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In praise of ultimate simplicity

[This article was last updated on November 16, 2017]

For a few brief months in about 2009 fixed-wheel bikes were achingly trendy. But now the tragically hip have moved on, it’s time to reclaim the simplest bike style of all.

Almost all modern bikes have a freewheel, the ratcheting mechanism in the rear wheel that means you can stop pedalling and coast along. The earliest bikes had just one speed and if you were moving, you had to pedal.

Today, the only place where fixed wheel bikes are common — compulsory, in fact — is in the velodrome, where the ‘keep it simple’ ethos of track racing demands a single gear and no brakes.

Kona Paddy Wagon riding.jpg

Kona Paddy Wagon riding.jpg

For a brief period a few years ago it seemed like fixies were everywhere, and large bike makers scrambled to add them to their ranges. But the hipsters rapidly discovered that a genuine fixed wheel is not a trivial thing to ride, and flopped their wheels over to the freewheel on the other side.

That left fixies back with the riders who’ve treasured them for years: road cyclists who crave simplicity, and a handful of cycle couriers who love their almost-nothing-to-go-wrong character.

Genesis Flyer - rear drop out 2

Genesis Flyer - rear drop out 2

A typical fixie set up has a double-sided hub like this. There's a single freewheel on the far side and the dual thread nearest the camera takes a fixed sprocket and a lockring to hold it in place.

What’s a fixie anyway?

A road bike with, for our purposes, drop bars and a single fixed gear, and brakes. By law a bike on the road in the UK must have two brakes. Slowing the bike down by pushing against the pedals counts as a brake, but in an emergency you’re almost certainly going to forget that if you’ve been riding regular bikes for a few years. Best to stick with the stopping you’re used to.

Decade Convert2

Decade Convert2

Familiarity is the reason for sticking with drop bars too, but there’s another. A trendy ultra-narrow flat bar on a fixie marks you as someone too daft to realise you still can’t ride through a 12-inch gap because your shoulders or hips will get stuck. Just say no.

What’s a fixie good for?

Traditionally, a fixie was the quintessential winter bike, for two reasons. You’re always pedalling if you’re riding a fixie, so the theory goes that you have to work all the time — no freewheeling means no slacking. Riding a fixie means you make the most of your limited winter riding time.

The other reason for riding fixed in the winter is that water and salt is not exactly good for bike parts made from steel and aluminium. Derailleurs and freewheel mechanisms are especially vulnerable, so it makes sense to do without them.

KHS Flite 100 riding 2

KHS Flite 100 riding 2

Modern derailleurs seem to be more weather-resistant than those of the 60s and 70s, and they’re substantially cheaper, so this is less of a problem than it once was. Nevertheless, a bike that doesn’t need much maintenance over the winter is appealing if you have to work on your bike in a cold garage or shed or outside on the patio.

Fixies make great winter bikes, but they’re also excellent urban rides, provided you don’t have to tackle any long, steep hills. The lack of shifters means there’s one fewer distraction, and the ability to control your speed directly through the transmission gives you a useful extra degree of control.

KHS Flite 100 - rear dopout

KHS Flite 100 - rear dopout

Horizontal dropouts enable chain tension adjustment. These track style dropouts open to the rear; some fixies have front-opening dropouts.

Learning to ride a fixie takes time though. I’d been using a fixie to commute for a few days when I had probably the stupidest crash of my life. Approaching a red light I stood up to coast to a halt, ready to track-stand. Well, you can’t coast to a halt on a fixie and as I straightened by knees the bike spat me down the road on my arse.

Fortunately it was wet, so I slid along the road without leaving too much skin behind, and there was nothing motorised behind me. A salutary lesson, though, and a mistake I didn’t make again.

The philosophy bit

The real joy of riding a fixie is the feeling of direct connection with the bike. Yes, I know fixie enthusiasts tend to wax evangelical about this, but that’s for a good reason: it’s true.

There’s something almost mystical about being intimately connected to the transmission and rear wheel on a fixie. You’re physically engaged with the bike in a way that just doesn’t happen with a freewheel. That unavoidable pedalling imperative focuses your attention on staying smooth and fluid, especially as your speed increases. You can’t afford to be choppy if you’re doing 25mph in a 65-inch gear.

It’s debatable whether developing a smooth pedal stroke is an aim worth pursuing in itself, but if it’s important to you, riding a fixie is a great way to get smooth.

