Dear PoP – What’s the Appeal of Fixed Gear Bikes?

Photo by PoPville flickr user Dave Kleinschmidt

“Dear PoP,

I’ve recently gotten back into cycling and have noticed a lot of bike riders cruising around on bikes with a fixed gear, meaning that there are no shifters, derailleurs, etc. Aside from the looking kind of cool, I am wondering if there are non-aesthetic advantages of removing the gearing from a bicycle. Don’t hills present a problem? And why not just buy a bike with multiple gears and never change the shift position? And from what I have seen at local bike shops, fixies are no cheaper than a bike with 10+ gears. I’ve been told that the indefinable “hipsters” often ride them, but I don’t want to see the discussion devolve into another discussion of the “h-word”. Rather, simply why ride a bike with only one gear?”

I don’t know if this is going to be possible without discussing the “h-word”, I hope I’m wrong – but for those who like to ride fixed gear bikes – can you explain the appeal?

83 Comment

  • some basic positive things about fixed gears:
    – less machinery = less to break or get stolen
    – lighter
    – no need for brakes = even less machinery, no need to replace squeaky brake pads or wear them down on your way downhill
    – greater speed control with your legs, perfect for when that bus cuts you off
    – cheapest option
    – this city is relatively flat (cardozo hill excluded). who actually uses 21 or even 10 speeds here?
    – totally hipster fabulous

  • If I were to buy a fixed gear bike, it would be because of the simplicity, elegant uncluttered design, lower maintenance, and light weight. However, I would at least have a front brake installed, because to have no brakes aside from reverse pressure on the pedals is insane. Hills are a factor; if you go north-south you inevitably have to go up or down the meridian hill, and if you go east-west, you have to go down into Rock Creek park, and back up. So, I’ll stick with my 27 speed hybrid for now.

    • Front brakes are a good thing. If you’re not reeeeeally used to it, you still use breaks a decent bit on a fixed-gear. I’ve been riding one over a year and am just getting to the point where I don’t need them for flat riding. I still use them a lot on hills. Hardcore fixies can call me what they want, I don’t care, but I go down 16th and cross U every day. I’ll keep my brakes, thanks.

  • I’ve riden both in DC and rarely touch my hybrid anymore now that I’ve gotten used to the fixed. I went with a fixed-gear after getting tired of constant repairs, gear slips, and other maintenance issues. Probably a sign of cheap components more than anything, but it seemed like every time I hit a bump, my bike would slip out of gear. Basically I’d echo everything IBHH says. I live about halfway between U Street and MtP, so the hill can get a little tiresome, but 90% of everywhere else I ride is flat enough.

  • I don’t think the OP is making the proper distinction between a single speed and a fixed gear. On a fixed gear bike, there is no freewheel, you are always pedaling. On a reg’lar single speed, you can still coast (and must have brakes). A single speed makes a lot of sense in the city because there are less resellable parts to steal off of it if you leave it chained to a street lamp outside. And there’s less maintenance. Plus, the city’s pretty flat.

    Originally, fixed gear bikes were for competitive velodrome racing. Back in the 80s and 90s, bike messengers cannabilized these old velodrome bikes by chopping the bars narrow to squeeze through traffic. They were available cheaply, were light, and could take a beating.

    Bike messengers made about 10k a year while living in shitty group housing in SFO and NYC and spent about 8k of that on cheap wine and bad smack. Thus, pretending that you were a bike messenger became part of what we now recognize as the “h-word” pseudo heroin chic along with skinny jeans and sunglasses worn at inappropriate times. Many “h-words” are likely not aware that this is the origin of the style that they are aping, much like the connection of skinny jeans to heroin chic.

  • Also, I need to chime in with a word of advice to the OP. If you are buying a bike as an around town/commuter thing, buy a single speed (with a freewheel or a flip-flop hub if you are intrigued by riding fixed) from some place like the Mt. Pleasant or Mt. Rainier bike co-ops. So long as it fits right and the frame is undented, there is no need to buy new. Cheap (as in sub $1000 or so new) bikes with a full range of gears will take a ton of maintenance in order to keep them shifting smoothly if you’re logging any sort of heavy mileage.

