Fixed Gear

I love bicycles. Ever since I’ve been a kid I’ve had a huge crush on bikes – the cogs, the pedals, the wheels… the sheer technology mixed with simple elegance. I learned to ride early, and spent my semi-suburban youth riding around the neighborhood. For a while, I even tried to fix the neighbors’ bikes for a small fee. Now that I’m back in Berlin, I ride a lot more than I did when I lived in Los Angeles. In LA, car drivers barely notice each other, never mind bicyclists, and there are no bike paths… heck, there’s barely any sidewalks.

Fortunately Berlin is nice and flat, and drivers are trained to keep an eye out for people on bikes. I have two bikes so far – the American mountain bike I’ve had for the last seven years, and a really fast German road bike I bought last spring. The mountain bike is great for shredding through the Grunewald, a forest that starts a few blocks from my house, whereas the road bike is a sleek bicycle that gets me upt to 35 Km/h on fast roads leading out of town. Both provide great exercise, fresh air, and that unique rush of fast transportation.

Both bikes are at the peak of their technology. They feature 24 gears, fast consistent brakes, and light-weight frames. But truth be told, it takes a good amount of concentration – get the right gear, shift down before coming to a stop light, keep the traction on while speeding down a hill, and cover the brakes while entering an intersection… it’s definitely a mental challenge to ride through the city at peak performance, especially the constant shifting to maintain optimum stride.

But there’s a movement out there that is growing every year, and I’m about to join it. This group of bicyclists is committed to the purity of riding a bike – just the joy of fast motion – no over-thinking of gears, brakes, and position – just the the thrill of the ride.

It’s called Fixed Gear riding.

Of course, like everything in life these days, there are communities online who take this stuff very seriously. Just go check out the forums at, the Fixed Gear Gallery,  or half the other links in my Obscura list.

So what’s the big deal? Pure riding, that’s what – no thinking about shifting, no derailleurs grinding in search of the right cog, no power lost on the downstroke. But the ultimate joy is breaking by kicking back. Just stomp on the pedal on the upstroke, and skid like a 12-year old on your old Hercules!

Hardcore Fixed Gear riders don’t have any brakes, they only rely on the back-kick, or the force of the legs slowing down the pedals below… that’s probably going to take a little courage from me in City traffic, and I’ll be installing a front brake initially. Most of the weight transfers to the front wheel upon deceleration, and it offers finer control until the back-kick has been mastered (again).

Let me parse this somewhat more finely: there are two kinds of bikes in this genre – Single Speed, and it’s more intense cousin Fixed Gear. There’s really only one difference, but it is a major point of contention: a Single Speed bike can spin the pedals backward, and coast along without the rider moving the legs. A Fixed Gear bike keeps the pedals moving – there’s no simple coasting, and no free back pedaling. It’s the way bikes used to be 50 or 100 years ago…and a little dangerous if you’re out of practice.

Luckily, you can have both. There are rear axles that can be locked relatively easily so that you’re either riding Fixed Gear, or release it for that simpler Single Speed cruise.

By the way, Fixed Gear riding is still an important part of bicycle racing and training. There’s a number of races that rely on this kind of set up. More importantly, serious bike riders use Fixed Gear bikes for practice. It allows you to build up your stamina, but it also does wonders for your technique. You end up with a much longer powerstroke, develop a smoother pace, and get a better work-out.

So I’m going to start hunting around for a nice Single Speed. I will probably assemble the parts myself, and build a nice and light bike for a frenzied run into the city. Best of all, it’s pretty inexpensive – the most costly parts are usually the cranks and derailleurs. After that, the two most expensive components are the frame and the wheels.

And after that… well, my bike obsession continues, but will probably wait till next year. K the Listmaker will hopefully get a bike now that she’s no longer pregnant, so we can go on family excursions. I am really in love with some of the Dutch bikes I see in Amsterdam all the time. So while she rides her bike, I will have to bring the rest of the tribe, so I’m hoping to get a Bakfiets. Room enough for the boys AND a picnic basket.

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