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Unfashionably Fixed

If you follow us on Instagram, you’ll know I’ve been riding a fixed wheel a lot this winter.  It might seem a bit mad in the hills around here, but mostly they’re not that steep and it’s a good work-out when I don’t have time to be out all day.

I’ve been riding a fixed wheel for a very long time, well before it became a fashionable urban transport option and I thought I’d say a bit about that – it’s a left-over from a part of British cycling culture which is disappearing and still has something useful to tell us.

It all started when I broke my rear mech as a kid messing around in the woods near school.  I didn’t have any money to replace it so I went to a bike shop I used to hang out in with a plaintive look on my face.  It was run by a very eccentric old guy in overalls and was piled high with old bike bits.  Shops like that have long gone but there were still a few about back then.  I hoped he’d rummage around and give me an old rear mech, but instead he gave me a vintage Villiers fixed sprocket and explained how to convert my bike.  It was a bit weird riding a fixed for the first time, but I soon got used to it and was happy to be back on the road.  At about the same time I’d joined a cycling club and had started racing.  It was a real struggle for me keeping a racing bike on the road, so it made sense to use an old cheap-to-run bike for transport and winter training, and I quickly realised that my newly bodged up fixed wheel was perfect.

The old guys in my cycling club thought it was great that I was riding a fixed.  They told me it was fantastic for developing my pedalling style and for strength on the hills.  It was what they’d all done in their racing days.  Looking back a lot of what they told me was nonsense.  They saw no point in doing speed training and thought training over vast distances carrying bricks in a saddlebag was a good idea.  The maddest thing they ever told me was that I wouldn’t have time to drink during a race, so I must train myself to manage without water (!).  They had a point about the fixed though – to this day I have an unusually fluid pedalling style, learned from whirling the pedals around at 200rpm plus trying to keep up with my geared riding buddies.

As I got more into racing I decided to have a go at riding the track.  It turned out I was better at that than any other form of racing I tried, so I stuck with it.  Track bikes have a fixed, and back then most track riders used a fixed wheel through the winter for training, so my old winter bike was still getting used.

When I eventually stopped track racing I’d been riding a fixed wheel for so long it had become an important part of my cycling, so I carried on riding it in the winter.  It makes some sense in an English winter when the roads are covered in salt and grime to have a bike with a simple transmission and full length mudguards (fenders).

When we moved to France I decided to sell my fixed bike because I thought the hills here would be too hard without gears.  When it came to it, emigrating was so fraught I forgot all about it, and didn’t realise I’d still got it until it was unloaded from the removal truck.  It languished in the shed for a while, but one day I decided to go for a ride and see how I got on.  To my surprise it was fine.  The hills here are bigger than I was used to in the UK but the gradients are much more gentle.  I enjoy encountering French riders on the road.  There’s no culture of riding a fixed here, apart from on the track and for urban hipsters, so they’re always astonished to see me whirling around on such an eccentric machine.  Even the idea of having a winter bike with mudguards is alien to the local cycling culture – I don’t know anyone else who has one.

It’s still working for me.  After all these years I really like riding a fixed for reasons it’s difficult to put my finger on.  I often don’t have much time to ride and a hilly ride on a fixed is a fantastic workout in a short amount of time.  I’m over-geared on the climbs which forces me to ride faster than I would on gears and is a great strength exercise.  I can’t really be bothered to ride fast down the hills any more, but riding at a very high cadence sometimes is good for all cyclists.  It also means riding my summer bike is something I look forward to every spring because I’m not using it all year round.

We’ve never had anyone come on a cycling holiday here with a fixed wheel but it would be possible.  You’d need to bring your own bike and it would have to have brakes and a moderately sized gear for the hills.  Get in touch if you’re up for it.

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