The Ultimate Guide To Fixed Gear Bikes

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The most trendy bike types, fixed gear bikes or “fixies,” some prefer to call them, represent an appealing sense of simplicity. They may or may not require a bit of adjusting before you can fully receive the benefits of their unique design.

Fixie Bikes

Fixed Gear Culture

The topic of Best fixed gear bikes 2020 is fairly polarizing depending on who you talk to about them.

Everyone has an opinion about whether they offer a superior biking experience or simply a trend that some tend to overhype.

But for people who may be unfamiliar with fixed gear bikes, you’re in the right place. This guide will go over all the crucial information related to fixies, including how they work, their advantages and disadvantages, and how to ride them in the first place.

By the time you’re done reading, we’d like to think that you have a better idea of what they may offer you and maybe even kindle a desire to own one of these inexpensive, efficient forms of biking.

What Is A Fixed Gear Bike?

While many other bikes are classified based on their frame types and physical characteristics, a fixed gear bike refers only to its drivetrain or the system used to propel the bike.

As the name implies, it utilizes a gear that is “fixed” not to allow it to operate freely. The result is a bike with one speed, where the rider cannot coast with the pedals in a stationary position.

That means when the rear wheel turns, the pedals turn. This is accomplished by mounting or threading the rear cog directly onto the rear hub. As the hub turns, the chain is engaged, which engages the front crank wheel, turning the pedals.

Fixed Gear Culture

So, if you are coasting and not actively pedaling, as long as the bike is moving, your pedals will be moving too. This is the exact opposite of a freewheel design that you normally find on mountain bikes and road bikes.

This leads to a few natural implications. For one, you are always engaged with the bike as long as it’s moving. You have only one gear to work with, but it is more efficient than what you’d find on a BMX bike.

The bike will feel and ride much differently than freewheel version, putting you more in tune with the road. The fixed gear drivetrain also creates a different stopping system for those that don’t want to use hand brakes. (More on that in a moment.)

Fixed Gear Bike Culture

For many, a fixed gear bike is a subculture unto itself, almost like a club of cyclists who are more enlightened and skilled in many ways. (Don’t quote us on that, though.)

The bikes are very popular among those who are very into bike aesthetics, as fixed gear provides the opportunity to customize its look and allure. The simplicity creates a very minimal style that can be emphasized more in many ways.

Fixed gear enthusiasts swear by the bikes and view them as superior travel, especially for getting around heavily urban areas. They claim that after getting used to the bikes and learning how to ride them properly, you can get much more out of each ride, along with more control.

Although the term “fixed gear” can technically apply to most any bike type that uses this setup, the vast majority of fixies utilize a road bike frame type, along with road bike wheels and tires or hybrid wheelsets. These remain the most popular for visual and functional reasons.

Fixed Gear Bike Vs. Single Speed Bikes

It may be easy to confuse fixed-gears with single speed bikes initially. After all, they both use one speed. The terms refer to two different drivetrains, however.

A best single speed bike can be found across the spectrum, mainly with BMX and often cruiser bikes. The best single-speed bike always has a flywheel so that the rider can coast. The hub and cog are not connected.

Single Speed vs Fixed Gear Bike

Fixed gear bikes have one speed as well, but as we’ve already said, there is no coasting. Both have one speed, but both offer very different feels and pedalling types.

Fixed gear drivetrains would not be ideal for cruiser bikes or BMX bikes. On a cruiser, you’d lose the ability to coast without a single-speed freewheel, so the entire feel of the bike would change.

BMX bikes need to have a freewheel so the rider can do tricks and stunts. A continuously moving pedal assembly would create massive problems for the rider.

Fixed Gear Bike Vs. Track Bikes

Track bikes often use a fixed gear drivetrain and remain the most widespread and arguably logical use of this type of gearing. However, track bikes are not commonly referred to as fixed gear bikes, as that term signifies what we discussed above.

Track bikes may initially look similar to road bike frame - fixed gear bikes, but they operate and feel much differently.

