Monday, March 10, 2008

Fixing fixed wheel terminology

Buffalo Bill writing on Moving Target about an article in the British Guardian/Observer newspaper on the Fixie craze.

Bill was ticked at the journalist writing the piece because she referred to the bikes as “fixed gear” when the correct term for the UK should be “fixed wheel.”

I agree, this is a British journalist writing in a British newspaper for a British audience; she should have used British terminology. Anyway, fixed wheel should be the correct term anywhere; it is a “fixed” wheel as opposed to a “free” wheel.

These bikes are described as having “no gears,” then are called “fixed gear.” As I see it, fixed wheel is the more logical term.

I have been guilty in the past of using the “fixed gear” term. In my defense, I can only plead that living in America for the last 29 years, using American terminology comes as second nature to me. Often if I don’t use American English no one knows WTF I am talking about.

If Bill is offended by the term “fixed gear,” let me say it drives me nuts that the fixie crowd refer to toe clips as “cages.” The reason we have all this strange terminology is that people don’t know the correct term, so they make something up.

These are cages.

These are toe clips.

That’s why we have clipless pedals. Pedals without toe clips; like sugarless gum is gum without the sugar. Don’t ask me why you “clip in” to clipless pedals because you’ll get me even more confused.

I’m already confused because some refer to the part of the pedal where the toe clip bolts on to as the “cage.” However, whenever I have seen “cages” come up on the various forums, they are defiantly talking about the shiny bits that go around your toes.

I see subjects like: "My cages hit my front wheel." Answer: Don’t carry yer budgie on the handlebars. (US translation: A budgie is a parakeet.)

The writer of the Guardian article seemed to think the fixie craze was started by West Indian immigrants in New York City in the 1980s. That is a new one to me; I hadn’t heard that one before. If this trend did start in NYC in the 1980s, why did it take over 25 years to go mainstream?

To set the record straight, the fixed wheel craze started the moment the first bicycle was built. The first bicycles had a fixed wheel, often with no brakes or minimum braking; the freewheel and efficient braking were invented later.

Fixed wheel bikes have always been ridden and enjoyed by bike enthusiasts. Ideal for commuting and riding in heavy traffic, or riding in close quarters with other riders. The rider has more control over the bike and can speed up or slow down at will.

Now the trend or current craze is “Riding a fixed wheel bike for no reason other than it is trendy to do so.” Just because everyone else is doing it.

Going brakeless is also a trend, and not necessarily a good one. Having a front brake will not impair your cycling pleasure, or performance one iota; you don’t have to use it. However, in an emergency, you may just be glad it is there.

I think the whole brakeless thing started because bike messengers were riding track bikes that were built with no provision for brakes. Bike messengers probably felt they were experienced enough not to need a brake. They could be right; they are professionals riding a bike all day, every day for a living.

Trendy or not, riding a bike with no alternative means of stopping is not right for everyone. It doesn’t mean that anyone can jump on a brakeless fixed wheel bike with little or no experience, and ride safely in today’s traffic.

You can always spot the inexperienced rider on the track; (Although often these are experienced road riders.) in an emergency, the first they do is stop pedaling and reach for the brakes that aren’t there.

While they are getting over the surprise that the pedals keep on turning, they plow into the rider who has fallen in front of them. Whereas the experienced track rider will instinctively steer around the obstruction.

Anyway, to sum it all up as I see it; it doesn’t matter that people are getting into this trend for all the wrong reasons. For a few, cycling will get into their blood and they will continue in some form or other long after this trend has passed.

Just as many who took up mountain biking in that craze during the late 1980s, early 1990s, and later switched to road bikes. Many are the hardcore, bike enthusiasts of today.

If nothing else, they will experience first hand what it is like to ride a bicycle in traffic. Maybe as adults they will become better car drivers because of it; at least drivers who are tolerant towards other people riding bicycles.


Buffalo Bill said...

Ticked? Ticked? I wasn't ticked. I was pissed off.

