gear Bike Pros and Cons
Unique Feeling of ‘Harmony’: The bike starts to feel like an extension of your body, which can be a harmonious feeling.
Low Maintenance: Fixies have less running parts than most freewheels, so they’re easier to maintain.
Improved Fitness Levels: The constant pedalling can help to build leg strength and cardio fitness.
Minimalistic: Fixies often have a clean, minimalist aesthetic and are easily customisable.
Urban Cycling: Fixies are fast, responsive and agile, and can be great for cities.
No Coasting: Not being able to coast on longer rides can be tiring for those who are used to a freewheel.
Hills (Up and Down!): Cycling uphill without dropping gears is a challenge, as is cycling downhill whilst your legs still move with the pedals.
Learning Curve: They require practice before the constant pedalling and braking method becomes second nature.
Terrain: Fixies are not as adaptable to changes in terrain and are better suited for good, flat surfaces.
Potentially Dangerous: When used improperly and without practice, they are potentially dangerous to the user.
Benefits of Fixed Gear Bike
The benefits of fixed gear cycling include enhanced fitness and a unique connection to your bike. Whilst initially challenging for freewheel users, persistence is rewarded with a simplified version of cycling, a new skill set and an engagement in a community of fellow enthusiasts.
Cycling is known to have a positive impact on our health, but fixed gear cycling is arguably even better. The constant pedalling required on a fixie helps to build leg muscle strength, endurance and awareness.
There’s also a strong fixie community. Fixed gear riders are renowned for cycling in packs, helping each other to master the skills required, such as skidding to brake. They’re also known for customisation, personalising their bikes to express their individuality.
Fixies are, compared to some other types of bikes, generally not too expensive. Whilst their ‘hipster’ status has undoubtedly driven the price up, they are widely available and you can find them for under £500.
For the performance cyclist, fixed gear cycling can help you to improve your pedalling technique to maximise power output with the upstroke.
It can also help you to improve your mental fortitude. Climbing on a fixie is no laughing matter, but there’s few things as rewarding in cycling as conquering a steep ascent with a challenging gear ratio.
Why Are Fixies So Popular?
Fixies are so popular because they’re fun, easy to customise, are low maintenance and have enjoyed an explosion on social media. In an increasingly technological world, the fixie has beauty in its simplicity and is a return to the roots of the simple joy of cycling.
Fixie riders have also established a huge online presence. The digital age has caused the subculture to explode on the internet, especially on social media and in online communities.
The popular subreddit r/FixedGearBicycle encourages riders globally to share photos of their set-ups, where self expression in customisation is encouraged. There’s also a discussion thread dedicated to helping newcomers.
There’s also been a rise in video making. There are some beautiful videos of fixed gear riders traversing cities, squeezing through traffic and skipping red lights (which we don’t condone!).
Law breaking aside, there’s also a wide variety of tips to be found from channels like Zach Gallardos, from how to spot bad beginner bikes to maintaining proper chain tension.
Fixies also have a strong association, not just with being a ‘hipster’ trend, but as being part of a broader counter-culture. They’re extremely popular in Alleycat racing; unsanctioned street races that involve city navigation through a series of checkpoints. The combination of speed and adrenaline understandably has its appeal.
Fixed gear bikes are also extremely popular for their aesthetic appeal. Their minimalistic design and customisable nature means that they are arguably more appealing than their geared counterparts.
Are Fixies Dangerous?
Whilst fixies are undoubtedly a lot of fun, they are potentially dangerous. Descending quickly can be difficult without coasting, and emergency stops might prove difficult to control at first. But, with practice, persistence and caution, these risks can be largely minimised.
Of course, the lack of a freewheel is the main cause for concern. Without coasting, it can be difficult to maintain the constant motion required for descents. If you forget to keep your legs moving, you could find yourself getting thrown over the handlebars.
They’re also not as reliable when it comes to emergency stops. Skidding, the popular method of stopping fixed gears on the roads, may look cool, but it can quickly damage tyres and cause blowouts on the road.
In fact, it’s become a trend to follow the track cyclists and run with no brakes at all. However, for safety and legal reasons we’d always suggest equipping and maintaining at least one hand-pull brake, even if you don’t plan on frequently using it.
As with all forms of cycling, the best way to use a fixie safely is by practising, using the brakes (not just skidding!) and wearing adequate protective gear. Exercise caution, moderate your speed and respect the learning curve.
Are Fixie Bikes Good?
Fixies can be great based on your preferences, riding style and use. If you’re a minimalist or seek urban agility, a fixie can be a good investment if you have the patience to learn. If you’re a more casual rider or plan on regularly tackling hilly terrain, consider alternatives.
Fixies can be great for a few reasons. If you’re looking to renew your passion for cycling, and enjoy the prospect of a deeper connection, they could be for you.
The direct connection between the pedals and the back wheel is unique and can give you a great sense of control and responsiveness.
They’re also excellent for messengers (delivery cyclists), as well as other urban dwellers who frequently navigate city environments. Used properly, they can be agile, responsive and fast.
Fixies aren’t for everyone. Due to their lack of gears, they can be challenging when it comes to climbing hills because the gear is usually better suited to flatter terrains. They’re also not usually great for long-distance touring where coasting for energy conservation is crucial.
They also demand a certain level of fitness. Whilst you don’t need to be an elite athlete to enjoy riding one, they engage your leg muscles considerably more than a geared bike. Having a reasonable level of leg strength and endurance can make the experience much more enjoyable.
Fixies are a fun alternative to the average freewheel. Whilst adapting to their differences can be a challenge, it’s well worth it, as they really ride unlike any other bike. They may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but they’re definitely worth a spin.
In a world of high-tech and high-spec cycling, fixies are the analog solution. They are easy to maintain and personalise, helping to promote a DIY approach to cycling which has been a little lost.
It’s difficult to put into words the emotional aspect of riding a fixie. There is a strong personal connection and sense of achievement that comes from mastering the skills and overcoming the challenges, and this is in part what makes them so appealing.
Of course, they have their difficulties, but if you’re patient and willing to adapt, you’ll be rewarded with an unparalleled connection of ‘man and machine’ that just might make you remember why you fell in love with cycling.
READ MORE: Most Beautiful Fixies in the World
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