The Way Of The Fixie

By Mike Kallal*

In the time between being trapped indoors by the depths of winter and humming down the road in glorious summer, the weather is too good to waste, but not good enough for your best bike. You need a fixie.

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A winter beater that combines practicality with potential brutality
Photo: © Todd Archer

Winter's just got gone. Good thing, too. Your relationship with the stationary trainer had become strained. You were been banned from riding rollers in front of the TV since you used a Tour de France video segment to work on 'top-end,' and went through a coffee table. Now, you know why it's illegal to throw your hands in the air during a mass sprint finish.

That itch you're feeling is either the burning desire for Out-of-Doors miles, or something fungal as a result of not having washed the bibshorts for three workouts. But, look outside. That weather's still no place for your titanium-encrusted crown jewel. And few of us are fortunate to live near an indoor 250m. Options are dwindling. This may be the time to consider fixed-gear road riding.

Fixed-gear training is a popular regimen in many cycling communities. The tool is a respected special purpose bicycle, employed to improve both technical skill and physical condition. They are often sold new, built-up solely for their intended use. In the US however, fixed-gear road riding remains an obscurity. "Fixed-gear trainer" is just one role played by the American multi-purpose beater, a trophy of ruthless bikeswap negotiation, sacked pro shop parts bins, and "Hey, if you're not going to ride that…" appeals to friends.

A "fixie" is essentially the hybrid of a road frameset and a track powertrain. Track framesets are sometimes adapted, but the high-and-forward track riding position encourages climbing like farm animals eat: sloppy; all over the place. A laid-back road configuration is more versatile, and better accommodates long hours in the saddle.

The design concept is straightforward. Narrow the mechanical options of the bike in order to broaden your ability to adapt. A fixie retains none of the principal energy-sparing features of the contemporary road rig:

  • A single gear allows no alteration of the transmission for changes in terrain. Ya cain't shift.
  • The possibility of disengaging the powertrain from the wheels is gone, also. There's no way to rely on inertia for the maintenance of forward momentum. You ain't gonna coast.

Upside

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The stark purity of the fixed-gear drivertrain
Photo: © Todd Archer

Fixed-gear proficiency has long been thought to enhance road bike ability. By turning elevated RPMs on a fixed-gear trainer, conventional wisdom suggests road-bike "spin" can be developed. So, having become adept at the higher fixie cadence, you will manage the somewhat lower rate of turn typical on the road bike with greater efficiency. Hhmmm…

Detractors of fixed-gear road training point to conflicting presumptions.

Detractors say fixed-gear theory implies that pedaling skill is apparently unobtainable through thousands of kilometers of in-season road riding. Or that, once acquired, the ability doesn't last the winter. However, a buttery smooth road bike cadence can be had through a comparatively short series of early season workouts on a fixed-gear trainer.

Critics dismiss the application of a fixed-gear trainer to improvement of road bike technique as analogous to practicing on an ostrich as preparation for riding a racehorse. Ideological opponents of the fixie advocate a purist approach. To get good at riding a road bike, ride it.

Controversy aside, a fixed-gear trainer offers potentially useful challenges. A fixie is harder to control than a road bike. More finesse is required. Persistently turning crankarms force you to execute all maneuvers while pedaling. There's no option of "three o'clock and nine c'clock" freewheeling to set-up or execute a move. Holding a line through a tight corner on a fixed-gear can become a gutter-scrubbing experience. Pedal strike. It's not just for knuckleheads anymore. And the emergency separation of tires and pavement is complicated when launch occurs with cranks anywhere other than parallel to the ground .

Bunny-hopping a fixed-gear effectively is truly an art.

Forcing fitness

There's greater consensus on the value of fixed-gear road training for physical condition. You have a limited range of capabilities. No matter how well developed any of us may be, we're only human. Simply configure the bike to emphasize your weaknesses, and it becomes a vehicle for carrying them beyond your 'comfort zone.' It's a painful realm. All levels of ability confront the costs of reabsorbing counterproductive tensions generated by inefficient technique or fatigue. Fixed-gear road training is not the exclusive province of a Category 'Ham & Egg' recreational licensee.

A fixie will knock the slam out of the gamest gams.

The most severe deprivation of a fixed-gear trainer is likely the absence of a variable transmission. Experience the scale of cadence imposed during a fixed-gear road ride. You'll reconsider further trash-talking of those quarrelsome integrated shifter levers. Of course, under or overgearing for training effect is available on any derailleur-equipped bicycle. It's a perceived benefit of a fixie that there are no alternatives.

