Monday, November 22, 2010

What’s a “Fixie”?

Christian Lander reported a while back that fixed gear bicycles are the rage among SWPLs.  The picture headlining his post appears to be of the standard diamond-frame bicycle.  I once saw one of these bicycles in an upper end bicycle shop listing for $900+.

Φ’s daily commute takes him through what this corner of the blogosphere would call a prole neighborhood.  Not, I hasten to say, an underclass neighborhood:  it’s racial composition is similar to Φ’s Lily-White Little Burg, and its median income is slightly higher than that of the state.  But that’s still some $30K less than Φ-ville, with houses priced proportionately.

One of the things I’ve seen often enough to notice is what appear to be older teenagers (i.e. 14 y.o.+) riding fixed-gear children’s bicycles that look obviously too small for them.

Why would they do this?  Even during the phase when Φ’s family was scrimping by, my parents still managed to spend $60 –$80 on a ten-speed for my 12th or 13th birthday.  That’s in 1981 dollars. Today, you can go to Wal-Mart and for less than $100 get bicycles with features that in the early 90's (when Φ last paid attention to this kind of thing) could cost thousands of dollars. (Note that those features were typically attached to alloy, aluminum, or titanium frames rather than steel frames, but still.)

Is riding a too-small BMX bike some kind of young prole version of the fixie movement?  Or are these young people really so poor that they can’t afford better?


Default User said...

I remember the thrill of getting my first "racing" bike with 5 gears.

It was a hand-me down but I did not care.

I really do not get the charm of these fixies. The simplicity meme might have some currency if it were not for the high cost and options that you point to ($400 per wheel!). For a daily commute a 10-speed would probably be just as reliable.

I cannot be too smug though. I do remember a certain amount of fussiness over equipment (Shimano 600 and Reynolds 531 tubing FTW). I even remember attempting a custom spray (from the aerosol cans).

If you must stay with multiple gear ratios then I hope you consider electronic shifting. Formula One style paddle shift for your bicycle, yours for just a few thousand dollars.

Brandon Berg said...

Maybe I'm misreading you, but I don't think you understand what a fixed-gear bicycle is. A typical children's bicycle has a fixed gear ratio, due to having only one gear in the front and one in the back, but it is not a fixed-gear bicycle.

A fixed-gear bicycle is a bicycle whose pedals are welded to the front gear, such that the two must always turn together. Whereas with a normal bicycle the gears can continue to turn while the rider holds the pedals in a fixed position and coasts, this can't be done with a fixie. You can't stop the pedals without also stopping the rear wheel.

Φ said...

Brandon: Yes, I was using "fixed gear" to mean fixed gear ratio. But it is the chain wheels (front gears) that are normally welded to the pedals, while the freewheels (rear gears) turn freely in the backward direction and lock in the forward direction.

That said . . . do you mean SWPLs actually ride bicycles where the rear gear is welded to the rear wheel? Seriously? That's even worse than I thought!

Professor Hale said...

Why would anyone do that? That is a serious safety hazard as well as killing the natural efficiency of bicycling.

I suspect the too-small bicycle is a fashion thing, like the guys with tricked out honda civics.

B said...

The "too small bicycles" are probably BMX bikes, which do seem to be popular with teenagers (at least in my area).

A "fixie" is more commonly represented by a conventional diamond frame bike (like a '10-speed') which is set up to have a one gear which does not freewheel. This is the type of bike that is raced on velodromes (the purpose built version being called a 'track bike'). The reason (at least when racing on a velodrome) for the "fixed" drivetrain is for safety. Most races involve lots of riders in close formation on a closed oval track (usually 200-400m) and if a rider were to suddenly slow down it could easily cause a pile-up (brakes are not allowed on the bikes racing on the velodrome either).

Why ride one on the street? They are actually pretty fun - it's a different style of riding, and the inability to coast results in a little more exercise and also helps develop better cycling form. If you run a brake (for street riding) it's just as safe as a 'regular' bike. This type of bike became popular with the bike messengers, which (since bike messengers gained a cool image amongst the hip) resulted in it becoming something of a SWPL affectation.

Like any hobby you can spend as much as you want to, but you can get a decent servicable new 'fixie' for under $400.