Having purchased it in 2006, my bike --a Gary Fisher mountain bike with a rear rack, pedals that I could clip in or just stand on, a small light, a seat bag with a set of tools, tube, and patch kit, and memories of rides through the Jemez, the Sandias, the Bosque, the Magdalenas, Arizona, Colorado, and Nebraska--was stolen on a Friday, July 23rd. This was not a good time for my bike to be stolen. Just a week before I'd gotten rid of my car when the repair bill was more than the car was worth. So, losing my bike was more than just losing memories it was losing my main source of transport, the way I got to work, trips to friends' houses, grocery stores, and nights on the town.
I knew I was going to buy a new bike, and I was pretty sure I was going to buy a single speed. Basically a single speed bike meant that the price dropped considerably because having more than one speed meant a derailleur, and a derailleur isn’t cheap. So, on Sunday, I borrowed a car and drove out to the bike shop and purchased an SE Draft single speed bike.
A month later, after busting two rear spokes, I knew that a new wheel was in the works. But the dilemma was just beginning. In my research into single speed bikes, I discovered a debate that I didn't even know existed: the option of going with a "fixed" rear-wheel or a "free" rear-wheel.
Normally, most bikes come with what is known as a "free" wheel. This means that there is a system of ball bearings in the hub (the center piece of the wheel that all the spokes attach to and that attaches to the frame) that allows the pedals to spin without engaging the wheel. For example, in most bikes you can lift up the rear wheel and spin the pedals backwards and the wheel won't spin. The immediate impact of this is the ability to coast.
So there I was with a broken tire and a choice. Do I go "fixed" or "free?"
In a "fixed" gear bicycle, there are no ball bearings in the hub, so if the pedals move the wheel moves, forwards or backwards. Originally, all bikes were "fixed" gear bicycles, but when they invented the ball bearing system, most bikes moved to a "free" wheel. But, in the '80s "fixed" gear bicycles begin to make a comeback with the rise of the bike messenger. In big cities it is faster to have a bike courier shuttle paperwork (legal briefs, memos, medical records, etc.) from different offices than to mail it or have someone drive it over (there's just too much traffic, parking issues, etc.). Bikes can zigzag through traffic, run lights, hop up on sidewalks, and steer quickly around pedestrians and road hazards. As more messengers dart around town, their bikes are taking more of a beating. Since the "fixed" gear bike doesn't have a derailleur, ball bearings, or, sometimes, even back brakes, bike messengers begin hopping on them and darting across town because they were cheaper to buy and cheaper to maintain. In many cases the bike is so cheap, but durable, that the messenger doesn't even have to lock it up, which of course saves time as well.
But being cheaper isn't without its drawbacks. The catch with a fixed gear bike, or “fixie” for short, is that if I am not pedaling, I am braking. I don't have a choice. Either I pedal the bike or I slow down the speed of the turning pedals by applying pressure. I can, of course, take my foot off the pedals completely, but this creates problems because at some point I have to put my feet on the pedals and it's hard to do that when they are spinning. Yet, momentum is a powerful thing and stopping a wheel in motion is fighting momentum. Indeed, in order to really master riding a “fixie” one has to learn how to “skid,” “skip,” and “hockey stop.” Indeed, many early adopters had to learn these skills because they may not have any other way to brake. Knowing how to stop a brakeless “fixie” is sometimes a matter of life and death.
In answering the question of Fixed versus Free, I had to evaluate what exactly I was going to do with my bike. Despite the fact that my commute is not long, most of the time I'm going to use my bike to commute. Since my commute is not long, I won't be coasting because I'm tired. Likewise, I don't get much exercise besides my commute, so coasting more means less actual exercise. Finally, having a “fixie” means that I can actually pedal my bike backwards. I’d seen people standing on their seat as they drifted backwards and never knew how it was done. A “fixie” means that the rider can ride any direction the wheel spins.
Occasionally, however, I want to spin the wheel forward for a long time and having the ability to coast without taking my feet off the pedals does come in handy. In fact, being able to coast up to a stoplight, around a corner, or after a long climb is probably the most compelling reason to go “free.” Another advantage is all free-wheel bikes have a braking system that is not associated with the wheel at all, so, free-wheel bikes are relatively safer. Riding a free-wheel bike also means I can actually go down hills much faster. After a certain point there is only so fast my legs can spin, but with a free wheel bike, I can pedal as fast as I possibly can and if the wheel still “wants” to go faster it can; it’s not attached to the pedals the same way that a “fixie” is.What I wanted was both. So, after shopping around, I bought a new wheel with what is called a “flip-flop” hub. With a “flip-flop” hub I could ride “fixed” when I wanted to and then, by simply reversing the rear wheel, I have a “free” wheel too. I’d be able to ride “free” when I was on longer trips or ride backwards when I’m just looking for something to do. I’d be able to coast when I’m just too tired or get the workout when I, otherwise, don’t have much time. In biking, I could have my cake and eat it too.