The Fixie (essay, long)
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    Talking The Fixie (essay, long)

    The Fixie


    I blame my friend Will for planting the Fixie seed under my skin. Last spring I met Will through mutual friends and soon discovered that we shared a love for the outdoors in general, and specific interests in climbing and cycling. After a brief awkward period during which men screw up the courage to decide to spend time with each other, we decided to hook up for a bike ride.
    As it happened, I had just picked up my spanking new Bianchi and was becoming comfortable with it. Will, on the other hand was waiting for his new Fixed Gear bike to be completed. He’d had it custom made by Circle A Cycles in Providence, Rhode Island, and it was due in any day. Will went on and on about what components the Fixie would have. I tried to affect a knowing look as he rattled off Bottom Bracket specs, Headset type, gearing, seatpost and saddle options and much more. The truth was, I’d just gotten into road bikes (or any kind of bike for that matter) very recently. I didn’t know a seatstay from a water bottle cage. I’d soon be getting an education.
    Once Will’s bike came in and our schedules aligned, we set up a time to ride together. Appropriately enough, we decided to meet in front of Harris Cyclery in West Newton, a Fixed Gear Mecca. All in all, we put in about 30 miles on that first ride, trading pulls fairly regularly. I noticed a few things about fixed gear bikes on that first ride. Boy, are they quiet! As I rode along behind Will I heard nothing but the sound of his tires and the barely discernable hum of chain on cog. No buzzing cassette, no clicking shifters, no nothing. Nice! The bike also had a clean, uncomplicated look about it. Will had chosen to run front and rear brakes and they, along with their cables were the only hardware on the frame. The bike just looked light, un-encumbered.
    I also noticed that Will dropped back somewhat on the ascents and descents. At first, I naturally assumed it was due to my superior strength. I mentally put myself a notch above Will on the cycling food chain, feeling quietly smug. It wasn’t until the end of the ride that I realized how strong and skilled Will was to stay with me at 20+ miles per hour on flat roads. As we moved away from stop signs and traffic lights, I noticed how Will stood in the pedals and pushed out a handful of strenuous pedal strokes to pull even with me. Clearly, there was work involved here.






    As we rode, occasionally two abreast, Will inserted subliminal advertisements for the Fixie way of life. We chatted, learned a bit more about each other, traded stories, and once every five minutes or so Will would insert a; “God Pat, this bike is Bloody quiet!”(He’s a Brit). Another five minutes would pass and then; “Wonderful, no gears! So uncomplicated!” The praise just kept on coming. It got a bit annoying after awhile, what’s the matter with gears anyway? I love my bike too, but I keep quiet about it. Jeez!
    Several rides later, while Will and I were taking a break in Concord center, Will grabbed my Allen wrenches from my wedge bag. “Lets adjust these seats mate, you’ve got to try my bike!” After weeks of not so subtle promotion, Will was about to make the big sales push. Despite my mild annoyance, I was more than curious. We raised his seat a bit, lowered mine some, swapped bikes and set out from Concord center.
    I was not bored.
    What a strange experience to be inextricably connected to the drive train! Three big pedal strokes and I was cruising at what felt like my normal clip. Every time I even thought about coasting, the pedals pushed my feet back into motion.
    Will called up from behind me; “think round Pat, nice round strokes”. I did. As I concentrated on applying equal pressure though the full 360°, I could begin to feel the bike and my whole body become quieter, my motions smoother. My speed increased slightly too. This was all very pleasant. I also noticed that Will’s bike handled crisply. I still don’t know whether this was due to the frame geometry differing from my Bianchi, or the fact that his is a lighter bike altogether. In any case, it felt great to ride. Very responsive.
    We cruised around for a while and eventually came to a good-sized hill. I thought to myself “uh oh, time to put up or shut up”. I worked to gain some momentum before the hill began and, once we were steadily climbing I stood, and tried to give a nice even effort that would last long enough to get me to the top. With me at the front, we crested the hill just as my leg strength began to falter. I was blowing hard like a spent horse, and promptly sat down to coast like I usually do after a hard pedaling session.
    The bike had other plans,
    I was promptly ejected from the saddle by the continuing forward motion of the bike, delivering power and rotation to the pedals and hence, to me. No rest for the weary. Welcome to Fixed gear riding!






