Confessions of a Fixie n00b: Part 1

Lately as I ride my trusty 12-speed through the coldest part of the Toronto winter, I find myself daydreaming about my plan to build a fixed single gear (aka "fixie") bike to replace my current ride. Don't get me wrong, I love my bike- it was gifted to me in a moment of dire need and I'm grateful for it every time it allows me to avoid the TTC or worse, driving a car. Nonetheless, I'm captivated by the idea of riding a bike which I have put together entirely myself, and which connects me in a much more direct way to the earth that supports me. Why and wherefore? Read on.

DIY Homework

When I decided to take this project on a few weeks back, I realized that I knew next to nothing about fixies: what parts I would need, where I would find them, put them together and most importantly, how I would even ride the thing! Fortunately, being a web geek, I knew where to turn for answers.

The great thing about the internets is the endless possibility for self-education. For an exponentially growing number of topics, it is all too easy to collect several dozen relevant browser tabs. The flipside of this coin of course, is that it becomes easy to masquerade falsely as someone with knowledge or wisdom, rather than someone with a pile of information cobbled together from a few dozen browser tabs. To mitigate this, I hereby publicly declare myself a fixed gear newbie (aka "n00b"), as I embark on a journey to know my bike, and to use it wisely.

At this point, I've done a fair bit of homework, talked to some friends who've had experience on this front, and started to formulate a plan. To start off this series though, I'd like to focus a bit on the why more than the wherefore.

Not for the coolness...

First off, let me make clear that while I readily confess to being a n00b when it comes to fixies, I am also NOT doing this simply because "it's cool". I have no interest in participating in elitism of any kind, and I certainly wouldn't take on this kind of project simply because I thought it was neat. Having said that, it should be obvious that fixed gear bikes are cool, but for me that's not the motivating factor, really.

In fact, there are a handful of inter-connected reasons which finally brought me to this point. First, I want to become a better mechanic. I've often thought it'd be nice to have a "project bike" that I'd built up "from scratch" as a way of improving and developing my skills at building and maintaining bikes. Truth be told, I have a fairly minimal set of maintenance skills for my regular bike. Most of the time I'm too lazy, tired, or busy to bother doing it myself, and accept the tradeoff of paying a shop mechanic to do all but the most basic upkeep on it. I feel embarrassed about this (particularly given how long I've been riding bikes), but there you have it.

So then it occurred to me: a fixed gear bike has no derailleurs, no shifters, at most one brake, and very little else. In essence, it's the simplest possible machine to build and maintain- seems like a great place to start!

Related to this, I have an increasing desire to improve my riding skills. Without bragging, I can say that I've achieved a high level of skill at riding a bike. I've been an enthusiastic cyclist for nearly 30 years, and I've been riding at least 30 minutes every day for the last 10. I did mountain bike riding for several years, and have experience in every type of weather Ontario can throw at me. Obviously this doesn't compare to professional riders, messengers, or those who tour the world, but for me, it's time to take my skills to the next level.

Finally, there's a more philosophical reason: a tai chi instructor of mine once compared fixies to riding a "tai chi bicycle". This idea has stuck in the back of my mind for many years, and became the core around which the various other reasons revolved. As my tai chi form practice evolves and my understanding of tai chi philosophy becomes more and more embodied, I find I have some intuitive notion of what a "tai chi bicycle" might be like, and more than anything this feeds my dreams.

Next steps?

First off, I plan to make a trip to my favourite bike shop and possibly a new shop in my hood which also builds fixies, and try some on for size. See about getting properly fitted so I have a good idea what frame dimensions I'm looking for ideally. Test ride a few to get an idea what it's like and confirm that I really want to go ahead with this.

From there, I plan to start hunting on Craiglist for a frame, acquire the various other parts I'll need, and then start spending time at Bike Pirates to build it. With luck and some disciplined use of "spare time", I intend to be riding my new whip by the summer Solstice, 2010.

Some links

To close, I'll include a handful (not quite a dozen) of the most useful links I've run across so far.

What's your story?

As an experimental supplement to my research, let's try a little "crowdsourcing": Why do you ride a fixie? How did you make the switch? What other resources, tips, tricks, or adventures can you share that will educate or amuse me along my way? Leave your comments below!