To understand this, one must first understand how to track bike racing works.

TRACK BIKE RACING

Often taking place in a specifically-built arena and track for racing called a velodrome, track fixie racing involves single speed road bikes that have been designed for maximum speeds. Racers make their way around the circular track, which usually has very steep angles on curves, sometimes at a 45-degree angle.

The rider doesn’t have time to change gears or use brakes with track racing. It’s an all-out spring that relies on sheer pedaling power and the ability to avoid wind resistance during maneuvering. Bike weight is a huge factor here as well.

The design of these bikes reflects this. Track racing bikes use a fixed gear drivetrain with a strategic gear ratio that would be inefficient on urban roadways. The bike's frame is exceptionally aerodynamic, and it uses very thin wheels and tires, which usually have their aerodynamics.

Track Racing

The frame is light but stiff, so the rider retains as much pedal power as possible. All of this combines to create an incredibly fast bike in a track setting.

Fixed gear or fixie bikes often use a road bike frame but are not built for racing. They have drop-down handlebars, flat handlebars, BMX grips, and any variety of wheels and tires. They favour looks over speed and are not made for aerodynamics.

The general road frame type has a small flex, providing minimal shock absorption. If one were to take a track fixie frame out on a city ride, it would feel very rigid and uncomfortable.

Fixie Vs The Other Bikes

The fixed gear drivetrain and general look and feel of a fixed gear creates a bike that differs from all of the major bike types in several ways.

The following differences are based off the typical fixed gear build which is essentially a road bike frame with several modifications.

Fixie vs BMX

Like a fixed gear, a BMX bike uses one speed, but that’s where the similarities end. A BMX bike has a smaller frame, a different handlebar design, and vastly different tires.

BMX bikes are designed to take jumps on dirt tracks and do tricks/stunts on pavement surfaces (or wood surfaces for some skateparks.) A fixed-gear bike wouldn’t last 5 seconds on a BMX course only because of the constantly engaged crank wheel and pedals.

There are some BMX-style fixed gears out on the roads, but they have not intended for anything but everyday city riding -- no jumps or anything like that.

Fixie vs Mountain

Mountain bikes are able to take on the most demanding riding, whether it’s winding single-track trails, or treacherous downhill paths on off-season ski areas.

A fixed gear bike has a hybrid/road bike feel to it, but it definitely can’t handle any type of mountain biking, for would you ever want to take a bike with a minimal brake setup and an engaged crank on any kind of trail, ever.

Fixie Vs Road

A road bike with a single speed is the most similar to a fixed gear bike, but there are still plenty of differences. Road bikes almost always have a high amount of gears and brake levers found on both the flat and drop-down portions of the bike’s handlebars.

Road bike tires are usually skinnier than the ones you see on fixed gear bikes, and the saddles tend to be a little different as well.

Still, despite these differences, they are as close as you can get to a fixed gear feel.

Fixie Vs Cruiser

Woman on cruiser bike

Cruisers are kind of their own thing in the bike world. They aren't designed for speed, trails, or stunts, but rather a casual, relaxed type of riding like you'd see on a boardwalk or on the beach itself.

They are designed for comfort in every way, from the curved handlebar design to the overly-cushioned saddle that makes long rides much more bearable.

Fixed gears are all about being more in tune with the ride and doing anything but relaxing. Although both bikes tend to use only one speed, they couldn't be any more different.

Brakeless Fixed Gear Bikes

Fixed gear bikes are known for lacking any type of brake setup. While this is not some universal standard for fixies, many within the fixed gear subculture don't consider fixed gear bikes with a handbrake an actual fixie, although some opinions may differ. Make sense?

Many will say it's not a true fixie unless it's brakeless.

The general idea behind a brakeless bike is a mixture of aesthetic reasons and functional reasons. Fixed gear bikes have a simplistic appeal, so removing a brake assembly and that unsightly cable creates a neat, clean look that really does make the bike look great.

