Thoughts on Riding a Fixed-Gear Bike

Univeaga at Night

About four years ago I came across a video of some people riding fixed-gear bicycles, and I was instantly intrigued by the simplicity and aesthetics of these single-speed bikes. Since that time I’ve become more interested in biking both as a culture and as a mode of transportation. I’ve met a number of people who all have fixed-gears and swear by them. In fact, I’ve never met someone who has a fixie who doesn’t swear by it, saying something like, “I can’t imagine ever going back to having gears.” And so for quite awhile I’ve contemplated switching over but it wasn’t until recently that it was practical for me to do so.

Consequently, two months ago I converted my 12 speed Univega Viva Sport into a single-speedfixed-gear bicycle. What this means is that, similar to a tri-cycle but more like a track bike, whenever the rear wheel turns so do the pedals. Because the cog is fixed to the wheels it cannot coast but can be ridden in reverse. Another result of the fixie is that you speed up or slow down by pedaling faster or applying resistance (to slow or stop the bike).

Building a Fixed-Gear Bike

The most fun part of the whole conversion was tearing the bike apart and re-building it with new parts. With the help of my friend Seth, the total process was about a two week ordeal (mainly due to not having enough time in one sitting).

seth working on converstion

You basically strip the whole thing down, put some new wheels on it (ones that have a fixed hub) and ADD A FRONT BRAKE!

bike striped

Some of the things I added to the bike can be seen on this picture (roll your mouse over the image).

Why I Like Ridding One

There are two questions people have when they see you with a fixed-gear bike typically. The first is why? For me I do really like the simplicity of one gear as pictured below.

one gear to rule them all

I also enjoy the overall aesthetics of the handlebars, and lack of wires and cables and unnecessary accessories. If much of our world revolves around excess then think of the fixie as the exact opposite, a practice in having as little as possible.

Font Pic

Since we moved to Pasadena I don’t have to deal with the huge hills of Los Angeles, and so it’s more practical to have only one gear because it requires far less maintenance, there’s no slippage of gears while riding and it’s lighter. This fixed version of my Univega is hands-down the most hassle-free bike I’ve ever ridden. And despite initial assumptions, it’s not hard to ride with only one gear (versus many), I find it fairly easy and plus it’s a great workout!

Are Fixed-Gear Bikes Safe?

The second question, which is harder to explain than it is to just experience for yourself, is, “How is that thing safe?” I have to be honest, it’s not the easiest thing to learn. Be forewarned this isn’t for newbies! It took me a good week or two to feel comfortable on it, but then again this is true for learning how to surf, skateboard, snowboard, ski, rock-climb etc. Yes, it takes some learning and getting used to, but I don’t see that as a reason to not have one, or to consider it unsafe. You can be safe if you take the time to learn how to ride it.

This is what frustrated me so much about the overly critical and uniformed article that appeared on Tree Hugger the other day (and what prompted me to write this). The article is basically seeking to drum up support to be against fixed-gear bikes. They are mainly picking on riders who don’t use brakes. I am of the mindset that all fixie riders have no good reason not to have a brake (they’re cheap, easy to install, don’t weigh much and are nice just in case), why not ride responsibly? But then again snowboard’s don’t have brakes either, and people who know how to ride fixies (I mean professional Messangers, etc) can typically stop just as fast as people who have brakes.

Slowing down (without resorting to use the front break) isn’t hard once you get accustomed to doing it, this is why for the first week I rode my bike I took it nice and slow and on back roads. Then adding the extra security of having a front brake makes the bike as stoppable as any other regular road bike. Finally, I think this bike is safe because you can only go as fast as your body will allow you to go. Unlike free-wheel 10 speeds where you can get up to speeds over 30 miles an hour, this is physically impossible (so far as I know) to do on a fixed gear bike. I can only go as fast as my legs can pedal, and when it starts getting intense you slow your legs down (and pull the brake if needed).

I am having a blast with my new bike, and since I blog about my bicycle from time to time I really wanted to show you all my new ride. I also hope that these bikes aren’t banned or feared for being unsafe. Yes there will always be the irresponsible people who careless about their own safety or the safety of others (whether on a bike, in a car, or on a snowboard), but if you treat this like anything else, you can not only have a good time but also be safe.

Fixed Gear Resources

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29 responses to “Thoughts on Riding a Fixed-Gear Bike”

  1. I keep wanting to convert an old bike I don’t ride much to a fixie, but I am underconfident in my ability to stop the thing. That and my typical commute would take longer. Maybe I’m underestimating myself on the commute time. But jeez, what fun! Great post.

  2. Hey Thomas – thanks for the comment. How long is your commute? You shouldn’t underestimate the efficiency of these things, I get to school/work is as much time as it takes to drive there. It’s pretty amazing how quick you can go on a fixie, especially once you get the hang of not taking your feet off the pedals even at red lights. Also, as long as you have a front brake you won’t have any trouble stopping. Let me know if you have any questions on stuff, I’d be glad to help where I can.