Three classic fixies

There’s a school of thought that says the greatest road-going fixies start life as classic steel road bikes with horizontal dropouts, found on eBay, Gumtree or the dusty backrooms of long-established bike shops, or as similarly vintaged track frames with brakes added. But if you don’t have the time and patience to build your own, there are plenty of brands that will sell you a fixie that’s ready to roll. To give you a taster, here are three of them.

On-One Pompino V4 — £499.99

On-One Pompino V4.jpg

On-One Pompino V4.jpg

The Planet X family of brands has long included singlespeeds and fixies. The Pompino is a versatile bike with cantilever brake mounts and room in the frame for tyres up to 32mm for a simple urban speedster.

Genesis Flyer — £749.99

2018 Genesis Flyer.jpg

2018 Genesis Flyer.jpg

If you set out to build a winter fixie, you’d likely end up with something very similar to the handsome Flyer which comes equipped with full-length mudguards to fend off the wet. For commuting use, there are rear rack mounts too.

Cinelli Tipo Pista  — £657.99

Cinelli Tipo Pista.jpg

Cinelli Tipo Pista.jpg

From the ‘very Italian, very ORANGE’ school of bike design, Cinelli’s Tipo Pista is a go-faster fixie with a high-quality Columbus aluminium frame.

The frame is very much a track unit with a steep seat angle, so if you wanted to strip it down it’d be easily adapted for the velodrome.

Our official grumpy Northerner, John has been riding bikes for over 30 years since discovering as an uncoordinated teen that a sport could be fun if it didn't require you to catch a ball or get in the way of a hulking prop forward.

Road touring was followed by mountain biking and a career racing in the mud that was as brief as it was unsuccessful.

Somewhere along the line came the discovery that he could string a few words together, followed by the even more remarkable discovery that people were mug enough to pay for this rather than expecting him to do an honest day's work. He's pretty certain he's worked for even more bike publications than Mat Brett.

The inevitable 30-something MAMIL transition saw him shift to skinny tyres and these days he lives in Cambridge where the lack of hills is more than made up for by the headwinds.

53 comments

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dreamlx10 [201 posts] 1 year ago
3 likes

It's a "Fixed" not a "Fixie".

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alotronic [532 posts] 1 year ago
1 like
dreamlx10 wrote:

It's a "Fixed" not a "Fixie".

I prefer fixey, as my idea of what to call this thing is neither fixie or fixed. 

Love my crappy old fixed - a rescue Lemond from a Cash Convertors (£90) bought 7 years ago and I still do most comutes on it - a new chain and tyres every year and it's done. This year I am riding it to a Audax SR series 'fixed' (reports) which really takes you back to what bike riding was like back in the dark ages (ie fricking hard). Certainly a good way to build up the legs! 

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njmoffat [45 posts] 1 year ago
5 likes

I commuted into London - 10 miles in, 10 miles out on a road bike which gradually destroyed itself. Then I bought a Dolan Track Champion, changed the fork, stuck a front brake on. My legs got bigger every day. Not only did my legs get a workout getting up to Crystal Palace but they they got a workout going down the hill into Dulwich as well. Get one! There is of course the no maintenance bonuses as well..... I cannot recommed going fixed enough.

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sea-level [1 post] 1 year ago
10 likes

I started riding fixed for my commute in Brighton last October, and am so glad that I did.  Previously I could just freewheel down the hill into work in the morning, with barely a turn of the pedal, and riding fixed forces me to spin, which is good.  And somehow, riding fixed is just fun - especially in the urban environment.

Some things I have found out:-

1) Sheldon Brown was a real fixie enthusiast, and his website has a lot of great material on riding fixed.

2) It's best to practice at the local park or track before going anywhere near a road.

3) Foot retention - so many web articles stress the importance of using foot retention when riding fixed, and I have found that it is so.  I ride with normal everyday shoes, and so use special pedals ("Stolen Thermalite") combined with foot retention straps ("Hold Fast").

4) Brakes - I'll stick with my front and back caliper brakes, thanks.  When you're at speed, the fixie is a beast of momentum, and resisting the motion of the pedals seems ludicrous and I'm not going to try it.  Hence the brakes.

5) The one and only gear - worth getting right for your riding environment.  My fixie came with 46 / 16T, but that proved a little too tough for the stop-start of Brighton's North Laine...  my LBS swapped the 16 for an 18, which has proved to be just right.

6) While it's true that you can fit no smaller than your shoulders (a point Emily Chappell makes in passing in her book on her courier days in London), I prefer riser handle bars of moderate width for both the look and the ride.  I think they fit the fixie riding style better.

