[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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.