Can I unfix my fixed gear?
April 16, 2009 11:14 AM   Subscribe

I bought a fixed gear bike and I want to turn it into a freewheel and add brakes cause it's gonna be the death of me.

I'm also thinking about changing the handlebars to something more just like a flat bar with grips. Is it even possible to make it a freewheel? How much would brakes, a new handlebar and making it un-fixed cost? I'd also like to try and do this by myself if I could... would I just be better off selling it and getting a different one? I've only ridden it about three times because it's been too cold. This is the bike.
posted by pwally to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (18 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
That bike has what's called a flip-flop hub in the back, which means you ought to be able to just take the back wheel out, install a freewheel (there mgiht already be one on there--if not, they're available online or at your local bike shop--if you buy it online, make sure you get the right size for your chain) turn it around and put it back on the bike. You could easily do this for less than twenty bucks.
posted by box at 11:19 AM on April 16, 2009

It's drilled for a front brake so adding one is definitely doable at home, if you have cable cutters, a spare lever and compatible brake, some cable/housing, etc. laying around. I'd take it to a shop and have them do that, since you're now putting all your stopping faith into it - no time to be learning how to route a cable hanger and canti brake.

A freewheel is tens of dollars and can be mounted in place of your cog.

Bars are $10-500 and are best done with the brake, so that any tape rewrapping and cable routing can be done at the time of the swap, though you may not be using bar tape with flat bars.

I'd figure on your having a relatively twitchy track geometry and meh components mated to a flat bar and brake about $150-200 later, including parts and labor. Doesn't quite seem like the right bike for you to be keeping..
posted by kcm at 11:22 AM on April 16, 2009

Having recently looked into changing from flat to drop bars, you're looking at between $75 and $200 depending on bars, new cabling, grips and installation, for that portion. Given that, and the cost of adding a freewheel hub, brake mechanism and pads... you might look into a packaged bike.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 11:24 AM on April 16, 2009

Just add these Tektro levers and a cheap Tiagra front brake. Don't put a freewheel on: if the bike isn't drilled for a rear brake (it's not, right?), having the fixed + front brake gives you a failsafe in case the brake stops working mid-ride. And you really don't want a flat bar on that bike... what's the problem exactly? Maybe flip the stem up if you feel you're too low.
posted by The Michael The at 11:29 AM on April 16, 2009

I don't know if the frame has fitting for brakes, and, if not, that'll be a sticking point. If the frame doesn't have cable guides, installing a back brake will be a bit of a challenge, and kinda kludgy. A front brake, though, isn't as big a potential problem.

Apart from that, though, changing the bar and installing brakes shouldn't be too tough. You'll have to buy a handlebar, grips, brake levers, brake cables and brakes. Secondhand versions of these things, like from a bike co-op or a friend, are very cheap. Prices for brand-new versions of these things vary a lot, but you'd have a hard time getting everything you need for less than... hmm... let's say sixty bucks. And, realistically, you'll probably spend something closer to a hundred.
posted by box at 11:29 AM on April 16, 2009

Response by poster: Doesn't quite seem like the right bike for you to be keeping..

Why not? I'm not against getting rid of it, but I'd like a good reason if I'm gonna.
posted by pwally at 11:29 AM on April 16, 2009

Response by poster: what's the problem exactly?

My knees felt like crap the last time I rode it so I figured if it was freewheel I could solve that... went with my gut on that one.
posted by pwally at 11:32 AM on April 16, 2009

Go to Broadway Bicycle School in Cambridge. They can either do it for you, or teach you how to do it. or sell you new or used parts and you can do it yourself. They're a pretty pragmatic bike shop when it comes to stuff like this. They could also steer you towards a more relaxed frame, if you decide to go that route (although I've never bought a whole bike from them). Go in on a rainy weekday afternoon and you'll get lots of help.

What gearing are you riding? You might consider moving to an easier gearing, if you're having trouble stopping. Count the teeth on your cog and chainring and plug them in toSheldon Brown's Bicycle Gear Calculator. I recently dropped from 69 gear inches to 64 since I'm just getting back on it after a lengthy hiatus. A new cog is pretty cheap.

You also might try just running a front brake and/or adding toe clips. with your current setup and seeing how it feels. When I first started riding, I wasn't using toeclips and I felt like the bike was riding me. I don't know how anybody does without them.

On preview: If your knees hurt you're probably pushing gears that are too high. Is your cadence really slow?
posted by clockwork at 11:41 AM on April 16, 2009

Also, according to the specs you provided, the frame is drilled for front and rear brakes. I don't see any cable stops running to the rear brake, but they might be on the side. Even if they aren't there you can get little rubber band type things (or zip ties) to tie the cable hosing to the top tube.
posted by clockwork at 11:47 AM on April 16, 2009

I'd try switching the cog over to the other side - that page indicates that it's a Formula flip-flop hub. That'll get you the freewheel. I think that you'll find the freewheel unnecessary with a front brake, but by all means, try both sides of the hub. I tend to slow myself down by backpedaling at low speeds, and use the brake for slowing down from higher speeds, and then quick touches at low speed. I have run into problems with my legs being too tired to efficiently backpedal, but no issues with the knees (yet).

