The Fixed-Wheel/Fixie Scene
Posted: Sunday 16th August 2020
Most owners of classic bikes are aware of the new wave of fixed-wheel bikes but maybe not too much about what this new movement represents to its adherents. I have to confess that I am learning as I go along but will try to illustrate some of this new world, although not so new now as it’s more than 20 years old.
The fixed-wheel or fixie scene is one of this millennium’s big happenings in the cycle world. From time to time such events occur to give cycle businesses a big boost and this has certainly materialised across the world. There is a big fixie scene in London and a few major cities across the UK but also in the States, Cape Town, Europe, Scandinavia, the Far East and even Moscow and Tallin plus no doubt many other areas such as the Phillipines.
Perhaps I should point out that I am really on the fringe of the fixie world having slipped in sideways via my fixed-wheel classics, one each of Bates, Ephgrave, R O Harrison, Hobbs of Barbican and Macleans. I’ve also built up a Mercian and Higgins Ultralite without strict adherence to period correctness for fixed events held outside the auspices of the V-CC. On the plus side we have been to Look Mum No Hands a few times.
The modern fixed movement can be traced back to the use of fixed and single-speed bikes by cycle couriers who found the simplicity of the system did away with most mechanical problems they encountered in the course of their high mileages traversing cities to deliver important parcels and packets at high speed in all weathers. Traditionally the couriers have always been looked up to as style icons by some sections of the community and the fixie concept is no exception. Such is the interest in the fixie, even here in Cambridge, that most bike shops have some version of the genre in stock and even outlets such as motor-accessory shops have them proudly on show alongside alloy wheels for boy racers, car radios, and other petrolhead goods.
Like all such movements, they take off as a cosy coterie of like-minded souls and as the interest increases more and more people become involved and sooner or later a commercial side develops. This is a bit upsetting for the founder members who would like things to stay as they were which results in a simmering resentment of the new incomers. Having seen it all before it seems to me it is encouraging that more and more of the population are on two wheels rather than using cars for everything.
I am from a generation of cyclists who were brought up riding fixed from Hobson’s choice. In the club scene almost nothing else was countenanced and the letter pages in cycling magazines of the day poured scorn on anyone who suggested or even thought of using gears in any form.
“Wash your mouth out with carbolic” was the gist of the replies (ask your granddad what it means). There was a small hard-core of tourists who rode with hub gears, derailleurs, and sometimes combinations of the two in order to get gears low enough for mountain passes when carrying luggage and camping gear for two weeks or more in places like Switzerland and Austria. Having said that, many tourists still used a low fixed gear whilst undertaking very arduous tours both here and abroad.
Aside from the tourers though, fixed was the norm as time trialling was the most common form of racing in this post-war era. Most riders had a 48 tooth chainset and used 19T sprocket through the winter (sometimes 20T to keep warmer by ‘twiddling’ faster during the coldest spells). Come the lead-up to the time trial season the 19 was swapped for an 18 giving a gear of 72”. The first time trials of the year were often restricted-gear events with a maximum of 72, hence the popularity of the 48T chainwheel. After the first couple of events the 18 was changed for a 17 for a few weeks and as the weather got better to a 16, giving the ubiquitous 81” gear which was favoured by many at all distances. Later in the season the hard men moved up a gear for 25 and 50-mile events but maybe dropped a little below 81 for longer events such as 12 and 24-hour events. (Riders opting for fixed many years later were to push much higher gears, partly aided by aerodynamic improvements on modern machines helping them to ‘slip through’ the air more easily and thus turn the higher gear.)
This state of affairs went on for a while in spite of the steady infiltration of derailleur gears, led initially by Simplex and Osgear but soon eclipsed by Campag with their Gran Sport.
A few years ago, along with several of my contemporaries, I thought that the fixed habit would come to an end when we old timers all ‘fell off the perch’ and took our fixed-wheel bikes to that great cycling club in the sky. About this time I began to see the occasional younger men and women riding around on fixed-wheel bikes and watched as the movement gradually took off, picking up momentum along the way. Today I can walk or ride in Cambridge town centre for half an hour or so and see about twenty fixies or single-speeds with no problem. In some areas of London such as Clerkenwell Road and Old Street it seems as if the fixie could soon outnumber geared machines if things carry on as they are.
It is good that schoolboys, and occasionally girls, are converting the most unlikely bikes (which would probably have been relegated to a skip) into fixies at virtually no cost, which is how I started cycling in the first place. Not knowing better I put a 12-tooth fixed sprocket on a very bread and butter bike and struggled around trying to wind the gear up – eventually someone from the local club – King’s Lynn CC – whispered in my ear and I changed the sprocket to an 18 and then started to go on club runs. The rest is history.
