23 Apr 2010

Fixed or Single speed?

Heavens blog 2 Comments

While riding a fixed gear has a long history – witness those early Tour riders in the mountains – its co-option for around town use is a relatively recent phenomenon. Popularised by the courier community in urban areas worldwide,. riding fixed gear had taken off spectacularly. You can also blame enthusiasts and entrepreneurs like Janosch at Brick Lane Bikes for help turning this into a trend, for seeing how fixed gear might become a fashion statement as well as the most stripped-back mode of transport. To see the endless parade flocking down Broadway Market you’d think there was something fundamentally better about fixed gear. But what are the real advantages and disadvantages of riding in this way?

Riding single speed is of course simpler – simpler to build, to service, in some ways simpler to ride. That’s not to say building your own single speed can’t work out expensively. To build up a bike from a bare frame for the first time as many people are doing these days can be a rewarding experience and teach you a lot about mechanics; but you’ll make a lot of mistakes, but then that’s the way to learn. Again, do bear in mind that to add all components to to a bare frame from ebay can be complicated and expensive.

Around town all you really need is one gear. You can pull a reasonably-sized fixed gear up even Raines Lane or Shooter’s Hill if you’ve got the legs, though this is not recommended, and not really the point. Single speed is about functionality. Fixed gear is the hardcore version of this, single-speed freewheel the tamer but much more sensible version.

Single Speed Freewheel

Your first bike was probably a single-speed freewheel, uncluttered and uncomplicated with no gears to worry about. The key component is the freewheel itself [see diagram], the device which sits on the hub at the rear wheel and which connects the chain to the crank. The freewheel structure contains ball bearings which allow the single cog to turn freely. The main benefit is that, if you are in motion and choose to stop pedalling, the freewheel (and rear wheel) will keep spinning and the bike will maintain momentum while you rest your legs on the pedals.

Fixed Gear

The main difference between riding freewheel and fixed is that you can never ‘relax’ your legs with fixed. The rear cog is simple and locked to the wheel hub via a lock ring, running direct and fixed to the crank. if you try to relax your legs while in motion the crank will try to keep turning fixedly, kicking your legs around and, if you are unprepared, will try to throw you from the bike. It’s an entirely new way of thinking about cycling and can be rewarding. You have to keep an eye on it until it’s second nature, especially after a few drinks.

2 Responses to “Fixed or Single speed?”

  1. howradmichello says:

    bought an off-the-peg (Charge) ss/fixie for an urban commute of about 20-30 minutes each way, started as i meant to go on, fixed, to see what it was all about, happy so far…

    (although yet to be able to master braking without using my hands – after about 2/3/4 months of riding; actually, stopping whilst on the commute is something i try and avoid, even perhaps chaotically when zebra crossings are concerned, which when riding-in after 8.30am can be a little problematic with the school-kids who use the crossings, resulting in being called a ‘retard’ despite my best efforts to go around the pedestrians without causing disturbance to their crossings!)

    (and hasn’t yet been tested on rides of distance!)

    ps. went looking for a video of a fixed TdF rider,
    but only found this: http://www.lfgss.com/thread7301.html

    • Ben says:

      The idea of braking without using your hands is pretty terrifying, but then barrelling through pedestrian crossing is also pretty rad. Sadly cycling is about momentum and cycling in London isn’t very sympathetic to this idea.

      Buying a new fixed gear bike is for me kind of beside the point but i accept that building up your own fixed wheel machine just isn;t an option for everybody. Single speed bikes are appealing due to their simplicity. Geared bikes are of course faster than fixed wheel, allowing you to increase your cadence by shifting down when you reach that pedestrian crossing. Single speeds are always of course just that, in so far as you can never push it any harder than the gear allows.

      Those lunatics did used to ride the tour fixed, but then they didn;t have the technology back then. As soon as derailleurs came into production, they all used ’em.

Leave a Reply