    • My sub $1K bike with 7 internal gears requires zero maintenance. An internal hub is a much better choice for commuting, in my opinion. Riding up any sort of hill without gears guarantees a sweaty arrival at the office.

      • What kind of bike and where did you get it?

      • The internally geared hubs are an interesting option. There are some nice internally geared options out there.

        But I shower at the office, and one nice feature of DC is that downtown (avec offices) is downhill from most residential areas.

        • Internal gear hubs/bikes are great. Breezer makes 3 speed and 7 or 8 speed internal gear bike. Bianchi and a few others make them also. I know City Bike and the new shop on I Street [BicycleSpace] probably carry them. Another plus with internal gear bikes is that they can and usually do come with chain guards and fenders so you can ride in office clothes if you’re unfortunate enough to have one of ‘those jobs’.


    It’s kind of like driving an automatic car and then driving a manual and never going back to the automatic.

    • this is basically all you need to know. for city riding, gears are unnecessary. you’d be surprised at how it’s actually a lot easier to ride up hills without the added weight. i would echo others’ recommendation to keep at least the front brake, though. i still find riding downhill to be pretty terrifying without braking.

    • Er… yeah… except an automatic is simpler to operate than a manual. And then there’s the fact that a manual transmission car is, er, very much analagous to a bicycle with gears that you change by yourself. Your analogy kind of makes no sense.

      The idea that “added weight of gears” makes any difference at all is insane. The cartridge and shifters and everything probably weigh less than a pound total.

      I’m also not especially moved by the “simplicity in maintenance” argument either. Does anyone really spend a lot of time or money maintaining their ten-speed? Really? In 20 years I think I’ve adjusted a cable twice.

      Just say it: you think it’s cool. Nobody who bikes for any reason other than to go between their home and the bar would seriously argue that a fixie is in any way practical.

      • +1. I have a 1994 Trek hybrid that I get tuned up every few years that gets me around just fine. True, I don’t really need all 21 speeds for riding around the flatlands of U Street/Dupont, but I’m not about to strip it all down to be part of the latest fad.

      • +1 I saw a guy on a fixie in front of me at the stop light at the SE corner of Meridian Hill Park the other day and as he attempted to “hold” it stalled without putting his foot down, he really slowly fell over onto the street. The funniest part was all he had to do was put his foot down, but he was so programmed to look cool he just fell all the way to the ground.

        At least he didn’t just ride straight through the red light.

        (he got up uninjured; save his ego/pride)

  • Simple, cheap, low maintenance. Bolts instead of quick releases, low cost replacement parts. I won’t have to take my saddle off and pull of the front wheel to get it locked with a 13 lb chain. You just need one of the small u-locks to fit through the frame and rear wheel. You can also get a lot of them for under $400 new.

    If you’re looking for training there is nothing better then being able to ride fixed gear to work on form and cadence.

  • I ride a fixed gear with a front brake, panniers, lights and a helmet, so I am certainly no hipster. I just thought it would be cool, bought one and have never looked back – going on 3 years now. I’ve never had to fix ONE single thing on the bike aside from a flat. I am usually faster than every other commuter I see, the acceleration is incredible as there are no gears to switch through and the bike is very light even though it is not a fancy carbon fiber racing bike. Also, who cares about hills – riding fixie makes your legs stronger and you get a better workout. I hold nothing against those who ride geared cycles, if I have the money I would buy many geared bikes as well.

    • “the acceleration is incredible as there are no gears to switch through”

      Help me understand the mechanics here… how is this different from just leaving a non-fixie in the same gear when you decelerate and accelerate?

      • No difference. I would assume most people on geared bikes don’t start this way though, they start in an easy gear. I guess it’s really just the lighter weight then…

    • Wow, 3 years, fully loaded and you’ve never had to replace a stretched chain or replace a cog, chainring, or lockring. Is your commute two blocks?

  • I ride a $270 Schwinn from ch to union station about 2-3x per week and have for two years. Towing a kid.

    I do maintenance about every six months (oil chain & straighten cheapo detailed). I suspect that at ten miles a week, the bike will be stolen before it needs more than casual maintenance. ( I park in the house, or in a gaurded badge access lot 7/10 times.)

