Loca Bikes

The fixed gear - history, culture and philosophy

An introduction

In my time, I’ve come across a lot of statements made by great people from the broadly understood culture of the fixed gear, which I remember, because, in my opinion, and probably not only mine, they perfectly reflect the essence of what this culture is.

These include people from cycling Mount Everest, the multiple record-breakers of the hour record, and immigrants from the Caribbean in New York City who became the first track bike couriers.

So I decided that this entry, and the next few, will be based on such quotations, from which we'll make shorter or longer digressions delving into the history of their authors. I'll try to bring you a little bit closer to the philosophy that has become a way of being for many, and we’re talking about the fixed gear.

We'll touch on its origins, and thus the origins of the bicycle. We'll talk a little about bicycle messengers and races, where we’ll find out who they were, among others, Chris Boardman and Graeme Obree and Nelson Veils, who competed with each other. And it’s with Obree's words that I would like to finish this lengthy introduction:

You can always add something to your bike, but you'll get to a point where you can't subtract anything else, and that's a fixed gear.

Sounds interesting? On your mark, get set, go!





The fixed gear and its origins.

Let me start with a fact that is quite significant - the freewheel was invented at the end of the 19th century. Until then, all the bikes were fixed gears, or otherwise - all the sprockets were "fixed", from the first velocipedes (yes, the one with the bigger wheel in front), which were called "boneshakers" from the huge discomfort of riding them, to the bikes of the first Tour de France participants.

In the first laps around France, everyone raced on a fixed gear! This was the case until the freewheel was permitted in 1907 by the initiator of the Tour de France, Henri Desgrange, for whom it was a compromise, or in other words, the lesser of two evils.

Desgrange allowed the freewheel to prevent the already existing derailleur gears that were inevitably going to enter the Tour de France world. Listen to the words Desgrange used to sum up the technological progress that had been made in the cycling industry.

I applaud this attempt, but I still think that a variable gear ratio is for people over forty-five years old. Isn't it better to triumph with muscle strength than with the ploy of the derailleur? We're becoming weak. Please, my friends, let's admit that this attempt was an interesting one for our grandparents! As for me, give me a fixed gear!

As you can see, since the dawn of cycling, the fixed gear has had its followers, who were a kind of masochists for their legs, because can you imagine what it must have been like climbing a pass somewhere in the Pyrenees on the fixed gears of that time?





As in the first Tour de France, and the so-called six-day races, riders had so much trouble that they caught the attention of Ernest Hemingway himself. He wrote about the six-day races as a leap into the exciting purity of speed. To illustrate the gruesome effort, in 1878, in the first six-day race in London's Islington, Billy Cann won by riding 1,700km in 144 hours on the then bicycle.

These were races in which the riders raced for six days, sleeping and eating only in short breaks, and sometimes falling into such a deep sleep that even heavy contact with the wooden track didn't guarantee a wake-up call.

Both the Tour de France and the six-day races attracted crowds of fans, admiring the pedaling men, thanks to whom speed, whether on the streets of France, tracks or velodromes, was increasingly associated with the fixed gear.

Can you imagine that in the UK Championship in the 40 km competition, there wasn't a single winning bike with a derailleur until 1961? And those are the facts.

As for England, it has a lot to do with fixed gear cycling, if only because British riders trained on fixed gear during the winter.

However, with time they concluded that weakened by temperature legs, the low temperatures and the fixed gear gave the opposite effect to the intended one, more precisely the effect of the "Easter knee", which was the bane of the time trial riders.


Why love a fixed gear?

In England, the time trial was very popular and accessible to anyone who wanted to try their hand. This is where the legends and fixed gear enthusiasts like Chris Boardman and Graeme Obree started, whose subsequent rivalry in the hour-long time trial on the track went down in history, breaking many records.

What Boardman and Obree loved and continue to love in a fixed gear will give you a good indication of these few sentences:

It has always appealed to me with its simplicity and purity. The bike is a third lighter and you don't have to think about it much. It all comes down to psychology, you just have to focus on your effort. You don't have to make any other decisions.
C. Boardman.

If you decide to race on a fixed gear, you have to choose the gear that you’ll become attached to. With derailleurs you can always lower it, there’s no sense of attachment here.

G. Obree





Those of you who ride a fixed gear will surely agree with the above words of these masters, and those who have not yet tried, these words explain a lot what we amateurs of the fixed gear see in it.

Both Boardman and Obree pointed out some kind of synergy from riding a fixed gear, a better feel of the bike, and a mutual understanding, which is vain to look for in bikes with a derailleur .

The rivalry of masters!

Speaking of Boardman and Obree, it's impossible not to say a few words about their track struggles in the hour record. These two, one drawing on experience, science, and the modern technical background of his team, and the other on a diet based on marmalade sandwiches and washing machine parts on his bike, became the titans of this cycling discipline.

I'm not kidding about these parts. Obree had a washing machine bearing mounted in the bottom bracket of his bicycle “Old Faithful”! It was on "Old Faithful", in 1993, that he broke the record in the hour ride with 51,596 m, and this record was said to be the triumph of art over science in cycling.





No wonder, if a guest on a machine partly composed of household appliances does such a thing. He spoke about the hour record itself:

(...)it's a complement to fixedgearism, the simplest possible test of human abilities in cycling... You ride the simplest bicycle in the simplest test.

Obree didn't hold the record for a long time as only a week later, driven by his feat, Boardman added 674 m to the record of his greatest rival. Obree didn't remain indifferent, and a year later he reclaimed his title. The men seemed to have given up for good when, in 1996, Chris successfully attacked Mount Everest in an hour record.

He did so by adopting the famous "Superman" position, breaking the record - 56 375 m. Boardman's "Superman", I should add, was modeled on the position developed by Obree.





Although it was Boardman who ultimately triumphed, the above achievements of Graeme Obree gain strength if we say that they were celebrated as the victory of an ordinary cyclist, the so-called "outsider" against the elite of the discipline.

As I mentioned above, it was a triumph of the heart over science, a kind of romantic victory of the boy next door over the greatest of the sport. Obree didn't have huge sponsors or the care of a team of professionals, what he had in return was greater determination, commitment, and stamina.

He developed both a unique riding position and built his own bicycle. It's because of all this that Graeme seems to me to be a legend of the fixed gear, someone who was very close to this whole philosophy.

In the next article we write about the fascinating fixed gear culture in Japan and about KEIRIN races (soon in English).

Kuba from Loca bikes


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About Me

Loca Bikes is a Wrocław bicycle manufacturer. Since 2016, we have built several hundred personalized bikes, and we can safely say that we know quite a bit about it. As part of the blog, we want to share this knowledge and infect you with our passion for bikes. You will find numerous tips here, as well as articles on cycling culture and history.

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