The inexplicable good and bad days on the bike

Wiggins and Froome (smile)You feel great. You feel like shit. Yin and yang, attacking and being dropped, good and bad days on the bike are unpredictable at best, maddening at worst. Despite the best efforts of psychologists, nutritionists, coaches, and strict training plans, there are those days when anything can happen, we can be at the top of our game or grovelling, pedalling with our ears as the French might say. Why?

No rhyme, no reason. It is inexplicable. Illogical. No amount of rational reasoning will help you understand why we have good and bad days on the bike. And how do we react? Being creatures who focus on our faults, we over analyse our bad days, searching in vain for the reason why we were seemingly unable to turn the pedals in a tailwind. On good days we take it for granted that yes, we are heroes. Of course I was amazing, I am amazing, quick hand me that pro contract.

Diet, sleep, stress, physical tiredness, all undoubtedly play a part, yet we’ve done everything by the book, that book being The Obree Way, The Boardman Way, The Merckx Way, you know, the right way. Yet still you suffer. Or perhaps you was out enjoying a few beverages the night before, and a kebab, and you’ve barely turned a pedal in weeks and yet out you go and BOOM!, you destroy the road. Perhaps that drink was spiked with EPO, right?

“It is only through mystery and madness that the soul is revealed”
Thomas Moore

The human body is a complex being. Five fruit and veg plus exercise minus alcohol multiplied by a few good nights sleep don’t always add up to a good day on the bike. You often hear the mighty professionals complaining of bad days despite their science and carefully planned training.

That’s the thing with those extraordinarily unpredictable days, no matter what our approach it can sometimes seems as if the cycling gods have decided our fate before we’ve even pulled on the Lycra. I like to think there are two gods of the road, the good and the bad. Let’s name them in true Greek God style, Jeus, god of the phantom tailwind and Fades, god of never-ending journeys.

The bad days

What do you mean, 'we're only halfway'?

What do you mean, ‘we’re only halfway’?

I’m not talking of simply being tired, of overtraining or experiencing the bonk, no, these are the days when you go out with legs like cooked spaghetti and suffer for no apparent reason. Grovelling. Pedalling squares. Legs heavy, we beg for the end. We do not want to see a bike let alone cycle.

Everything hurts. There’s more life at the bottom of your mouldy water bottle. Quads burning, calves tight. Our saddle is a razor, our heads heavy and quick to drop, unable to look the road in the eye for we know it has beaten us. Every turn seems to bring a headwind yet the leaves on the trees are still. We always seem to be a gear short as we mash our way downhill at 10 mph. Yes, my odometer is broken. Must be, because I’m going nowhere.

Gravity is against you. Einstein would struggle to explain this phenomenon. You watched the weather last night and saw nothing of this super thick air you seem to be wading through. Soup, you are cycling through minestrone. And then the rain comes. Typical. If somebody offered you a fiver for your expensive shiny bike you’d gladly take it and hitch-hike home.

On such rides there is no recovery. There is the end. Eventually. You lock your bike away and throw away the key. I am never cycling again. This ride won’t be making it onto Strava. You don’t want to talk about it or think about it, let alone share it with the world. Nobody should see such a pathetic ride. You look accusingly at your legs. Where the eff were you today, you ask? It’s 30 degrees outside yet you put trousers on because you don’t want to see these two lifeless limbs. You lie down and vow never to cycle again. Until next week anyway.

The good days

Flying. You wear Lycra. You are superman.

Flying. You wear Lycra. You are superman.

Accelerating, you can out sprint farts, hills flatten before your very eyes, the applause of the imaginary crowd echoes in your head, Strava segment times tumbling, you are the greatest cyclist that has ever lived. You keep one eye out for the Team Sky car for surely they’ve noticed this prodigious talent everyone is applauding. It’s only a matter of time before Sir Dave Brailsford discovers the YouTube footage of this blur, this machine, this future Tour de France winner.

These are float days. Everything is effortless. You know the days. The pedals turn themselves as if somebody installed a motor in your bottom bracket overnight. Your bike is so light you’re convinced you’re riding a feather. Your puny cycling biceps bulging, you could tear your way through phone books and dictionaries should the need arise. You pass the tattoo parlour and go inside to get the world championship rainbow stripes etched onto each arm for nobody will ever take your crown. Ever.

God do you love cycling. You were born for this day. You laugh in the face of the stiffest of headwinds and 20 percent climbs. You tease wheelsuckers who struggle to remain in the shelter of your shadow. You destroy chain gangs without trying and there’s no lamppost in the world that anybody can beat you to. Upon turning back towards home you realise you’ve been out all day, your legs still fresh, you could cycle forever. This is love.

That rarest of days

Bad day? Time for a hero to slay the joker on the bike.

Bad day? Time for a hero to slay the joker on the bike.

Sometimes, just sometimes, a bad day turns into a good day. Never the other way around. Perhaps you’ve finally digested breakfast, or your legs have eventually warmed up, or a hard sprint has shaken you into life, or a hill climb puts you so near to death it makes you feel alive. Such days are mystifying but welcome.