The bike is just a frame, tires, a simple drivetrain, pedals, a seat, and a handlebar by taking the brake off. There are no loose moving parts and just the essentials. This significantly alters the way Hawke rides and feels, including the rider's approach and strategy in general.

At first, the idea of a brakeless bike may seem a bit crazy, but the term is a little misleading. There are no brakes, but there's still a way to brake.

Braking Techniques For Brakeless Bikes

When braking on a fixed gear, one has two main options.

The first doesn't provide any immediate stop, but it does help slow the bike down. Remember the coast-style brakes on your childhood bike? It's kind of like that.

When slowing, the rider can use resistance against the pedals as they continuously cycle forward. The rider uses their legs to try and stop the pedals from turning, which makes the bike slow down. This can take around 4-6 revolutions until the bike slows down to a satisfactory level.

This requires planning when riding, as you can't just simply throw the brakes on to make a turn or stop at a crosswalk or street crossing. It will take some time to get used to it, but eventually, one can learn when to begin slowing before a certain point so they can safely come to a stop in time.

But what about when faster braking is needed? There is a method for that, although it's a little more intensive and will require sacrificing some rubber from your tire.

When the need arises, the rider can lean forwards to shift their weight away from the rear tire. From there, the rider can slightly lift the rear tire off the ground, quickly pedal in reverse to stop the tire, and create a skidding stop once it hits the ground.

This is much easier if the rider uses clipless pedals or uses holsters. Either way, it requires a lot of practice before one can be confident in pulling it off at a moment's notice.

SO, BRAKES OR BRAKELESS?

Fixie Joke

We realize that some fixed gear purists will insist that brakeless is the only way to go, and we understand that to an extent. However, since brakeless bikes are now against the law in many different cities and regions worldwide (when used for city riding outside of a track), we'll err on the legal side of things.

There's certainly something to be said for the experience that a brakeless bike provides, and there are some who have indeed mastered this riding style and can get by just fine. Still, we recommend fixed gear bikes with at least one brake, usually located in the front.

Besides, you can always just take it off later should you decide to go brakeless for a bit.

History Of Fixed Gear Bikes

Fixed gear bike history goes back pretty far if you’re just talking about the gear action itself.  To better grasp the subject, we’ll break fixed gear bike history into four different eras of sorts.

THE EARLIEST BIKES

The earliest versions of fixed gear bikes go back to the vintage fixie bikes themselves. The freewheel wasn’t invented for many years when the precursor to modern bikes was first created.

All of the earlier bikes in their many various forms used a sort of fixed gear system in their many various forms. Regardless of the early bikes' types, shape, or size, they all used a wheel connected to a pedal via a chain, and that wheel's hub and cog were the same.

Things remained this way for years until the freewheel was introduced, and after that, derailleurs and bikes came with multiple gears.

TRACK RACING

However, even while this was going on, fixed gear bikes were still very much in use and preferred over other types. This was mainly seen in the track bike race world, which was immensely popular back in the late 1800s and early 1900s.

Major cities such as New York City hosted huge track races regularly, and the Madison Square Garden even housed a velodrome track beginning in 1876. These races were later known as "Madison races" as a result.

Track racing then (and now) relied on fixed gear bikes. The sport of track racing has changed some over the years, but fixed gear bikes have remained the same.

Bicycle Velodrome

Due to the popularity and sustained success, road bike racers were already familiar with fixed gear bikes. Today, fixed gear bikes remain a popular form of training for road bikers in the off-season, as it gives them a different workout and helps improve their pedal cadence.

MAIL COURIERS

The idea of fixed-gear bikes as we know them now started to form with bike couriers during the 1960s, 70s, 80s, and 90s. Bike couriers were relied on in major urban areas (and still are today) to transport important, time-sensitive documents between businesses and post offices, as they were much later than cars in heavy traffic and much more efficient.

Early bike couriers began modifying their bikes to be more conducive to their work. This eventually resulted in fixed gear bikes that were light and fast and had far less maintenance required as well.