The girls here in Cambridge have their own style-craze consisting of Dutch or Dutch-style bikes with a large wicker basket on the front. It looks like a junior version of the Tweed Run when they head for school or college in the mornings. A few though are also joining in the fixed scene, owning bikes for road use by day and maybe playing polo as well.
This fixed scene is now massive. Just about every bike shop has fixies in stock, some from makes such as Charge and Surly which have evolved to cater for this market. It must be serious because all the large manufacturers are now joining in, even makes such as Bianchi, Colnago and Cinelli from Italy all have several models. The Tweed Run held an event in Florence this year so the Italians obviously know what it is all about – wish we had known about it in time to join in! We rode in this year’s Tweed Run in London and it was really great to meet so many enthusiastic people for such an enjoyable day out – one of those events you will never forget.
Although the scene is nationwide, our experience of it is in Cambridge in the main, with odd forays to London. The online presence of the fixie scene is centred on the London Fixed Gear and Single Speed (LFGSS) forum which unites riders in the city but has threads for other major cities (including Cambridge). The forum is set up with fixed and single-speed biking as the core but it branches out to cover fringe matters from social events, flat-hunting, design talk, even personal things such as partnership break-ups. There are millions of hits to the site and it has a wealth of talents such as designers, Photoshop experts, cycle trade (amateur and professional) right through to legal practitioners. The Forum has a brilliant ‘tag’ game where one visits an interesting building or place and photographs it with one’s bike in the foreground. This is then uploaded to the forum for all to see and identify, the idea then is to visit the site and photograph it with your own bike – a ‘tag’. Then it is your turn to upload another place of interest (with your bike in front of course) and it all starts again.
Some on the forum also have defined ideas as to how photographs of bikes should be taken and I must admit I have learned a lot from them. Tyre logos should be mounted over the valve on the wheel and the valves should both be positioned at the top when setting the machine up. I thought I had this just right the other day and then realised that the front wheel was in with the logo not visible being at the back. Cranks should be in line with down tube or chainstays – easy until you are photographing fixed and turn and turn the rear wheel round and round hoping it will come right soon. I haven’t reached the stage of re-aligning the chain on the chainwheel and sprockets although I am sure it has been done by professionals who will spend hours getting the photograph just right. One aspect which beats me at the moment is having the hub name/logo on the hub in a certain position in the wheel in relation to the valve hole, I guess this has to be sorted out when the wheel is built. I do envy professionals who have a plain white background to use when photographing bikes: I believe there are folding portable versions for sale but they have to be quite large to take all of the outline of the machine.
There are also Forum threads on bike-porn where members post images of bikes with the ‘wow’ factor but the unwritten rule is that you don’t post your own so a lot are downloaded from other places. This is countered by the Anti-porn thread where members post images of builds they consider rather over the top such as having just every component in a different colour rather than creating some colour theme.
The actual, as opposed to digital, fixed centres in cities such as London locate around bike shops specialising in fixed-wheel machines such as Brick Lane Cycles. When it comes to refreshments though the only place to be is the cyclists’ cafe, Look Mum No Hands, in Old Street London, which as well as terrific food and coffee has frames and wheels around the walls, cycling books on display and a repair/sales unit at one end. You will think you have died and gone to heaven as you sit munching great food surrounded by fixed and classic ephemera. The big cycling races, such as the Tour, Giro, and Vuelta, are shown on a large screen at one end and this becomes a great social get together.
In Cambridge the principal meeting points are Bicycle Ambulance, fixed gear boutique and repairs (plus a selection of top components and bikes) where the ‘fixie’ crowd are always dropping in for a chat or to take their coffee and/or lunch from the nearby Maypole to the easy chairs in the workshop. Harvey’s stall in Market Street is where you can buy new studs for your piercings or, if that doesn’t take your fancy, a top hat or other stylish icon as well as chat about polo and fixed-wheel bikes. The polo court is another fixie hotbed with gatherings three of four times per week plus tournaments from time to time. The Cambridge teams also travel to all the big events, having recently been to Barcelona and Edinburgh for European and National Championships
Spin-offs from the fixie scene include books such as Fixed – global fixed-gear bike culture by Andrew Edwards and Max Leonard, magazines, innumerable online features, frame building, accessories, tyres and ranges of clothing. Also very specific-engineered items such as eccentric bottom brackets and rear hubs to give potential for chain adjustment on frames with vertical drop-outs, along with half-link chains. Bike builds on such frames are known as ‘conversions’. The fixie has now become a ‘must have’ fashion item and on a recent visit to Munich we saw bikes included in the shop displays of Armani amongst many other upmarket emporia. Frame builders also go that bit extra.
