Sorry if I’ve lead you to believe this is going to be about maintaining your handcrafted travel bike, but it’s really about the implications of a Bike Friday as a fixed gear. I would say that the title wasn’t intentionally misleading, but then I’d be lying. It is true that my Bike Friday fixed gear (BFFG) was built because I wanted one, not because I wanted to make the next best thing or start a production run (though it accomplished both). However, I love my bike and, frankly, I’d like to encourage a little more interest among the uninitiated just simply because of my passion for the concept. Those of you who have racked up the Bike Friday referrals know what I’m talking about. Whether you’re already curious or are simply wondering why I continue to press this issue, read on and please forgive the grungey pictures, but Grunge is what I do.
First off, if you haven’t read my previous postings about fixed gears, do so. To summarize: a fixed gear, which is a singlespeed sans coasting mechanism, maximizes everything but the gear range. You get more strength training, more spin training, more durability (a fixed gear is undoubtably the MOST durable a bike can be built), more efficiency, more control, and most importantly, more fun. The simplicity is not only aesthetically appealing, but makes it a perfect training tool (Lance Armstrong, Tour de France record holder, is among the many who have trained on a fixed gear) and the ultimate commuter.
Couple this with the ability to fold it to easily get it in your office, on the bus, in the carpool and the ability to travel worry free and the equation becomes clear:
fixie + Friday = fabulous
Many people wonder, though, how it all works out. How does it fold, how cheap can you get it, etc. etc. etc. Well, here’s everything I can think of:
We use horizontal dropouts which Sheldon Brown insists ardently on calling rear facing fork ends (or at least he asserverates vehemently that no one should refer to them as dropouts, though it seems to me that his double-handlebarred Rohloff-equipped Thorn is more disturbing than that trifle).
We use our very own, extra long dropouts and we will not use someone else’s dropouts. No, you can’t have Surly (and yes, for those of you who have been paying attention, the original incarnation of my BFFG did have these but they don’t accomplish the intended design goal; also note you especially can’t have the horizontal dropouts that also have a derailleur hanger, though we’re happy to report that our dropouts come with rack mounts at least) Paul (who does call them dropouts) or whatever. No, even if you have some classy old Campy semi-horizontal dropouts. I mean, I’ll take them off your hands and all, but.. I digress.
The real reason that this doesn’t work is because of chain tension. Surely you can’t expect a derailleurless bicycle to keep the chain on without a good degree of tautness. Once you understand that you’ll rip a chain tensioner off if you tried to put it on a fixed gear, the whole point behind the horizontal dropouts should make sense (and no, we cannot, unfortunately, do adjustable dropouts or eccentric bottom bracket shells though an ex-employee once did the latter– more on that later).
The other thing that needs to be understood is that because the hinge on the standard Pocket bikes is behind the bottom bracket, the bike needs slack in the chain to allow the rear end to fold. Basically the crank stays in place while the rear wheel arcs around it, first moving away before coming closer (if this isn’t making sense, look at the bike: the hinge is behind and below the bottom bracket which itself is a bit below the axle; draw a circle through the axle with the hinge as the center and you’ll see the largest radius is actually in line with the hinge and the axle will have to pass through this). The extra long dropouts that we have allow enough adjustment that you can get this slack in the chain just by pushing your wheel forward in the dropouts rather than having to fiddle with the chain. And yes, that’s right– the Air bikes don’t require this extra movement but still we won’t use another dropout because they won’t fit in our jigging and we’re not likely to redesign our entire tooling to work for so rare a situation.
Speaking of not fitting, anything outside of 130 or 135mm hub spacing does not fit into our jigs. 140mm spacing is common on tandems, but not ours. Similarly, 120mm spacing is common on track bikes (oh, and if it’s not clear, though all track bikes are fixies, the opposite is not true), but not ours. Yes, for those of you who have been really paying attention, Terry Trickett does have an Air Friday with a full Campy track group– which includes 120mm hub spacing. We did his without tooling, off the jig, by hand. Since this allows for a huge margin of error, we’re not going to be doing that again.
