What are the actual advantages of fixed gear bikes?
April 27, 2016 5:03 PM   Subscribe

I will soon need a new bike and recently found out about fix gear bikes, so I'm trying to see if they may be for me.

In two weeks I'm moving to a new country so I will need a new bike.

Not being a native English speaker, whenever I heard mention of fixed hear bicycles I assumed it meant single speed bicycles, which I've always preferred. I only found out otherwise recently. They are not a thing where I live.

Because I will buy a new bicycle soon I'm considering my options and I don't know enough about this one.

I've been googling a lot, but most accounts of why riding fixed gear bikes is so great talk about very emotional things, like more freedom of a direct connection to the wheel.

If people who earn their bread on a bicycle trend to choose fixed gear bikes I imagine there must be more objective reasons. What are these reasons (besides maintenance being cheap and easy, which I've already found out)?

PS: the city I'm going to is very bike friendly and doesn't have heavy car traffic.
posted by Promethea to Health & Fitness (20 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
A lot of people who ride for a living in congested cities with crazy traffic like fixed gear bikes because they are easier to control. Not pedaling? Not moving forward. There's very little chance of careening into pedestrians or finding yourself not in control of your bike. Personally I don't entirely buy this argument, but a lot of people do, and they may be right.

The main point in favor, in my opinion, is that most people who use them regularly have killer legs and butts.
posted by Sara C. at 5:07 PM on April 27, 2016

Simplicity. Fewer moving parts, fewer things to go wrong. And they do give you enhanced control - you can ride slower, stop on a dime.

But if you're just commuting, the better compromise is a single speed - you can stop pedalling and coast when you get tired or are on a hill, you can have brakes, and it's way easier on your knees (since you're not using them to brake).
posted by His thoughts were red thoughts at 5:13 PM on April 27, 2016

I've ridden a fixed gear for 8 years in a city. I didn't really bike at all before that, and started riding every day, probably 250 days a year since then, 5-10 miles a day. I do like the one-to-one connection of pedaling-to-moving. Direct connection and all that, and what Sara C mentioned.

Real advantages? One fewer set of brake pads to change, maybe marginally more exercise (can't coast).

Get a single speed with a "flip-flop" rear hub (fixed on one side, free wheel on the other) and a front and rear brake (this is important). Start on the freewheel side, maybe try out fixed sometime.

I do have killer legs and butt (har), but I can't say that wouldn't be the case on a free wheel single speed. (I'm currently building a free wheel single speed to replace it.)
posted by supercres at 5:15 PM on April 27, 2016 [4 favorites]

A cheap single-speed/fixed bike will often have a flip-flop hub. If you get one of these then you can try both. It has a fixed sprocket on one side and a freewheel sprocket on the other. Try fixed, and if it doesn't work for you, just take the wheel off, flip it around, and put it back on, and you've got a single-speed bike.
posted by caek at 5:17 PM on April 27, 2016 [2 favorites]

Another vote for a flip-flop hub. Note that you'll probably need a slightly smaller fixed cog than on a singlespeed freewheel since you'll have to pedal on the downhills.

Really it comes down to preference.
1) Brakes always slow down the fastest so anybody that tells you skidding to a stop is faster doesn't know much about static vs kinetic friction.
2) I liked riding a fixed gear since I could do a trackstand at stoplights and I could keep my toe straps tight.
3) Maintenance between a single speed and fixed gear is one set of brake pads. Also be aware that keeping the correct chain tension on a fixed gear is crucial. If you don't have it properly adjusted then you can crash hard if the chain pops off. With a singlespeed bike you can just coast and fix your chain. Sidenote: make sure shoelaces don't get in the fixed gear drivetrain, you'll crash.
4) Speed. A single speed bike will be faster to ride. Larger freewheel cog = easier to pedal = easier uphill and you can just blast downhill. With a fixed gear, you want to balance choosing a gear that isn't too hard to push up the hill but you can still ride down without moving your legs super fast or riding the brakes.

After all this, there aren't really any pros to riding a fixed gear bike. But I liked the feel of mine so you'll just have to try it.
posted by just.good.enough at 5:37 PM on April 27, 2016 [1 favorite]

The advantages you've lined up are really spot on; ease of maintenance, simplicity, cheap, and really emotionally awesome. "Pro" bike messengers sometimes use them because while they do give you more control, they take some getting used to and a certain level of skill to get safe at. I personally feel like they sort of use this as a badge of honor kinda thing (not everyone agrees with me). A few years ago when the whole fixie thing peaked, there were tons of people riding fixed who had no business doing so and got straight wrecked by not knowing what they were doing. They're not anymore dangerous than a regular bike, but you gotta learn how they operate.