7) Knees - my knees can get sore, and overall riding fixed has helped improve their strength, and reduced the soreness.  But you've got to build up to it, and being overambitious on the steeper hills (and too soon) can lead to extra knee problems.

8) Hills - if it's a steeper one, I'm happy to get off and push.  There used to be a few places where I had to get off and push on my commute home, but this number has reduced over the last few months.

9) The fear - the first time I rode fixed on the roads to work and back, I arrived home red in the face, shaking like a leaf, and swearing that I'd never do that again.  But I persevered, and now ride around with happiness and confidence.

10) Stock tyres - when I got my off-the-shelf fixie, the first thing my LBS did was ditch the flimsy-looking tyres and put on some decent, durable, puncture-resistant tyres (Continental Grand Sport Extra @ 25mm).  I think it's a good and necessary investment.

11) Chain tensioning - over time the chain will slacken, and there is the risk that it will jump off the front cog.  It needs a bit of tightening every so often (but not too tight), and having some form of chain tensioner on the rear dropouts can make this really easy to do. 

12) After some months, riding fixed becomes an integral part of your riding life.  I can't imagine being without it now.

 

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Yorkshire wallet [1569 posts] 1 year ago
2 likes

I've got one I built up from spares and it ended up being swapped into a single speed. I think you've got to live the fixed gear lifestyle. Chopping and changing between bikes just ends in near accidents when you forget you can't coast and nearly go over the bars and your legs get suddenly forced into odd shapes.

It's also suprisingly hard to get them to skid by kicking back and stopping the crank. I had daydreams of bombing down the road then skidding to a stop like the hipsters I seen on youtube but it wasn't to be. Added a front brake. Now I just leave it at work to ride round on at tea break.

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zauron [12 posts] 1 year ago
4 likes

Pompino is Italian for blowjob. Extraordinary. 

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Farr [5 posts] 1 year ago
2 likes

I ride a fixie (I'll call it what I want) round London and I love it. Commuting on a road bike isn't the same anymore. I started off buying a single speed then when that was ready for an upgrade, went fixed (although I could have just swapped the wheel on the first bike) for my new bike and haven't looked back. It's got a front brake and narrow bull-horn bars. You know the type.

A new chain and a pair of pads every year is all it needs. I've had schwalbe durano plus on it for about 3 years and they're still going. 23s though, I'll go for 25s when they wear out.

Had a few moments when my thigh bones appeared to be trying to escape through my armpits when I first started, but you get used to not being able to coast quickly. Helps with leg muscles and getting used to pedalling smoothly, or at least in my case. I had visions of riding MashSF style, skid stopping at high speed between traffic. That doesn't happen, I just use the brake.

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tritecommentbot [2268 posts] 1 year ago
0 likes

I was looking at cheap singlespeed and fixie rides for winter and saw this site selling them around £300 to 500. Really trendy looking too.

 

https://www.single-speed.co.uk/collections/bicycles/products/quebec

 

Some have a flip-flop hub so can switch between the two. Sounds good but maybe it's total pants and will fail in a month, never heard of it before.

 

Reason I haven't taken a punt is because at this price I'm not sure if these bikes are any good. Want one to hammer for winter not for just popping out for a coffee.

 

Can get a power meter for the same money so.. still not sure. 

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Yorkshire wallet [1569 posts] 1 year ago
2 likes
unconstituted wrote:

 

Can get a power meter for the same money so.. still not sure. 

 

Power meter.

The initial fun and feeling of gear freedom will wear off. If you're the sort of person that likes to or can't help giving chase to/holding off other riders you'll also get pissed off when you either spin out or can't get up a gradient in your most effecient cadence. I suppose this also adds to the thrill though when it works in your favour.

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vonhelmet [847 posts] 1 year ago
0 likes
zauron wrote:

Pompino is Italian for blowjob. Extraordinary. 

Planet X in not-terribly-serious-product-name shocker.

Anyway.

I ride 11 1/2 miles each way to work on a Genesis Flyer and it's lovely.  I ride it with a freewheel, rather than fixed, though.  I've done a metric century on it as well, which was good fun.

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tritecommentbot [2268 posts] 1 year ago
0 likes
Yorkshire wallet wrote:
unconstituted wrote:

 

Can get a power meter for the same money so.. still not sure. 

 

Power meter.

The initial fun and feeling of gear freedom will wear off. If you're the sort of person that likes to or can't help giving chase to/holding off other riders you'll also get pissed off when you either spin out or can't get up a gradient in your most effecient cadence. I suppose this also adds to the thrill though when it works in your favour.

