What is a fixie? How does it work?
What is a fixie and where does it come from?
A fixie is a type of bicycle which was invented very early in the history of bicycle design – around the early 1880s – and in fact, some of the very first bikes ever created were fixies. Where does it come from? Simply put: Europe. Many English, Scottish, German and French engineers patented genius improvements like the metal chain or rubber covers for wheels, to name a few. The history of the fixie is more complex than its design – let’s just say you might be surprised how little difference there is between a fixed-gear bicycle used in the 1903 edition of Le Tour de France and a 2017 fixie cruising the streets of Barcelona.
Fixed-gear bicycles are also still used in professional track cycling in much unchanged form since the early nineteenth century. Sure, as velodromes now come with smoother surfaces, fixies now come with carbon wheels, but the main design has remained the same.
People all over the world still race fixed-gear bikes – as it happens, some of the world’s best fixie riders competed in the Red Hook Criterium open track race in Barcelona Port Forum this summer. So, fixies are made to be raced, they are oldschool and simple. But erm…what are they?
How can you define a fixie?
A fixie is a single-speed bicycle with no freewheel mechanism with the drive cog bolted directly to the hub of the back wheel.
Firstly, a single-speed bicycle is quite simply one which does not have any gears. If you look at a fixie, this means that you have only two rings on which the chain moves- one where your pedals are attached and one on the back wheel. All bikes were like this initially, before anyone invented what is called a cassette which is a set of mutliple rings of different sizes bolted together and attached to the back wheel and a derailleur which is a mechanism that allows the rider to pull a metal cable a precise length along the rings of the cassette. Wonderfully complex stuff. You see what people mean about fixies being simple.
Next we said fixie bikes have no free wheel mechanism – a feature shared by most bicycles in the world. What does this mean? The free wheel mechanism is the part of the bike which allows you to coast, which means to not pedal as the wheels are turning, for example going downhill or when you are tired. Yes, this in return means that you cannot stop pedalling when riding fixed-gear. Uhu-um. More on that in a minute.
How do fixies work?
To understand the difference between the free-wheel bike and the fixed-gear bike, think first of the back wheel. Imagine you are looking straight at it from the drive side of the bike – where the chain is.The hub is the tube-shaped centre part of the wheel which holds it together by the perfectly balanced tension of the spokes. Imagine now you are looking at the chain. The part which connects the chain with the back wheel hub is called the drive cog.
Now, imagine a jam jar. Yes, you read that just fine. A jam jar with a lid on. The hub is like the jar and the cog is like the lid. Now, there are two ways the cog can be connected to the hub. If it is bolted directly, we have a fixie.Think of the jam jar rolling with its lid always closed. When the wheel turns, so does the cog with the chain. Imagine rolling the jam jar first forwards and then backwards on a table. No difference right? The lid stays on. Bolted directly.
Now you know why it’s possible to ride fixies backwards. And now you see why fixie riders cannot stop pedalling. Think about it: the lid on the closed jam jar pushes it forwards (or backwards) just as much as the jar pushes the lid in return. Both bolted together, right. When the cog – directly bolted to the hub – goes, the wheel turns the chain. So when the wheels go, so do the pedals and vice versa. Always. Bolted directly. Like two closed jam jars connected by a chain. A-ha. You got it!
How are they different to free-wheel bikes?
If the cog is attached by a free-wheel mechanism, we have one of those jars which you have the wrong lid for. The kind of lid which is the right size but you spin it and spin it and it just does not lock in one place. The kind of lid that would never close the jar. Imagine rolling the jam jar. And imagine the stubborn lid was rolling independently at its own speed as the jar was rolling, never locking, sometimes going faster, sometimes not so fast. That’s a freewheel mechanism. You lose all the jam, but hey! at least your legs can have a rest. This is what we call coasting.
So, in a nutshell…?
Fixed- gear bikes, first designed in late nineteenth century, are bikes which have no freewheel mechanism, which allows the rider to coast. Instead, the back wheel cog -which is what connects the back wheel to the chain and thus to the pedals- is bolted directly to the back wheel hub. Fixed-gear bicycles are to this day used in velodrome races but have also been adapted to street riding. Fixies have no gears and are often appreciated for their simplicity. If you’ve never tried fixed-gear and would like to, drop us a message. Like a lot of modern single-speed bicycles, ours can be ridden freewheel or fixed-gear, thanks to two cogs on every back wheel – one which allows coasting and one bolted directly. Two in one! Whoaaa.