Another thing: we won’t again be doing adjustable rear brake mounts. Yeah, we did that for a customer who ended up selling his bike to Billy Fenton (does it not seem to you that selling the bike implies he didn’t like it? and there’s not much on a fixed gear to dislike). It works ok but it’s a real PITA to set up and it’s another one of those things that was done without any tooling. Not good.
The implication to this is that even if you have a flip flop hub you simply can’t have a rear brake. Now with a singlespeed (i.e. not fixed), you can use a standard frame with a chain tensioner and have a rear brake and even convert it later to a standard gearie and there are no worries. With a fixed gear, all that adjustment in the dropout is well beyond the adjustment limits on the brake. It just doesn’t work. This is where the eccentric bottom bracket shell or the adjustable dropouts would be really nice but until we make a jig for them, it’s not going to happen.
As far as I’m concerned, the fixed gear works very well as a rear brake or even the primary brake. I’ve ridden “brakeless” (in actuality, I’ve backpedalled to brake) for quite some time, even gone down some very steep descents with no issues. However, there are definately some concerns to be had about whether or not it’s legal to ride on the street without a brake, though we’ve got some people in high places fighting to defend us. For this reason and because, after riding my gearie for a while, I realized I really like riding on the hoods on my drop bars, I put a front brake on my bike just recently. You might disagree and want to ride brakeless. Fine, but because of these concerns, all of our fixed gears will come equipped with at least one brake. Don’t want it? That’s what craigslist is for, silly!
One really cool thing, though: you can have a quick release on the rear wheel. This makes it not only really easy to change flats but also makes it easier to move the wheel forward to fold the bike. Sure, most fixed gear/singlespeed hubs come with solid axles and nuts that hold them on, just like most internal hubs out there. However, this is not a requirement any more than 144 bolt circle diameter cranks or steel drop bars are. Maybe if you were doing match sprints on the track. Maybe. Some people think there’s no way a quick release is going to hold against the torque and for some quick releases, that’s true. Once again referencing the master of minutae, Sheldon Brown indicates that an enclosed cam quick release with steel serrations and threads on the nuts is sufficient for the task. The next consideration is getting a quick release fixed gear hub. Some people make it easier than others and we found the two best choices to be Phil Wood (who can make just about anything you can imagine– aluminum or steel axles, high or low flange, just about any number of spokes, flip flop of any combination [fixed/free;free/free;fixed/fixed]) and Surly. Surly in particular is nice because though they don’t make a fixed hub with a QR axle, they use standard axles and we can just order one up for you and install it.
Speaking of hubs, since the usual track hubs (Campy, Dura Ace, Suzue, Miche, etc.) are all out on spacing alone, you might be wondering what your choices are. The aforementioned hubs are what we’re most familar with. The hubs we keep in stock are hubs we have worked with and know we can trust to work for the task. These are the Phil Wood and the Surly. You can get pretty much anything you want in the Phil Wood but the Surly is only available in a black 32 hole low flange fixed/free set up stock with a solid axle.
Anything outside of these hubs will incur a $25 special order fee, but a wide variety of possibilities are available. Be forewarned, though, that we may not be able to easily acquire these hubs and there may be some other compatibility issues that we don’t know about because we haven’t really used them. That being said, here’s the relevant list (and note there’s a great guide available):
- Fixed Inc. Alley Cat – 135mm, 32 hole, fixed/fixed, high flange from aforementioned guide. Never seen one before, hard to find more info.
- Goldtec – 130/135mm, 32/36 hole, black/pewter, fixed/free, low flange. Has some flats machined on the axle to keep it from spinning in the dropout sort of like a lot of internal hubs. Again, never seen one and they’re from the UK so not easily acquired.
- Iro – 130mm, 32/36 hole, black/silver, fixed/free or fixed/fixed, high/low flange (latter only available in 32 hole, silver, fixed/free). These are made by Formula, just as Gansaari’s used to be. Our inventory guy has these on his big wheel fixie.
- LeVeL with bolt-on cogs – 135mm, 32/36 hole, black/silver, flip flop of some undisclosed variety, high flange. Never seen one up close but seems like they would work really well.