    I just wish I had a real fork instead of the worthless shock…

    As a bonus, the lowest ringset is so low that you can go up meredian hill with an ankle sprain. Do that on a fixed gear bike…

    • And it only takes you twenty minutes to get from U to Columbia!

      Just kidding, though I always wonder why people spin their pedals frantically and get nowhere, rather than pedaling a little slower and getting far more bang for your buck. I mean, those folks wouldn’t be helped much by a fixie, just bumping it up one more gear or so.

      • ummm, not quite true. Setting your gears for less tension and pushing with more revolutions can get you going pretty quick. Armstrong uses that kind of setup on his bike. Relative to other professionals of course.

  • I understand pretty much none of this. I bought a Bianchi 12 speed around 1982, have ridden it ever since, 50 mile trips on the towpath (dirt, ruts etc.) all over the city, week-long road trips – no break downs, no gear jams, minimal maintenance, never a problem. Did bikes just get frail and persnickety? Gears and brakes just seem like a really good idea – kind of like cooked food and indoor plumbing.

  • I get it. They look cool, but let’s all be honest here, they are not better suited for the city than freewheel bikes. Fixed-gears are for velodrome racing, just because some people think they look cool and ride them in cities doesn’t mean they are meant for cities. To ride safely in cities where cyclists share the roads with cars and pedestrians one needs to be able to break quickly. Fixed gear bikes are not meant for this. The end.

  • Just saw a biker getting pulled over for running a red light on U St…. loved it.

    The whole bar was up cheering and clapping!

    • wow, and I’ve never seen a car pulled over for running a red light.

      • Most of us have seen a car pulled over for running a red, very few of us have seen a bike pulled over for anything.

        Hence the acclaim.

        • Usually If they try to pull you over you pick the closest street with opposing traffic and go up the sidewalk. Then double back when they try to go around the block. Though honestly in eight years it’s only happened to me twice.

    • yeah and cars NEVER run red lights, do they?

      • cars run redlights too, but either they get caught or theres a ticket in the mail.. cyclists.. i dont think that happens that often.

    • What bar is this?

  • I am still trying to figure out the appeal. Someone (a bike messenger friend) keeps pushing it as a zen thing. Like, when you have enough experienced riding fixed, you start to anticipate your moves three or four moves out. You start to predict and time stop lights and this and that. This same person lost seven teeth and broke his collarbone and four ribs when his brakeless fixed lost its chain as he barreled down 13th street. very zen.

    Stick with single speed with a single front brake for simplicity. Far less stressful. If you must, buy a flip flop hub and convert it to a fixed once a month and pedal around a parking lot until you’re tired of it, like the rest of cycling has been since 2002.

    • “This same person lost seven teeth and broke his collarbone and four ribs when his brakeless fixed lost its chain as he barreled down 13th street. very zen.”

      And THIS is why even if you have a fixie you should always have brakes on it. I have seen this happen as well and the results are never pretty.

  • I hope the guy who bought my precious 25 y/o Peugeot 12-speed racer didn’t convert her into a fixed-gear…please, please, please not.

  • I really don’t understand this analogy. Manual is more complicated than automatic and thus more fun (to me)–thinking about down shifting, rpm, etc.
    I ride most days from Brookland to Cleveland Park. I have to deal with pretty big hills both ways–out of Brookland (at 17th) and out of Rock Creek Park (at Porter). A fixie might be fine if I lived and stayed downtown, but I think that shifting gears is really not too difficult and I get going pretty fast pretty quickly.

    • houseintherear

      I think they probably meant that a manual car can be more simple in the ways of maintenance and repairs. You are more in control of the inner workings of the car. Like how a fixed gear bike leaves the rider more in charge of the ride, and a multi-gear bike can have many issues and, overall, doesn’t give the rider much control over breaking parts and future repairs.

      • sometimes a poor metaphor is just a poor metaphor.

          • Maybe it was a bad metaphor. Sorry.

            I was referring to the control of the bike…. and how when you ride one you won’t go back to riding freewheel. It’s extremely boring to ride a freewheel after getting used to a fixed. Kind of like how a lot of people say when you drive a manual car you find yourself bored while driving an automatic.