Fixed gear bikes are still heavily favoured by bike couriers in modern times, but many have to use a brake as required by law.

CURRENT TRENDS

Sometime in the mid-2000s, fixed gear bikes began to take off as their subculture. This was most likely carried over from bike couriers and the fans of the overall vibe that these fast, savvy, unrelenting urban riders gave off.

The fad spread quickly across major metro areas, as casual riders and those that hadn't ridden in years became enamored with the aesthetics of fixies, along with the efficiency and different riding experience they provided.

Amateur riders instantly became experts of sorts, and many began to modify and build their fixies using bikes from thrift stores or just from spare bikes they and their friends had lying around.

The widespread obsession has been around ever since, and there are now many fixie clubs in large cities and plenty of sanctioned and unofficial racing circuits. Large bike brands got wind of the new trend, and now many of them offer fixed gear models, along with specialty companies that only put out fixed gear bikes.

Anatomy Of A Fixie

Fixed gear bikes have a reasonably standard build when compared to other bikes. Still, some differences are more appropriate for their riding style.

FRAME

The frame of a fixed gear almost always involves a road bike frame. This can include any number of materials, including steel and aluminum, and maybe even carbon fiber if you want to take things that far.

The frame uses the standard road bike design, including a top and bottom tube in a diamond shape and a front fork and rear chainstays.

Many fixie frames come in bright, bold colors for more of a statement, while others may prefer understated colors that give the bike an even more streamlined, chic look.

Some fixed gear bikes are available with frames more similar to a mountain bike build, but they are not nearly as common.

If you'd like to learn more about how to choose the right size bike for you, click here.

Frame Of Fixed Gear Bike

FORK

As with the frame, the fork of a fixie is similar to a road bike or may just be a road bike fork entirely. The fork will sweep slightly forwards, placing the front wheel into an ideal position. Like frames, steel and aluminum are the most common materials.

The fork will often support a quick-release latch that allows a rider to take the wheel and tire off in a hurry. Those who want a bit more style may upgrade to a fork with a different color from the frame or just repaint it themselves.

HANDLEBARS

The handlebars are used to steer and control the bike. Things tend to differ the most among rider and bike models for a fixie.

Some may elect to use a straight handlebar with custom taping on each end and aftermarket grips. Others may use a road bike drop-down-style handlebar, helping retain more of the road bike look and feel.

Others use a shortened handlebar and apply BMX-style rubber grips on each end instead. This design is in style with fixed gear riders who want a standout look and a different steering feel.

Most fixed-gear bikes available on the market today offer a broad range of handlebar types, so you can narrow it down to your preferred look and feel.

STEM

The stem is the metal component that connects the handlebar to the headset. The angle and length of a stem can greatly affect how the bike steers and the angle at which you ride it.

Keeping up with the prevailing road bike theme, most fixed-gear bikes have a stem length and angle similar to non-competitive road bikes.

HEADSET

The headset connects the fork and stems to the handlebar.

It extends from the bottom of the bike frame where the fork is connected while simultaneously meeting the stem where it connects the handlebar.

Fixed Gear Headset

Headsets determine the overall height of the handlebars in conjunction with the stem. They also allow for the handlebar assembly free rotation.

SADDLE

The saddle is the bike's seat, where the rider often rests when not standing up. Saddles on fixed gear bikes can vary, especially those concerned with creating a cohesive, standout look.

For the most part, fixed-gear saddles are similar to road bikes in that they are lightly cushioned and have more of a minimal seat coverage. Those who desire more comfort may opt for a mountain bike-style seat or even a hybrid seat.

SEATPOST

The Seatpost connects the saddle to the bike's frame and supports the saddle. They allow for adjustment in both height and angle of the seat.

Aluminum alloy and steel are common Seatpost materials. Road bike-oriented seat posts remain the most popular among fixies.