- On-One from the UK – 135mm, 32/36 hole, black, single fixed or double fixed (latter only available in 36 hole), low flange. Another import I’ve never seen.
- Paul – 130mm, 24/32/36 hole, black/high polish silver, solid/QR axles, high flange. Top notch stuff, looks like old school Campy. Have a customer with a set on his BFFG. Paul’s a nice guy, too; met him at Sierra Nevada Brewing Company in Chico where his shop’s at.
- Royce is another UK one, but the one that Chris Boardman used to break the Athlete’s Hour Record . 130/135mm, 24/32/36 hole, silver, single fixed, solid axles, low flange. Another UK import I’ve never seen. Supposedly custom drillings available, including for bladed spokes.
- Van Dessel – 130/135mm, 32 hole, black, fixed/free, solid or QR, low flange.
There is one other option, too. From the same guys that make the only sealed cartridge bearing freewheel in the market, the White Industries Eric’s Eccentric Eno hub allows you to run a nutted fixed/free flip flop on a standard frame. With it, the chain tensioning is basically in the off-center axle. This design works pretty well, though there isn’t quite enough adjustment to handle any more than about a two tooth difference between the two cogs. It will work (at least as far as we’ve tested– on a 451mm frame/wheel) with the rear brake except at its extremes of adjustment. The only downside is that under heavy torque, you may find that the hub slips a bit. Definately get out the long leverage wrench to tighten this puppy down. Oh, and you’ll need to buy a thin cone wrench to adjust the chain tension. Obviously, you’ll need to carry this with you, too. The nice thing about this is that you can use a standard frame– even an old one– and get a fixed gear. The only other way to do this conversion on an old frame is to have us build a whole new rear end which is not necessarily a cost effective solution. The price would be $170-395, depending on which mdoel you have. At that point you might as well keep your gearie and have a fixie as a backup.. or vice versa.
Ah, yes, frames. You might wonder what other sort of pieces on the basic Friday frame are going to change besides the dropouts. The basic construction/design of the frame is the same and includes all of the accessory braze-ons for kickstands, fenders, racks, trailers, and water bottle cages, though you can ask for these things to be removed. You will not get cable guides on the frame, nor will you get a rear brake mount. There will be no hangers for a front or a rear derailleur. In other words, get a fixie, and you’re fixed into it. No looking back. Make the commitment or it will be made for you!
And if you’re one of those crazy Rivendell followers, you might feel inclined to ask about things like using two chainrings and as much as I admire the concept, it’s not something we’ve ever had enough interest in to really check out. I guess it would make fixed touring a little more sensible. At that point, you’re kind of cheating, though. It’s like being Amish and driving a Hummer.
This then brings us to the topic of gearing. Though Sheldon Brown has covered this topic extensively, I’ll put my own two cents in. First off, when you’re reading about gearing, keep in mind that a 46/16 on a 700c is not the same gear inches as a 20″ wheel. I would recommend using my favourite gear calculator to help you do the comparisons, especially considering it will give you cadence information. This is the piece that I would recommend focusing on. Pick the right wheel size (notice that all the standard 406/451mm tires are listed under the driver size dropdown) and stick in a few numbers for cogs. We can, in general, do 60-38 for a front chainring (assuming a 130mm BCD.. if you have a more rare 110mm, you could go down as small as 34) and 13-22 in the back (note that the smallest standard freewheel available if you’re doing a flip flop is a 16 and they go up to about 23). Now you can’t coast so you really want to avoid two things: a seat too low and gearing too high. You want to be spinning in the 80-100RPM range (maybe more if you’re really proficient at it), so look at the cadence information for the particular speed you’d like to go and try to pick something around there.
You’ll need to consider some tweaks if you’re in a really hilly area or if you’re going to be pulling a lot of weight just the same as if you’d be in the velodrome. Typical velodrome gearing is somewhere in the 80s but this is a little high for most road use. When I first started with Red Bull (that’s what I named BFFG#1) I had 77″ but that was clearly on the high end, especially given that I was running through a lot of wind. I’m now at about 70 and I love it. Gearing in the 60s is not uncommon for people that tour, like to go slow, do a lot of hill climbing, etc. It’s all subjective, though. Get something close, try it, and see how it works. Keep in mind that small changes in the back are equivalent to big changes in the front. Also keep in mind that you’ll need a gear small enough to get uphill without killing yourself, but also large enough that you can get downhill without hitting the eject button.