As much as we strive to explain the human condition, it’s the mystery of it all that we must embrace. Some cyclists ride to become machines. Not this cyclist. For every 99 bad days on the bike there’s that one good day. Maybe it will be tomorrow. Just maybe. There’s only one way to find out…

“One machine can do the work of fifty ordinary men. No machine can do the work of one extraordinary man.”
Elbert Hubbard, arriving home after a float day

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Images courtesy of 1-4) Unknown

Upcycle and upgrades – Make your bike ride like new

Bike components broken down into piecesShiny, shiny. The carbon temptress awaits on every high street, every cycling forum, every ride and every conversation. Everyone, it seems, is buying a new bike. After complex calculations that included n+1, I had persuaded everyone, even my girlfriend, that I needed a new bike. Everyone that is, except me.

So even with full clearance to buy a third bike, I relented. Why? Not long ago two bikes seemed unnecessary and here I was considering a third! But no, reason had kicked in. Reason and bike buying, what was this phenomenon? I’m a frugal creature. Bling is not for me. And yet I was tempted, why?

It goes without saying I have a very fond attachment to my current ‘best’ bike, a second-hand £600 Bianchi from eBay. My second bike was also an eBay bargain, a fixed commuter bike. Yet my upgrade dilemmas had nothing to do with my existing bike stock. No, I was scared of being left behind in the great bicycle arms race. Literally.

When buying a new bike is not the answer

Maybe I've been overdoing the whole n+1 thing. Maybe.

Maybe I’ve been overdoing the whole n+1 thing. Maybe.

Truth is there was a dark and dusty corner of my brain that wondered if buying a new bike would make me quicker. Daft I know, but like any other cyclist, I’ll pursue any silly notion to shave seconds off a hill climb PB. Research began but no matter my search terms, even the evil empire that is Google could not lie. No, it screamed after search #99, buying a new bike will not make you a quicker rider.

Sure, I’d be a few grams lighter but ultimately no quicker. I could carry less water or eat fewer pies for such gains. Internal cable routing would make me more aerodynamic perhaps but I couldn’t really believe such claims. So what would a new bike achieve aside from denting my bank balance? Little. In fact, I could only see negatives.

I’m a fairly humble fellow and the thought of hitting my local roads on a super bike would have made me self-conscious. I know, I know, fear not the judgement of others for only your Strava segments are to be your judge. Yet I wasn’t worried about being overtaken by other cyclists on cheaper bikes because i) I’m a fairly rapid rider and ii) I ride my own race. What then? Like any shrink worth their hourly fee, I needed to dig deeper into my past.

It all stems from my working class sensibilities. Obvious, right? I do not like to be ‘flash’ as my mother might once have said when seeing a neighbour’s new sofa or car or haircut or handbag. Not that she was jealous, quite the opposite in fact, it was more the pity to see somebody seeking pleasure in material gain. That’s a very long-winded way to say I am not materialistic. Bike bling? No thanks, I’d rather just clean my old bike.

You are not your Pinarello Dogma

Don't worry, I've got some spare inner tube glue in my saddlebag

Don’t worry, I’ve got some spare inner tube glue in my saddlebag

Or you are not your IKEA kitchen, as Tyler Durden of Fight Club fame might have said. This is why a fancy new bike simply wouldn’t have worked for me. For one, I would have been scared to ride such an expensive toy.

Whilst I respect my bike, I like to get rough with it. I wash it in the bath and stand it upside down on the pavement to fix my gears. I’ve been known to ride home on the rims when caught short of inner tubes, my tyres stuffed with grass. Yeah, I will not let a bike be the boss of me. You see, I cannot have nice things. Besides, a shiny new bike would only have given me more reasons not to cycle in the rain.

In addition to being fearful, tight, lazy and overly self-conscious, I’m also paranoid. There is no way anybody could have ever seen me riding a shiny bike to my house as I would have suspected every man, woman and child of being a potential bike thief. N+1 is a simple enough calculation but it doesn’t account for the additional cost of hidden extras when buying a bike. Like dead bolts, a house alarm, infra-red security lasers, the rottweiler, the gun.

My own true love

A little retro styling

An ode to my bike. I bought my Bianchi with very little consideration of frame size, of weight, of gear sizes, of anything much than a little research into the gear set. Whilst I am known to often plan the smallest of decisions down to the finest of detail (it can take me a day to buy new inner tubes, no amount of research is ever enough!), when it comes to the bigger decisions in life I am often at the mercy of my whimsy. In this instance I had convinced myself my bike must have Shimano Ultegra gears and I ignored pretty much all other criteria. Odd, I agree. Oh and the colour, it couldn’t be garish. Or stolen.

A few days of eBay sniping later and I was taking a Bianchi Via Nirone Special Edition for a test ride which consisted of a lap around a very small car park. The bike was quiet. It was equipped with Ultegra. It was not garish. Sold!

An aluminium frame with carbon fibre rear and front forks, the bike handles like a dream. It does not jerk, it does not whither, it simply floats. Four years old when I bought it, another three years of hard pedalling has not diminished my lust for my next ride. Ooh er, missus.

That said, the bike is in need of some tender loving care. Whilst I’ve been fastidious (ish) in my cleaning and basic maintenance of the bike, tyres aside, there have been no upgrades. The bars are still wrapped in the original bar tape! Seven year old bar tape. If it wasn’t grey in the first place, it is now. Time for some TLC.