You really have spent too much time in the US. :-)

Nice piece Dave.

Dave Moulton said...


"Ticked" was a British understatment, like saying "It's a little chilly," when it's below freezing. Or "Bleeding Taters" as some would say.


Roman Holiday said...

Fixed gear, fixed wheel? I like the term: "one-gear" bike - it applies to both fixed & single speeds. Enjoy the ride

Simon Bird Building said...

i commute exclusively on a fixed-wheel, and have done for a good few years, sometimes i slip and call it a fixed-gear. in my defence i did live in the states for 5 years and that was when i started riding fixed. i think the use of the term fixed gear as opposed to fixed wheel in the uk shows the power and influence of the internet. probably the single other biggest influence on the fixed wheel phenomenon aside from 'messenger culture' would be the late great sheldon brown.
as for west indians messengers in nyc being responsible for the current craze hmmm... strange. i was first aware of london couriers using fixed wheel bikes in the late 80 early 90s -but that was when i first got into bikes so i probably just didn't notice before.
bill would know when london couriers started riding fixed, or had there alsways been some?
i know that cyclists of my age (late 30s) that i know, who raced and rode with clubs as kids trained on fixed gears through the winter i don't know when this stopped, or if it has started again with the resurgence of the fixed wheel.

Buffalo Bill said...

At the risk of repeating myself - couriers were riding fixed in London from messenger year zero (1983). Not many, but a few.

Like Dave said, people were riding fixed from bicycle year dot.

There may have been more NYCers than Londoners riding fixed in 1983, but, you know, let's not get too far into it, shall we?

Anonymous said...

i think a lot of the terminology issues come from the "trendy" nature of the current "fixie" culture. the folks using terminology incorrectly don't care: they're just involved as a fashion statement. they'll get hooked and learn or get bored and leave.

Ronald Lau said...


I would love to hear your thoughts about fixed wheel training. I myself ride fixed wheel between Thanksgiving to March during training ride and some commuting, and also having a hard time switching back to free wheel around this time of the year.


Harv said...

When I started riding "ten-speeds", pedals with serrated edges, combined with toe clips and leather straps resembled the spring-loaded traps used to capture small animals. Therefore, we called this setup "Rat Traps".
Occasionally, I still hear this term, but mostly from Retro-Grouches such as myself.

mander said...

Great article Dave. The digression was actually kind of fun.

One of my pet cycling peeves is fixed street riders who believe that riding fixed gears in the street instead of geared road bikes was invented by Jamaican messengers in NYC in the 70s. It may be true that this is where messenger fg culture (and its later hipster outgrowths) originated but the history of road cyclists choosing a fixed gear over derailers goes back quite a bit farther than that, at least to UK time trialing and club riding. Your blog does a lot to educate people about that, including me, so thanks.

mander said...

^^^ By the way, i offer no apologies for the North Americanisms above. I can't bring myself to become one of those annoying North Americans who insists on saying "fixed wheel" instead of "fixed gear" "cheers" instead of "thank you", etc. :)

Anonymous said...

Couldn't agree more with Dave's last three paragraphs: excellently put.

As a Brit living in the US, I am usually aware of the cross-pond differences in terminology. But I was never aware of the great "-wheel" vs "-gear" controversy, perhaps because I didn't really get the chance to own a fixie until I was this side of the pond. I actually see nothing wrong with calling that kind of bike a 'fixed gear', it's not like the term is inaccurate. And, unlike some others, I don't get insulted by the use of the term 'fixie'. I just like to ride; fixed-geared, free-geared, whatever.

Anonymous said...

Yes Dave! You have just taken a place of honor (honour?) with me. Glad to see someone set it all straight with the term 'fixed wheel'. You are 100% correct that what most people call fixed gears today are fixed wheels. Any bike that stays in one gear is a 'fixed gear', if the wheel stays fixed with the gear, then you have a fixed wheel.

As far as who was first? Someone in the 1870's,period.

