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Saddle-Up Column: a closer look at a fixed-gear bike

How to differentiate a fixed-gear bike from other bicycles
Geordie McGillivray (Saddle up)
Richmond resident Geordie McGillivray writes about different aspects of cycling.

I saw someone today on a bike. Actually, I saw two people on bikes riding together and I noticed something was off about their bikes. I realized I’ve been seeing more of these bikes on the roads lately. This is for anyone who’s seen a bike recently and felt there was something about it that was different but maybe you couldn’t figure it out in the time you saw it.

Fixed-gear bikes or known as fixies in some areas or track bikes in other places is what I saw. 

First, let me tell you where you might have seen these kinds of bikes on television. If you’ve ever watched the Olympics and they had a cycling race that was held indoors in a velodrome, then they are riding these exact same kind of bikes. However, many people don’t understand how different those bikes are from typical bikes you see people riding.

Before I explain the difference, I have to say that some people love fixed-gear bikes, it’s all they ride, and they are very, very proficient with them. I’ve ridden them myself on a velodrome, and on the street. I quickly sold mine as it just wasn't for me. But again, some people swear by them. So what’s the difference?

Where to start. I guess first is that a traditional fixed-gear bike only has one gear, hence the name. The second is that it usually has no brakes. Yes, no brakes. Next is that they will have no freewheel. This means that when the bike is in motion, your feet and legs are in motion. You cannot stop pedalling at all unless you come to a complete stop. If you try to stop pedalling while riding fast you will get thrown up and over the front of the bike. Finally what gives it away sometimes is its handlebars. Instead of the curved bars of a normal road bike with brake and gear levers, it will typically use what is referred to as bull-horns. These are straight bars that go across, then stick out forward at the ends, earning their name. So, no gears, no brakes, what’s the point?

Well, with so few parts on them, maintaining them is much easier, and cheaper. But they’re very niche outside of competitive track racing. Some people are just attracted to being different. I’ve tried them, and I really cannot recommend ever riding them on public roads (aside from the fact they are technically illegal with no brakes - even though you can add a brake but it’s not normal on these). So, I know you want to know how people who ride these bikes stop them if they are riding up to a light and it turns red. Picture this: Because your legs cannot stop moving while in motion you have to actually hop your back tire off the ground just a touch, then lock your legs so they cannot move, and then when the wheel touches the ground again you skid to a stop. That’s it.

You won’t see many of these, thankfully. But next time a bike looks off, or maybe a little minimalist you might just be looking at a fixie.

Geordie is an avid cyclist who writes his Saddle Up column on cycling in Richmond.

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