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Off-Season Cycle Training with a Fixed Gear

In the Olden Days, before Spinning and workout videos, European professional cyclists used to train in the winter using a fixed gear bike, and only switched to their derrailleur-geared mounts in the spring. The fixed gear is a machine pretty similar to those used for track racing-a single-speed bike with no freewheel, and just a single, front, brake. Because there’s no freewheel, as long as you’re moving you have to pedal-no coasting downhill-and no back brake. (Use your feet to brake at the back-in fact, if you pedal backwards, the bike will go backwards). So why do such a bizarre thing anyway? There are good reasons, not least that you can get outside rather than stay stuck indoors sweating over a hot turbo. In the winter of 1998-1999 I experimented with the old-fashioned winter training described above, and didn't ride a bike with gears at all between early December and the end of March. To my surprise and delight, I found that once I finally dusted off the Trek and took her for her first spin since the previous season’s final race, I was the fittest and fastest on the bike I had ever been in my life, at least at that time of the year. So how does it work? First, pick a gear. For most people, something between 60-something and 70-something inches is probably about right. To calculate the gear in inches, divide the number of teeth on the chainring by the number of teeth on the rear sprocket, and multiply the result by the diameter of your wheel in inches. So for me: 52 front / 19 back = 2.7 x 26.25 = 72" gear. (Or use my patent gear calculator which you can find here). This means that a comfortable spin of 90-100 revs/minute gives me a speed of 18-20 mph on the road, and provides a good, basal "level one"-type training level, ideal for pre-season preparation. However, when climbing a hill there is no option-you have to get up and hammer. This is like a built-in interval training session, and definitely makes you stronger as you can’t give in to the temptation to downshift on the climb. It’s amazing how often one would have eased up "just a cog or two" if the choice had been there. (A nice side-effect of this though, is that one can climb nearly all hills faster than usual, being in a higher gear.) On the other hand, going down the other side of the hill now means that one must pedal very fast indeed, since the bike is directly-driven. This has the twin good effects of keeping the legs supple, and also develops a very efficient, fluid pedalling style as you want to avoid shaking the bike by bobbing up and down when spinning at 150+rpm on a 30 mph downhill. Thus not being able to coast is actually a good thing. Finally, without getting too Zen about it, riding a "fix" is a very different experience in a hard-to-describe way. With no interface like a freewheel between rider and road, one feels a very direct sense of the road and the momentum of the machine that is hard to describe, but once you give it a go you’ll know what I mean. It’s fun, in a way that is totally unexpected for such a basic, single speed bike. Man (or woman) and machine really are in perfect harmony. So give it a go: a couple of brisk, gently undulating 1-2 hour rides a week on a "fix" in the winter or early spring will put a smile on your face and put you in great shape for the start of the season-guaranteed!

If you decide to build a fixed gear bike, it’s pretty easy (and cheap, if you have an old beater lying around to convert), but there are a couple of technical points to consider. Sheldon Brown of the Harris Cyclery in Newton, Massachusetts has a very good article on his website describing how to convert an old road bike to a fixed-gear trainer. Mine is described below:

Road fixed gear based on 80s custom criterium frame

"This...is the coolest bike I have ever seen"-Anonymous Teenager, Kennebunk Triathlon, August 1998.

"That really is a completely heathen machine"-My Dad, January 1999.

Frame-Pretty damn unusual actually, which is mainly why this section is here. At least third-hand, bought sight-unseen over the Internet in 1996 for US $100. The chap I bought it from said it was Reynolds 531, made by David Lloyd of New Mexico in the very early 1980s, and although it appears to have been repainted at least once so there are no transfers on it, it does say "Made in New Mexico" and has a headtube badge of a Spanish Lady, and I have no reason to disbelieve him. What's interesting about the frame is that it appears to have been custom-built for a major fashion victim of that time: The bottom bracket is quite high (11"), handy on a fixed gear, and the frame angles are wildly steep: you can see how close the front wheel is to the downtube for example, and how little fork rake there is. There are a couple of other "cute" touches; a slotted bottom bracket shell (!) and no chainstay bridge; pretty unusual for a frame that old. It works very well as a fixed gear bike: it is 122 mm rear spacing (yes, 122: custom frame remember?) so that it was easy to get a perfect chainline with a standard track hub, and the high BB means it never grounds going round corners. The only hassle is that it has semi-vertical dropouts so there is less chain adjustment available than with a true track bike and I had to piss about a bit with gears to find something that would work. My 52-tooth chainring runs only a couple of mm from the chainstay.

Chainset-Sakae SX alloy racing double, with the 52-tooth chainring on the inside, held on with single-height stack bolts. A 40-tooth chainring also works, giving the same gear with a 15-tooth sprocket, but I think the larger chainring looks cooler and gives an arguably more efficient chain. Cranks are 165 mm, which gives a little extra ground clearance compared with the 170 mm I have on my other bikes. I have never decked a pedal on this bike.

Rear Wheel- Sovos track hub with a hollow axle added, 36 DT stainless spokes laced 3-cross to a Mavic rim I had lying about, taken off another bike. Completely dishless, which is another nice thing about fixed gear bikes.

Rear Sprocket-19 tooth, for a 72" gear. I can also use a 15 tooth sprocket with a link removed from the chain for a 91" gear, and use the bike for timetrialling. This bike actually holds my personal best for the bike leg of a triathlon (!), but I think that will change once I start using the Cervelo.

Brakes-Single front brake, Shimano 105 lever driving a Tektro dual-pivot caliper. Not posh, but stops the bike. No rear brake is necessary as it's a fix and I use my feet for rear braking. The track hub has a reverse-threaded lockring so that even under strong backpedalling force the sprocket cannot come undone. Personally I think it's a bit gay to ride a fixed gear with a back brake.

Handlebars-Profile pursuit bars. Comfortable, mean-looking and the hand position means I don't need a dummy brake lever on the left hand side to give a good "hoods"-style hand position as it's already there.

Pedals-Shimano 105 old-style triangular road racing pedals, with Mt Christophe steel toeclips and leather straps. Very nice looking, I think. Not large pedals, and so again, they minimise the risk of decking a pedal whilst going round a corner. I have sawn off the steel ridges that were there to hold a cleat in place, so that the pedals are completely flat like a platform pedal, and very easy to get in and out of.