I used to ride fixed, and did for a couple years. I can't anymore, because I apparently have the knees of a 90 year old. So now I alternate 50/50 between a geared cargo bike, and a single speed (with a flip-flop hub, if I ever really feel like riding fixed). I personally find riding a single speed much more enjoyable, and much less of a hassle. Both fixed and single speed bikes are far more enjoyable to me than geared bikes in a city.

I have noted no substantial difference in butt or legs regardless of fixed or single status.

Oh, double check your local laws; sometimes even fixed geared bikes need brakes. This is a good practice regardless of your laws, because riding fixed can put more stress on your chain, and if it becomes derailed or breaks, you can't stop unless you pull a Flinstones.
posted by furnace.heart at 5:44 PM on April 27, 2016 [1 favorite]

I own five bicycles, including a fixed gear. As a former San Francisco resident during the peak of the hipster era, I know a thing or two about fixed gear bikes.

Fixed gear bikes require much less maintenance than geared bikes; however, this advantage is shared by single speed bikes, and the latter is indisputably more rider friendly.

Fixed gear bikes are considered to be "cool" by some; though personally I think said coolness peaked in 2008 and has been in decline ever since.

If you ride a bicycle which looks like a fixed gear, but is really a single speed, those who ride fixed gear will look down upon you as a poser and a fake.

Fixed gear bikes are a pain in the ass to ride. Those who praise fixed gear riding with "poetic" descriptions have all drunk too much Kool Aid.

Just get a geared bike.
posted by BeaverTerror at 7:00 PM on April 27, 2016 [4 favorites]

You know what I love about my bike? It has gears. When I'm going up hills, I use those gears like crazy, and I am so grateful to have them.
posted by latkes at 8:06 PM on April 27, 2016 [8 favorites]

When I moved to this flat city I swapped out my mountain bike for a single-speed bike with a flip-flop hub. I told myself that after a short test period of single-speed I'd try out the fixed gear. Never got around to it, seems totally unnecessary.

So add my +1 Personal Experience to the list of people above saying, "Get a bike with a flip-flop hub."
posted by komara at 9:05 PM on April 27, 2016

Just wanted to mention that I am very emotionally connected to coasting on my bike. Seems to me that the main advantage of fixed gear over single speed is that if you get past the terrifying feel of the pedals coming around automatically to whack your confused ankles, you can be part of an elite group of riders with a highly specialized skill.
posted by oxisos at 10:26 PM on April 27, 2016 [1 favorite]

maintenance being cheap and easy

You can get a hub gear-equipped bike, which gives you the mechanical advantages of gears, without the maintenance issues of normally-geared bikes and the knee-damage issues of fixies. The gears are enclosed from the elements and so adjustment and wear is minimal. They cost more, but having hub gears is one of those so-hard-fought-and-won advantages that humanity has managed to claw out after a few billion years of evolution, that it seems it would be a shame not to consider them.
posted by a lungful of dragon at 11:39 PM on April 27, 2016

Any advantage to having a fixed gear bike is completely wiped out if you have anything more than 5% elevation changes. They are hell on your knees on hills. If you have no hills (and I mean NO HILLS OF ANY KIND) then they are mechanical simplicity heaven. Practically no cleaning, no mushy derailleur feeling, no clicking noises, smooth and direct. But hills? No.

So, easy decision:

If you have hills and you have extra money, I highly recommend an internal gear hub.
If you have hills and no extra money, a regular geared bike.
If you have no hills, buy a flip-flop hub and see which side (single-speed freewheel or fixed) you like best.

Yes, I know people in San Francisco, which is entirely hills, ride fixies. I don't know how they do it.
posted by epanalepsis at 6:41 AM on April 28, 2016 [2 favorites]

Mechanically, there is no advantage over a single speed aside from needing to maintain only one brake and the possibility of complete silence from the drive train. Neither of these are sufficient to justify a fixed gear. I would say that there is a very strong feedback from direct drive that is objectively different from freewheels and that is psychologically pleasing at the least to a large number of people. I find it most pleasing in stop and go traffic, which I am in every morning.

However, I do not find riding fixed a pain in the ass at all, nor do I think they are indisputably less rider friendly. I commute on a fixed gear. I cannot imagine riding any other way. I wear dress clothes (coat, trousers, tie) and carry a full set of rain gear and a briefcase in panniers. In 8 years of daily commuting, I've lost 3 shoelaces, crashed zero times, and skid stopped once. As you can see from the advice here, they are not for everyone. I would suggest you read what the late cycling expert Sheldon Brown
wrote about them. You will note that he does not defend them in mechanical terms beyond the minor increase in efficiency, which you get from single speed anyway. I built my first fixed gear using the extremely useful information on that site.

I should also note that I have never seen anything other than anecdotal evidence of knee damage caused by fixed gear riding. This is not to say that it isn't possible, of course.

