If it ain’t fixie don’t brake it: On “fixie-ness”

Before you fixie guys start flinging spoke cards at me in indignation, let me assure you that I have nothing against the fixed-gear bike per se. (“Per se” being a Latin phrase meaning “It’s a bike, not a fashion statement!”)

But I am not a fixie-hater. I mean, who could hate something as adorable as this?

It would be like hating a kitten. But if you do notice me roll my eyes, it has less to do with the actual mechanical arrangement known as the fixed gear and more to do with all the trimmings that sometimes come along for the ride — such as this bike’s yam-like orangeness.

(Even for someone as ambivalent about the Ducks as I am, that is a lot of orange to be riding around this town.)

I have to say that I am reluctant to wade into the vast and increasingly tepid waters of fixed-gear stylings. But I feel obligated to proceed, because these floodwaters have spilled over and are now threatening society at large. There are all manner of Frankenstein-like offshoots, wannabes, hybrids and copycats bobbing around.

And, my, there is something intoxicating about these particular floodwaters. It’s like we have become swamped in vodka and lost some of our better judgment. We have also lost some of our brakes.

So what I’d like to discuss today is not the actual, real, fixed-gear fixie, but the phenomenon known as “fixie-ness.” Fixie-ness is a style, an attitude, that can be applied to bicycles that are not really fixies at all — but try to look like they are.

Charitably speaking, you might call this “imitation.” Others might call it “posing.” You could also call it “herd behavior.” And the cynical among us might call it “marketing,” with regard to something such as the $369 Schwinn “Cutter,” which comes complete with a little top-tube pad, or protector, or … I don’t know, maybe it’s just painted on. It doesn’t really matter. It’s about “the look.”

Of course, the important thing to remember is that this is not a fixed-gear bike. It is a “coastie,” with a single-cog freewheel:

It’s fine, I suppose.

But here’s your first question in today’s fixie-ness quiz: If you buy a bike like this, what is the first thing you do to increase your fixie-ness quotient?

If your hand did not quickly shoot into the air as you blurted out, “Oh, OH! You take off the rear brake!!” you will have to be remanded to summer school.

For those who have not kept current, we should review some recent history. So, for a moment, let’s back up — which, ironically enough, you can do on a real fixie.

This video demonstrates quite well the essential quality of a fixed-gear bike. That you do an extremely lame little wheelie just before riding out of the frame, you ask? No, no. It demonstrates, of course, that a fixie has no freewheel. There is no coasting. You pedal backwards, and the wheel turns backwards.

Here is another cool fixie:

No coasting possible here. And you will notice this machine’s utter lack of any brakes at all. Why? Because fixies don’t need brakes. A practiced toddler can simply slow the pedaling motion to reduce the speed of the wheel and bring his Fold2Go trike to a stop.

If we then extrapolate to the adult world, we can understand why the brakes on a fixed-gear bike like this may be considered superfluous …

It’s because the brakes can then be melted down and reforged into a really awesome Cetma front rack.

Another way a skilled fixie rider can stop his or her bike is by halting the pedaling motion altogether, thereby locking up the back wheel and skidding elegantly to a stop. Especially on a downhill:

The posture used in this technique has its origins, oddly enough, in the frigid climes of Scandinavia, as human beings used their boundless imagination to dream up yet another extremely bizarre activity to consume their leisure time:

But we aren’t supposed to be talking about actual fixies. All we need to know from this history lesson is that riding a fixed-gear bike without the aid of brakes has become a trendy statement of freedom, simplicity and awe-inspiring coolness.

Now, if somebody wants to ride an actual fixie without brakes and has learned how to do so competently, far be it from me to tell them not to.

But I have to say I am given some pause by the boundless proliferation of brakelessness on bikes that are not actual fixies. On a single-speed “coastie,” you cannot, of course, slow down or stop the rear wheel by altering your pedaling action. So what is a cyclist to do?

You drop a couple grand on a sweet Co-Motion, and then … you remove the clearly unnecessary rear brake.

Why do you do this? You do it for the greater good, of course. You do it in order to give of yourself.

You take off the brake, and you donate it to Rear Brakes for Refugees, an altruistic nonprofit that sends our wealthy society’s boundless spare parts to the neediest peoples around the world.

Here’s another example. We spotted this rather new Trek one-speed, a model known as the “Soho S,” along Pearl Street in downtown Eugene.