Mike in MT

Colville-Andersen said...

Fixed wheelie gear bikes are cool in many ways.

I can certainly understand why some people are in on the fad.

I don't think they should be allowed on the roads as part of commuter traffic, however.

If one is interested in bike culture as the goal - meaning development of bike lanes and facilities and equality in the traffic between bicycles and motorised traffic - then fixie geared wheely bikes clearly don't adhere to the very basic traffic laws.

In Denmark and other countries rich in bike culture, bikes have strict rules regulating them with regards to brakes, lights, reflectors, etc.

It is because bikes are regarded as equal participants in the traffic flow and it is only fair that they are subject to traffic laws.

If fixies were allowed here then there would be cars driving around without bumpers, doors, what have you.

Great fad, great history behind it. But, unfortunately, there's no place for them on the streets of an urban bike culture.

I am, it may be worth stating, referring to fixed wheel bikes without any brakes. Bikes with one gear? That's half the bikes in Denmark, but they have coaster brakes and front brakes.

VintageSpin said...

Yes history seems to cycle; especially when people don’t know it.
It wasn’t a trend when my wife’s grandfather rode fixed gear/wheel bikes in the early 1900’s. Back when there were as many bike shops in Buffalo as Starbucks in Seattle today; when the national Road championships were contested on bikes with no brakes, no freewheeling: all racing bikes were without gears or brakes.
Albert Krushel rode six day races on a wood track at Madison Square Garden, trained on huge wooden rollers (even racing others on them at county fairs), and rode the streets of Buffalo on his fixed-gear wooden-rimed brakeless bike at a time when drivers of cars were in the infancy of experience.
Definitely one of the hard men.
When I see people riding rollers to warm up for a race today, or fixed gear bikes to develop their spin and fluidity, they are taking lessons from history.
Some of us never forgot them, some are just learning, most don’t know the difference. That is where trends come from.

Anonymous said...

I have a fixie in the herd and do ride it probably more than I should, but the thought of riding it in the street without a front brake (as Dave mentioned) has never crossed my mind.

I got into riding a fixed gear when a friend asked me to go with him to the local velodrome for a saturday training class. I rented a bike and immediately wondered how I was going to clip in while the pedal was rotating. Once I figured that out, I couldn't believe that the instructor wanted us to ride in a paceline for 40 laps since I didn't know what I would do if the guy in front of me stopped suddenly. It took me a while to realize that everyone was in the same situation I was in and that I only needed to climb the boards to stop. It was a great 3 hour experience and it hooked me. But at my age, I don't have enough family jewels to try and ride the streets of SF without a brake.

I watched a guy yesterday screaming down a hill on a fixie with no brakes, skidding the bike to slow down. Not only do I not possess the right sized balls to do that, I don't have the talent to do it either.

What I like most about my fixie and my single speed are that I don't have to think when I ride...just pedal. It's amazing what I can climb without thinking about it while on my road bike, I'd be wondering if I were in the right gear, should I shift down or up, etc. In other words, mindless works for me!!

Great article Dave. I could never get into British bikes because the handlebars were always on the wrong side of the bike!!

mander said...

Zakkalicious, you're confusing fixed gear bikes with brakeless bikes and coming off as rather ignorant and arrogant as a result. Not every bike without mechanical brakes is a fixed gear; and not every fixed gear lacks mechanical brakes. For this reason it's rather infuriating for a serious fixed commuter like myself and many thousands of others to read some call to ban fixed gears because bikes with no brakes are dangerous. That's clearly irrational; but far worse, it has potentially unjust consequences for real people in the real world. It would be like me calling for political limitations to be placed on all Swedes because a particular Swede i met once on the internet comes across as an annoying jerk.

As for lights and reflectors, I notice that a lot of the women you post on your website without their consent don't have those, and you don't seem to be complaining.

mander said...

^^ PS: I agree that everyone who rides at night should have to use lights; I don't believe reflectors are necessary or sufficient for visibility while night riding though.