How to make your bike feel like new

What cyclists get up to on rainy days

What cyclists get up to on rainy days

Don’t waste money on a new bike when you can upgrade your existing ride with little effort and just a little cash.

  • Degrease and oil the chain. There is no greater pleasure than riding a bike with a clean chain and chain set. Smooth.
  • New bar tape. Every cyclist loves new bar tape. Both the finished new look but also that heroic feeling after a successful application. At first the thought of fitting new bar tape is a little bit of a mystery until you realise it’s just a simple wrap. Soon you can wrap your bars like an experienced nurse applying a bandage when tending to open wounds. In addition to your new go faster colour of choice, you’ve also got a better grip and perhaps more padding too.
  • Learn how to index your gears. For many a year I lived in fear of the dreaded skipping gear. No more. Thanks to Global Cycling Network and their simple How to video series, I can now index my gears. The secret? Forget about those mysterious high and low screws, it’s all about cable tension. Soon your gear shifting will be smoother than the snot wipe on the back of your gloves, which Google tells me is gloriously named a snot spot.
  • New gear cables. Gears not working no matter how much you adjust them? Time for some new cables and bingo, away you go.
  • Cheap bike fit. Forget about spending your hard-earned pocket-money on an expensive bike fit when you have all of the world’s knowledge at your finger tips. There’s plenty of bike fit videos on YouTube, of which this one has cured my knee and neck pains. Sure, there’s no fancy 3D motion sensors or videos of you wobbling about on the bike, yet these simple tips will get your position on the bike 99 percent perfect and make for a pain-free ride. Don’t be afraid to experiment.
  • New tyres. Tyres are undoubtedly the best value for money upgrade a cyclist can invest in. I wasted many a ride rolling around on cheap Michelins until I broke down and splashed out on a set of Continental GPS4000. Roads become smoother, sharp corners seemed to straighten themselves out, and punctures became as rare as a dry cycle ride in the Lake District.
  • New saddle. My saddle has been peeling like the pink skin of a Brit on day three of their beach holiday. There’s been a flappy piece of skin on the side of my saddle for the best part of 12 months and in truth, the saddle has always been a little uncomfortable. So why haven’t I upgraded? For me the grass is always er, yellower on the other side. What if my new saddle is actually even more uncomfortable? The idea of finding a new saddle fills me with dread. What is my body shape? Er, human? How flexible am I? Ish. And finally, who is going to measure my ass, sorry sit bones?
  • New wheels. After upgrading your tyres, the wheels are your next best investment. Both the weight and aerodynamics of some expensive wheels will make your bike lighter and a little more aero. As with buying a new bike, don’t get expecting any miraculous speed improvements. At best you’ll be quicker off the mark and up hills. Remember the true benefits of deep rim wheels don’t really kick in until you’re approaching speeds in excess of 20 mph.

My new bike

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Ok, so it’s not exactly new and the casual eye wouldn’t even notice the difference between the before and after images. Yet I know. The upgrades bring me great pleasure and have rekindled my love affair with riding my bike. Sure, I’ve only actually bought new handlebar tape and a new saddle but yes, the impossible has been achieved. I enjoy cycling more than before! I even broke down and bought a small saddle bag after seeing that picture!

Purchasing a new saddle

The new seat. Sleek.

So, did I get my ass measured? No. Somewhat like buying a new bike, I ignored all practical advice and purchased my new saddle on a whim and on the basis of what I thought looked like my new saddle. Yes, I bought a saddle because it was aesthetically pleasing! I mean how could you resist? Look at it, my god, I’m in love with a saddle, what have I become? As it happens the saddle is a heck of a lot more comfortable than the previous aged skin flapping incumbent. And yes, I’m sure it has made me faster. At least that’s what I’ll keep on telling myself.

What about you? What are your tips for upgrading your bike?

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Images courtesy of 1) The excellent Things Come Apart blog 2, 3, 5) Unknown 4, Gallery, 6) Human Cyclist – C’est moi

Cycling in the Lake District – Leave the big ring at home

Cycling and Hill Climbing in the Lake DistrictLeave the big ring at home and pack your EPO spare legs. Oh, and bring your walking shoes too, just in case. Cycling in the Lake District will leave you breathless, be it the view or the steep hills you climb to reach such dizzying heights. Wainwright and Wordsworth were fans of the scenery although they might have changed their tune had they cycled.

Riding in the Lake District you will discover much. England’s true beauty. New max heart rates. New muscles. Places you didn’t think it was possible to sweat from. You will not discover an extra gear. No matter how many times you try. The next day you will have the Bambi walk, a new-born foal, legs as stable as long drinking straws, all a wibble and a wobble.

Yet the pain is worth enduring. The reward? Views you thought were exclusive to National Geographic magazine and a sense of achievement you last experienced indexing your gears. Legs quivering, body shivering, you are the king of these majestic roads. Or are you? Did the hill, a hill for christ sake, get the better of you and force your foot to the floor? Maybe but don’t be ashamed, for these hills are no ordinary hills. With 30 percent gradients they leave even the strongest of cyclists quaking with doubt. Will I make it?

