Fixie or track bicycle?

Track racing bicycle,from Bicycling Magazine

Track racing bicycle, from Bicycling Magazine. The caption in the picture reads “On a fixie, there are no gears or brakes. Only your legs control the drivetrain.”

From Bicycling Magazine, June 2014, page 28:

“A fixie (or fixed gear) is a singlespeed without brakes and without the mechanism that allows the bike to coast when you’re not pedaling.”

That is a description of a track racing bicycle, which is only one kind of bicycle with a fixed gear. The caption in the picture with the article repeats this description.

Let’s get definitions straight:

  • A fixed gear is a connection between the pedals and the driving wheel without a mechanism which allows coasting.
  • Antique high-wheeler bicycles have a fixed gear;
  • Children’s tricycles have a fixed gear;
  • Sturmey-Archer sells a three-speed fixed-gear hub, and so, some fixed-gear bicycles are not singlespeeds;
  • “Fixie” is not synonymous with “fixed gear”. Rather, “fixie” is slang for a bicycle with a fixed gear.
  • Fixed-gear bicycles for the road,  as a matter of common sense, safety and traffic law in many jurisdictions, must have a brake.

Though it is possible to slow a brakeless fixie by resisting the rotation of the pedals, this braking is not as effective as with a front handbrake, and can be lost due to the cranks’ outrunning the feet, or the chain’s coming off.

The photo with the Bicycling Magazine article shows a brakeless fixie on a street — illegal in many places, and with impaired safety due to the longer stopping distance and unreliability of braking. Also, the cyclist is using toe clips and tightly-adjusted straps with the end of each strap passed through the slot at the bottom of the buckle. The straps cannot, then, be adjusted while riding — OK on the track where a starter holds the bicycle upright, but not on the road. I have to wonder whether the cyclist in the photo was assisted in starting, or is being held upright for the photo by someone outside the picture.

Why am I taking the trouble to write this? Primarily, because the Bicycling Magazine article may induce people to take up riding fixed-gear bicycles without brakes on the road, and fumble with toeclips and straps, and crash, and be held at fault for crashing for lack of a brake. I am distressed that editors at Bicycling Magazine would pass on an incorrect description which generates confusion and might promote such behavior.

A thorough and accurate discussion of fixed-gear bicycles for use on the road may be found in Sheldon Brown’s article.

For the record, I own a fixie, shown in the photo below, and it is street-legal, equipped with dual handbrakes. If I had only one brake on this bicycle, it would be the front brake — but for riding with a freewheel, or on steep descents, I have installed a rear brake as well.

John Allen's fixie

John Allen’s fixie

5 responses to “Fixie or track bicycle?

  1. Not the first time Bicycling has done something boneheaded. Or, most likely, the last.

  2. Silly error on the magazine’s part. But really, if someone is dumb enough to hop on a bicycle without brakes and experience because they saw it in a magazine, they have bigger problems…

  3. Pingback: Fixie or track bicycle? | John S. Allen's Bicyc...

  4. Nice article John, hopefully it will make people stop and think!
    I’ve also noticed a lot of fixie riders evidently don’t think it’s cool to wear a helmet. This is doubly not smart thinking, as fixies are inherently more dangerous as you point out.

    • Dan — I do think that the bicycle Bicycling Magazine shows is hazardous, as it has no front brake. I find the rear brake useful too, even with the fixed gear, because it holds the rear wheel from turning when mounting and dismounting, even on a surface with poor traction.

      A fixie gives the cyclist better feedback about traction: many people like to ride fixies in winter for this reason. That is a safety advantage. A fixie is harder to mount and dismount, and it is much harder to get in and out of toe clips, or to adjust the straps — but foot retention reduces the risk of having a pedal run away from a foot. Clipless pedals work best on a fixie.

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