Here’s the Soho S, as it appears on the Trek website:

The next question in our quiz asks you to spot the key alteration, the one that maximizes fixie-ness. Can you do it?

Got it? Good! Yes, I’m rather certain that neither Trek itself nor any of its dealers would ever sell a Soho S — or any other bike for that matter — without a rear brake. A blinding flash of light would erupt from Wisconsin as all of the lawyers at Trek corporate headquarters spontaneously combusted.

Here’s another example, this time on a more vintage bike:

Oh, sure, this looks like a cool, retro fixie conversion. No, no, no. He was happily coasting around. But of course he has left his rear brake on the junk pile of history.

Now, some will say that a rear brake doesn’t do much, that the front brake is where the real stopping power comes from.

Can you get by with just a front brake? Of course. Why would you want to? I have no idea.

But let’s grant for a moment that a front brake is sufficient. Then you spot a guy like this:

He was riding a coastie on Willamette Street toward the Hult Center. Don’t be distracted by the fact that he is wisely riding around with his hands in his pockets.

Look closely at his bike, and you see that he has no front brake on this bike. Only a rear brake — which possibly he got a really good deal on, given the surplus supply that must be on the market these days.

But it gets weirder still. Here’s a guy who hasn’t even bothered setting up this old road bike into a fixie-like single speed. It’s just a vintage 10-speed, from the days when road bikes were actually called 10-speeds. He’s got a regular freewheel and a derailleur and — what has he done?

I hope you’re getting the hang of this by now. Yes, he has located the rear brake. And he has removed it. Then he carelessly tore off some handlebar tape. Sometimes, what you are after is a more subtle form of fixie-ness. As with aftershave, just a touch can go a long way.

Here is another variation on the theme. This is colloquially known as the “poor man’s fixie.” Here is one, spotted outside Sweet Life:

This involves remediation not of the brakes, but of the derailleur. But you keep the bike’s original multi-cog freewheel — thus eliminating the cost of buying or building a new wheel. This guy’s fixie-ness quotient falls a few points, though, since he has kept both of his brakes on.

Lest you think the poor man’s fixie is an anomaly, here’s another one, seen rolling south on Willamette Street:

And another still, outside the Kiva:

Surely there is, somewhere in Eugene, a growing mountain of abandoned derailleurs. Do not despair, however. They are not sitting idle, but are being prepared for distribution by the tireless and selfless aid workers at Derailleurs for the Destitute.

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20 thoughts on “If it ain’t fixie don’t brake it: On “fixie-ness”

  1. I’m not getting your point. Are you saying all bicycles must have two brake-sets, front and rear? Seems to me that somebody who goes through the effort to build up a bike, or to customize the bike to their liking is pretty dedicated. Not sure why you’d mock them. I enjoy seeing how different people have configured their rides. Much more fun than boring big box bikes.

    I like this line:

    “Charitably speaking, you might call this “imitation.” Others might call it “posing.” You could also call it “herd behavior.””

    One could say the same thing about bloggers. Or really any activity that involves some kind of public exposure. Didn’t you say you started blogging because some guy in NYC was doing it? Let’s just charitably call that “imitation”.

    1. Hey, Raindog:

      No, I’m not saying bikes must have both front and back brakes. Clearly, many don’t. That’s a choice. It’s not illegal to have one brake, by the way. But that doesn’t mean I can’t question it, or suggest that people may not have the soundest of reasons for doing it.

      Sure, I’ve seen some very cool bikes around town that very dedicated people who are very into bicycles have clearly “customized” in many ways. I don’t have a problem with that.

      But simply liberating the back brake from a new Trek Soho — or, for that matter, a vintage Schwinn Varsity? I don’t call that “customization,” exactly. I don’t think it takes much mechanical skill, much understanding of bicycles, or much dedication either.

      I guess I just don’t get why somebody would go to the trouble. I can think of a couple of good reasons to leave both brakes on. I really can’t think of any good reasons to take one off. If you’ve got some, I’m all ears.

      I do get why people may want to go fully brakeless on a real fixie, or just have one on the front. They are attracted to the challenge of learning to ride a different kind of bicycle in a new sort of way. Do I think there are safety issues? Sure. Do I think the fad has gone a little out of control? Definitely. But, hey, I understand the allure of it.