A guide to cycling the passes and hills of the Lake District

Cycling up Hardknott Pass

Hardknott. 30 %. 2 mph. 10 rpm. 193 bpm.

Below is a selection of my favourite hills in the Lake District, starting with the easier climbs and finishing with the ultimate leg breaker whose name you may have heard some cyclists scream out in their night terrors.

Whinlatter Pass
A gentle speed bump by the lofty standards of the Lake District. Whinlatter is a good leg turner and warm up for the steeper climbs ahead in Buttermere.

Kirkstone Pass (from Ullswater)
An inviting climb, few can resist the lure of the road upward. Not the most challenging of climbs but certainly rewarding with great views across the lakes at its summit. Be careful if descending back down the pass along the twisting, uneven road between the stone walls to Ullswater.

Newlands Pass
Somebody carved this road into the side of Robinson Fell, the tarmac offering a safe but fraught passage between the thick green ferns that cover the hillside, giving you the impression of cycling through Jurassic Park. This monster of a climb has teeth as sharp as 25 percent, its final bite all but consuming your last ounce of energy.

Blea Tarn
A lesser known climb hidden away slightly to the north of the more famous Wrynose and Hardknott passes, this curvy little number might be one hairpin too many if attempted before or after the big two. A great climb taken alone, use the hairpins to your advantage and let your legs breathe if only for a moment

Now's the time for a handlebar mirror

Now’s the time for a handlebar mirror

The Struggle
The greatest named climb in the world? Possibly. Tough enough to warrant such a moniker? Undoubtedly. A weaving, wandering climb that never seems to end, this is not one for tired legs with 15-20 percent gradients testing you at the top, middle and bottom.

Honister Pass (either way)
The iconic climb of Honister is from Buttermere, through the valley into what looks like a dead-end. And then you see the road. My god. The Tour of Britain recently wheezed over this pass, the rain turning the road into a fast flowing stream. This classic climb is fairly gradual with a sharp sting in its tail. Climbing the other side of the pass from Borrowdale is less scenic but arguably harder with several early punishing 25 percent gradients early on and a changing incline that never quite allows you to find a rhythm.

Wrynose Pass
Wrynose is said to be the queen of climbs when compared to its neighbour King Hardknott. Climbing from Ambleside you may well wonder how anything can be worse than the leg breaker before you. Right from the off you’re hit with a 25 percent hairpin or two. Take my advice and make the most of the flat run up. The remainder is a slow 15-20 percent slog to what appears to be a wall leading to the summit. Only there’s no ladder to help you climb this mind bending straight stretch of 25 percent tarmac that will leave you cycling sideways like a terrified crab.

Hardknott Pass
The steepest hill climb in England for road cyclists. It is evil. A menace. A serpent snaking up over the mini mountains ahead, the wet slither of road shines and twinkles, easily mistaken for a river but for the fact it rises high into the clouds. Hardknott begins with a 30 percent wall before a long toil over 10 to 20 percent gradients. Drained, you are afraid to look up and face the final 30 percent ramp, your lungs burning, heart pounding, arms shaking, legs crying. Don’t give up, you can do it. Take a flag, overjoyed, you’ll want to claim the summit.

Map of Lake District cycling climbs

Inspired? The map below will help you plan your route through the Lake District. The arrows represent the classic climb of each pass. You are free to climb the reverse too of course, just not all in the same day!

Got the fear yet?

Got the fear yet?

Which is the toughest climb in the Lake District?

There’s much debate as to which of Wrynose and Hardknott is the hardest hill to cycle when riding them both the hardest way i.e. heading into the Duddon Valley that separates the two. The answer? The hill you climb second. Whenever I’ve tackled these infamous climbs, I view them as a pair, for you cannot see either and resist the temptation to conquer these twin peaks, so beautiful and challenging is the road.

Wrynose Pass (easy way) with Hardknott (easy way!) in background

Wrynose Pass (easy way) with Hardknott (easy way!) in the background

Tips for cycling in the Lake District

England’s lakeland humbles the dear cyclist, be it the sublime vistas, the terrifying descents or the punishing climbs. Riding the passes is not for the light-hearted or weak-minded. Just seeing these climbs can make you question your sanity. How on earth will I climb that, you wonder? There is however much reward for the brave and anything can be climbed with the right gearing.