CRANKSET/REAR COG

Crankset Of Fixed Gear Bike

The crankset refers to the assembly attached to the pedals, including the arms. For a fixed gear, this is one large cog that holds the chain, with the other end being held up by the rear cog on the rear wheel hub.

The crankset size largely determines the gearing ratio of the bike, which in turn affects how it rides and feels in terms of both accelerating and maintaining speeds.

The rear cog is a smaller version of the crankset attached to the rear wheel. As with the crank, its size determines the gearing ratio as well.

PEDALS

Not to be overlooked, pedals drive the crankset, which powers the bike to go faster. Flat platform-style pedals are considered the norm due to their simplicity, but clipless pedals and holster versions give the bike more control, especially when it comes to braking.

Advantages Of A Fixed Gear Bike

The build and design of a fixed gear bike offer some notable benefits that you can't get with freewheel bikes.

PEDAL EFFICIENCY

With a fixed gear, the bike uses both momentum and your physical pedaling with a fixed gear to maintain its speed. The constant engagement of the rear hub from the drivetrain creates a significantly more efficient pedaling motion that transfers all of your pedal power to the bike's movement.

The drivetrain also keeps your legs engaged at all times, making the most of moments when you're only exerting a small amount of energy intermittently.

LIGHTWEIGHT

This is one of the most notable advantages of a fixie. Since it lacks a derailleur, levers, a cassette, and brake assemblies, it sheds a very good portion of the weight, leaving just the frame, drivetrain, handlebars, Seatpost, and wheels.

Light Bike

It's not uncommon to see fixed gears weighing around 15-17 pounds, which makes the bike not only quicker and more pedal efficient, it helps whenever you have to carry it as well. This increases its portability.

LOOKS

This is a big part of the allure with fixies, so it's worth mentioning. Fixed gear bikes have a look that's all their own while allowing the bike's owner to customize things even more to their liking,

No matter the style, a fixie will always have that cool stripped-down look that is appealing, no matter the color scheme and components.

LOW COST

Fewer components mean less cost. The absence of a multi-gear drivetrain is a huge cost saver for fixed gear, and the saving is even greater if you opt for a brakeless version.

This means you can acquire a very nice road bike frame with high-quality tires for just a few hundred dollars.

LOW MAINTENANCE

This goes back to the fewer components aspect. Multi-gear drivetrains, disc brakes, and caliper brakes require a good deal of maintenance if you ride frequently. Eventually, you'll have to replace parts as well. Multi-gear drivetrains also put more stress on a chain, causing it to wear out early. 

By providing several features such as the best chain for a road bike, fixed gear bikes avoid many maintenance issues found with conventional bikes.

A DIFFERENT RIDING EXPERIENCE

Let's face it; fixies offer a unique riding experience that places you more in tune with the road. Since your pedals never stop turning, you are constantly engaged with the bike and eventually develop a better feel for what's going on.

Fixed Gear Riding Bike

The lack of brakes requires you to plan and alter your riding style to stop still and slow down when needed. The lighter feel of the bike and lack of gears also gives the riding experience a more "natural" feel that many end up preferring after trying it.

These bikes are the rawest and authentic you can get when riding to fixie enthusiasts.

Disadvantages Of A Fixed Gear Bike

While there are plenty of advantages to a fixed gear, there are some obvious hindrances that many may find undesirable.

BRAKING

The lack of brakes may be too much for some people. As if getting used to the constant pedaling motion wasn’t enough, the need to completely re-learn how to stop and slow down is an even bigger turnoff.

The lack of brakes can also be illegal in some areas, and despite your skill level, still very dangerous in some instances.

LACK OF GEAR OPTIONS

While there are some advantages to a well-ratioed fixed-gear drivetrain, the lack of speeds can still be a drawback in certain riding situations, no matter how well-conditioned you may be.

FAMILIARITY TAKES TIME

Fixed gear bikes are not just something you can hop on and master in a few minutes. The drastically different feel and approach require some serious getting used to, especially if you are more accustomed to freewheel models -- as most riders are.

