Wednesday, December 03, 2008

A Treatise on Fixed-Gear Bicylces: Part 1

For a little more than five months now I have been, as frequently mentioned on this blog, riding a fixed-gear bicycle, a Raleigh Rush Hour which I affectionately named "Jackie".

Although over a 1,000 miles of coastless pedal-pushing has left me no less enthralled with my bike than the first day I climb on its skinny velo saddle, I am often confronted by an abundance of naysayers. Criticisms of fixed riding may be abundant, but genuine concerns seem to fall into one of several, predictable categories. I will attempt to systematically address these major concerns. (Note: this post is not an apology for cycling as urban transportation, but merely a defense of riding fixed gear as a valid form of urban cycling. The legitimacy and practicality of bicycle commuting is presupposed. If necessary I will address this topic at a later date. )

1. It's dangerous

Well to be perfectly honest, it's true. Riding a track bike in urban traffic is dangerous, but, to quote Biblo Baggins, so is going outside your front door.

Simply put, any form of urban transportation is dangerous, albeit subway, TARC, motorcycles, or SUV. In fact, I recently saw a statistic in The Art of Urban Cycling that cycling actually is only slightly more dangerous than air travel.

So what quality of fixed gear bicycles makes it inherently more dangerous than it's carbon road bike, mountain, hybrid, tandem, or recumbent cousins? Because competent fixed gear riders are by definition in constant control of their speed (via pedal rpms), it intrinsically forces the riders to be more aware of his surroundings and how the bike directly responds to her movements. This is very similar to how my friends who drive manual transmissions claim that it forces them to be better drivers. Although driving an automatic is easier, it is also easier to be lazy when there is less to do to operate it. Experienced bike messenger will also testify to its superiority in wet conditions, because a fixed gear bike does not rely on slick brake pads to slow down.

Admittedly, it is all the rage in fixed-gear circles to forgo brakes entirely, like they do in the velodrome. Such riders rely solely on superfluous skid-stopping to slow their bicycles and often simply disregard any and all traffic laws. I will be the first to admit this is idiotic. Kentucky state law requires at least one operational brake, which in addition to being the law, is just a good, practical idea. My bike is fitted with a front brake for emergencies and really steep hills. Although I prefer not to use it, and rely instead on resisting the pedals to control my speed, it has gotten me out of some pretty tight spots. Better to have it and not use it than need it and not have it.

The one danger I have encountered that is especially indigenous to fixed gear riding is shoe laces or pant legs getting caught in the chain. As the cranks continue to turn and drag the loose article, something is going to give, usually resulting in a crash. However, these sorts of problems can be easily avoided through diligence on the part of the rider to cuff his pant legs or to tuck her shoe laces into her shoe.

2. What about hills?

Invariably, this is always the second question I get asked. People notice the lack of shifters and derailleurs on my bike an automatically assume that it is unusable anywhere outside of Kansas or Texas.

Believer or not I actually live in Crescent Hill (emphasis mine). I.E., I have to tackle some monster hills to get anywhere- coming or going.

Surprisingly, the solution to steeper climbs with a single gear is..... pedaling faster. Instead of reaching for the shifter when going up Lexington or Baxter, I just buckle down and push harder. It's good exercise and it's not that hard. In fact, one of the first things I noticed after going fixed was how many of the bigger hills in my commute were no longer as exhausting to climb. The perfectly straight chain line of a single-speed more effectively converts energy spent into movement and my inability to coast ensures that I carry my momentum into the climb.

Do I get passed by spandex-clad weekend warriors while cutting through Cherokee Park and its more intense hills? Sure, but I'm just trying to get to a coffee shop, not play Tour De France.

3. Coasting is fun. I enjoy it too much to ride fixed.

This is perhaps the easiest to dismantle. Coasting is not nearly as fun as the committed free-wheeler might expect. Although one may be inclined to think that easily breezing down hills or cruising across flats in the most enjoyable way to get from point A to point B, even the novice "fixster" will be amazed at how boring it is not to be pedaling. Every rider remembers the first time he or she took a fixie out for a test spin. Each sudden jerk was a jarring reminder of how dependent the average cyclist is on the free-wheel cog. Corners, hills, long flats. Opportunities to coast in urban commuting are numerous. Once deprived of this luxury, I cut over 2 minutes off of my commute- an eternity in cycling culture.

The ease of movement with no energy expenditure pales in comparison to the joy of being intimately connected to the propulsion process through continuous pedaling. Every subtle movement of the fixed-gear rider directly influences his or her machine. Put on a regular bike, the fixster will be immediately deprived of this joy of feeling "connected with the road". The loss of control alone is enough for urban track cyclist to swear off free wheels, let alone the bliss that comes from track standing for an entire traffic light or train crossing, or braking by doing a completely unnecessary skid-stop.

These are just a few responses to the most common criticisms of fixed gear bicycles. This post barely touched on the benefits, which, if necessary, I may write on at a later date.


I'm not worthy! said...

Jobs are a coming man, I will have one soon.


Darren said...

"The ease of movement with no energy expenditure pales in comparison to the joy of being intimately connected to the propulsion process through continuous pedaling."

Fixed gear riding is not intimate.

michael said...

Darren, we both know you do not enjoy cycling. How can you have intimacy with something you do not love?