  • You will get wet. Be prepared to cycle in the rain and cling to your brake levers when descending. Dry days are as a rare flat roads. They say if you can see the peak of a fell in the Lake District then it is about to rain. If you can’t see the peak, then it is already raining.
  • You will experience every kind of weather. Usually in one climb. The weather changes fast both in the valleys and high up on the passes so be prepared to bake and shiver within a matter of minutes.
  • Don’t forget the descents. If you think climbing mini mountains is tough, take lightly a wet and twisty descent at your peril. Scary. I suggest working on that frail cyclist’s upper body of yours that usually struggles to open bananas!
  • Focus on the road. There’s some dramatic lumps in them there steep roads. Hardknott and Wrynose in particular take a perverse delight in giving you as bumpy, lumpy a surface as possible. Belgians would be forgiven for thinking they’re back on the cobbles.
  • Take a phone. Not for emergencies, for phone signals are about as reliable as the winter bus service. The camera however will help you believe the outstanding sights you see are real.
  • Take a chain tool. The chances of your chain snapping are high. Don’t get caught out in the middle of nowhere. My chain snapped on Wrynose recently. Cue rain. Whilst I was disappointed not to complete the climb, I was relieved to be able to complete the ride.
  • Be reasonable. Fifty miles in the Lake District is the equivalent of at least 100 miles elsewhere. The climbs will soon have you begging for a short-cut.
  • Practice unclipping whilst pedalling at 10 rpm. If you leave the lakes without putting your foot down on a climb then you are to be congratulated. If only by your own ego!
  • Consider a bigger cog on the back. Nobody looks cool falling over in slow motion whilst still clipped in on a 30 percent climb.
  • Tackle the hardest climbs first. Your legs will thank you for it. Don’t be embarrassed to take a rest day. I once attempted five consecutive days hill climbing in the lakes. Keyword there being ‘attempted’.
  • Get up early or avoid the summer tourists. With your eyeballs popping out of your head and your heart pounding against your ribcage you probably don’t want to hit a traffic jam on Hardknott. That said, I didn’t find the summer traffic too bad. Few tourists venture west in the lakes, odd given this is the lakes at their most stunning.
  • Tourists drive slowly on 30 percent inclines and twisty roads. Give them space as they can be a little unpredictable navigating these torrid turns. Taking a car up these hills is frightening! On the plus side, drivers in the lakes give cyclists plenty of space and are very courteous.

Where to stay in the Lake District

There’s many a cycle friendly B&B in the Lake District. Avoid the tourist trap of Windermere and the relatively featureless south lakes and head north. Keswick is a big town and a good base if you are car less (although the cycle ride from Penrith station down the A66 is scary despite the patchy attempt to install bike paths). Ambleside puts you in the heart of things and is good for Hardknott, Wrynose, The Struggle and Kirkstone Pass (see map below).

Best cycling route in the Lake District?

Among the many stunning rides, my personal favourite is an anticlockwise loop of Borrowdale that goes the easy way up Newlands, passing beside beautiful Buttermere before climbing up through the valley up and over Honister Pass. Breathtaking at every turn.

The ambitious amongst you may like to try the Fred Whitton sportive, a 112 mile slog over the majority of the above climbs. Not for the faint hearted. Nor I would suggest, anybody who wants to enjoy these climbs (if such a thing was possible!). There’s certainly a difference between climbing a hill fresh or with many a hard mile in the legs. My hill climbing times when doing silly miles in the Lakes were twice as slow as my usual times. The beauty of the Lake District is that any route you cycle will be one of the best (and hardest!) you are ever likely to encounter.

Live and breath the climb – Hardknott Pass in the Fred Whitton

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Images courtesy of 1, 2, 5, 6) Unknown, 3) Paul Harris 4) Adapted Google Map

Fixed gear bikes – How, why, when, what, which

Fixed gear track racing smallFixed gear. You and the bike are one, brain gives way to cog, crank arms are mere extensions of your legs and vice-versa. You are a cycling cyborg, part human, part machine, unsure where the steel ends and the flesh begins. Only the smile on your face reveals the human. Riding a fixed gear bike is special. This much you’ll discover the first time you ride fixed and stop pedalling.

The best things in life are the simplest. Extravagance is an absurdity best left to those vainly searching for happiness at the bottom of their wallet. Silence. Starlight. Sunrise. The sea. The touch of a loved one. The smile of a stranger. A Bob Dylan lyric. A cup of coffee. Bubble wrap. A shed. Single speed bikes. One cog, one gear, many cadences.

Riding a fixed gear bike is cycling in its purest, simplest form. Reducing life to its essential elements reminds you what it is to be human. Cooking with fire. Being naked. Although not necessarily at the same time. The less we have, the less we stand to lose and the less we can be distracted. Riding fixed, dérailleurs cannot break and gears cannot slip.

“The greatest wealth is to live content with little.”
Plato

That’s not to say Luddites should rule the earth. I welcome change and progress yet it is easy to forget the origin of why we began to evolve in the first place. Rarely do we look upon fire, the wheel, and the bicycle with the awe of when they were first discovered or invented.

Progress isn’t always essential despite the claims of the marketing men and women who strive to make anything seem necessary. Electronic gears. Cycling specific socks. Energy gels with added Oompa Loompa testosterone. To ride fixed is to strip all of this back and ride a bicycle as it was intended. Pure simplicity in itself.

What’s the difference between a single speed, a fixed gear and a track bike?

The track stand haunch a.k.a pointless perching

The track stand. Supposedly cool, definitely inefficient

First, let’s avoid any confusion. Not all single speed bikes are fixed gear bikes. A single speed bike can either have a fixed gear or a freewheel i.e. you can roll without pedalling. A fixed gear bike is a single speed on which you must always pedal. Why should you care? You shouldn’t, unless you’re about to ride 100 miles and have a choice between the two!

What about a track bike, what’s that all about then? A track bike is a fixed gear bike. Simple. Or is it? Track bikes must meet stringent regulations to actually be ridden on a track. This includes a high bottom bracket clearance and a short crank arm length enabling you to negotiate the banked curves of the track without striking the pedal.