 

Yeah PM does sound like the better use of 500 quid really when you put it like that..

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s_lim [214 posts] 1 year ago
1 like

I've a Gazetta in a very lovely red, and have been commuting/training/club riding on it for years; even raced a club crit on it. 

I love it - the simplicity of it just appeals to me. I ride it freewheel, for as much as I enjoy climbing, fixed just doesn't let you enjoy a long descent.  Change the chain  and the freewheel every few months, and you're good to go. I ride it 48/16 which is more than capable of coping with most terrain. It's genuinely my favourite bike, and wouldn't swap it for the world 

 

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cyclisto [330 posts] 1 year ago
2 likes

I had bought a used SS/Fixed bike at less than half its RRR which I rode as a single speed. It was very, very, very beautiful but akward to ride. With its skinny tires and no name caliper brakes, it just couldn't brake and a single speed bike is not enough on uphill and downhill. When I bought it the previous owner had done less than 100 miles judging from its immaculate condition and I did even less. Hopefully the 3rd owner will ride it more.

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Roadie_john [64 posts] 1 year ago
1 like

I bought an old road bike/fixed wheel lash up from a mate who didn't get on with it back in 2000 and have been hooked ever since. I've ridden up to 100 miles, topped out at 42mph downhill in 42x17, had chains snap, time trialled and hill climbed on one. I've made it up Crawleyside and The Gibbet in 42x17, and still have my own knees. The current version is an old 531 road frame with track ends brazed on. I've always used two brakes -on any kind of gradient, skid stops or back-pedal breaking are useless. It feels so direct, it's odd going back to a freewheel. 

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Broony84 [5 posts] 1 year ago
1 like

Decided singlespeed is best for my commute despite enjoying fixed alot. Tried it a couple of months ago for a couple of weeks and just couldnt get to grips with having to stop and start in a queue of 6 cars on a downhill right turn at a junction in the centre of town (filtering not an option)

Will definately be using fixed for winter weekend rides though.

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Broony84 [5 posts] 1 year ago
5 likes

Enjoyed fixed so much I thought I would tell you twice

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sneakerfrfeak [117 posts] 1 year ago
2 likes

I've been riding a Dolan FXE fixed for the last three winters and strangely look forward to digging it out of the garage again each year around October. Running a 48X19 which gives  around 20mph at 105 cad, you do have to choose your routes a little more carefully though. Love the simplicity and near silence from the drivetrain.  At first it felt like it was turning my legs down steep descents instead of me turning the pedals, but after a while you get the confidence to just let your legs go and get on top of the gear, maxed out at 184 cad down one local descent. I originally built it after getting fed up of replacing chain, bb, freehub etc. after every winter on my summer bike.

Would def recommend the Dolan FXE for anyone tempted to go down the fixed route, I picked the frame-set up for around £200 and built it up as I already had other parts kicking around the garage, you can pick up the complete bike for around £550 with a pretty decent spec.

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robertoegg [111 posts] 1 year ago
1 like

+1 for fixed - fuji classic 2010 for me, Farnham to Guildford,  a few hills are hard work, up and down!! But I run a long gear (46/15). Means I can cruise around at 20mph. My fastest geared commute is only a few minutes less than the fixed. Up hill I'm faster, down hill I spin out.

I can't recommend it enough. There's something 'meditational' riding with one fixed gear  4 haha! Oh, and it's a beast of a work-out especially if you keep your cranks short!

And it's budget...sack off the boys toys, get back to nature!  1

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Yorkshire wallet [1569 posts] 1 year ago
0 likes

If you're going to build a parts-bin-special then also heed this advice.....never buy a stronglight single speed chainset. Ever. I did actually have 2 single speeds in the garage, one was a drop barred, modern framed one with a chunky 1/8 chainset with proper chainring and the other, a flat bar conversion old raleigh M-trax with exage wheels ran the stronglight.

The stronglight literally folded like a pancake one day as I was giving it some torque up a hill. Luckily it was quiet with no following cars and a soft grass bank to fall into. Could have potentially been very nasty. The chainset looks nice, clean and simplistic but has no strength. The chainline was spot on so that wasn't the problem.

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jimmers [11 posts] 1 year ago
0 likes

+1 for Dolan FXE

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J90 [421 posts] 1 year ago
2 likes
unconstituted wrote:

Some have a flip-flop hub so can switch between the two. Sounds good but maybe it's total pants and will fail in a month, never heard of it before.

Flip flop hubs are very common.