Another note to be made about getting the right gearing is that if you ride around on a coastie and find the perfect gear, pick a gear slightly larger for a fixed gear. Since the fixed gear provides more output for the same amount of input due to momentum and inertia and things like that, a fixed gear with equivalent gearing to a coastie will essentially seem “lower.” Another note to make about gearing is that shorter cranks (which are common on fixed gears because they increase your cornering clearance; I might add, too, that there’s definately such a thing as too long of a crank, but not too short; lastly, smaller cranks will help you keep a better spin) will make the gearing seem a bit higher because you don’t have as much leverage. Keep that in mind if you’re thinking of switching your crank length.
There is another way to effectively get some better speed on the bike. They’re called drop bars. After only recently converting to drops, I am entirely convinced that they are a nearly essential piece to a fixed gear. I love riding in the hoods and if I don’t, the flats are a perfectly comfortable place, too. Where the drops are really advantageous is when you hit a headwind or really want to otherwise increase your speed by decreasing your aerodynamic profile. Since I moved to the windy west side of Eugene, this has made an enormous difference. Where it used to be struggle, it’s now just a matter of dropping down. Having drop bars is like having two gears. It’s not going to be any harder to pack. You might as well go for it. Heck you might even be able to get away with unsplit drop bars and a standard ahead stem! I would recommend keeping both brake levers on there for symmetry and since it offers the option of actually riding on the hoods!
Alright, you ask, what’s this going to cost me? A good question indeed and the answer is undoubtably it depends. Except for the stock bikes (obviously), we can make any model a fixed gear, so there’s some variability in the frame alone. The cheapest option then is a New World Tourist, which will come in at around $1000 for a basic set up with a Surly rear hub and MTB bars and some Bike Friday Select parts. The most expensive possibility (on a traditional single bike– no one has yet asked about a fixed tandem or recumbent) is a super-fancy Air Friday. We’d be looking at about $4000 for that. If you fit somewhere in that price range, we can probably fix a Friday for you. Here’s what you need to think about:
- Handlebars – drops or flats
- Levers, if you have a preference
- Brake – need extra stopping power?
- Gearing – whatcha want? see above.
- Tires – think about pressure, tread, durability
- What component level are you thinking of?
- What is your budget?
- Need any accessories?
- When do you need it?
Now if that’s got you all excited, good. I plan on starting a new monthly series I like to call
Bike Friday Fabulous First Friday Fixed Gears
or BFFFFFG for short. Its purpose will simply be to show you some of the marvelous possibilities available, a gallery of coast-free folding bicycles. You can expect to see Gilligan, the aforementioned EBB-equipped ex-employee bike, as the very first one. So keep an eye out– it’s less than a week away.
Speaking of timing, we’re trying to fill up our production schedule for the winter. We’ve got quite a few fixed-friendly folks in the production line who love opportunities to put them together. In order to make them happy, I’d like to give you the inspiration to purchase a fixed Friday of your very own. Give me a call (or email or IM or come visit) and I will consult with you and determine the right solution for your needs and reward you with a totally free-of-charge upgrade to a Phil Wood hub of your choice from now until the end of October for orders of $1500 or more. Be aware that we are trying to fill slots in the schedule, so this offer is not applicable to orders that have already been placed.
Do make sure to mention magic code 1291 and you’ll get unparalleled durability and reliability on a machine already noted for its durability and realiability.. not to mention foldability and packability and custom-fit-to-youability! Winter’s almost here and that means you’re either going to need to wake up early to get the gas guzzler warmed up so you can go get your coffee. Or you could jump start your morning with a brisk ride on a svelte bicycle meant to withstand the worst weather and designed to maximize your enjoyment and exercise. Come experience the freedom of being fixed!