An uphill where a lower gear would be most dearly appreciated often provides for ascending at a max rate of turn approaching the espoir' years.

This is an excellent way to build functionally specific strength. After a difficult climb, many riders (admit it) won't pedal the downhill. The requirement of doing so on a fixie further compounds your workload.

The fixie tao of form

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Only a front brake is necessary. Mis-matched tape is optional
Photo: © Todd Archer

The effects of over-spinning are more insidious, but cumulatively more malicious than over-gearing. This is especially true in the case of direct-drive powertrain. Under-gearing compels the mistakes of poor pedaling to be both exaggerated and made more frequently. Direct-drive exploits errors by making their consequences inescapable. You can sit up, 'sit-in,' or slow down. It doesn't matter. If the wheels roll, the cranks turn. A fixie will insist that you learn to spin smoothly, or soft-pedal home in aching frustration.

Poor technique is often proportional to velocity. That's the root objective though, isn't it: to go faster? Acceleration will ultimately be met with disproportionately larger energy expenditures. You're going faster, but the fatigue factor is rising even more rapidly due to decreasing efficiency. On a fixed-gear trainer, the only way to maintain a quick tempo is to become smoother. Pure form becomes the only 'fix' for an addiction to speed.

Direct-drive compels you to actively manage continually moving crankarms. This responsibility can be frightening on a downslope. Gravity provides propulsion. You have the opportunity to passively experience an ultrahigh turnover rate. Let the good times roll. The adventure of relying on the universal force for effortless cadence is available only through a fixed-gear descent. Nothing else offers so much RPM with so litte exertion. You can focus on relaxing, and learn how it feels to get out of your own way. It feels like flying in dreams.

If you are in search of blinding leg speed, a moderate topographic decline will be necessary. A zen-like suspension of any sense of self-preservation might not be a bad idea either. Fill your heart with a love of quickness, let loose the binders, and transcend the higher spiritual plane of 200 RPM.

That's nearly 65 kph, in a 42/18, on 700x23 casings. An onboard computer with max speed function may be desirable, if you're too preoccupied to count and convert individual crankarm revolutions.

Feedback on fixed-gear performance will be immediate, and unmistakable. Bouncing in the saddle is a reliable indication you're no longer 'spinning circles.' The bike will begin to behave more like a high-frequency pogo-stick. Throttle back before things get any more ballistic and compromise handling. Spinning at a cadence beyond your wildest expectation can open the soul. Turning cranks at a rate beyond clear command can open the skull.

At a standstill, direct-drive can actually help you stay upright, sometimes motionlessly. Like nuclear weapons however, it's a point of subtlety to maintain certain resources while rarely demonstrating them. Friends don't let friends trackstand in traffic.

Focus

Fixed-gear road riding will test your concentration as well. Lapse of focus will be penalized immediately. Consequences are potentially dire.

A fixed-gear trainer is a Pedaling Instructor who will demand unqualified attention. Should you forget to 'keep up' with the crankarms, you may merely have a foot kicked over the top of the stroke. A less forgiving mentor might elect to vault you upward off the saddle. You could even be tossed forward over the bars.

A fixed-gear trainer can be a brutish riding companion, but one who's a hell of a lot of fun. Most of us know their type. Save debate over the merits of the fixie as an instrument of technical facilitation for the post-ride coffee shop forum. Dialogue is much less likely to become inflammatory after a lengthy bout of fixed-gear ass-whipping.

Will polished form on a fixed-gear road trainer carry-over to more fluid pedaling on the fully outfitted road rig, or higher 'top end' in a Chariot Race? Maybe. There are reasonable arguments on all sides. Sadly, precious little of what we bicyclists do impresses the cold, calculating eye of Reason. Moot point. Just ride.

A fixed-gear road trainer possesses unique attributes. The experiences a fixie can offer are unattainable on any other kind of bike. These distinct characteristics allow a kind of riding that's enjoyable as an end in itself. Ride well.

Further Information

If fixies are your bag, take a look at the selection of track and all-purpose fixed-gear machines at the Fixed Gear Gallery.

Sheldon Brown keeps one of the most extensive tech sites, and has a large, informative section on fixed gear bikes.

Mike Kallal is a personal trainer, USA Cycling Elite Coach, Cat One track racer, and Cat Three track official. He says that at 38 he's more than old enough to ride Masters, but prefers to slug it out among 'the kids.'  He trains on the road, but only races on the track.