      It just seems to me that it is no coincidence that the disappearance of a lot of brakes on bikes with conventional freewheels seems to have arrived with the appearance of fixies that have one or no brakes. Yeah, I do think there is some degree of posing here.

      As for imitation, sure, we all do that. I’m not going to deny I copy all sorts of people when it comes to writing or any number of other things. I guess the analogy doesn’t track for me, though. I mean, if I build up a fixie and start riding it, just because I see other people doing it, yeah, maybe I’m imitating. Everybody does that. But if I take one of my brakes off of my regular bike because I see people on fixies with one or no brakes, that just doesn’t make sense to me.

      As I said, I’m willing to listen, if anyone wants to explain further.

      Thanks for reading, Raindog, and thanks for taking the time to comment.

      1. I can’t presume to speak for the people you photographed but people may remove the rear brake simply because they like the way it looks. It’s also one less component to maintain. Many people enjoy fixed gear bikes because they’re simple, quiet and responsive. Having a minimal configuration is as much a mental statement as it is a social statement.

        The riders you show all seem to be just tooling around town or campus at low to moderate speeds. Not really much need for full braking power in those situations. They’re also on the young side and while removing a brake may be a simple operation to you or I, for some of these kids this might be the first time they’ve taken a wrench to a real (expensive) bike. Simple steps can boost their confidence in their abilities to attempt more complex repairs.

        The bike I use for errands around town is a fixed gear with just a front brake but this is a complete Franken-bike and I just never got around to finding a rear brake that fits, nor have I ever run into a situation where it was required. I also haven’t had to do a tune-up in over three years. I took my track bike out on the streets once but found it too stressful to ride without brakes even with a fixed gear. That one only gets used when I go up to the velodrome with other brake-less bikes. My main road bike has two very good brakes front and rear but I’m also getting up to 30mph on that one so I need full braking power.

        I absolutely agree that running a single-speed freewheel without brakes is dangerous and irresponsible.Even running a freewheel with just a front brake seems to be putting too much confidence in a single component and I wouldn’t trust that at speed either. I personally don’t see the appeal of a single-speed freewheel, barring BMX and freestyle bikes of course, but fixed gear can be too much for some people to get used to so it may be a compromise to free themselves from derailleurs (arguably one of the trickiest on-going maintenance requirements on a bike).

        Kids learn through trends. They see something they think looks cool and they try it. That’s how they grow. Having raised two kids, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve cringed at the decisions they’ve made. Still, they should be encouraged to ride and they should be encouraged to turn their own wrenches, no matter how simple the repair. Mocking them just puts them on the defensive and shuts down any chance you may have to positively influence their behavior.

        I do enjoy your blog and my implication that you too may be guilty of occasional poseurism was simple snark. No offense meant.

        1. Oh, none taken.

          Yes, I suppose it’s true that mocking may not be the most effective way to get people to change their behavior. I guess I wasn’t thinking I was going to change anyone’s mind. Just pointing out some things I’ve noticed.

          Speaking of imitation and the fact that this whole endeavor was inspired by BikeSnobNYC, I have to say I never quite aspired to his level of mocking and snark. He sometimes goes over the top for my taste. And with this post, I guess I may have leaned a little bit more in that direction that I usually try to.

          It’s all still a work in progress. I do appreciate you taking the time to offer some thoughtful comments.

  2. Better than driving a car, that’s what I say :)

    I do worry about the lifespan of the front fork of a bike running only a front brake. That fork is taking some killer torque.

    Anyways, this picture isn’t me, but it’s of what I ride: A real fixie: http://www.cygnus-software.com/papers/stp/unicyclestp_files/image002.jpg

    I do have a brake on mine, but it’s a drag brake only used for prolonged downhills (Fox Hollow) – emergency stops at 18mph involve running and commando-rolls.

  3. I just bought my very first “fixie” (besides the BMX’s as a kid) yesterday, a 2010 SE Lager. I’ve had friends in the past who’ve rode them and swear by them to this day. I didn’t realize how much angst there is between different bikers (fixies, coasties, no break, front break, etc…). My bike is a coastie/fixie (swappable cog), but for now I choose to ride it as a “coastie”. The reason I bought it was I wanted something simple yet good looking to commute to and from the Uni (in Melbourne, AU). I’m originally from Eugene, so I’m well aware of the “hipsters” they have to offer. But, in the end, who cares what a person decides to do? Isn’t that the great thing (like most things in life) about having personal choices? To have the ability to do what you want and personalize ourselves and our belongings? To me it makes sense to keep both breaks on my bike, but again, that’s my choice and what I feel most comfortable with.