    I can’t say that I was an immediate convert after that first Fixie session, I still had quite a bit of doubt about my abilities as a rider at that time, and I thought owning a Fixed Gear bike was a bit beyond me. What routes could I ride that didn’t include hills? how could I do 30 to 40 mile rides and never coast?. Still, I couldn’t get the thought of Fixed Gear riding out of my head. I felt challenged by the notion that there was nowhere to hide amongst 27 or so gears. If there was a hill, too bad! pedal harder. If there was a steep descent, tough, pedal faster. Hardcore!
    Fast forward to late winter/early spring ’04. My thoughts were turning away from winter sports and were looking more towards summer and cycling. During a goof off session at work, I had stumbled across a website that featured Fixed Gear bikes. What’s more, there were some very good deals on last year’s frames. After a bit more checking, I found that they had several frames that were my size. Hmmm… I book marked the site and went back to work.
    The familiar dance had begun. I typically spend a certain amount of time sneaking up on new endeavors, new challenges. Heaven forbid I should open my mouth and proclaim loudly to all and sundry; “I will assemble a Fixed Gear Bicycle from parts selected and purchased by me”. Instead, I study, research, think, ask around, soul search, study some more, and finally, one evening over dinner I casually mentioned to my fiancé Carmen, “ I found a great deal on some ’03 Fixie frames on the web”.
    “What’s a Fixie? “ she asked.
    “Uh, it’s a Fixed Gear bike, only one gear”
    “Why only one gear?” she asked, “isn’t it easier to ride with lots of gears?”
    “Yeah, it is but, this type of bike is great for training” I explained.
    “You have two bikes already” she reminded me.
    “Actually, I have three if you count the ’67 Raleigh”, (I’m a big one for honesty)
    “Oh yeah” she mused, “When are you going to put the Raleigh back together?”
    “Ahhh… after I build the Fixie!”


    So, there it was, I was going to build a bike. A Fixed Gear Bike. Big deal right? I make a living operating and maintaining vacuum deposition systems. Thermal evaporators, Plasma Etchers, Sputtering Systems and Ion Beam Millers are all familiar to me. Several of my vacuum chambers are the size of an office cubicle. The vacuum levels achieved are similar to those found just outside the International Space Station. I know how to assemble and disassemble each component on all of my systems. I move with confidence and self-assurance through my lab, master of all I survey. Why would the prospect of building a simple bicycle make my heart race and my palms sweat? It’s new territory, that’s why.


    I suppose I’m no different from most people in that I’d prefer to stay well inside my personal comfort zone. I’ve worked hard to build it. It’s nice in there. There are few mistakes made, the food is good and plentiful, there are no surprises, no suffering, little risk and hundreds of channels on cable.
    The trouble is that my comfort zone is also incredibly boring. Every time I swing the bat I get a hit. I never learn anything new. I know all the roads, all the trails, all the routes. Yawn. I’m not sure what my limits are, but I’m positive that I haven’t reached them yet. They are somewhere further up the road and so far, it has proved to be an absolute scary blast to travel that road. Time for a new adventure!

    There is nothing more fun than buying parts and waiting for them to arrive. I do this at work almost daily. It’s fun at work too, partly because it’s not my money I’m spending and partly because I get to put all the parts to use and judge whether I’ve made useful choices. Buying bike parts was twice as much fun. I soon was bidding up a storm on E-Bay, perusing all the Bike related web sites, cruising my LBS’s for good deals, e-mailing questions to local experts, I was having a blast!. My eyes would scan the front porch for boxes as I pulled into my driveway at the end of a long day. I never would have thought that I could get so exited over the arrival of a pair of brake hoods or a set of pedals. I was waaay into this.
    In a few weeks I had enough parts to begin a partial assembly. Here’s where the comfort zone ended.