As for brakes + flat bars, it's simple. Get yourself a $10 (steel) or $25 (alum.) flat/slight riser bar from the bike shop. Use a hex wrench to unscrew the front of the stem, and swap in the flat bars. Get some grips you like, wet the insides, slide them on, and wait for them to dry.

I'd definitely have the shop install the brake + cable, for the reasons KCM pointed out. Oh, and if you're dead-set on a freewheel, get two brakes.
posted by god hates math at 11:50 AM on April 16, 2009

Also seconding that regardless of anything else, you should be running a front and rear brake on it even if you change nothing else and ride the hell out of it. There's no excuse for no brakes anywhere BUT the track.

You don't HAVE to use them, but when you end up wanting them, you'll be glad you have them after all.
posted by kcm at 11:51 AM on April 16, 2009

oops. Sheldon Brown's Bicycle Gear Calculator
posted by clockwork at 11:52 AM on April 16, 2009

re: knees. I've looked into this because I recently bought a used hybrid and noticed knee pain after a decent ride (20+ miles). In addition to riding in too high a gear, knee pain can also result in either the seat being too low, or too near or far from the handlebars. If you're going to spend enough time on the bike, you might want to look into a bike fit through your local bike shop. Sadly they are not cheap (lowest price I've seen in the DC area is $90.00; average seems to be in the $150.00 range). Or you could just try adjusting the seat yourself and see if that helps.
posted by kaybdc at 12:35 PM on April 16, 2009

First, do deal with the knee problem: make sure your bike fits you properly. Where was the knee pain? The topside or below the knee joint? I've found that if I'm riding with my saddle a little too low, i feel it below the knee. It's also possible you are over-geared, or not used to the exertion, and that's why you're feeling pain. A brake will help with that, but so might going with a larger toothed freewheel/fixed cog. The bigger cog you put on, the easier it will get.

(on preview: kaybdc beats me, but we phrased things differently. *hi-five!*)

and to clear up a couple things above:
I disagree with Blazecock, and side with Clockwork. It shoudn't cost you hundreds. Swap your drop bars for riser or flat bars at a co-op (making sure that they are the proper dimension - you have a 26.0mm stem, so you need 26mm bars or 25.4 with a shim) and add brakes. You can reuse the bar tape if you don't want to buy grips.

The two sides of your flipflop hub are slighly different as well - the fixed side has a stepped down second set of threads, while the freewheel side has a wider set of threads. Always grease them before putting the freewheel on.
posted by stachemaster at 12:47 PM on April 16, 2009

Response by poster: Ok thanks everyone, I'll try adjusting the seat to see if that provides some relief first. I also don't speak bicycle so it's going to take me a bit to wade through all of these answers.
posted by pwally at 12:54 PM on April 16, 2009

The bare fact that you have a fixed gear isn't necessarily what's hard on your knees. Start by having the bike professionally fitted to you if you haven't already. Then add a front brake, and use that to stop for a while in conjunction with your legs. See where that gets you.
posted by craven_morhead at 1:26 PM on April 16, 2009

I have the same bike, it has a large front chainring. I replaced it with a smaller one which is easier to pedal and less hard on my knees.

It's a great little bike, I've ridden mine all over the front range of Colorado and even taken it to The Netherlands where I did a metric century.
posted by Confess, Fletch at 1:35 PM on April 16, 2009

I went from knowing nothing about bikes (see my last "Ask MF" question) to becoming an accomplished amateur bike mechanic in around a month. You can, too.

Instead of buying a new bike, I fell in love with an old '70s roadbike, and it needed new brakes, new brake handles, new brake cables, new seat, and I hated the handlebars. I also wanted more than ten speeds, so I bought a new 7-cog freewheel.

Installing this stuff was easy. Just take your time, stop and think about what you're doing before you do it, and you'll be OK. Much easier than working on a car.

Tools you will need:

Metric box wrenches, from 6mm to 15mm
Metric hex keys
Big, thick bladed screwdriver
Medium bladed and phillips screwdrivers
Lineman's pliers (for cutting the brake cable and housing to length, and crimping on the cable ends.)
Vice-grips or an adjustable wrench
Lithium grease
(All of this stuff is available at Harbor Freight, the local Job Lot, or even the dollar store.)

Lockring remover (for taking the old one off, make sure you get the right type)
Chain whip (for putting the new one on... may not be needed if you have a "flip-flop" hub.)
(These are bike specific tools, maybe $15 each to buy - see if the bike shop rents them.)

Parts you will need:

Single-cog freewheel
Decent bars and grips (I like North Road style bars. The mustache and noodle varieties are very popular, too. I paid $20 for my knock-off bars from Velo-Orange, but expect to pay double that for a nice Nitto bar. Avoid flat mountain-bike bars unless you're mountain biking.)
A front brake kit. (The local hardware store sells this for $10, including lever, cable, caliper and pads! You may want to spend some more money on this to buy name-brand parts, but don't go nuts. Tektro is fine.)

There are a ton of tutorials on the web for any job that needs doing, including some nice videos. Google around for 'em.

Begin here: Park Tools Repair Help - click on Cassette and Freewheel Service, and take a look.
posted by Slap*Happy at 2:23 PM on April 16, 2009

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