Perhaps the most trendy of all bike types currently is fixed gear bikes, or “fixies” as some prefer to call them.
The bikes represent an appealing sense of simplicity, that may or may not require a bit of adjusting before being able to fully receive the benefits of their unique design.
The topic of fixed gear bikes is fairly polarizing depending on who you talk to about them.
Everyone has an opinion as to whether they offer a superior biking experience, or are simply a trend that some tend to overhype.
For those who may be unfamiliar with fixed gear bikes, you’re in the right place. This guide will go over all you need to know about fixies, including how they work, some of 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 often inexpensive, efficient forms of biking.
Naturally, we’ll start by going over what defines a fixed gear bike.
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.
A fixed gear, as the name implies, utilizes a gear that is “fixed,” so as to not allow the rear wheel 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 in turn engages the front crank wheel, turning the pedals.
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 sort of 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 a fixed gear provides the opportunity to customize it’s look and allure. The simplicity creates a very minimal style that can be emphasized more in any number of ways.
Fixed gear enthusiasts swear by the bikes, and view them as a superior form of travel, especially for getting around heavily urban areas. They claim that after getting used to the bikes and learning how to properly ride them, 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 bikes initially. After all, they both literally use one speed. The terms refer to two different drivetrains, however.
Single speed bikes can be found across the spectrum, but mainly exist with BMX bikes, and often cruiser bikes as well. These always have a flywheel, so that the rider can coast. The hub and cog are not connected.
Fixed gear bikes obviously 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 pedaling 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 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.
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 simply 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 track bike racing works.
Often taking place in a specifically-built arena and track for racing called a velodrome, track bike racing involves road bikes that have been designed for maximum speeds. Racers make their way around the circular track, which usually has very steep angles on curvers, sometimes at a 45 degree angle.
With track racing, the rider doesn’t have time to change gears or use brakes, 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 as well.
The design of these bikes reflects this. Track racing bikes use a fixed gear drivetrain which has a strategic gear ratio that would be inefficient on urban roadways. The frame of the bike is very aerodynamic, and it uses very thin wheels and tires, which usually have their own aerodynamics.
The frame is light, but very stiff so the rider retains as much pedal power as possible All of this combines to create a bike that is incredibly fast in a track setting.
Fixed gear or fixie bikes often use a road bike frame, but are not built for any kind of racing. They can have drop down handlebars, flat handlebars, BMX grips, and any variety of wheels and tires. They favor looks over speed, and are not made for any kind of aerodynamics,
The general road frame type has a small bit of flex in it as well, providing some minimal shock absorption. If one were to take a track bike frame out on a city ride, it would feel very rigid and uncomfortable.
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.
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 on jumps on dirt tracks, and tricks/stunts on pavement surfaces (or wood surfaces for some skateparks.) A fixed gear bike wouldn’t last 5 seconds on a BMX course, and ot only because of the constantly engaged crank wheel and pedals.
There are some BMX-style fixed gears out on the roads, but they are not intended for anything but normal city riding -- no jumps or anything like that.
Mountain bikes are able to take on the most demanding riding, whether it’s winding singletrack 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.
A road bike is the most similar to a fixed gear, but there are still plenty of differences. Road bikes almost always have a high amount of gears, along with brake levers that are 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.
Cruiser are kind of there 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.
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?
Basically, 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.
By taking the brake off, the bike is literally just a frame, tires, a simple drivetrain, pedals, a seat, and a handlebar. No loose moving parts, just the essentials. This significantly alters the way the bike rides and feels as well, which includes 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 still is a way to brake.
When braking on a fixed gear, one has two main options.
The first doesn’t provide any kind of 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 are trying to continually cycle forwards. The rider uses their legs to try and stop the pedals from turning, which is turn makes the bike slow down. This can take around 4-6 revolutions until the bike slows down to a satisfactory level.
This does require some planning ahead 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 getting used to, but eventually one can learn when to begin slowing before a certain point s 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 the sacrificing some 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, and quickly pedal in reverse to stop the tire, and create a skid 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 in a moment’s notice.
SO, BRAKES OR BRAKELESS?
We realize that some fixed gear purists will insist that brakeless is the only way to go, and we understand to an extent. However, since brakeless bikes are now against the law in many different cities and regions around the world, (when used for city riding outside of a track,) we’ll error 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 that have at least one brake, usually located in the front.
Besides, you can always just take it off later should you decided to go brakeless for a bit.
Fixed gear bike history goes back pretty far if you’re just talking about the gear action itself. We’ll break fixed gear bike history into four different eras of sorts.
The earliest versions of fixed gear bikes go back to the earliest bikes themselves. The freewheel wasn’t invented for many years when the precursor to modern bikes were first being created.
All of the earlier bikes in the their many various forms all used a sort of fixed gear system. Regardless of the types, shape, or size of the early bikes, they all used a wheel that was connected to a pedal via chain, and that wheel's hub and cog were one in the same.
Things remained this way for year until the freewheel was introduced, and after that, derailleurs and bikes with multiple gears.
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 on the late 1800s and early 1900s.
In fact, 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 the use or fixed gear bikes has remained the same.
Due to the popularity and sustained success of track bike racing, any 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.
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 after than cars in heavy traffic, ands 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 favored by bike couriers in modern times, but many of them have to use a brake as required by law.
Sometime in the mid-2000s fixed gear bikes really began to take off as their own sub culture. This was likely carried over from bike couriers, and those that were 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 enamoured with the aesthetics of fixies, along with the efficiency and different riding experience they provided.
Amatuer riders instantly became experts of sorts, and many began to modify and build their own 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 both sanctioned and unofficial racing circuits. Large bike manufacturers 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 fairly standard build when compared to other bikes. Still, there are some differences that are more appropriate for their riding style.