    I have a tendency to rush though jobs that I’m not comfortable with. I don’t want to take the time to learn, to exist in that uncomfortable space of not knowing. It is as if I am closing my eyes, grabbing tools and parts, and hoping that it all comes out OK in the end. It hardly ever does. There are some wildly botched projects dotting the landscape of my do-it-yourself career. At least these days I am getting better at catching myself in this nervous rush and slowing down enough to avert these little disasters. I’d begin an evening assembly session by forcing myself to sit and think about each move I was about to make. I would “dry fit” each part to its mate several times before tightening completely. I bought and studied Leonard Zinn’s great bicycle maintenance book. I vowed that I would use the proper tool for each task. This paid bonus points in that I had almost no bike tools, and got to buy lots of neat little gadgets that were designed specifically for each component and task. As a teenager I removed a V-8 engine from a car with not much more that two wrenches (one adjustable) and some screwdrivers. That knuckle shredding experience has made me a hoarder and lover of tools.



    Despite all my caution and care the Fixie build was nowhere near flawless. About the only part that I installed correctly on the first try was the seatpost. There was at least some drama and angst accompanying every other step in the build. I can imagine what building a fully geared bike would be like. I was stuck for some time on cog and drive sprocket alignment until I finally figured that one out. Brake cable installation was troubling, but that issue was also was put to rest. I ended up making a one piece stem spacer out of aluminum because I didn’t like the look of all those stacked spacers. Slowly, the bike began to take shape.
    At first, I thought I’d build my own wheels too. In for a penny, in for a pound you know. I even went as far as making my own truing stand. Park Tools foolishly posted a schematic of one of their stands on their web site and I blatantly ripped off their design. Please don’t tell on me. A few pieces of scrap aluminum, several nuts and bolts, and some time on the milling machine at work yielded the “PatPark Model One”. I made several design improvements that I’m sure the good folks at Park would be thrilled with. In the end though, I bought a ready-made set of wheels. My stated reason is that I found an awesome deal on line (I did). An explanation closer to the truth is that I spooked at the mental image of myself, trapped in a tangle of spokes, unable to get free or call for help. I promised myself that I would defer this challenge to a later date.
    It’s important to note that every goof I encountered was fairly easily remedied by either my intuition, a quick check in Zinn’s book, or both.
    Patience, patience, patience. And then, one evening I stepped away from the bike, Voila done! After the final task of wrapping the handlebars, (got it right on the second try), I was ready to try the bike out. I took the Fixie down from the slings and carabiner affair I had it hung in and carried it upstairs. After a tire pressure check and putting on my shoes, I clipped in and rode off into an early spring evening.
    Note to self; set cleat adjustment before riding. I tried to unclip a few blocks down the street to fool with the saddle height and found that I could not. Remaining calm, I turned around, rode home, and skillfully stopped myself alongside my truck without keeling over. After setting the cleat tension I set out once again.




    As I cruised slowly and carefully around my neighborhood a simple equation scrolled repeatedly through my head; build mistake = crash, major build mistake = major crash. I spent about 20 minutes riding around slowly, listening, tweaking saddle height, re-tightening nuts and enjoying myself. There were a few issues that needed attention but, overall, this bike was OK! Everything worked. I had even guessed the gearing correctly. In the following weeks I changed the stem for a shorter one and began to go on longer rides in earnest. I began to ride the Fixie with the same confidence that I rode my Bianchi. Apparently I had done enough things right and the bike was not going to collapse under me. Just when the volume of my self-congratulations reached a cresendo, the fixie presented me with a big lesson in Humble Pie consumption.
    I had been doing a fixed gear training session after work, which consisted of riding up and down Heartbreak Hill in Newton. It was a good workout in either direction. After four repetitions in the late afternoon heat I decided to call it a day and ride home to Waltham. When I was about 3 miles from home I felt a funny feeling in my left foot as I pedaled. I thought “hmmm, loose shoe cleat?” “ I’ll have to fix that when I get home”. About two seconds later, my left crank came off the bike altogether and I found myself cruising along on one leg, while trying to hold my left leg aloft to keep from dragging the loose crank on the pavement. I had only been going about 15 – 16 mph at the time, and was grateful for that at least. I carefully slowed the bike and looked ahead for a place to stop, Embarrassed, angry and confused, I glanced at a passing car on my left. A young girl, riding in the back seat was staring at me, her mouth formed in a perfect “O”. What a treat for her, it’s not every day one gets to see a bike rider with part of his bike stuck to his shoe.
    The rest of the ride home was interesting. After I ripped the offending crank off my shoe, and stuffed it in one of my jersey pockets in disgust, I began to pedal home on the right crank, with my left leg in the “crippled bird” position. I got some strange looks and struggled to appear nonchalant. A group of small kids on their stunt bikes saw me coming a couple of blocks from home and gave chase, yelling words little boys shouldn’t know. I stared straight ahead, pumped my right leg like crazy and dropped ‘em.
    By the time I got home, my right quadricep felt like it had been beaten with a hose.
    I’m almost positive that the repeated actions of climbing and descending (braking) had loosened the crank bolts and led to the mini disaster. The cranks were a cheesy no-name brand anyway. As any cyclist worth his/her salt will tell you, always exploit any opportunity to upgrade. I did. A few days later I was cruising around powered by a nice vintage Shimano 600 crankset, courtesy of Harris’s. I check its tightness often. The bike has given me hundreds of problem free miles ever since. My comfort zone has just gotten a little bigger.
    At this point I’m plotting my next build. I need something other than television to while away these long winter nights. Carmen has expressed a desire to commute to school and job next year. I’ve been sniffing around for a frame her size. I’m also keeping my eyes open for a steel frame for another fixie. I scan yard sales with a new purpose now; even dumpsters and people’s trash get a quick peek. I love the idea of mixing old and new and coming up with something that may be a bit ugly but works. I wonder what would happen if I welded a mast onto that old Raleigh. A few yards of sailcloth… hmmm.
    Now I know how Dr. Frankenstein felt.
    'the place was really jumpin to the high-watt amps, 'till a 20 inch cymbal fell and cut the lamps...

