In anticipation of this Saturday’s Red Hook Crit, a unique spectacle in which entrants race brakeless track bikes on urban streets, we asked pro cyclist, velojoy contributor and two-time Red Hook Crit champion Neil Bezdek to share his insights into the appeal of fixed-gear bicycles and why they’ve become NYC cultural icons.
After decades as an offbeat cultural icon for bike messengers and track racers, the fixed-gear bicycle has risen out of obscurity and into the mainstream. Whether you first discovered them saturating the pages of cycling blogs, clogging the streets of Williamsburg or creaking along under kamikaze messengers, you don’t have to be a cycling expert to notice the popularity of this strange breed of bicycle. But what isn’t so straightforward is why anyone would choose to ride one.
Lure of the Stripped Down Aesthetic
First, let’s clear up some definitions:
- A single speed is any bicycle that has only one gear. Beach cruisers, BMX and small children’s bikes are all single speeds.
- A fixed gear or fixie is a type of single speed that does not allow the rider to coast. There is no ratcheting mechanism between the chain and the rear wheel. Whenever the bike rolls forward, the pedals must rotate forward too.
- A track bike (photo above) is a type of fixed gear designed for racing on a velodrome. Though a true track bike is a single-purpose machine built with twitchy frame geometry, minimal tire clearance and no brake mounts or cable guides, people often use the terms “fixed gear” and “track bike” interchangeably when referring to any road bike that doesn’t coast.
Messengers Adopt Track Bikes
After the advent of coasting bikes early in the twentieth century, fixed gears were mostly confined to the velodrome until the 1970s, when a few messengers with track racing pedigree adopted them for delivery work. Track bikes eventually became the tool of choice for most couriers, and as messenger subculture gained influence on urban fashion (think messenger bags and rolled-up skinny jeans), cyclists everywhere embraced them for their utilitarian and aesthetic appeal. There’s something attractive about a bicycle stripped down to its bare elements, both visually and philosophically.
A few of the practical advantages of a fixed gear are straightforward. A minimalist bike is cheap to buy, easy to maintain, light to carry, and reliable under the stress of rough pavement, bad weather, and bike-rack parking. They also have fewer parts to steal. And before their rise in popularity, there was the assurance that a typical thief couldn’t ride one to the end of the block without crashing.
But, surprisingly, the most significant appeal of a fixed gear is the actual experience of riding one.
You Want Turn-on-Dime Maneuverability?
This is especially true in dense traffic. Race geometry means a track bike can turn on a dime, while immediate feedback through the pedals allows the rider to make minor adjustments in speed that might take a fraction of a second longer with handbrakes. A trackstand—where the rider balances in place while at a complete stop—gets its name partly because the maneuver is easiest to do on a fixed gear, in the same way that a stationary unicyclist (technically on a fixie) rocks back and forth to stay upright. A skilled cyclist can even pedal backwards. If a narrow path through the traffic closes up, the operator can reverse out and then explore a different route through the shifting maze.
Slowing down on a fixed gear is like downshifting in a car—the feet simply resist the forward rotation of the pedals. Still, it’s surprisingly easy to unweight the rear wheel and skid. But unlike most other forms of braking, the wheel loses traction only if the rider deliberately stops his or her feet—anti-lock brakes! And while some opt to forego brakes completely, riding this way isn’t as crazy as it sounds. Dual handbrakes have limited stopping power, too, and can provide a false sense of assurance. The safest way to ride is to think a move ahead, not to rely on a set of handbrakes.
Some Pitfalls: Hills Are Not Your Friends
Ultimately, riding a fixed gear is a flowing, soulful experience. The most satisfying way to ride one is to conserve momentum by timing light changes and avoiding obstacles by weaving sideways or slowing early enough to breeze by at the exact moment the road opens up. The operator is intimately connected to the motion of the bike, in the same way that driving a car with a manual transmission is inexplicably more satisfying than an automatic.
Granted, fixed gears have real limitations, too. Uphills are hard, downhills even harder. Pedaling compromises cornering and makes bunny-hopping over obstacles or onto curbs a real challenge. A couple of years ago, when I was tempted to ditch my track bike, I talked it over with my friend David Trimble, the organizer of this weekend’s Red Hook Criterium, a one-of-a-kind race held on brakeless fixed gear bikes.
David nodded patiently as I explained each of my misgivings, but he addressed every single one: “Well, I ride a fixed gear because it’s fun.”
photo: Dean Blotto Gray