When I first started audaxing in 2018, and I got my first brevet card at the registration line, I saw that there were four special categories of riders: Fixed Wheel, Tandem, Recumbent and Tricycle. More on the other three for some other time, but for a lot of people, and certainly, to begin with, me, it will seem like an act of pure masochism to ride big distances fixed. Two years later, I just finished my first fixed wheel 200 audax. What made me change my mind? Well, this is my go at trying to set out why I think fixed riding might be the next big thing for you.
Quick clarification – what is fixed?
‘Fixed’, ‘fixed gear’ or ‘fixed wheel’ cycling is cycling without a freewheel. Basically when the rear wheel moves, so do your cranks – and vice versa. In short, if you start rolling down a hill, your cranks will continue to spin, connected to the sprocket on the rear hub, held in place with a lockring. Fixed gear wheels are always held in place with sturdy axles, 99.9% of the time fastened down with 15mm nuts using a spanner.
Me and fixed bikes
I’ve actually had fixed gear bikes for a while. When I first began recreational cycling I rode a 2017 Boardman Sport (at the time this was a pretty swish bike for me), which I decided I wouldn’t be comfortable leaving locked outside of anywhere in case of theft or vandalism. I bought a cheapo ‘gas pipe’ steel singlespeed to be the ‘town bike’, but I hadn’t realised it would come with a fixed sprocket at the back, as well as a freewheel. I tried it – and liked it. It probably helped that the cheapo bike came with pretty mediocre brakes, so the reassurance of the fixed drivetrain helping me stay in control was a big boost. This was the bike I’d ride into town and lock up, knowing the chances were good it would still be there when I came back, or at least, it wouldn’t be my ‘pride and joy’ that was missing.
A lot happened after that. I ended up quitting my job and reading a Master’s degree, when the fixed gear became the main bike in my life, both getting to uni, doing my food delivery job, and anything else that would involve leaving a bike outdoors. I won’t kid you I was ‘in love’ with the bike – the plain gauge steel was heavy, and hills were always some work, but it was a robust machine that rarely needed any more care than oil on the chain and a fresh brake block on the front (I eventually removed the rear caliper – it was doing no good).
I eventually sold the steel bike, and upgraded to an Aventon alloy-framed, carbon forked cordoba track bike off of LFGSS.com with some Halo aerorage wheels. The plan was to get involved with some fixed gear crit racing in 2020. Then, 2020 happened, and I realised I was left with an aggressive track bike with no races to ride it at. I sold the Aventon frame and got the Specialized Langster. I’ve had it for about a month now, and it’s been exactly what I’m looking for – racier than the steel beater I had, but not super-aggressive track geo either. Just right to start thinking about using it for some silly distances!
Big distances fixed – not the masochism it’s maligned as
I’d been doing long rides (200 km or longer, up to 600 km so far) for about two years, and there had always been that subculture of ‘fixed wheel’ (as it’s termed in Audax UK) riding, which I’d attributed to people just wanting some extra challenge. But I’d met a few people, both in-person and remotely, who would swear to me that fixed wheel audaxing has more to recommend to it than just ‘steeze points.’ Especially in Western England, there’s been a set of fixed wheel audaxers – particularly Eleanor Jaskowska and Will Pomeroy – who would make the case that fixed wheel riders would often finish faster than were they using gears. The reasoning for this is that with a derailleur gear system, you’re always going to tend towards taking it easy and spinning in a sensible cadence. With fixed wheel riding, you have to go fast so that you have momentum to get you up smaller hills, and you’ll approach longer climbs much more aggressively instead of resigning yourself to a low-geared spin.
Combine this with the inherent simplicity and resilience of the fixed drivetrain (you can’t prang a derailleur hanger when you’re not riding with a derailleur, after all) and this was a pretty compelling case. So, I entered the Thames Valley Audax South Bucks Winter Warmer on the fixed gear and decided to have at it.
Ratio selection is important. When I was using my steel bike on the relative flat lands of London, I would use a 44/16 ratio. The Langster came with a 42 chainset, which I decided to leave on. I think this 42/16 ratio was good for the ride. I got up the vast majority of the hills and only pushed twice in the whole ride (given that one of them was straight after lunch, I plead extenuating circumstances, m’lud), and didn’t feel unduly limited on the flatter bits. And this is bearing in mind I was carrying a full panoply of spare clothes and tools, too.
The overall ride was 207 km, with 1600 metres of climbing. I think this is about as lumpy in terms of net climbing as I’d dare brave, at least for now. I could potentially put on a 17t cog, or even an 18t, for hillier rides. Yes, it was hard work on the hills than it would have been with a derailleur, but the effect was that I was fast. Looking at my historical speeds on 200s, for this one I averaged 23.7 km/h (moving speed). By my standards, this is pretty good going, bearing in mind it was 100% solo.
Where I think fixed gear can start to be less fun is when the sun goes down. I pushed on two hills in the ride. The first one was because my cheese toastie hadn’t gone down, but the second one was later into the evening, when I couldn’t see too far ahead of me and had to slow down. This meant I couldn’t confidently attack hills, or use a downhill to build momentum, in case a big pothole or other hazard was in the ‘run up.’ I have blown out both tyres in such a trap before and really didn’t fancy repeating it.
There’s no denying that committing to a single gearing ratio for a ride so long has big potential to turn into a chore. I was lucky that 42/16 turned out so well. It is theoretically possible to lower gearing ratios while on a ride, but it involves either having a fixed/fixed hub (i.e. a hub in which you can remove the wheel and flip it over, to employ a lower gearing ratio), or the tools to swap cogs on the ride. You could make this easier for yourself by using the Miche cog carrier system, meaning all you’d need was the lockring tool, but still, no one’s idea of fun is spending time on the roadside flipping wheels around.
Is it for you?
Well… Maybe! There are some very good calendar events which are well suited to riding fixed, especially in wintertime. I’ve already booked in for two 2021 audaxes, the Poor Student, and the Willy Warmer, and I think I’m going to do #2 fixed again. It’s not pancake flat, but looking at the route profile, all the hillier bits are ‘up font’ so hopefully the problem of more cautious riding limiting my momentum won’t be so impactful.
I think you might surprise yourself with how fun riding fixed might be. You don’t necessarily need a new bike to try it – White Industries make an ‘eccentric hub’ that lets you turn any bike with quick-release dropouts into a fixed wheel.
Gears are great but if you really give fixed gear riding a go, for a few weeks, you might find it’s a lot more fun than you expected. For more technical specifics, read the late Sheldon Brown’s guide to fixed gear bicycles for the road. Just be sure to mind your fingers if using a repair stand!