I’ll admit it: Fixies do have a certain appeal. They’re simple, aesthetically pleasing, and—in a very particular setting, like on the velodrome or in the trash—even functional. But 99 percent of the time, there’s a better tool for the job.
Hating on fixed-gear bikes is almost too easy. At their finest, bikes are efficient, safe, and eminently enjoyable means of transportation. However, strip away a couple key components—namely the brakes and freewheel—and they become dangerous and impractical.
Anyone who’s ridden a bike knows that drivers can be unpredictable. Even the calmest of on-road commutes invariably involves a fair bit of swerving and emergency braking. Cyclists absolutely need to be able to stop as quickly as possible, and the stopping distance of a fixie is reportedly twice that of a front-brake-equipped bike—in the best of cases.
Fixed-gear nuts will tell you that an inexperienced rider is more likely to flip over his bars emergency braking on a road bike than on a fixie. As someone who’s raced on the track and road, it’s far more intuitive to stop safely using two brakes than by backpedalling. You’re also less likely to burn through costly rubber trying to skid to a stop.
True, some riders add front brakes to their fixies, which makes them a little more practical (and, depending on where you live, legal). But if brakes add a level of sanity, they also adulterate the machine. Taking a bike which is essentially a style statement—a direct insult to conformity and functionality—and trying to make it practical seems self-defeating, almost like purchasing a hybrid Hummer. Sure, it’s better than riding without brakes, but is it really the best option?
Even on the flattest of terrain, the majority of people would benefit from gearing or the ability to coast, something the fixie cannot afford its riders. The majority of amateur fixie riders end up over-geared and struggling to get up to speed from stops, or under-geared and furiously pedaling on the slightest downhills.
Fixie proponents claim that struggling with your machines forces riders to become more efficient—that your legs adapt to producing power over a range of cadences. Science says that argument is entirely irrelevant; the fastest riders actually have some of chunkiest pedal strokes, as a study in the Journal of Medicine and Science in Sport and Exercise revealed. And pulling up on the pedals actually reduces your efficiency, another study published in 2007 found.
Then there’s the matter of fixies’ supposedly superior road feel. The idea is that by stripping a bike of its functionality, you gain a higher degree of control. But control is about getting the most out of your body and bike, not making the most of a faulty machine. For me, that means accelerating effortlessly and having the optimal gearing for any situation. Just imagine an F1 driver telling you that he’s upgrading his car to something with marginally-functional brakes and one gear to feel more connected to the road.
And as much as I’ve tried to avoid hating on hipsters, fixies don’t just ride themselves. There’s a certain category of person who consciously chooses to eschew brakes, gears, and sensibility in their bikes, and all too often, that person is also into PBR, Converse, and excessive irony. Some say it’s a “suicidal response to urban conditioning,” an act of rebellion against conformity. But when a subversive act becomes a trend, against what, exactly, is it rebelling?
The fixie is meant for the velodrome, and it excels there. Taken anywhere else, it’s nothing more than a borderline-nonfunctional cliche. If you plan to ride on the road, gears are the way to go.