  2. #2
    Cheese is my copilot
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    Sweet. I suggest this to complement Zinn. Winter is the perfect time to learn to build a wheel.

    http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/AS...477231-6471254


  3. #3

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    Ahhh, good heads up!

    Thanks Wooglin,
    your right, winter is a great time to build anything
    'the place was really jumpin to the high-watt amps, 'till a 20 inch cymbal fell and cut the lamps...

  4. #4
    Cheese is my copilot
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    Quote Originally Posted by Beantown
    Thanks Wooglin,
    your right, winter is a great time to build anything
    I really like that book because it has a pretty idiot proof lacing guide. No bigger gumption trap in wheel building IMO than lacing the wheel wrong but not discovering it until you've dicked around with tensioning it for a while first.

  5. #5
    hrv
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    Great write up

    I'm about to start a build (don't even have the frame yet, or one picked out) and your 'essay' brought home all the reasons I decided to do it in the first place. The statement '..but you already have (x) bikes, why do you need another..' hits home!

    For me I offer no explanation for why I ride a fixie. Sure, I race on the track, and it helps keep me 'fixed-gear-fresh' for track day, but I race with many top-level track riders who only ride fixed on the track. So that's not it. My wife is in constant amazement at why anyone would ride a 1-gear-only bike, esp. given how hilly it is here, where climbs of 600 ft. are considered pancake flat. It's a feeling/experience that you either have in your blood or not. 'Nuff said.

    Thanks again,
    hrv

  6. #6

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    i loved your essay, beantown.

    I've been riding old crummy out of tune mtb as commuters long enough! i too want a fixie, they're so simple and beautiful to look at. You mention a single speed website and some sites with last year's frames, can you share?

  7. #7
    Done with winter.
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    Thumbs up

    Awesome, awesome writeup Beantown! Thanks for sharing!

  8. #8

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    Yeah, here's a few thoughts

    Quote Originally Posted by deac
    i loved your essay, beantown.

    I've been riding old crummy out of tune mtb as commuters long enough! i too want a fixie, they're so simple and beautiful to look at. You mention a single speed website and some sites with last year's frames, can you share?
    a couple of Googles will have you buried in information.
    1. Sheldon Brown, he happens to work at my LBS, and will answer lots 'o questions via e-mail.
    2. Harris Cyclery, my LBS has tons 'o Fixie stuff.
    3. IRO frames is where I got the "good deal", they are aluminum and sturdy. My next one will be steel though, the Al. is very stiff. IRO will set you up with a complete bike if you want.
    4. The rest of my gear came from e-Bay

    Enjoy, and keep me posted!
    'the place was really jumpin to the high-watt amps, 'till a 20 inch cymbal fell and cut the lamps...

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