  3. My regular commute is only 7.5 miles, and with the high gear on my commuter bike it takes me between 30 and 40 minutes, depending on the wind coming off Lake Erie. I have already stripped down my old mountain bike, so I just need to fix the rear gear and it would be ready for some test rides. It would probably be the only mountain bike frame/wheelset fixie in Buffalo.

  4. I’m loving the look of that bike! Especially in the front shot where you can see how cable-free the whole thing is. The whole “less is more” mentality is right up my alley. I’m soon going to be moving a lot closer to my work (about a mile) so I’m either going to invest in a bike or start walking to work. I love reading this kind of stuff.

    I’d imagine there’s also less maintenance, less chance of throwing a chain, etc. Am I right?

  5. That would be pretty cool, I’ve seen a few mountain bike fixie frames and they’re pretty neat. Just be sure to have some good road wheels on there or you’ll be hurting! Oh and you ride by Lake Erie, I can imagine that can get pretty cold! I can’t compete with that here in Pasadena. I commend you for commuting on your bike there.

  6. Like most of my friends, I learnt to ride on a fixed bike with no hand activated brakes. As an urban bike for a flat city, the case for a “fixie” is pretty compelling.

  7. @Ben – Oh yea, this is definitely up your alley actually (knowing a little about how you like stuff). Ben, you’d have a blast hacking away at an old used road bike and building something like this, and it’s really easy to do – if you have the proper stuff.

    There really isn’t any maintenance at all, other than repairing a flat here and there (something I had to do this weekend). I have a little stubby 15 mm wrench for taking wheels off and making sure things are tight but no chains popping off or anything like that.

  8. ok – elderly person question here –
    my present bike has a combustion engine bigger than some cars, but my first two bikes had one gear. I remember when the “big deal” 3-speeds, then 5-speeds and finally the “who can imagine needing” 10-speeds came along! We thought they were sort of sissy show off bikes. But it was tough in my neighborhood in Chicago.

    No handle brakes. You braked by back pedalling – what was that? and we could coast – I am pretty sure. We could also turn corners without touching the handlebars.

    I used to ride ‘no hands’ for blocks and blocks. Which interestingly enough I can also do at 80 miles per on the big-girl bike I own now.

    Bike history please, how did my schwinn differ from your fixie.

    (I also remember when TV’s had tubes and you could fix your own TV by taking your tube down to the tube testing machine at Walgreens)

  9. @Peggy, No Hands at 80mph! Are you crazy?!!!! And here I was worried your “elderly person” question was going to interrogate me on safety or something like that, I should have known! 😉

    Hmmm…History. My bike differs from your old bike in that it can be ridden in reverse. So when you pedal backwards the back wheel rolls back, it doesn’t lock like those Schwinns. So regardless of which direction the wheel turns, the pedals turn with it. In that sense you can think of how a little kid would stop a tricycle (other than just dragging their feet), they would just slow down, or start pedaling backwards.

    Does that make sense?

    So yeah, this bike doesn’t coast, and you wouldn’t want to go down a big hill and take your feet off the pedals unless you were interested in meeting St. Peter later that afternoon (that’s why just about everyone who has a fixie uses either clips or clipless pedals to keep their feet latched to the pedals).
    Anyways, now we say something like “coasting is for sissies!” Or, you might say, going anything under 80 mph and doing no hands is for sissies…but I am okay with that.

  10. I was going to say that it looks perfect for the flatlands … but then I see Tom saying he wants one for the area around Lake Erie, so I’ll just put a sock in it. 😀

    Growing up in Vermont we lusted after more gears … those hills make more gears better. But I learned on a one speed … which is what we called fixies back then. Of course, we had another name for hoodies too … but I can’t remember it.

  11. @Lazlo -I thanks for the link to the Bunny Hugs.

    About stopping, I don’t know. I’ve never done a comparison or raced someone but I think people who ride fixies regularly can stop just as fast (or pretty dang close) as people on freewheels. But then again I can’t go as fast as people on a geared bike, so I don’t have as much momentum to slow down from either. But I ride pretty defensively as well, so that helps.

    If you had a fixie you would have at least one good brake (your legs)! I think it’s time to switch, your bike would love you for it.
    But I’ve been riding for a little while as well, I know I could have stopped quickly when I was first starting out.

  12. Love it Wess. I remember a loooong ride over mixed terrain in the company of a guy on a fixie. It amazed me how he not only stayed with the group, but led it for most. Must confess that I left him on the final climb. The bike was gorgeous though.

    As for cable-less handlebars, I think I’d prefer compag…all the simple beauty AND the gears!!

  13. Thank you for showing up at CBDbees just in time today to help me with my dorky brakes. I really have no clue how my bike works, but I should learn as it is my vehicle.

    I don’t think the Altadena commuter hill would like me doing the fixed gear thing. But it looks way hipster, for sure.

