The hard way — fixed gear cycling

There’s something to be said for doing things the hard way. While progress and innovation have eased our lives and given rise to the leisure class, emancipating women from the tyranny of housework, harnessing steam to conquer the frontier, and channeling the electron to bring light to darkness, there are times when a dinner by candlelight is better than one by fluorescents.

So it goes with fixed-gear cycling which is best defined as bicycle riding without gears. I got into it three years ago when I stumbled upon the Fixed-Gear Gallery and began to fall in love with the classic, stripped-down look of an Italian racing bike reduced to its most basic essentials. With a retired Bianchi steel-framed bike rusting in the garage, I did some research, found the legendary Sheldon Brown’s compendium of online cycling knowledge, and placed an order with Harris Cyclery for bullhorn handlebars, a leather Brooks saddle, a flip-flop rear hub, and new Mavic wheels with extra stout spokes. I had the frame powder coated in International Harvester Green, then asked the wrench (mechanic) at the Bike Zone in Hyannis to build it up. He thought the green was very ugly, but did me proud.

Today I waited until my wife was out on her morning constitutional, before sneaking out for a fast Tour de Cotuit on the fixie — nicknamed the “Snotrocket” because of the time I tried to clear my nostrils one cold winter morning and thought I would coast while blocking one nostril with my index finger. Since coasting is out of the question, when I sat up and stopped pedaling I was nearly thrown off the bike, leading me to the rule that one can never, ever stop cycling while aboard the bike.

Fixed gears are very old school, from the day before derailleurs and freewheel hubs. The first Tour de Frances were ridden on fixed gears. Velodrome track racers ride fixed gears, and urban bike messengers ride fixed gears. In the past few years the subculture has exploded, becoming the in thing in urban centers. A few weeks ago I spotted a beautiful specimen chained to a parking meter next to Manhattan’s Bryant Park — it had a Park Tool bottle opener fixed to the seat tube.

My route this morning was ten miles on the nose, and since it didn’t cross the very dangerous Route 28, and since I don’t want to press my cycling luck with a pan-Cape ride, I confine my pedaling to the village. Here is my 10 mile loop.

Author: David Churbuck

Cape Codder with an itch to write

0 thoughts on “The hard way — fixed gear cycling”

  1. Maybe it’s my mountain Biking background, but ever since I had my first 5-gear peugeot I can’t live without 3 driving plus 7 driven sprockets. Why force your legs when physics can do all the hard work?
    Yet one must admire your Old School efforts… Oh… and a great introductory first paragraph.

  2. My wife suggested the family could grow closer through biking. Not a cyclist, but somewhat of a danger seeker, I said “OK, as long as it is mountain biking…and I mean in the woods.” She tentatively agreed, and we bought bikes for the family. When my turn came, I was enamored with the single-speed bikes I saw on the periphery. I was taken by wistful thoughts of my first bike as a kid, converted with a friend to a dirt bike after years of road and yard service. So I bought a Cannondale 1FG (1 F’n Gear), and have paid the price in more than one way. I did not realize that single-speed is the province of the hardened expert seeking more pain. But I will say, when I stay on the trail, and on the bike, it is sweet.

  3. David,

    You know, there are a lot of great life analogies in your post. The benefit of the fixie is that it teaches you that you can never stop pedaling, and so it is with life.

    For some in life, living is very much a day to day affair – finding food, shelter, and avoiding death that can come in a variety of forms. The homeless, those on the front lines of a battle, those living in the open, in third world countries. Those people have to pedal continuously everyday or they will be thrown from the bike of life.

    For most of us, we have the coaster brake option. We can stand up, pedal hard, and propel ourselves forward in career and lfe, and then for periods of time, pedal along while seated comfortably, or even allow our legs to rest as we enjoy the occasionaly downhill coast.

    Others, find still further advantage, and can multiply their efforts through gearing, adjusting the ratios to balance effort and speed against changes in the grade. Life is full of hills, ups and downs, and adjustments in effort are required.

    Not everyone has the benefit of 21 ratios, so spending some time on the fixie seems a great way to remind ourselves of the constant efforts required.

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