  • as for ‘fixies’ being lighter…..I can lift my 10 y/o Cannondale 18-speed with my pinkie.

  • What is the deal with the fixie hating? Have you ever seen someone on a fixie getting passed on a city street by a geared bike? Some prefer the challenge and simplicity of a single gear. I don’t judge the guys and gals spinning their pedals like crazy, usually because I am passing them so fast that we barely notice one another. If you go on long-distance rides, weekend trips, etc., then a fancy 21 speed is great. If you want a light, fast, simple machine for getting from point A to B in a crowded urban setting, try a fixed gear. Some people like the feel of the straight up-and-down posture, bulky, deliberate ride. That is great and fine. Why does it bother people so much that some prefer a more aggressive, streamlined, quicker ride? Lets just all enjoy the ride together.

  • Fixed gearing is fucking stupid in DC. There are absolutely zero benefits to riding fixed in DC other than the rush of extra danger.

    In Richmond it was and is way fun. Fun beacuse you don’t need to skid every five seconds to avoid ______ asshole.

    Ride your single with a freewheel here, live longer, ignore the hipster haters.

  • A lot of these conversations would be better cast as friction brakes v. disc brakes, IMHO.

    Hipster. That’s the key reason for a fixed gear.

    Why wouldn’t you want the ease of having a free wheel?

    Also, I know that people experienced in riding them will disagree, but it’s very easy to slide a fixed gear bike. The braking is too fast and too severe. Remember when you had a child’s bike and you’d throw the pedals backwards and skid? About like that, but without the need to do anything other than stop pedaling.

    • that was how you looked cool when you pulled up to a group of friends on your BMX – skidding out right in front of the assembly.

      i also remember how super cool i was the day i showed up with my mongoose with “freewheel.” oh man, if you could pedal backwards while moving forwards – it was the 3rd grade equivalent of spinning rims, you were sure to pull all the fine 3rd grade honeys.

  • I can’t imagine a fixed gear bike is good for your knees.

  • I ride a fixed gear with brakes. Anyone who rides without at least a front brake is making a fashion statement in moving traffic and endangering themselves and everyone around them to do it.

    Fixed is fun, but honestly there’s really little benefit over a single speed freewheel. Yes, you can brake with your legs, but this can’t be relied on for emergency stops and that minor benefit, in my opinion, doesn’t outweigh the benefit of being able to coast down hills.

    The only reason I haven’t switched to single speed yet is procrastination on ordering the parts.

  • I think it really depends on how you use your bike. For instance, if you’re just going from A to B in the city, or short distances, a fixed gear makes sense. However, if you plan to go on longer rides outside of the city, say, to Mount Vernon or a 40 mile loop on country roads, a bike with gears or a road bike probably makes more sense. I live in a 1000 SQ FT row house so I don’t have the storage space to have a Johnny Hipster fixed gear bike in addition to my road bike. I’ve never stored my bike outside because too many of my neighbors have had them stolen and space is essential inside. If I had the space, I’d have a whole fleet of rides because I love cycling and the challenges of different bikes; however, I commute every day on my bike and go on long rides so having a bike that can accomodate multiple things is necessary for me.

  • thanks much for the helpful comments (most of you)! i was worried when i saw this thread that it would quickly devolve it anti-hipster and anti-biker rage. i’m a daily city bike rider and also wonder about the appeal of riding a fixed gear – not for the “hipster” cred, but for the actual riding experience. i’d like to try it out, though i’m not likely to be a convert.

  • i like bikes. all kinds of bikes. i like fixed gears when they’re in a track. i understand and hear people when they say derailleur/derailer bikes require more maintenance. the derailleurs/derailers get bent when people put them down (because people apparently hate kickstands!!!!!) and they get knocked out of whack.

    thats why geared bikes with internal hub shifting rock! the good ol sturmey archer’s rock! along with shimano and other manufacturers who cram 8gears in a single hub!

    the weight/simplicity/theft thing: get over it! i rarely get passed by a single/fixed gear bike. why? because i have 3 speeds and brakes! besides, who would want to steal an old clunker? go to a bike shop and ask them what the best way to lock up your bike is and it’s that simple! even for bike carriers who need to lock up just for a sec, get a locking system that replaces your quick release levers(seat/front/rear)! that way all you have to do is lock up your frame. much like locking up a fixie for a short sec.