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, which includes a top and bottom tube in a diamond shape, along with 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 streamlines, chic look.
Some fixed gear bikes are available with frames that are 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.
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 a more 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 either upgrade to a fork with a different color from the frame, or just repaint it themselves.
The handlebars are used to steer and control the bike. For a fixie, this is where things tend to differ the most among rider and bike models.
Some may elect to use a straight handlebar with custom taping on each end, and aftermarket grips. Other may use a road bike drop down-style handlebar, helping retain more of the roadbike 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 more of a standout look, and a different steering feel as well.
Most fixed gear bikes available on the market today offer a broad range of handlebar types, so you can really narrow it down to your preferred look and feel.
The stem is the metal component that connects the handlebar to the headset. The angle and length of a stem can greatly affect the way the bike steers, and the angle in which you sit when you’re riding.
Keeping with the prevailing road bike theme, most fixed gear bikes have a stem length and angle that's similar to non-competitive road bikes.
The headset connects the fork and stem to the handlebar.
It extends out from the bottom of the bike frame where the fork is connected, while simultaneously meeting the stem where it connects the handlebar.
Headsets determine the overall height of the handlebars, in conjunction with the stem. They also allow for the handlebar assembly free rotation.
The saddle is the seat of the bike, where the rider often rests when not standing up. Saddles on fixed gear bikes can vary, especially for those who are more concerned with creating 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 a bit more comfort may opt for a mountain bike style seat, or even a hybrid seat.
The seatpost is what connect the saddle to the bike’s frame, and also 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 seatposts remain the most popular among fixies.
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 basically a smaller version of the crankset that is attached to the rear wheel. As with the crank, its size determines the gearing ratio as well.
Not to be overlooked, pedals are what drives 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.
The build and design of a fixed gear bike does offer some notable benefits that you can’t get with freewheel bikes.
With a fixed gear, the bike uses both momentum and your physical pedaling 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.
This is one of the most notable advantages to a fixie. Since it lacks a derailleur, levers, a cassette, and brake assemblies, it sheds a very good portion of weight, leaving just the frame, drivetrain, handlebars, seatpost, and wheels.
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.
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 what the style is, a fixie will always have that cool stripped-down look that is appealing no matter what the color scheme and components look like.
Less components means less cost. The absence of a multi-gear drivetrain is a huge cost saver for a fixed gear, and the saving are 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.
This goes back to the less components aspect. Multi-gear drivetrains, disc brakes, and caliper brakes all 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.
Fixed gear bikes avoid many of the maintenance issues found with conventional bikes.
A DIFFERENT RIDING EXPERIENCE
Let’s face it; fixies offer a unique riding experience that many argue places you more in-tune with the road below you. Since your pedals never stop turning, you are always engaged with the bike, and eventually develop a better feel for what’s going on.
The lack of brakes requires you to plan ahead, and alter your riding style so that you can still stop 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.
To fixie enthusiasts, these bikes are the most raw and authentic you can get when riding.
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.
The lack of brakes may be too much for some. 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 definitely some advantages to a well-ratioed fixed gear drivetrain, the lack of speeds can still be a drawback in certain riding situation, no matter how well-conditioned you may be.
TAKES GETTING USED TO
Fixed gear bikes are not just something you can hop on and master in a few minutes. The drastically different feel and approach requires some serious getting used to, especially if you are more accustomed to freewheel models -- as most riders are.
Top Fixed Gear Bike Brands
There are countless bike manufacturers who put out fixed gear bikes, but these four companies stand out when it comes to history and quality.
Based in Florida, Vilano is a worldwide manufacturer of a variety of bike types and styles, and cater mostly towards creating highly-affordable bikes that are accessible to a broad audience.
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 Bicycles 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.
Thei fixed gear line is intertwined with their road bike models, with many available as both fixed gear and multi-speed. They have one of the bigger fixed gear model lineups compared to other manufacturers.
6KU is a California-based bike manufacturer that restrict their 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 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 amount of 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. Like we mentioned earlier, they largely avoid many of the maintenance issues and replacement parts you normally have to worry about with multi-gear bikes.
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 make sure they are no underinflated. Over inflating can cause issues too, which may result in a rough rider, 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 brake. The pads will need to be replaced from time to time as well, so if you notice a rough brake feeling or hear a squeak, it may be time for new pads.
Most road bikes and mountain bikes can easily be converted to a fixed gear version with just a few simple steps, and some new parts as well.
You’ll need the following, since you’ll have to basically rebuild the drivetrain from scratch.
- Rear wheel hub
- Rear cog and lockring
- Bottom bracket
- 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 that direction.
The new hub and cog can be fitted onto the existing wheel, which is followed by assembling the crankset. If you keep the same chain, you’ll need to use a chain tool to remove links until it has a tight tension when 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 prior to assembling the new drivetrain.
MOUNTAIN BIKE CONVERSION
Converting a mountain bike to a fixie is basically the same process as above, but some may want to swap out a new fork when doing so. Using a suspension fork can take away from the bike’s feel, and reduces pedal efficiency as well.
Fixie mountain bikes are growing more common however, as some riders elect to keep the brakes on both ends so they can use it on the trail, giving them a more fluid ride with the pedals always engaged.
Fixed gear bikes are no longer a fad. What was once a trend has developed into a viable bike type that is continually growing as more realize the benefits offered.
Their low cost and simple maintenance makes fixies easy to add to your bike lineup for when you want a different riding experience and the related benefits.
If you’re looking to purchase a new fixed gear bike, be sure to check out our buying guide for an overview of our favorite cruiser bikes currently available, for both men and women.
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