Fixed wheelers: culture, sport or training tool?

Fixed wheel: for the purists, this is the only bicycle worthy of riding. Photo: Hugh Martin

Fixed wheel: for the purists, this is the only bicycle worthy of riding. Photo: Hugh Martin

Like the TV show Funniest Home Videos this comes with a warning: “Don’t all try this on the road until practised in a safe environment!”.

Is it possible to reinvent the wheel? Some may well think they have.  It is a bit like fashion, keep it in the wardrobe long enough it will become fashionable again, or the old adage there is nothing new under the sun we have seen it all before. We have seen them on the velodrome all going the same way at reasonably the same high speed, but now the fences of the track and velodrome no longer are the boundaries that can contain them.

Fixed wheel cycles are becoming an international culture mainly for the cycle couriers, which is growing more and more as an accepted safe means of getting across crowded busy road in cities to deliver urgent parcels. These are not to be confused with a fixed gear which has a free wheel mechanism and some braking method. The fixed wheel is not likely to have such luxuries and fixing the wheel makes the pedals keep in constant rotation with the wheel.

Cast your mind back in history to the ‘hobby horse’ and the French ‘velocipede’ or ‘boneshaker’. They were all early versions of the push bikes which led to the development of the Penny Farthing (also known as the ‘High’ or ‘Ordinary’ bicycle), the original fixed wheel with no brakes. It was invented by British engineer, James Starley.

Fixies as they are commonly known are becoming almost a fashion statement in some circles of cycling. In others, they’re just a serviceable machine to earn a livelihood that is less likely to be stolen or require maintenance or fixing if knocked over. Fixies are normally very basic yet can be very subtle. They’ll have steel tubing (no carbon or aluminium) with amazingly crafted ferrules where the tubing is inserted to make the frame. They are light and uncomplicated taking a minimalist approach to hardware. Some have amazing pinstriped paintwork and fancy chrome ferrules which all reminiscent of the coach builder’s craft.

Fixed wheel bikes have been associated with track racing and the serious training and bike enthusiasts have come to appreciate how this style of cycling develops a more pure pedalling technique. Some find them ideal for commuting and riding in heavy traffic, or riding in close quarters with other riders as they are reliant more on their skill and body strength to maintain control of the bike as the rider can speed up or slow down at will.

Trendy or not, riding a bike with no alternative means of stopping is not right for everyone. It doesn’t mean that anyone can jump on a brakeless fixed wheel bike with little or no experience, and ride safely in today’s traffic. When you’re going downhill on a free-wheel bike, for example, you can let gravity do all the hard work for you – keeping your legs still, while you use your brakes, wits and balance to navigate the traffic.

On a fixed-wheel bike, however, you have to keep your legs moving at the same speed as the wheels, and if you inadvertently try to stop pedalling completely, there’s a good chance you’ll end up being thrown out of the saddle. Even on the flat, it all feels rather unnatural.

There is a natural tendency to stop pedalling as one normally would when rolling around a corner.  Most new cyclists will slow down and stay correctly balanced lean into the corner, and keep their outside pedal at its lowest position (i.e. 6 o’clock). On a fixed-wheel bike that’s not an option – your legs simply have to keep on turning.

In addition to the couriers there is now a resurgence of interest in cycle polo the origins of which date back to 1891 when Irishman Richard J. Mecredy invented cycle polo. Fixed wheel cycles seem most likely to be used due to the control of the bike to stop and start at will.

We have not seen much of this culture in Bendigo as yet for the recreational cyclist but there are some that have used fixed wheels for training purposes.  It is not uncommon now to see the odd fixie on rides like the Bay in a Day which a huge effort to ride a single geared bike for such distances.

“The bicycle had, and still has, a humane, almost classical moderation in the kind of pleasure it offers. It is the kind of machine that a Hellenistic Greek might have invented and ridden. It does no violence to our normal reactions: it does not pretend to free us from our normal environment.” ~J.B. Jackson

See you on the road soon God willing

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