  14. Awesome build Wess. When we moved from Harrisonburg to Pasadena I had to give up one of my bikes and my fixie unfortunately was the one to go. I miss it dearly and wish we had room for it.

    Anyway, I enjoyed reading about your project almost as much as I enjoyed my own build a few years back. Happy riding.

  15. You’ve finally drunk the Kool-Aid, Wess–fixies have been on my mind for 4-5 years since I met a guy who commuted to his job at a library across town here in SF on one. Not only do they challenge your riding skill, but also your mental mapping of the city hills (to avoid) and distance-from-a-stop-sign abilities. He had timed his ride to deal with all of these city issues that rural bikers don’t have to worry about. I did my first bike project as a conversion to fixie, but didn’t use it much so I sold it. Good luck with yours–I still need to move to the flats before I can get serious about one.

  16. @Glenn – I am not familiar with a Compag but it doesn’t sound bad. I don’t have much room to talk about terrain, Pasadena is pretty flat, at least where I ride, but I do know lots of people ride them in much more questionable environments. The little riding I’ve done on big hills wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be too.

    @Jenelle – It was nice meeting you the other day and I was glad to be able to help! If you’re in the market for a different bike you might try a road bike with gears for your long commute though, they’re easier to push up those big hills! Check this out —

    @Ben – thanks for the comment. I saw you at church today but didn’t get a chance to say high. I’ll have to let you know next time we do a “Menno-Nite Ridazz!” It’s usually a few of us from the church riding from pasadena to a bar in Highland Park, it’s a good time.

    @Chad – I can’t believe you don’t have your fixie anymore! You were one of the people who fueled my passion/interest in getting one! But I can see good reason why you wouldn’t have one where you’re at in SF.

  17. wow, nice documentation.

    I’m interested in this kind of bike, but figured mine works fine so why bother with something new.

    But your cool pictures make me want to try it.

    Your not interested in having no brakes? I’ve seen people riding on the bikes with no brakes and it freaks me out.

  18. @Ariah – thanks for the comment. Yeah, I know what you mean about having a bike working and not wanting to mess with it, that was me for about 3.5 years. Then I just decided to go for it. Worst that can happen is that you have to put the old version back together again.

    And YES on the brakes.

  19. I had seen these before around the streets of Portland but hadn’t spent much time learning about them.

    This last weekend we spent the day in Philly and saw a whole crew of “fixie” riders. The thing I noticed that they do (and it could be a regional thing) is cut their handlebars really sort, basically removing the curved part. It gave it an interesting look.

  20. Michael – yeah, that is a common way to do it. I’ve thought about changing my bars up to look differently but haven’t found a style I really like and thinks practical yet.

  21. Hi all, a commuting question:

    I live in New Westminster BC and commute on my fixed-gear most days to Vancouver. It’s about 20km each way and there are some decent hills in there.

    I love my fixie, but by day 4 or 5 the legs get pretty blown out and I wonder how much time I could save by riding a geared road bike. ( I can hold my own on the uphills, but on the long flats and downhills I get passed while I’m spinning madly. ) Bike geek info: I’m riding 48×18.

    So, to the question: If I’m riding 20km in about an hour (some days more, some less) what do you think I could shave off if I had a geared road bike instead?

  22. Mr. Bridgewater. I think you ride slow. Getting a geared bike might improve your hill climbs and descents, but I think you would average about the same. But it sounds like you are more concerned about a comfortable commute, which is understandable, so I think a geared bike might allow you to maintain a more comfortable cadence along your commute. My legs get blown after 6 days of riding the hill-less streets of Beijing, but that's what Sundays are for, taking the subway and bus once a week is as refreshing as jumping back on the fixed commute on Mondays. Hope some of this is helpful and doesn't sound condescending or something… I ride 47 x 16 btw (79.3 gear inches, you are at an even 72. which for the hills , at least the uphills, sounds good)

  23. I actually tried a geared Klein for a few weeks. It only saved 4-5 minutes – a lot if you're racing, but nothing for a commute. I switched back to my fixed gear. There's a good 200m of climbing so the gearing can't be much higher for me.

    I'm getting over 21.6km in 50min or ~26km/h. If I take out the 10 stop-lights I have to wait at it's 28.8km/h while pedaling. What kind of speed do you get with 79.3 inches in Bejing? Just interested to see what the numbers are on fixies.. most sites quote numbers for road-riders, or tourers.

  24. i rode hard for my first year everyday, i know see there is no need for brakes at all, i bomb hills can keo spin ride backwards, ppls dont want a front brake so they can bar spin, but if you really want thee best of both worlds get a redline urbis. put in work and you womt regret it

  25. I actually ride a fixed gear quite often. I have an old Schwinn Frame, it’s very simple to ride, the gears are your legs, they dictate how fast/slow you go. I have been able to ride 25+ miles on a fixed gear in one day. It is like running on 2 wheels.