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rix [191 posts] 1 year ago
13 likes

Why your next bike should be a fixie...
a. You want to damage your knees.
b. You do not have knees.
c. You have plenty of spare knees.

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Bigpikle [94 posts] 1 year ago
1 like

I really enjoy my Genesis Flyer - didnt pay that though luckily, so makes a good general purpose machine and will get a lot more use this winter. Don't ride it all the time by any means but its nice to pull it out of the garage and leave the power meter & latest carbon tech behind and just enjoy the ride again.

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mike the bike [980 posts] 1 year ago
2 likes
rix wrote:

Why your next bike should be a fixie... a. You want to damage your knees. b. You do not have knees. c. You have plenty of spare knees.

 

Absolutely.  Every cyclist reaches a time in his life when the pain in his legs overcomes the pride in his physique.  The wise man short-cuts this procedure and goes straight to the derailleur position.

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vorsprung [282 posts] 1 year ago
0 likes

why your next bike should not be a fixie

 

https://audaxing.wordpress.com/2014/06/13/no-known-fix/

 

to save you reading the article, I tried it and found that single speeds are better.  I have built up a new single speed ( an Inbred 29er with disks and drop bars) since writing the blog

I live in Devon and the knee thing is only a problem in the middle of winter commuting on freezing mornings it's quite hurty.   Mind you, I am 50, it might just be my age  1

 

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LarryDavidJr [377 posts] 1 year ago
0 likes

Been toying with getting something cheap to try out for a while .... keeping half an eye on ebay.

What is the feasibility of getting one that just has a front brake, which could then be whipped off easily to race on a track? (talking outdoor tracks here, no issues with bringing dirty road tyres into a nice wooden velodrome).

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Low Speed Wobble [156 posts] 1 year ago
3 likes

For sure it's the purest form of cycling available today. I've a collection of four bicycles - from a $12,000 bespoke road bike to a $500 MTB - and if I had to choose just one it'd be my $1,000 fixed (drop bars, front brake). Perfect for café rides, and I've done a century (imperial) on it. Felt it for days afterwards though. Pound for pound, it's the wisest cycling money I've spent. I feel the only folks that criticize fixies are the folks that haven't ridden one properly.

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AAN [14 posts] 1 year ago
3 likes

 

Quote: "Been toying with getting something cheap to try out for a while .... keeping half an eye on eBay"

That is exactly what I did in January of this year. As a kid, I'd put a fixed sprocket on an old Sunbeam with full chaincase and enjoyed it. Thought the intervening fifty years of freewheeling might have tempered my enthusiasm so wanted something cheap to try out. 

Kept an eye on eBay and within a few days spotted a Fuji Feather and got it for £122. It was as new and had a couple of spare chain rings thrown in. I had little to lose as it could easily be put back on eBay. It took me about three weeks of almost daily riding to feel that it was an equal partnership between the bike and me; at first the bike seemed to be in control. That bike came with front and back brakes and little bartop levers so cold be removed in a couple of minutes. 

I  couldn't quite get that bike to fit, but I was completely hooked on riding fixed, so I passed it on to my son and got, again on eBay, a nearly new Genesis Flyer for £168. Perfect fit and much better level of equipment. It's my bike of choice for most things, though I made an exception on my recent Norway trip!

Just a note on gearing: I'm 65 and conscious of the need to keep my knees in good nick, hence I opted for low gearing, initially 36x18 which enabled me to climb my "reference" hill, a nearby short 11%. However, downhill was hell in this gear so I bit the bullet and changed to 46x18. The hills are still hard but appear no harder than the much lower gear, and the flat and downhills much better. 

There are plenty of good bikes out there that people have given up on. Give it a go. It's fantastic if, like me, you take to it. If not, bing it on eBay and give someone else the chance to have a go. 

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D-Squared [11 posts] 1 year ago
0 likes

I'd love the idea of a fixie - that's all I rode as a child when bikes took me everywhere (gravel grinder anyone?).

But 50 years later, I heed the comment "provided you don’t have to tackle any long, steep hills" - my regular commute includes 8km at average 5% and I can't see any gearing that I could live with.

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Chuck [590 posts] 1 year ago
0 likes

I've never ridden fixed but I commuted singlespeed for a few years. The arguments about low maintenance didn't really stack up for me. I seemed to be fiddling with my bike to adjust chain tension and mess about with the brakes just as much as I did before. Also I found myself spinning out a lot, which I think would have been pretty tedious without a freewheel. 

Now the drivetrain needs replacing and I have a longer, hillier commute and less fitness I'm taking the opportunity to go back to gears.

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