More importantly, a track bike cannot have brakes if used for its intended purpose. Brakes on a track are considered dangerous when everybody else is riding brakeless. If you want brakes on a track bike you better come equipped with a drill. Finally the geometry of the frame is engineered for the pure speed of the track so a track bike will ride a little harsher on the road and a shorter wheelbase means potential toe overlap on the front wheel.

Benefits of riding fixed gear

Clean lines. Repaint required after every wet ride.

Clean lines. Repaint required after every wet ride.

  • Low maintenance. This was the primary motivation for my fixed purchase. Nobody enjoys cleaning chains with a toothbrush or digging out grime from a rear cog. When the fear of getting your bike dirty prevents you from riding you know you’ve got issues. Muck aside, single speed bikes have fewer parts ergo less to break or adjust. Commuting you no longer need worry about potholes damaging the wheels of your best bike either.
  • It’s fun. This is why I would recommend a fixed gear bike. Prior to becoming a fixed convert I read so much about the supposed fun of riding a fixed gear bike and was very much what you would call my usual cynical self. How on earth could being chained to the revolutions of my cogs be so much fun? The only answer to this question is to ride fixed. There is no other explanation. Forget all of the mystical stuff, the being at one stuff, the pure cycling stuff. Just go for a ride and note the smile on your face and then you try to explain the fun. And no, fun should never need explaining.
  • Simplicity. Not having to think about changing gear frees the mind to enjoy the ride. One less distraction. It’s you, the bike and the open (hopefully flat) road. No more crunching of gears as you accelerate away from the traffic lights. Free of gears, you’ve also shed some serious weight from your rear wheel. Light and sprightly you are.
  • Fitness. There are many spurious claims as to the fitness benefits of riding a fixed gear bike (see fixed gear myths below) yet one thing is undeniable: you must pedal at all times. No coasting means extra effort, assuming that is you have chosen the correct gearing.
  • Aesthetics. Only a philistine can shrug with indifference at the beautiful clean lines of a fixed gear bike. This is perhaps why the so-called hipster has jumped on a single-speed and turned the bike into something of a fashion statement. Shame the irony of the multi-coloured deep rims and tyres is seemingly lost on their aesthetic sensibilities.

Will riding a fixed gear bike improve my pedalling technique and strength?

Massive cyclist thighs

Before and after you started riding fixed

Yes and no. It will not teach you some mystical pedalling technique because let’s face it, pedalling is pretty easy. You pedal in a circle, job done. Will it teach you to pull up on the pedals? No more than cleats and being fixed to your pedals would. Some say riding fixed actually makes you a lazier rider when pedalling as the motion of the chainring does the work for you.

I’ll get stronger though won’t I? Maybe, depending on which gear you choose, which is the same as riding a road bike in a gear that’s a little harder than you might normally manage. So no, a fixed gear bike per se will not improve your strength or power outputs.

So what will riding fixed do for my cadence? Well it will teach you to pedal all of the time. No coasting. Freewheeling quickly becomes a thing of the past. Since riding fixed for my commute, on long weekend rides on my road bike I find myself consciously forcing myself to stop pedalling when going downhill in a bid to save energy. Never coasting is a benefit and a curse depending on the type of ride you are on. Not convinced? Ask a seasoned road bike century rider to complete a hilly 100 miles on a fixed gear and take one look at their post-ride face!

Tips for riding a fixed gear bike for the first time

Fixie fan Jesus learns a new trick to add excitement to his tired water becomes wine routine

Fixie fan Jesus learns a new trick to add excitement to his tired water becomes wine routine

If you’re used to riding a bike with a freewheel i.e. the bike rolls without you pedalling, then you’re in for a surprise the first time you ride a fixed gear bike. Without being overly dramatic, you pretty much have to learn how to ride a bike again. OK, so that was a little melodramatic yet it is not far from the truth. Here’s some tips on how to ride a fixed gear bike:

  • Pedal. At all times. You are the cycling equivalent of a shark, a prehistoric beast that must always keep moving to stay alive. Stop pedalling at your peril.
  • Cornering. Many a new fixed rider fears tight corners and pedal strike, that moment when pedalling around a corner your pedal hits the curb or floor at the low point of the pedal stroke. In over 1,000 fixed gear rides I’m yet to encounter pedal strike. Have I found a mystical Roman road with no corners? Not exactly. My fixed bike is a track bike (hey, I liked the colour!) and thus the bottom bracket is a little higher from the floor. Added to that are my shorter than normal crank arms at 165 mm instead of the 172.5 or 175 found on most road bikes.
  • Fit a front brake. I cannot stress the importance of this enough. Hence I go on about it quite a bit further down. You are not a better rider if you ride brakeless. You’re just slower, more tired and more of a danger to yourself and others around you.
  • Don’t worry about a rear brake. That’s called your legs.
  • Don’t learn how to skid. You’ve a front brake, you’ll never need to skid. OK, maybe for fun. Once.
  • Learn to track stand. The art of track standing will improve your balance and give you more control over the bike at very slow speeds.
  • Learn when not to track stand. Which is most of the time. You may think you’re cool track standing at the traffic lights for three minutes but you look ridiculous. Besides, it’s a complete waste of energy. But you’ll get away from the lights quicker right? Maybe. Or maybe you have an overgeared bike and so gaining momentum is oh so slow and you’ve been passed by everyone who pushed off the floor with their feet and clipped in quickly with their double-sided cleats. Track standing at busy ASLs in close proximity to other cyclists is also dangerous as you edge to and fro into the line of other riders.
  • Strap yourself in. When your pedals move regardless of whether your legs are moving, you don’t want to find your feet slipping or being thrown from the pedals. Ever tried to reconnect your feet to a pair of pedals spinning at 100 rpm? Good luck!
  • Learn how to start from a stop position. Assuming you’ve realised track stands are well, for the track, you’ll need to either i) come to a stop with the pedals in a position that allows you to accelerate (so leading foot positioned between 1-3 pm on a clock face) or ii) use your front brake to lift the rear wheel the 1 mm off the ground required to quickly spin your leading foot into position – a trick that you will soon master in the blink of an eye.
  • Learn how to spin downhill. I’m not going to lie. I look and feel ridiculous spinning away at 140 rpm down a steep hill. Control over the bike is also more difficult. Embrace the spin or alternatively learn how to control the bike and roll gently down a hill. Again, here’s where brakes help.
  • Increase your vigilance. Even though I ride fixed with brakes, I have found I have a better awareness of everything happening around me. As mentioned above, riding fixed is like learning how to ride all over again and so you begin to appreciate the flow of the roads much more, slowing down by leg power rather than caliper power. There’s something about riding fixed that makes you never want to stop and so you’ll pace yourself towards traffic lights so that you’ll never lose your momentum (without becoming a red light jumper).
  • Choose gears and routes carefully. You don’t want to be undergeared and spinning away any more than you want to be overgeared and mashing your way up hills. More on gears further down the blog.
  • Get the right chain tension and a straight chainline. This simply means getting the chain tension nice and tight. Not too tight otherwise you’ll find turning the cogs a little stiff. Too loose and you risk serious injury should your chain jump off. The chain should be as tight as possible whilst still allowing free movement of the drive chain. A straight chainline will ensure 100 percent connection with the chain and cogs, hence they’ll be less likely to slip off.
  • Bunny hop whilst pedalling. A difficult but must-have trick for fixed gear bike riding. Forget track stands and skidding, the bunny hop is the trick you need to beat those pesky potholes. Start small and move slowly before working your way up.
  • Beware of flares and laces. You don’t want anything getting caught in a fixed gear chain. Oh no.
  • Look cool. You’re riding a single speed bike, you must be a hipster, right?
  • Don’t ride like a moron. Excuse my language, but there does seem to be a strong correlation between the number of singlespeed (not necessarily fixed gear) riders and those with a blatant disregard for every other road user. Sure, cyclists riding all sorts of bikes can be idiots yet my experience here in London tends to lean heavily towards those riding a single speed.

Can I ride fixed gear without brakes?

Who needs brakes when you've got walls?

Who needs brakes when you’ve got walls?

Sure. You can also jump out of aeroplanes without a parachute or ride a motorbike naked. I just wouldn’t recommend it. Yes, your legs can act as brakes. So too your head when you hit the back of a bus that stops suddenly. But, but, my legs are really strong. Sure, rely on your legs to stop you, just make sure you quadruple your breaking distances and don’t travel over 10 miles per hour.

Ah yes, but I know how to perform skids on my fixed gear. That may be, but if you’re skidding then you’re not riding a big enough gear to get a decent speed (at least not for me!) and you had better have a good supplier of tyres and more money than sense. Finally, remember that riding a fixed gear bike without brakes is illegal here in the UK unless you’re on a track.

A front brake is a must for me. My fixed is my commuting bike here in London, a city where a brake is as essential as sharp elbows and the ability to avoid eye contact during rush hour on the Tube. Brakes save me energy as I no longer need to pedal backwards to slow myself down and I can also cycle much faster safe in the knowledge that I can stop as quickly as any other bike on the road.

Does a front brake really upset the true beauty of your bike and the ride? No, you only use it when you need to and from an aesthetic point of view, most people who chat to me about riding fixed at traffic lights ask if my bike has brakes, so discreet is my set-up.

Are fixed gear bikes dangerous?

Baggy pants and a fixed gear bike. Good luck.

Baggy pants and a fixed gear bike. Good luck.

Bikes of any form are not dangerous, riders are. Follow the tips above, use your front brake and you’ll be fine. Are fixed bikes safer than road bikes? No safer, no more dangerous. You could argue the chain is less likely to fall off, but when it does you will certainly know about it.

You’ll need to relearn how to ride a bike without coasting otherwise it’s buckaroo time and a chance to test your rodeo skills, which you will almost certainly experience when first climbing on a fixed gear bike. After that, the greatest danger comes in behaving like an idiot, but it was ever thus.

Is riding fixed bad for my knees?

Only if you ride the wrong gear, pretty much like selecting the wrong gears on a road bike. You don’t want to be mashing away on a huge gear and neither do you want to be spinning a tiny gear. Much depends on where you ride. If you’re in a hilly part of the world then a fixed gear bike may not be for you (although judging by the number of fixed gear bikes I saw in San Francisco , much also depends on your fitness).