Top Fixed Gear Bike Brands

Countless bike manufacturers put out fixed gear bikes, but these four companies stand out regarding history and quality.

VILANO

Based in Florida, Vilano is a worldwide manufacturer of various bike types and styles and caters mostly towards creating highly-affordable bikes accessible to a broad audience.

Vilano Fixed Gear Bike

Their fixed gear bike line includes several different models that span numerous uses and designs, such as commuter, track, road, and more. They have models with brakes and without.

MICARGI

Micargi Bicycles was formed in 1998 and is based in Los Angeles, California. Like Vilano, the company puts out a wide line of bikes that includes fat bikes, mountain bikes, BMX, and even tandems.

The fixed gear line is intertwined with their road bike models, with largely available fixed gear and multi-speed. They have one of the bigger fixed gear model lineups compared to other manufacturers.

6KU

6KU is a California-based bike manufacturer that restricts its output to mostly commuter, road, and fixie bikes. They currently offer two fixed gear models that are each available in several different colors and cater their bikes to those who want a quality fixie without having to spend too much to get started.

AVENTON

Aventon is a relatively new bike manufacturer, but they’ve made quite a buzz since forming in 2013. They are a specialty company that focuses on fixed gear bikes and frames.

They offer a large variety within their limited lineup and strive to appeal to many different budgets.

Fixed Gear Maintenance

Fixed gear maintenance is one of the biggest positives these bikes offer. As we mentioned earlier, they largely avoid many maintenance issues and replacement parts you usually have to worry about with multi-gear bikes.

Fixed Gear Maintenance

For the most part, maintenance is incredibly simple:

  • Tires must always be inflated to the appropriate PSI. Always check your tires before hitting the road to ensure they are not underinflated. Overinflating can cause issues, too, resulting in a rough ride and impact punctures. Be sure to check the tread for any punctures or sharp objects that may be lodged in them.
  • The chain should be kept appropriately cleaned and oiled. If you notice dirt accumulating, use a clean rag to wipe off the excess dirt, and use chain oil to make sure the chain isn’t dry.
  • If you use brakes, make sure the cables are still in good condition and don’t feel mushy when you are trying to use the brake. The pads will need to be replaced from time to time, so if you notice a rough brake feeling or hear a squeak, it may be time to get some new pads.

Converting A Bike Into A Fixed Gear

Most road and mountain bikes can easily be converted to a fixed gear version with a few simple steps and some new parts.

You’ll need the following since you’ll have to rebuild the drivetrain from scratch.

  • Rear wheel hub
  • Rear cog and lockring
  • Bottom bracket
  • Crankset
  • Chain
  • Optional: Toe straps or clipless pedals, a front brake, new handlebars

ROAD BIKE CONVERSION

Everything begins with stripping the bike down of all the components it no longer needs. This includes the shifters and drivetrains and perhaps the brakes if you’re going in that direction.

The new hub and cog can be fitted onto the existing wheel, assembling the crankset. If you keep the same chain, you’ll need to use a chain tool to remove links until tight tension is fitted to the new crank and rear cog.

If you want to alter the bike’s looks, be sure to sand and repaint the frame and fork before assembling the new drivetrain.

MOUNTAIN BIKE CONVERSION

Converting a single speed mountain bike to a fixie is the same process as above, but some may want to swap out a new fork when doing so. Using a suspension fork can remove the bike’s feel and reduce pedal efficiency.

Fixie mountain bikes are growing more common and making their own space in almost every house. Some riders choose to keep the brakes on both ends to use it on the trail, giving them a more fluid ride with the pedals always engaged.

Conclusion

Fixed gear bikes are no longer a fad. What was once a trend has developed into a viable bike type that continually grows as more realize the benefits offered.

Their low cost and simple maintenance make fixies easy to add to your bike line-up when you want a different riding experience and the related benefits.

If you’re looking to buy a new fixie bike, be sure to check out our buying guide for an overview of our best beach cruiser currently available for both men and women.

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