Mercian engaged Paul Smith to design a special track machine which has a ‘split’ colour scheme that looks different from either side, the change taking place on the centre-line. Paul Smith has serious cycling credentials as his ambition was to become a professional racing cyclist until an injury put an end to it. Like all of us he still has a soft spot for cycling in spite of his world-wide fashion business and he has just had a new black Mercian built.
There is a pecking order for desirable machines among riders and collectors including, East European lo-pro pursuit track bikes with smaller front wheels and riser bars, ditto non-European and conversion time-trial lo-pros. For maximum bonus points in the lo-pro pursuit-frames class, try for models with the bars brazed to the top of the forks doing away with the need for stems in the top of the fork column!!
Original classic Italian track frames stand high in the desirability stakes as do some of the classic UK builders still operating such as Mercian and Bob Jackson. Japanese fixies such as 3 Rensho or Zunow will get you a lot of bonus points, as will any frame or component inscribed with the NJS-certified stamp which is the scrutineer’s mark for any frame or component approved for use in the Japanese Keirin track races.
Dolan and Planet X track frames hold their own in any group. A complete Campagnolo Pista group set will raise more than a few eyebrows amongst the ‘knowing’.
Spoke cards are ‘postcard’ sized cards, often advertising fixed-wheel events, which are located by the crossovers of the spoking in the wheels. They are creating art forms in their own right, some having the distinctive look of Soviet or Futurist art.
Most older owners of classics cannot stand the term ‘fixie’ having always known them as ‘fixed’ – the same applies to the Americanism ‘Campie’ rather than ‘Campag’. I find the differing terms handy as I use ‘fixed’ for a period-restored machine from the post-war era and the term’ fixie’ to denote a machine built in the modern style. It is possible of course to have a crossover between the two.
The fixed wheel fraternity have many links with bike sporting events such as polo, bike messenger championships, alleycat races and of course track and roller racing which have always been bastions of the fixed-wheel way of life.
Track stand (balancing the bike in one place without moving forwards or backwards) competitions are another favourite – I did this as a teenager, always standing on the pedals in the way track riders of the time did it on the steep bankings. Nowadays it is more common to sit and then do it one-handed followed by no hands. Trick riders take this further by doing things like one leg through the main frame triangle to the pedal on the opposite side.
Alleycat races try to re-construct the courier/messengers daily life by navigating and racing around a series of ‘collections’, against the clock obviously. An early offshoot from the fixed scene is polo (bicycle not pony). In the first instance almost all polo players used fixed-wheel polo machines but gradually players have realised that they can get more manoeuvrability out of single-speed free. Most machines are now to this format with braking front and rear from one lever with double cable take-off, the same format used by tandems many years ago – you have to leave one hand free for the mallet, since you ask. Brakes are double-pivot, cantilever or lately discs and are used for skid-induced changes of direction as well as for stopping.
Freestyle trick cycling has also switched to fixie-mode having made the transition from BMX riders/machines and skateboarders. Initially conventional machines were used but as the tricks got more and more demanding so evolved sturdier machines able to take the great stresses put upon them by ever more demanding tricks.
Polo is played all over the UK and there are many tournaments organised every year, mainly through the threads of LFGSS Forum. Overseas tournaments and European and world championships also take place.
I remember polo in the post-war years which was very low-key and played with heavy wooden mallets although a few builders produced custom polo frames. It was played on any spare piece of grass and taken very seriously. There were local leagues but obviously not to the scale today in that austerity age.
Another sport revived by the fixed upsurge is that of roller racing which has now become nationwide with the arrival of Rollapaluza, a blend of showmanship and sport which is held in cities across the country. Traditional races are over 500 metres with a set gearing of 44 x 14 and the record is in excess of 60mph needing a cadence in the area of 250rpm.
Below is my Mercian fixed track machine, I did consider having the option of deep section rims and riser bars available for use on it but when Bicycle Ambulance allowed me to try a set of such wheels it seemed to take away from the overall appearance rather than add to it. I guess I am too steeped in the old traditions to make this work. Maybe I can try it on a lesser frame. I do have a Higgins Ultralite (not lesser I should say!) with bullhorns, although most of the other accessories are traditional apart from brake lever and SPDs. I don’t think is quite right for deep section rims either, far less the current trend of deep section spoked rear at the back and a carbon tri-spoke up front.
Patricia’s single speed is a 1970s Hetchins Swallow/Spyder (shown below) which has all classic components and was used in L’Eroica with a set of gears fitted for the occasion. The rather stunning paint job is the original as done by Hetchins. We have never seen another like it. Her current project is a 1951 Gillott L’Atlantique with single-speed and bullhorn bars.