    SAFETY: fixed gear bikes aren’t safe without brakes. fixed gear bikes w/o brakes are UNSAFE for the rider and, more importantly, for the PEOPLE around the rider. fixed gear bikes put people on the street at risk. and like mr anonymous said, if the chain breaks, you’re s*%t out of luck. having front and rear brakes is like having 2 lifelines. literally.

    and remember: turning an old bike that was meant to have a derailleur/derailer into a fixed gear is EXTREMELY DANGEROUS! this is because where the chainstay meets the seat stay, there is a possibility that IF the axel nuts that fasten the wheel onto the frame were to come loose, the wheel will straight up fall off of the bike! does any one want their wheels falling off while crossing a heavy intersection or going downhill? fixed gear frames are specially designed to prevent this from happening. so please people, be safe, and don’t convert!

    lets face it: fixed/single speed bikes are a TREND. when it comes to city functionality they are SILLY. and btw, DC is not flat. it’s very hilly. the u street corridor is not the city. it’s a very small area of NW. what about NE,SW, and SE? there are hills everywhere.

    so: put on a kickstand(they really don’t weigh that much guys n gals!), put on a chain guard so your pants/clothes dont get all greasy, and, if you have a multi speed setup, go fly by those trendy fixie ridin’ people out there! it’s easy!

    word. be safe.

    • and btw, DC is not flat. it’s very hilly. the u street corridor is not the city. it’s a very small area of NW.

      +1. These bike snobs who whine about how fixies are perfect for DC because it’s sooooo flat must never ride any further than four blocks from their group houses.

      • the part of dc i live in and go to are flat.
        if you are below florida, its a fairly flat city.

        ( my bike has gears though)

        • You just made my point (though I admit that “four blocks” was an exaggeration). You’re talking about a very, very small part of the city.

          • well, maybe. but theres tons of stuff below florida. from Georgetown to the base of Capitol Hill is over three miles. and even capitol hill isn’t a big deal if you hook around to the north or south by a few blocks. then its flat land to the river. another two miles or so.

            so yeah dc has hills but not so much the urban core of dc.
            and its that portion of the city that has most of the stuff that’s worth going to, at least for me. and for many.
            but i’m old fat and lazy so i don’t want to bike all the way to tenlytown anyway. ; )

  • Fixies = thinning the herd.

  • Does anyone know the radii of the front and back hubs on a fixie and what gear on, say, a 21-speed bike that it equates to? Is it, like, 16th speed for cruising on flat terrain at about 15 mph at about one revolution per second?

  • I have to say, one of the major benefits of a fixed gear (or even a single speed, or internally geared hub for that matter) is chain-line. This means that your chain is in a perfectly straight line, most efficient, as opposed to geared options that throw your chain every which way.

    Also, it can be a hammer on the knees, but riding fixed forces your legs to keep moving, which is better for your muscles. Most people wouldn’t think about running for a quarter mile, standing (similar to coasting), running for a quarter mile, etc. But countless people pound on the pedals up a hill and then coast. The consistency of movement allows for acid buildup in your legs to “flush out” on the flats and downhills.

    And it just feels great to be constantly engaged with the motion of your bike.

    • It’s hilarious that first you extoll the virtues of the “efficiency” of a straight chain line (estimated loss of power: 0.004% for geared vs. fixed gear).

      Then you discuss how fixie-riding can be a hammer on your knees and uses your muscles more. Which is exactly the opposite of efficiency.

      It’s really quite simple. A car going 25 MPH in 3th gear at 1500 RMP on a flat road uses much less fuel than a car going 25 MPH in 1st gear at 6000 RPM.

      You use more energy to ride a bike without gears. Especially one that cannot coast. This is a physical reality.

      That’s fine if you goal is exercise, but it is not in any way, shape or form efficient.


    Not a commentary on either geared riders or fixies, just a funny video about both.

