Monday, 12 December 2011

Fixed Ambitions

Wear the right gear and cold mornings can be a pleasure to ride.
 Riding to work on a bicycle through the warmer months is a healthy and enjoyable way to travel.  You tend to arrive at your desk smelling fragrant (if your work has shower facilities) and feeling wide awake.  And a well paced commute also justifies the odd dietary breach...

However, once the clocks change, the warmth bleeds away and the light fades. The fields become barren and colours congeal into greys and browns. And you get to work rattling with images of potholes looming out of the dark, cars kicking grit off the road, arctic winds and slushy puddles. But all these brutal experiences are tempered by the grim satisfaction that you’re as hard as nails.

Unfortunately, as I discovered two winters ago, my delicate road bike isn’t as hard as me. Components that clicked and whirred with the love of lubrication through the warmer months became neglected in the darker, colder months. Quite frankly, I didn't fancy standing in the freezing cold scrubbing chains and cogs. Without trying very hard, I managed to destroy a lot of the bike's moving parts that winter. It was a costly lesson.

In the Autumn of 2010 I got my hands on a fixed wheel commuter. The Charge “Plug” was my choice mainly due to its distinctive appearance. I commuted on it through the hardest winter in recent memory. The bike was ridden on country lanes and city roads, mainly in the dark. Over five months I rode eleven miles into work and back; approximately 400 miles a month, clocking up 2000 miles in total.

I received the Plug in bits and had the option with its “flip flop” rear wheel to try riding it in its freewheel capacity. A little nervous of the Fixie experience, I decided to try the bike out like this first. Less than five minutes on the road like this made me realise a fundamental lesson. I had very quickly discovered that riding a fixed gear bike with a freewheel  cassette is pointless;  it's like fitting tyres to a Sherman Tank.

Never ... Stop ... Pedalling

Back home, I flip-flopped the wheel onto its fixed cog. This time, I barely made it off the drive before experiencing the true nature of the Fixie. Completely unaccustomed to powering a crank that is directly connected to the movement of the rear wheel, I instantly found my legs wanting to freewheel. I was fighting the pedals as they rotated under the power of the rear wheel, . Nervously I set off down the road, this time aware that the bike was truly fixed. About thirty minutes of riding later, I was becoming a lot more relaxed with the Plug, cruising down the road on this handsome shiny bike. It’s bigger tyres were still smooth enough to purr quickly over the road. The geometry of the frame, whilst more upright than my road bike is sufficiently rakish to enable me a sensation of speed as my legs [constantly] powered the pedals.

Less than an hour into my maiden voyage I experienced my first big mistake. I was on the approach to a roundabout when I discovered that muscle memory and the urge to freewheel activates as soon as your guard is dropped. Unlike the approach to Give Way junction where you are generally expect to stop, it is preferable to carry your momentum through a roundabout and so cyclists like to freewheel towards them, looking for gaps in traffic as they approach.

 And this is what I did, I stopped pedalling. Never stop pedalling. The propulsion of a fixed wheel bike is a fusion of metal and flesh, at all times. Because of the speed I was travelling at, my legs had no opportunity to buckle or bend. The momentum of the bike and my body weight forced the pedals to continue their revolutions as if I wasn’t there. As a result, my arse flew upwards out of the saddle (connected of course to my straight leg, which still thought it should be freewheeling), to the highest pedal-stroke, and dragged me back down onto the saddle with equal force before repeating this without a pause. It did this about six times in three seconds whilst I frantically tried to apply brakes and throw my feet off the pedals!

Not only did this experience make me feel like an idiot, it reinforced upon me the intrinsic connection between a fixed gear bike and the human pedalling it. It is fundamentally different to a "normal" bike. Not only with the constant pedalling; whereas geared bikes use smaller and larger cogs to enable easier pedalling up and down hills, a fixed gear bike uses one gear and demands greater efforts from the rider, both up and down those hills.

I would like to say that this was the first and last time I was almost spat out by my bike, but over the next  few weeks I found new and more interesting ways in which to almost kill myself. It got to the point where I started wandering if the Plug had been made from the parts of James Dean’s car, the Lil’ Bastard. But in moments of clarity I realised that it wasn’t the case; on each mishap I had only myself to blame. I started to become one with the bike. But as my confidence grew, it was soon the dangers of high speed pedalling that made themselves known to me.

