Fixed-wheel bikes – better known as ‘fixies’ – seem to be getting more and more popular by the day.
Previously only really seen on the banked tracks of the velodrome or with the odd bike courier, these days it feels rare to walk past a hipster café or college housing block without a convoy of brightly colored fixies locked up outside.
For cyclists who aren’t familiar with them, all the buzz around fixies probably leaves you wondering: What is a fixie bike, and why do so many people choose to ride them?
To help you separate fixie fact from fiction, we’ll be walking you through:
- What Is A Fixie Bike?
- The Pros And Cons Of Fixie Bikes
- Why Are Fixie Bikes Always Used For Track Cycling?
- What’s The Difference Between A Fixie And A Single Speed Bike?
Ready to get the lowdown on the fixie frenzy?
Let’s jump in!
What Is A Fixie Bike?
Put simply, this means that fixie bikes can only move when the pedals move: the rotation of the rear wheel is locked to the rotation of the pedals.
This has several effects.
The most obvious is that – as the lack of a freewheel mechanism would suggest – the bike can no longer freewheel.
(For readers who are new to cycling, the freewheel mechanism is the component that allows the rear wheel to turn faster than the pedals. It’s what lets you keep the pedals still while the bike carries on rolling.)
Another key difference between fixies and conventional bikes is that the pedals of a fixie can also be used to brake.
Because the spinning of the rear wheel is directly linked to the turning of the pedals, pushing back against the pedals acts as a stopping force on the rear wheel.
Because of this, it’s not unusual for a fixie to be fitted with only a front brake, or even no brakes at all!
By extension, it’s also possible to cycle backward on a fixie, which isn’t the case on any bike with a freewheel mechanism. You’ll often see fixies with straps or other fastenings attached to the pedals to give the rider more control over the bike’s movement.
Finally, fixie bikes have only one front chainring and one rear cog, meaning the rider only has a single gear to cycle with. This also makes the drivetrain much simpler, as there is no need for derailleurs, gear levers and cables, pulley wheels, or complex cassettes and chainsets.
The Pros And Cons Of Fixie Bikes
The simplicity of a fixie bike is the key to their popularity.
With so few mechanical parts, fixies need very little maintenance. Keeping the chain well oiled (and replacing it when the wear begins to show) is just about the only regular care required to keep a fixie rolling!
Fixies are incredibly efficient. The use of a single gear allows for a shorter chain and the absence of derailleurs, and all the other mechanisms required to shift gears. Each of these parts creates a minute amount of resistance – but added together, removing them makes a noticeable difference.
Fixie bikes give the rider more control than a conventional bike. The ability to fine-tune movements – even edging backward when needed – makes them very nimble, and perfect for gridlocked city traffic. This is a large part of why they’re so popular with bike couriers in New York, London, and many other of the world’s biggest urban centers.
The simplicity of the drivetrain helps keep fixie bikes ultra-light. This also contributes to keeping them nimble when weaving through traffic, while also making them easy to carry into houses or up and down stairs for urban riders.
Another appeal of fixies is that they give your legs a more varied and balanced workout than a conventional bike. This is because you also have to push and pull on the pedals in the opposite direction to slow the bike, activating muscles that you wouldn’t normally use when cycling.
Finally, there’s one undeniable truth that attracts a lot of cyclists to fixie bikes: they look awesome. Whether it’s the simplicity of the design or the fact that a lot of them started life as track bikes back in the 70s and 80s, there’s a certain aesthetic and aura around fixies that’s hard to shake!
We’ll start with the obvious issue: hills. If you’re trying to ride up a steep incline the single gear means you’ll have to work hard just to keep the bike moving, while picking up speed on a downhill will have your legs whirling like a yo-yo. If you’re riding anywhere other than a relatively flat urban environment, fixies can be downright inconvenient.
This contributes to fixies being more tiring to ride overall. You’ll also have to use more effort to pull away from a standstill in a relatively big gear, and using the pedals to slow yourself down can also be draining.
Finally, there’s a perception amongst many cyclists that fixies are more dangerous. They’re right – to some extent. You have to be more careful of pedal strikes when cornering, as you don’t have the option of holding the pedal at the top of its arc, and getting a trouser leg caught in your chainring can be problematic as it gets pulled around with the chain.
The biggest danger, however, is that some fixie riders choose to cycle without any brakes at all, relying only on backpedaling.
This is (obviously) a bad idea.
You should always have a front brake on your fixie. It’s a slight sacrifice in terms of adding mechanical complexity, violating the fixie philosophy of keeping things as simple as humanly possible. But that’s a small price to pay if it ends up saving your life!
If you have a front brake fitted and don’t ride like an idiot, there’s no reason a fixie should be more dangerous than a freewheel bike. In fact, the extra control and feel for the road can even be an advantage – especially in slippery conditions such as rain or ice.
Why Are Fixie Bikes Always Used For Track Cycling?
Fixies are the only type of bike permitted in most forms of competitive track racing.
There are a few reasons for this banishing of the freewheel.
Partly, it’s down to tradition and the spirit of fair competition. The regulations laid out by cycling’s governing body, the Union Cycliste Internationale (UCI), include a statement that:
Bicycles shall comply with the spirit and principle of cycling as a sport. The spirit presupposes that cyclists will compete in competitions on an equal footing. The principle asserts the primacy of man over machine.UCI Cycling Regulations, Section II: Bicycles
Essentially, the idea is that the simpler the machinery used by cyclists is, the less potential there is for technology to influence performance instead of the riders themselves.
There are also more practical reasons for this ban.
Crashes have always been a fact of life for track cyclists. The bike regulations look to reduce the risk of any parts of fluids dropping onto the track – cassettes and chainrings can leak oil, for example, posing a hazard for any riders following behind.
It’s also possible for brake and gear levers to snag another rider’s handlebars, which is partly why they’re outlawed.
Once a crash happens, gear sprockets and derailleurs would create an extra danger for fallen riders. As any cyclist who’s ever slipped on a pedal and caught their leg on a chainring will know, in the event of a crash, the less jagged edges there are to your bike the better!
And besides, there’s one pretty fundamental reason why racers wouldn’t want brakes and gears on their bike when there’s no real necessity: weight!
What’s The Difference Between A Fixie And A Single Speed Bike?
A single-speed bike is any bicycle that has only one gear.
The term is often used to refer specifically to single-speed road bikes, differentiating them from fixies.
However, of all the different single-speed bike types, the single-speed road bike is the one that bears the closest comparison to fixie bikes. The key difference is that single-speed road bikes are equipped with a freewheel mechanism – the absence of which is the defining feature of a fixie.
Single-speed road bikes are also growing in popularity. They share many of the benefits of fixies in their simplicity and reduced weight, but trade some of the control and feel of a fixie for the ability to freewheel.
Single-speed road bikes will always have both a front and rear brake, as the freewheel mechanism removes the ability to slow the rear wheel through the pedals.
What Is A Fixie Bike – Explained!
Whether you’re thinking of investing in one for yourself or just wanted to understand the fixie fever, you now have the lowdown on what fixie bikes are all about!
If you’re tempted to try a fixie bike for yourself – go for it! Fixies can be great fun, and introduce a whole new world of riding styles and techniques you’d never get to experience on a freewheeled bike!