If you do decide to try riding fixed anywhere other than a track, a front brake is essential equipment. The "crash hard" advice above comes from foolishy riding without any brakes at all, using only the direct drive itself to slow down. I use my brake only in emergencies and when I am going fast. I've lost my chain on a hill and been just fine.

Finally, since the asker already specified a preference for single speeds, the question of gearing is irrelevant.
posted by q9f9A at 6:55 AM on April 28, 2016 [1 favorite]

Another claimed advantage of fixed gear bicycles is that it can help to learn peddling in smooth circles instead of "mashing".

A fixed gear or single speed bike can be quite light. This might be helpful if you are caring it up several flights of stairs.

They are less delicate. There are very few bits on a fixed gear or single speed hanging off the bike like derailleurs to get ripped off or smashed. You don't need to be all that careful when locking up your bike.
posted by bdc34 at 7:24 AM on April 28, 2016

Some also consider fixed gear bikes to be more fun to ride.
posted by craven_morhead at 9:54 AM on April 28, 2016

I own and ride fixed, single-speed and geared bikes and can say that the only real advantages for fixed/single are that they require a bit less maintenance and adjustment to run reliably; and that decent examples can be acquired for less than the cost of a comparable geared bike. One area where a fixed-gear may have some operational advantage is doing tricks or playing sports like bike polo, as experienced users can gain advantages from its ability to stand still, ride backward, etc.

The weight difference is negligible -- derailleurs, cassettes and other components of a geared bike don't weigh all that much, and most mass-produced bikes built for use as fixies are made of steel anyway, not the light carbon or titanium materials used for fancy road bikes.

In terms of the oft-mentioned "fun-to-ride" quotient, there is something enjoyable about the direct connection between pedal and wheel, but the charm wears off quick if you go up and down hills regularly. I enjoy the extra workout of climbing huge hills on my singlespeed (I've had the hub flopped to the freewheel side on my Steamroller for years now), but it accelerates, turns and rolls down the road on the exact same tires and with pretty much the same feel as my geared road bike.

A fixed-gear bike does not "stop on a dime" as another poster suggested -- performing a skid stop at speed by pushing back on the pedals takes some strength and practice, is terrible on your knees, burns expensive tires down to the casing and takes just as much distance, if not more, than stopping a bike with actual caliper brakes. It's kind of fun, if you like that sort of dangerous, pointless style of stopping, but regular brakes are far more effective and reliable. Many would-be riders believe that pushing back on the pedals of a fixed-gear will be comparable to a coaster-style brake located in the rear hub of cruiser-style bikes -- it is not at all the same.
posted by M.C. Lo-Carb! at 10:09 AM on April 28, 2016 [1 favorite]

For what it's worth, if you live in a hilly place, you will spend more time walking your bike up or down hills with a fixie/ss than you would maintaining a geared bike.

You will acquire fantastic legs/butt either way. Riding is good, whatever you ride.
posted by klanawa at 10:57 AM on April 28, 2016

Fun to ride, very little to go wrong.
posted by fixedgear at 11:53 AM on April 28, 2016 [2 favorites]

Chiming in as another daily fixed-gear commuter. I do about 12 miles a day on average; something around 200 days a year for the last eight years, last time I worked it out.

I'm gear-agnostic, overall, but for me this is the right tool for the job.

In a city, if I'm keeping myself under 30 miles at a stretch, I prefer a fixed gear, for a lot of reasons already mentioned.

There's a bit of a learning curve at first, as you learn to pedal through turns and down hills. The latter aren't really any harder to climb than on a geared bike if you're in decent commute shape and don't mind standing occassionally/using your upper body, and I actually prefer bombing a hill on the fixed gear since because I can control my speed more easily.

I feel like I have more control over the bike in general--I have front and back brakes and don't understand why you wouldn't, except bravado or aesthetics--especially in rain or adverse conditions, since there's yet another braking mechanism. I'm more aware of my speed/trajectory/ability to stop/maneuver than I was when riding anything with a free-wheel. Coasting lets you . . . coast, and in rush hour in DC that's not a great idea.

The simplicity mentioned above is of course the other big thing. To add one finer point to that, in addition to there being fewer things that can go wrong, there are fewer things to steal.
posted by aspersioncast at 1:09 PM on April 28, 2016

Precise control over the speed at which you are travelling, even while riding hands-free.

This feature is useless, in a purely practical sense, for commuting. It can be fun, though! I agree with the general recommendation that you get a flip-flop hub. I'm an internal gearing fanatic myself, but if you prefer SS and want to try fixed, flip-flop is probably right for you.

Or you could get a Sturmey Archer S3X 3-speed internal gear fixed hub!
posted by sibilatorix at 9:18 PM on April 29, 2016 [1 favorite]

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