I first encountered this going down a nice big hill. As you can imagine, travelling downhill will result in you gaining speed. Because a Fixie needs to be pedalled at all times, you either have to start applying pressure on the the other direction, to slow the bike down or you slow your descent with the brakes ... whilst still pedalling. This can often be happening at over twenty five miles per hour. If the bike happens to go over a small bump, or you lose focus for a fraction of a second, the upward motion of the crank will literally throw your foot off a normal pedal. I can assure you that it is impossible to put your foot back onto the pedal whilst travelling at high speeds. This means the other foot can’t pedal properly and is also thrown off, leaving you with your legs akimbo, trying not to make contact with the impromptu food processor whirring away beneath your crotch.

You may think that I didn’t like riding a fixie, but you’d be wrong. The thing is, I needed to tame it. Or rather, I needed to program my brain to ride it properly. After two months of my arse bumping out of the saddle and my legs flying off the pedals, I started to master the finer points of riding this kind of bike. Then I took the final step and became at one with the Plug... Whilst gently whispering sweet nothings and blowing softly across the handlebars, I removed the normal pedals from the frisky beast and with great trepidation, attached my road bike pedals. This may seem a little suicidal, but once I got past the “clipped in to a death machine” paranoia, I found that the cleats allow you to pedal with greater ease, and quicker too!

It was this leap of faith that resulting in the taming of the Plug. After clipping into the pedals I became a Fixed Wheel aficionado. Because you are literally connected to the machine, it no longer throws you off the pedals. Counter-intuitively, cleats were the deal-clincher.

I found the Plug to be heavy considering its minimalist approach to components, but still relatively fast given its upright seating position and wider tyres. I enjoyed the pseudo-hoods on the Plug and found myself switching naturally between the top bar and the horns as I would on a road bike. The Plug soaks up road damage comfortably, mainly through the tyres. But bumps are always going to be traumatic on a Fixie, due to the way they jar the rhythm of pedalling, that’s just the way it is. But the actual impact is dealt with well and the bike rides comfortably, but responsively. It’s well balanced. Through all the miles and potholes, it didn’t puncture once.  The only major issue I have with a fixed wheel bike for commuting is if it had punctured, I would have had to remove the rear wheel with spanners in order to get do a roadside replacement of the inner-tube. This means carrying heavier tools every trip, and messing with bolts and such, possibly in the dark.

That aside, maintenance is where a fixed gear bike comes into its own ... the Plug didn’t require any expensive intervention. This bike was ridden hard; I cleaned it twice and oiled it when I remembered to (which wasn’t very often). The bike was intentionally abused, there's no point testing a winter hack on a velodrome... It had to put up with a stupidly hard winter and some dreadful road surfaces. Although hitting a pothole on a fixie isn’t remotely enjoyable to the rider, the bike didn’t falter once.

Should you buy a fixed wheel bike, you may find, like I did, that your muscles develop in order to compensate for lack of gears. In other words, they will grow because they have to. I haven’t been able to run tests this winter on my power output, but I know I have considerably stronger legs than I did this time last year. The effort involved in riding a Fixie is therefore something you become accustomed to, as your legs rise to the challenge. However, there is always a limit on the type of hills you can tackle without gears, so I advise carefully planning your routes around steep hills, not up them.

So if your legs get bigger, do you get faster and can you ride longer? I hoped that riding a Fixie through the winter would yield improvements through the sportive season. That time of year is approaching and after 5 months of riding the Plug I’m back on the road bike. This year I completed my first serious group ride, managing 69 rather muddy miles at just over 20mph! Last year, my average in a group was around the 19mph mark, generally in better conditions. For this reason, but mainly to save my beautiful road bike from unnecessary damage, Fixed gear commuting is now a permanent fixture for me.


  1. Good job, keep it up!

  2. Did laugh at the point that you were approaching the roundabout!

  3. Completely agree with the sentiments, riding fixie during the winter is my preference and I love it.

    The feeling of cruising along it unrivalled and I feel like a stronger ride for it, the only times I wish I had an extra gear is when the wind is really kicking up in to my face.