Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Fixies are Impractical, Perverse Throwbacks

Specialized Globe Roll 2, in Fjord Blue

The Specialized Globe Roll 2 is a fixie. But to its manufacturer's credit, it comes with a flip-flop hub and front and rear handbrakes, allowing quick conversion to a single-speed. This makes the Roll 2 a far more versatile and sensible machine, rather than the cyclist's equivalent of a hairshirt. A beautiful piece of industrial design. MSRP US$830

Trek Soho S, in Matte Black

The Trek Soho S is also a fixie. But its manufacturer was also smart enough to give it a flip-flop hub and front and rear handbrakes, making it convertible to a single-speed. Another beautiful piece of industrial design. MSRP US$550

Fixies are Impractical, Perverse Throwbacks
by Bevin Chu
January 4, 2010

Much of what I have to say about "fixies," i.e., bicycles without freewheel mechanisms, is nicely summed up in Washington Post Staff Writer David Montgomery's widely read article, "Look Ma, No Brakes." As Montgomery puts it,

"A fixie has one speed, which makes it difficult to pedal uphill. A classic fixie has no brakes, which makes it difficult to slow on the downhill. A fixie has no freewheel, the part that makes coasting possible. Instead, the chain directly drives the rotation of the rear wheel, which means the pedals always turn while the bike moves... fixies are impractical, perverse throwbacks... "

Yes, I have heard the various and sundry "compelling reasons" to ride a fixie.

But most of their "compelling reasons" to ride a fixie are transparent rationalizations that even the fixie fanatics themselves don't believe.

One fixie guru whose authority is widely invoked by fixie fanatics, offers the following "compelling reasons" to ride fixies instead of single-speed or geared bikes.

Reason One: "Riding a fixed gear on the road is excellent exercise. When you need to climb, you don't need to think about when to change gears, because you don't have that option. Instead, you know that you must just stand up and pedal, even though the gear is too high for maximum climbing efficiency. This makes you stronger."

Reason Two: "A fixed-gear bike is considerably lighter than a multi-speed bike of comparable quality, due to the abscence [sic] of the rear brake, derailers [sic], shift levers, and extra sprockets. A fixed-gear bike also has a substantially shorter chain. A properly set-up fixed gear has a perfectly straight chainline. This, plus the abscence [sic] of derailer [sic] pulleys, makes a real improvement in the drive-train efficiency, an improvement you can feel."

Did you get that?

In one paragraph the fixie guru argues that fixies are better because forcing you to pedal against a heavier resistance "makes you stronger."

In a subsequent paragraph he argues that fixies are better because allowing you to pedal against a lighter resistance constitutes "an improvement you can feel."

The fixie guru was clearly not motivated by the reasons he offered. How could he be, when one reason flatly contradicts the other?

No, the real reason most, albeit not all fixie riders are so zealous in their advocacy of fixies, is desperate one-upsmanship. "Hipper than thou" one-upsmanship. "Greener than thou" one-upsmanship. "Que es mas macho?" one-upsmanship. "My hairshirt is scratchier than yours" one-upsmanship. All varieties of one-upsmanship, ad infinitum, ad nauseum.

For most, albeit not all fixie riders, a fixie is a status symbol, a fashion statement, a Project Runway design accessory, a means of posturing.

Compelling Reasons to Ride a Fixie

So are there no compelling reasons whatsoever to ride a fixie?

Actually, there are one or two perfectly good reasons to ride a fixie. Some road racers for example, believe that riding a fixie will help them smooth out their pedal stroke, making them more competitive during road races. For them a fixie is a special purpose training machine.

Other cyclists may simply want an "open air exercise bicycle." For them riding a fixie is akin to "spinning," only outdoors, in the fresh air, instead of inside a smelly gym or stuffy health club.

Bicycles are Replacements for Horses

Bicycles are fundamentally replacements for horses. As historian David Herlihy notes in his book "Bicycle: The History,"

"The bicycle was the culmination of a long quest for a mechanical horse – a human-powered machine that could replace the onerous burden of using horses for transportation... the quest for the mechanical horse was meant to supplant the animal’s transportation services... the bicycle was originally designed to function as a means of utilitarian transportation."

As Eric Enders notes in his article "Your Times Is Over: Butch Cassidy and the Passing of the Outlaw West,"

Screenwriter William Goldman, like so many others, saw Butch and Sundance as emblems of a bygone era. Throughout the film [Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid], images of the horse and bicycle are used to contrast the 19th and 20th centuries, respectively. Eventually Butch himself realizes that his way of life is dying, and as he leaves for South America, he throws his bike down in disgust and offers a parting shot: “The future’s all yours, you lousy bicycle!”

In one scene, an opportunistic bicycle salesman interrupts a town marshal who is attempting to raise a posse, in order to peddle his newfangled contraption.

Marshal: Well, whaddaya say?

Bicycle Salesman: (He moves up next to the Marshal) I say this, I say ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, friends and enemies, meet the future.

Crowd member: The future what?

Salesman: The future mode of transportation for this weary Western world. Now I'm not gonna make a lot of extravagant claims for this little machine. Sure, it'll change your whole life for the better, but that's all.

Marshal: And just what in the hell do ya think you're doing?

Salesman: Well, you got the crowd together. That's half my job, so I just thought I'd do a little selling.

Marshal: Well, I'm trying to raise a posse here if you don't mind?

Salesman: I got a short presentation. (To the crowd) The Horse Is Dead. You'll see - this item sells itself.

The Tie Ma, or "Iron Horse"

Nine out of ten bikes sold in America are made in China. In China, the term "iron horse" refers not to a steam locomotive, but to a bicycle. In China, a bicycle is colloquially referred to as a 鐵馬 (tie ma), which literally translates as "iron horse."

Bicycles are Human Powered Vehicles

Bicycles are fundamentally "human powered vehicles" intended to get a person from Point A to Point B, as swiftly as possible, and as efficiently as possible.

Any energy consumed overcoming inherent mechanical disadvantages within the bicycle itself, stands in the way of the rider from getting from Point A to Point B as swiftly as possible, and as efficiently as possible.

The Freewheel or Freehub, a Gift from God

That is why the bicycle freewheel or freehub was a gift from God. The bicycle freewheel or freehub allows a cyclist to coast whenever he has built up sufficient momentum by pedaling, or whenever he is traveling downhill. Why would anyone deliberately deny himself this energy conserving mechanical advantage? To dismiss coasting as "laziness" is nonsense. The energy conserved can be used to travel either faster or longer, and usually is.

That is why the derailleur gear was also a gift from God.

Bicycles are Fundamentally a Means of Transportation

Bicycles are fundamentally a means of transportation, intended to get a person from Point A to Point B, as swiftly as possible, and as efficiently as possible.

That was the bicycle's genesis. That is the bicycle's raison d'etre. And that is my basis for evaluating bicycle design.

That is why other than as some sort of special purpose training machine, or "open air exercise bicycle," I simply do not buy the countless "compelling reasons" to ride a fixie.

Look Ma, No Brakes!
Stripped-Down Fixies Have Long Been The Bike of Choice Among Couriers. Now, Hip Urbanites Have Gotten the Message.

By David Montgomery
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, September 28, 2009

A Parting Shot

"Fixies Training Pants... to aid potty training"

An Ordinary Urban Commuter

I like a nice road bike as much as the next person. I have owned three in my lifetime, including a Peugeot and a Pinarello.

But bicycles do not always need to be fancy. Sometimes an ordinary urban commuter is all one really needs.

Millions of ordinary urban commuters such as the one above can be found on city streets on Taiwan.

The bicycle that is, not the rider.