Should I buy a fixed gear bike?

This very much depends on the riding you want to do. Flat commute? Go for it. Hilly, long distance Audax rides? Probably not unless you like suffering. Horses for courses, as any amateur gambler knows. Want to look cool? Sure, go for it but you can achieve the same riding a single speed with a free wheel (see obligatory fixie hipster slurs below). Either way, some will label you for riding a bike with one gear but then such things are not a worry to anybody wearing a moustache or Lycra, or anybody who rides what the hell they want to ride!

I spent months debating whether to go fixed or freewheel, mostly because riding fixed seemed very daunting, plus I knew I would have to go clipless too, something I swore never to do commuting in London. My worries quickly dissipated once I began riding. Sure, there’s an initial learning curve but once overcome you will wonder how you cycled for so long without enjoying the purest form of cycling pleasure there is; riding fixed.

I thought fixies were for hipsters?

Travelling through a red light near you soon

Travelling through a red light near you soon

I cannot write a blog on single speed bikes without mentioning the H word. Sure, the bearded men and moustachioed women of downtown Dalston here in Londinium may prefer to ride a bike with one gear, but observe closely and you’ll notice that 47 times out of 48, the bike has a freewheel and is a single speed rather than a fixed gear bike. Boat shoes and fixed wheel bikes don’t tend to get along too well.

Anyhow, who cares? Cycling is meant to be fun. Ride what makes you smile. You’re a cyclist, since when has style or fashion come into your decision-making process? You live for the days when snot runs down your face, the interval sessions that turn your head beetroot, or when the rain soaks you thoroughly and you look like a drowned rat. So don’t worry about being labelled a hipster, it might actually make a change to being labelled a cyclist.

OK, I’m sold, but what it’s called again? Fixie or fixed?

The word fixie has become synonymous with the hipster craze for riding, er single speed bikes even though most do not actually ride fixed gear bikes. Walk into your local bike shop and ask for a fixie and you’ll be ushered towards the bright multi-coloured bikes with cheap components parked in front of the skinny fit three-quarter length jeans (and any other stereotype I can muster).

Ask for a fixed gear bike in a gruff voice and depending on the size of your thighs, you’ll either be taken towards the black track bikes with no brakes or over towards some nice looking fixed gear bikes with front brakes ready for road riding. Alternatively you could build your own fixed gear, which is definitely on my cycling bucket list one cold winter day.

What gears should I ride and what the heck is a flip-flop hub?

Steepest hill climb

Not a day for the fixed gear

A flip-flop hub is essentially a back wheel with two gears, one on either side of the wheel, allowing you to flip the wheel around and choose another gear. Handy eh? Now, don’t think of this as a mid-ride gear change, because flipping your wheel every time you hit a hill is inconvenient to say the least, especially for the bunch waiting for you at the top.

A flip-flop hub allows you to choose between two gears or alternatively between a freewheel and fixed gear. You can have a small cog for those fast flat rides when you’re focussing on strength and a big cog on the other side for when you just want to spin away like a hamster on a wheel. I tend to avoid extremes when choosing my gears although my flip-flop combination does have a broadish range (14 and 17 tooth) to ensure my ride is comfortable but very different whichever gear I choose.

Most people use a flip-flop hub to alternate between riding fixed and coasting along on a freewheel. Having a road bike with all of the free-wheeling gears I need, I don’t really need such freedom but can understand why the thought of riding fixed on tired legs might have me reaching for the spanner set.

What is the best gear ratio for fixed gear bikes

Massive bike gear

Pray for a tailwind

There is no universal optimum gear for riding fixed just like there’s no one best anything for anybody. Much will depend on four things: terrain, fitness, cadence and your desired average speed. You can search as many forums as you like to find the best gear ratio but the only way to find that magic formula is to experiment.

Use a gear calculator to begin with, which will help you understand what gears are required for certain speeds when riding different cadences. Finding the right gear is like finding the right woman or man. Many will seem attractive but it’s not until you’ve spent some time with them and er, ridden ‘em until you’ll really know. Once the magic happens you will never flirt with another gearing ever again.

Me? Well, I’m in denial. I ride gears either side of what I think my special gear will be. I ride a 42 on the front simply because it came with the bike (in truth I’d prefer something a little bigger from a purely aesthetic view, along with a minor uplift in efficiency too – big front cogs transfer more power than small cogs).

On the back I ride either 14 or 17 depending on how I feel. The 14 is a little tough going when accelerating from a standing stop but I like to mash out some quick revolutions on this gear when feeling strong. The 17 is almost perfect for commuting but is a little too spinny, which helps ensure I stick to low tempo recovery rides, something I am incapable of doing on a geared bike. Some day I’ll splash out on that special something, which is probably a 16. In the meantime I’ll continue to enjoy the tease.

So off you go, deep into that murky world of gear ratios and gear inches and 44×16, 48×16 and 52×19 debates that will drive you crazy and leave others looking bemused. Before you know it you’ll begin researching skid patches, alienating even your closest of riding friends.

Ride fixed, ride free. Whatever you ride, smile.