Paul Makepeace ;-)

Cycling Fixed Gear

Riding "fixed" – no gears, no freewheel: the preserve of leathery-skinned veterans and battle-hardened couriers, or a discipline for the average cyclist?


I've been riding fixed gear pretty much exclusively since my curiosity and insatiable tendency to fiddle created the context for experimentation in 1991. Why would anyone then persist at it for another 12 years?

  1. Mass. You save a huge amount of weight, the kind of weight that would give the titanium bolt brigade wet dreams for weeks. Here's what you lose:
    • Sprocket block – this is a monstrous lump of steel. Until you hold its heft in your hand you cannot truly appreciate what you're lugging around. Honestly, it is quite heavy.
    • Chain – don't forget the chain ends up shorter; 30% perhaps. Again, all steel.
    • Derailleurs, front & rear – more aluminium generally here but still a decent pair of metal chunks.
    • Shifters – you could remove these but it's probably not worth it; you'd end up with ugly lumps sticking out of your down tube whose threads would rust eventually. Keep them as a reminder of what you're not missing. They lend the bike a certain "ooh! I can play with these bits and not break anything!"-Exploratorium/Science Museum feel.
    • Chain ring – this barely weighs anything but has great stripped-down visual impact when it's gone.
    • Cables – again, not much but a bit more than I had imagined. A definite aesthetic win too.
    All that lot is quite a substantial percentage of the bike's mass.
  2. Technique:
    • Fluidity. Obviously, with a fixed gear you don't stop pedalling until the bike stops. (Yes, even over those cattle-grids and potholes. More on that later...). So downhill you start off gingerly pawing at the brakes but end up learning to move your legs very smoothly indeed. And reduced upper body movement equates to greater cycling efficiency.
    • Full stroke. As you ride with higher and higher (longer) gears you'll find that being able to pull up as you push down goes from being useful to being absolutely essential, and you'll get really good at it. I used to ride a 52/14x700c in Bristol which is a notoriously hilly English city. At the time I first started riding fixed there was no way I could've climbed the hills I was tackling a year later.
    • Strength. When you're forced to push hard your muscles adapt. It's a natural by-product of riding fixed; you simply can't help it. There's no "cheating" by twiddling in a lower gear. See later though on starting gently and looking after your knees.
  3. Mental effort. This might sound odd, but not having to think about either changing gears or whether to stop pedalling is a remarkable load off the mind. You just crank, and keep doing that 'til you stop. With a freewheel, every time you coast there's a whole-body effort as you fire up both the physical and mental apparatus needed to regain speed. With a fixed gear instead there's a whole lifestyle of continual movement.
  4. Maintenance. No derailleur to service, no flapping chain to tear up the hub & spokes when it skips the top sprocket, no cables to tension and tweak, and (what's left of) the chainset gets less wear.
  5. Reliability. Not just the gears keep on working but there's never a missed shift. Shimano produce some mind-bogglingly beautiful equipment which will shift accurately under load but it's still less efficient and less reliable than not shifting at all. Consider that with practice i.e. building strength you could be out-accelerating people in your single gear. What freewheelers might gain in the first dozen or so meters they generally seem to lose as they start messing with gears.
  6. Cost. If you've got a crappy groupset or one that's coming to the end of its life, simply throw it away! Ka-ching.
  7. Retention. I just don't see a bike with no freewheel or gears having the same resale value on the stolen market as one with. I've had my current bike for I think fifteen years and both before & after suffered multiple freewheel-equipped losses.
    Mind you, it could also be the bright pink and purple color scheme...
  8. Posing. Both cyclists and non seem to put fixers in a rarefied stratum somewhere between "hardcore" and "nutter". It really isn't that big of a deal but for many of the freewheelers it's way out of their box. A talking point at any rate.
  9. Trackstands. Perhaps this should be classified under "posing" but it's a genuinely useful technique: by being able to apply pressure in reverse you can rock the bike back and forth. Usually a trackstand on a freewheel bike requires pointing uphill somewhat as you can only push forward and must rely on the hill for the backward movement, whereas on fixed you can do it on the flat and even downhill.
  10. Fun!


There are some downsides. If you live in a area with lots of gradients it'll either be really challenging or a pain depending on how you approach life in general. Use a lower gear and get good at spinning on the downhills. You can always detach from the pedals...

removal tool pic Changing gear on a fixed is time-consuming and can require some serious exertion although nothing a bike-shop couldn't help with. It's also advisable to center the hub so the chain lines up: a rear wheel usually has spokes shorter on the sprocket side.

These are all quite minor in my opinion & experience. I survived in Bristol. Changing gears is not a frequent activity – start low and every few months as strength and skill improve try a higher gear until it's comfortable. I have in all that time changed gears probably less than ten times; each time requires probably 30mins tops.

I don't know if it's fixed gear or just because I treat my road bike like an offroad vehicle, but occasionally the ol' steed might suffer a beating...

Starting grid

So, what does it take to get fixed up?

  1. Start calling every bike shop in your local area. It could take a while to find anyone who sells fixed gears. I'd recommend starting out with a 17- or 18-tooth sprocket, running against the usual 42-tooth front (inner) chainring. If you're fixing up a mountain bike (good for you!) adjust to taste. Perhaps try a 14-tooth against the 32-tooth middle ring. Make sure you get a 3/32" sprocket not a 1/8"; it's unlikely you'll ever see a 1/8" but I've had a narrow miss with one once.
  2. Remove all the bits. There's a lot of them and it'll take a while. You'll enjoy every minute of it, I promise.
  3. Put the whole lot in a bag, and marvel at what you'll be leaving behind, each and every time you go for a ride.
  4. Do 3. again. You won't be able to help it.
  5. greased
sprocket picThoroughly clean and grease both the hub and sprocket's thread, including where the sprocket meets with the hub. At some point you'll want to unscrew it and god help you if the steel, water, and air's found a bare section to bind with the aluminium.
  6. [Interlude] It's quite possible some well-meaning but ignorant bike mechanic or shop assistant will insist or remind you that you need a locking ring or special type of cross-threaded hub to ensure the gear doesn't unscrew. In practice, this is entirely unnecessary. Once you've jammed on the gas for a few cranks that little sucker will be on so tight you'll need good tools and some thick leather gloves to get it off again. Find out how to change a fixed gear and see for yourself!
    PS Thanks to David Frech who pointed out this neat technique for tightening a sprocket, if you want to perform this tightening before setting off and cranking yourself.
  7. Now the adjustment bits: it's probably necessary to,
    1. take the opportunity to fit a strong non-quick release axle. Hint: ask for a tandem version; it'll weight more but you can really abuse it,
    2. realign the hub by adjusting the spokes to equal length; you shouldn't need to get new spokes,
    3. remove the hub nut spacer on the cluster side,
    4. using some traditional wheel nuts facing out,
    5. copious fiddling with combination of nuts to get the right spacing for your frame,
    6. (or just squeeze the rear triangle ;-)

    7. either: remove all but one of the front chainrings and use spacers in their place, or keep it and do nothing.
    You may well find enlisting your local bike shop to help a good idea. Be prepared for strange looks and the almost-guaranteed locking ring conversation.

First cranks

The beginning rides are a little odd, and the ferocity of the fixed chaindrive will make itself apparent the first few times you forget. It's not hard to pick up the keep-crankin' discipline but watch out for when you have to concentrate on something else: an unexpected traffic situation, a hole in the road, a good looking... It's easy to be prepared though. Here are some things to practise:

Into the sunset

That's it! Happy fixing! Any comments or questions I'd love to hear from you.