    Anyway, I’m glad I found this blog. It’s nice to read about home while so far away. Cheers!

    1. Wow, you’ve got to be the farthest-away reader I’ve got.

      Yeah, in the end I agree with you — and I pretty much like anybody who loves bikes, whatever flavor. Even recumbents! I’m still not crazy about one brake on a coastie, though. But that’s just me.

      Hope you’re having a nice summer there. Man, it’s been raining like hell around here lately.

      1. I agree about the single break. Like most things it’s just a cosmetic preference.

        It’s Autumn here right now so we pretty much see all the seasons in one day. It’s nice to read about home being so far away, keep up the great blog. My wife and I are excited to be visiting Oregon in June!

    2. I’m not meaning to be rude or anything but bmxs aren’t fixed gear bikes, even the smallest ones with coaster brakes you don’t have to continuously pedal.

      Personally, I see a front brake as a danger. I mean if your going even 10 MPH and you pull hard you’ll go for a nice holiday skidding on your face. At the same time if you don’t pull hard at all it’ll take you 50 feet to stop.

      If you ride a ss (single speed) get a dam back brake! It does the job and saves you a pair of shoes.

      I ride a Peugeot uo9 fixed gear, brakeless. I like that its a challenge. And come on, we have all loved doing skids since we where wee lads. If you wanna ride no brakes start off slow! Or don’t, have fun crashing. Cheers!

        1. I’m not sure what you’re referring to, but anyone who starts calling people “idiots” in the comments here won’t be commenting here long. My blog. My rules.

  4. First off, I want to compliment you on a well-written piece. I am a big fan of Bike Snob NYC and a fixie enthusiast here in NYC. At one time, I was a messenger and I go back and forth between front and no brake on my two non-coasters.

    Despite thinking a brakeless bike looks much better and demands more attention, I can honestly and without question say that they are extremely dangerous. For riders of all skill, you have to realize you are taking an already risky sport and at least doubling your odds for disaster. Again, more fun, more style, unhindered barspins, but significant risk of danger.

    This is a personal decision, granted, but one that I feel should be made only by expert cyclists. It is my humble opinion that no expert cyclist would ever so much as consider a coasting bike with only one brake (except the BMX riders, but that is a totally different group of riders and speed potential, so I’ll leave them out of this).

    Coasties with front brake only just don’t make sense and I think that if their owners realized just how much physics hates their idea of “custustomization”. they would change their tune.

    I would like to encourage you to continue down the path of “snark”, so long as you do so only when snark is warranted. I have been biking for over 30 years and I don’t think this is a sport that carries a responsibility to encourage stupid ideas. I mean, if I can jib and jab with the spandex clad roadies, many of whom ride as well or better than myself, I see no reason to immunize newbies who are risking their own well-being and the legality of our sport. As of late, biking here in NYC has been on the rise, which is a good thing, but it has brought some consequence along, for the most part, law enforcement. For every fatal accident involving brakelessness, manditory brake laws inch a bit closer. Media attitude gets worse, pedestrian attitude declines and the likelyhood that a semi-crowded intersection will clear to the sound of my whistle drops even more.

    So, to try to tie up this tangent-laden rant, I like your subject and your initial attitude towards a bad idea. While I am the first one to stop to help broken bikes and offer up a tube or ten minutes with my wrench for free, I do not feel newbies should be immune to a bit of “snark”. Someone has to tell the emporer he needs to stop if he can’t modulate.

    1. Thanks for your word of support on this. Having spent a fair amount of time riding a fixed gear bike (with a brake on the front) over the past 9 months, I can say it’s not quite the same as having two functioning brakes front and back — at least for me. At this point, I do feel confident in saying the standard two-brake set up was arrived at because it’s effective. And while I do ride the fixed gear with only a front bake, I still see no reason to take the rear brake off a freewheeled bike for style reasons.

  5. whoah this blog is fantastic i really like reading your posts.
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  6. Ha! I just took my old garage sale Schwinn “extra lite” and did the “poor man’s fixie.” thing with it. I really like it a lot and I’m going to ignore your comments and ride it in the MS150 this summer…. with two brakes and a really cool taped up seat..

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