What is a Fixie Bike and Should You Ride One?
Fixie vs. Fixed Gear vs. Track Bike
Fixies are cool, but what even is a fixie?
Maybe you got inspired to learn about fixie bikes from seeing some of the most beautifully simple bikes ever produced on Instagram, from watching Joseph Gordon-Levitt's undisputed magnum opus Premium Rush, or from watching the most helpful fixed gear content creator on the internet, Zach Gallardo. And if you've ever thought to yourself, "yeah fixies are cool, but what the heck even is a fixie bike?", you've come to the right place.
What makes a fixie a fixie?
The terms "fixie" or "fixed gear" refer to bikes with a certain type of drivetrain. Basically, fixies go differently compared to other bikes.
A fixed gear drivetrain is one that's run with a fixed cog on the rear hub, fastened with a lockring, hence the terms "fixie" and "fixed gear." The fixed cog only allows for a single gear ratio and does not allow for coasting (not pedaling). On a fixie the rear wheel and the cranks are directly connected. If the rear wheel is spinning, the cranks and thus your legs are also spinning and vice versa. You must always pedal on a fixie bike.
The direct link between the cranks and the rear wheel allow you to perform maneuvers that can't be done on other bikes like brakeless riding, riding backwards, and trackstands (which is balancing on your bike via witchcraft). On the flip side, not being able to coast means you have to pedal super fast when riding downhill to keep up with your bike, and it can be super sketchy or super fun, depending on how you look at it.
Fixie bikes only have a single gear ratio, meaning you can't change to an easier gear if you want to go uphill or a harder gear if you want to go faster. The gear you have is the gear you're stuck with, regardless if your legs are screaming at you. On a fixie bike, if you want to go faster or uphill, all you can do is harden the f*ck up and pedal harder. This may sound like a pain in the literal behind, and it can be, but it's actually a huge reason a lot of fixie bike riders have so much fun. We're somewhat of a masochistic breed.
You can think of riding a fixie as riding a hipster unicycle with two wheels.
Clearing Up "Fixie" vs. "Fixed Gear"
You've probably come across the terms "fixie" and "fixed gear" because us hipsters like to complicate all of our hobbies and gatekeep them from normies. Whether you're a budding fixie hipster or a complete normie, I, your friendly internet hipster, am here to clear up these loaded terms so you can talk about these lovely bikes as easily as possible.
While you can technically refer to any bike with a fixed cog as "fixies," pretentious hipsters in English speaking countries often see the term "fixie" as derogatory since it's mostly used by beginner riders and the uninformed. Denotatively, it's correct, but connotatively, it refers to low quality fixed gear bikes, often built with loud colors to appeal to beginner cyclists that don't know how to differentiate between high and low quality bikes. "Fixies" tend to be unreliable and overpriced for what you get.
Incidentally, if you're shopping for a fixed gear bike, searching for "fixed gear" tends to show you much higher quality bikes than if you search for "fixie." Even companies target certain people with this terminology. Best to stick on the side that's in the know and say "fixed gear."
"Fixie" may be used amongst pretentious fixed gear hipsters and not offend if used ironically. If you're just starting out, it's best to eradicate "fixie" from your vocabulary and just refer to bikes with a fixed cog as "fixed gears." If you do, you'll sound like you know what you're talking about and not offend any fellow riders in the fixed gear world.
Yes, this is all pedantic and silly, but that's the reality of the terminology in the fixed gear world. Because of that, I will refer to fixie bikes as fixed gears from this point forward since saying "fixie" unironically does make my stomach churn a bit every time I type it.
How to Identify a Fixed Gear Bike
The only surefire way to determine whether a bike is a bona fide fixed gear is to see whether it has a fixed cog on the rear hub. Look at the rear hub on the driveside (the side with the chain) and see if it has a single fixed cog fastened with a lockring. If it does, it's a fixed gear; if it doesn't, it's not. Alternatively, you can tell whether a bike has a fixed cog if you ride it and you can't coast. If the rear wheel directly spins the cranks whether it's rotating forwards or backwards, you my friend have got a fixed gear on your hands.
Common Characteristics of Fixed Gear Bikes
But sometimes you can't ride a bike or look closely enough to see whether it has a fixed cog, so there's a few characteristics that hint at whether a bike is a fixed gear or not.
Fixed gear bikes are the most simple type of bike. Often, fixed gears will only have the parts necessary to make the bike go, so the lines of the silhouette will be cleaner (that's what makes them look so darn cool!). Fixed gear bikes often don't have any cabling, or often will only have cabling for a front brake. If you don't see any brakes or cables, it's probably a fixed gear.
Geared bikes will have derailleurs near the chainring and at the rear, bottom end of the frame's driveside. Derailleurs are the part that allows a bike to shift gears. If a bike doesn't have derailleurs, it's either a singlespeed (one-geared bike that CAN coast) or a fixed gear. Fixed gears will also only have a single chainring (the part attached to the crank with teeth that makes your pant leg greasy), and the chain will pass directly over the chainring and rear cog without passing through any derailleurs.
Most, but not all, fixed gear bikes are fitted aggressively with handlebars that are lower than the saddle. With time, you can develop a keen eye for bikes and see a bike's geometry (the length and angles the tubes are put together). Fixed gears tend to have aggressive geometries with steep angles, short wheelbases and high bottom brackets. Basically, if it doesn't have derailleurs and looks like it might hurt your back to ride, it’s probably a fixed gear.
Types of Fixed Gear Bikes
Although most fixed gear bikes you see will look similar, there are a few types of fixed gear bikes with subtle, or not so subtle, differences.
1) Fixed Gear Bikes:
Includes any type of bike with a fixed gear drivetrain. Most fixed gear bikes have an aggressive fit and geometry that prioritizes speed over comfort. Purpose-built fixed gears have track ends that allow you to adjust the chain tension. The following are different types of fixed gear bike:
2) Track Bike:
Bikes that are designed and spec'd to be raced on the velodrome. These have an even more aggressive geometry than fixed gears that are designed for street use. If the bike is built to be "track ready," it can be referred to as a track bike whether it's ridden on the velodrome or the street.
3) Tracklocross Bike:
Fixed gear that's designed to be ridden off-road. Combination of "track" and "cyclocross” bike. These have clearance for big off-roading tires and a relaxed geometry with shallower seat-tube and head tube angles to give the rider more control over looser surfaces.
4) Fixed Gear Freestyle Bike:
A cross between fixed gear bikes and BMX bikes. These are built for tricking with clearance for bigger tires and design changes to make tricks easier like a positive sloping top tube and clearance in the fork and downtube for bar spins.
5) Fixed Gear Road Bike aka "Conversions":
A road bike converted to a fixed gear drivetrain, usually an old one. Usually has horizontal dropouts. A great way to build a high quality fixed gear on a budget.
6) Fixed Gear Mountain Bike aka "MTB Conversions":
A mountain bike converted to a fixed gear drivetrain. Usually has horizontal dropouts. For maniacs.
Is a fixed gear bike right for you?
There's a lot of compelling benefits to riding a fixed gear bike that I'll cover in a future post, but the best way to see whether a fixed gear bike is right for you is to try riding one. Fixed gear riding is not for everyone. Fixed gear is something you either love or hate, and new riders can usually tell which side of the fence they fall on within two minutes of pedaling a fixed gear bike. The connected feeling of the fixed gear drivetrain is by far the best thing about it, and it's what keeps devoted riders on fixed gear as opposed to any other type of bike. If you're the type of person that would like fixed gear, it may be the most fun you'll have on a bike. Go and try one to see if it's for you!