3-1 About fixies

Here is a "fixie" bicycle in downtown Ottawa.

On a multi-speed bike, a freewheel is the cluster of gear rings on the rear wheel, delivering your leg power from the pedals through the chain to the rear wheel. A single-speed BMX bike has only one gear ring on the rear wheel, but it is still a freewheel. Having a freewheel on your bike means that you don't always have to pedal while the bike is moving.

A "fixie" is a bicycle that has no freewheel. If the rear wheel is rotating because the bike is travelling forward, then so are the pedals and so must your legs. Pedalling a fixie only resembles pedalling a freewheel-equipped bike when you begin to move and when you are riding along at a steady velocity. Each of those activities involve applying strength to the pedals. Slowing down is a different story. 

On a freewheel bike, you can stop pedalling while slowing down. On a freewheel bike equipped with a coaster brake, you even pedal backwards to slow down. To slow down a fixie, your moving legs must start to resist the moving pedals. The advantage to this is simplicity and weight. There is no freewheel, gear-changing derailleurs, shift cables or shift controls to wear out or weigh you down. Such a bike is lighter and a lighter bike is easier to propel. The disadvantage is safety. You can't just stop pedalling and coast and in order to control your speed. Your feet must remain on the pedals which are turning by themselves.

A pure fixie has no hand brakes or traditional pedal-activated coaster brake. Often fixies are seen to have a single front hand brake, like the one pictured above. The intention is to treat the pedals like a rear wheel brake, implying the bike has both front and rear wheel braking. When it comes to slowing down, a coaster brake-equipped bike is easier to use than a fixie because it allows you to stop pedalling before applying the rear wheel brake, and you can choose the best pedal position before pressing down on it, usually with the pedals arranged flat. 

Neither fixies or coaster brake bikes are as easy to slow down as a bike with hand brakes. It doesn't matter what your pedals are doing because your hands are in control. This is much more effective than having to depend on what your feet are doing. That's why I think all bikes should always have two hand brakes. It adds weight and mechanical complexity but not much for more peace of mind.

The spartan ethos of the fixie can also be funny. The one above, for instance, doesn't even have fenders and so is coated with a strip of grey grit everywhere the tires have sprayed it. So, one imagines, is the backside of the cyclist!