  • Bikes with gears are a western thing – mainly for comfort and perhaps speed.

    Most of the world that actually uses a bike for commuting (i.e., China, India, etc.. ) for them a bike with gears is like a man with 2 heads, never seen or heard of. Only the rich people there can afford a bike with gears on it. Bikes there last a lifetime, most people just own a bike or two in throughout their adult lives..

    Looks like this..

    And everyone has the same bike.. it is still a mystery to me how people distinguish their bike from the others. The bike parking lots there have 100s of bikes.. all the same color/make/design

  • Riding fixed is primarily an aesthetic decision and whats wrong with that? I would add a few more minor items to the list that I haven’t seen posted, yet. Silence–I find it enjoyable to ride a bike that makes virtually no noise. Momentum–there are times when riding fixed where you can feel the momentum of the bike propelling you forward and I like this. Strength–the rear wheel isn’t dished to make room for a cassette, a minor detail, but worth mentioning.

  • regarding the silence comment: really?

    the western comment: i’m not rich. i know a lot of people who are not rich and owned their bike for many years. there’s many things that the “rich” have. like running water and other things that supposedly improve our lives. does that mean we shouldn’t use tap water? if you have a techno(logy) available to you that improves your life, and in this case, the environment, should we deprive ourselves of such a tool because other countries don’t have that techno available to them? should we go back and live like nomads did? let us not digress.

    i paid $50 for my 3 speed. and i put in $100 bucks worth of labor to get it ready for commuting. i’ve had the vintage 3speed for over 10 years and i still ride it.

    there’s nothing wrong with having IT be an aesthetic thing. i just get concerned when fashion interferes with safety.

    regarding the dish of the wheel: it really isn’t that big of a deal. my wheels are over 20 years old and they’re still kickin’. it’s so minor kinda like the whole chain in a straight line idea. again, lets just accept that it’s purely an aesthetic fashion trend. for in the city riding nothing beats gears/brakes.

  • Wow the arguments for a fixed gear bike are so poor I can’t even believe it.

    Just admit that you deal with a lot of extra hassle to look and feel cool.

    I have never been going up a hill and thought \wow, it would be great to have one gear only\ or down a hill and thought \wow I would love to be pedaling furiously right now\

    Why would I want to use the same gear for a steep hill that I would use for a long stretch on a trail or a road when I want to reach a top speed? Weird..

    I don’t think anyone on a fixed gear bike could pass me in any setting. I could get up hills easier than them with low gears and use my highest gear to hit a top speed on a flat stretch

  • I bet I would find riding a fixed gear fun or cool in some situations but it is definitely not practical to own as one’s primary or only bike

  • I can’t believe no one has just come out with it: Riding a fixed gear bike is fun! Its a different feeling! Remember when you were a kid and it was fun to just ride a bike? It wasn’t about traffic hassles and bike lanes and MUPs, just having a bit of fun? Come on, I’m pretty sure at least 3 of you were kids once.

    I thought riding fixed was retarded for all the reasons people are citing here, and then I rode one for the first time around 2002. And the moment of realization when I got it that I couldn’t NOT keep peddling was scary and weird and put a smile on my face like being a kid, and I just wanted to keep doing it until I was good it. I still get that smile almost every time I take the fixie out for a spin. Who cares about arguing the merits, IT’S FUN YOU GHOULS!

  • Sadly, this comment section is pretty characteristic of almost any comment thread involving bikes; rabid disagreement in the ranks. Interestingly enough, almost every single commenter is right in some way. (Except the guy who called Sheldon Brown a kook. Sheldon should be the patron saint of bicycling.) The way I look at it, this is kind of like asking someone what the best car is for driving around town. Some people like a truck or an SUV for the safety and hauling capacity, some like a sports car for the speed and look of the thing, a third person might not care about speed but absolutely wants luxury, and a fourth just wants the best and cheapest mileage. Is there a best type of car to drive around town? It really depends on what the driver wants in a ride. It’s an opinion, it’s subjective. This is the same thing. Ultimately, as long as the rider is happy with their ride, and keeps on riding, then they have picked the right bicycle. Unless it is a recumbent bicycle. Then you’re just a wierdo.

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