Anonymous said...

The Observer article -- written, note, by the Style Correspondent -- was a spoof planted by NYC Bike Snob, reckons my mate Paul ('brixtonfixed').

I used to ride to work in London on a fixed-wheel bike at the beginning of 1980s and some couriers were using fixed then. It was not a fashion statement.

As for Zak, love your gals in Copenhagen but you can be sure that every country has construction and use regulations for bicycles. Just as in Denmark, it is illegal to ride any bike with no brake in the UK, as no doubt it is in the US.

It's just that today's police are not missioned to deal with cyclists. (I say this though I was once taken to court and fined for 'no lights after lighting-up time', back in the day.)

The correct term, of course, is fixed wheel.

Marrock said...

And folks drive on a parkway and park in a driveway...

Don't try to figure out why people do the things they do, you'll just make your head explode.

Anonymous said...

Fixed wheel? How do you ride if the wheel doesn't turn? ;)

Sounds like the term "fixed wheel" came into being as the opposite of "freewheel." "Freewheel" does not seem to me like a very good description of a one-way clutch mechanism in the way that I believe that neither "fixed wheel" nor "fixed gear" are terribly accurate descriptions. (Although, I feel that "fixed gear" is closer - implying a single gear ratio, while "fixed wheel" implies to me that the wheel does not turn).

I guess to be accurate, we'd call these bikes "single ratio chain drive transmission without a one-way clutch mechanism," but that would be rather unwieldy. To be practical, we need a simpler term, and I guess "fixed-wheel," "fixed-gear," or "fixie" are fine.

I also chuckle at the common description of a fixed gear bike being "unable to coast." Of course, the bike can coast! It's just that it's crank is going to continue to turn! The rider is the one who doesn't get to coast.

Anonymous said...

The rub is all these kids flaunting their 'savvy' on the web... going way over board to be sure their 3Rensho is NJS certified... and they don't have a grasp of basic terminology (unlike 'driveway' and 'parkway' which clearly describe the same thing). And John, it should make sense to you, as you wrote it out perfectly:
"(Although, I feel that "fixed gear" is closer - implying a single gear ratio, while "fixed wheel" implies to me that the wheel does not turn)." Exactly. A fixed gear is any bike with a front gear, and a rear gear. You then have one gear (measurable in inches). And with a fixed wheel, YES EXACTLY, the wheel is fixed and does not turn(independent of the gear).

Mike in mt

Anonymous said...

Every bike has a fixed wheel. Otherwise they would fall off and the bikes would be very unsafe.

Anonymous said...

Come to think of it, every bike is also fixed gear as the gear is fixed to the wheel. Honestly, it makes no sense to argue that any regional use is the "correct" one.

Unknown said...

All the terminology, whether "fixed-wheel," "fixed-gear," or "direct drive" or whatever are flawed in their own way, so I'll just go with the most common local usage, which is "fixed-gear." "Fixie" is something I'll use in speech but you'll never catch me writing it.

Zakkalicious: It's hard to call something a fad when people have been doing it since the dawn of cycling. Even after the freewheel was invented people would ride fixed on the street to train or in winter when there's less to break.

I've observed from lots of urban riding that a reasonably skilled fixed-gear rider is a much safer rider since they have finer control over their speed than a freewheel bike.

I don't have a problem with brakeless per se, but I do have a problem with lesser-skilled people doing it out of fashion. Only a truly expert rider, someone who can really stop on dime with their legs, should even think about riding brakeless.

Anonymous said...

Gee I prefer freewheels 'cause I can afford them. But my wife said to "get fixed" so I did...thus I now have a fixie. I don't understand what you guys are arguing about.

Bujiatang said...

This is me not making a condom joke

Anonymous said...

No argument... at least I thought not. The facts were presented, but it seems as though some would rather not aknowledge them. Call the bikes buttered anvils for all I care, just know that it's incorrect. If you fancy yourself in the know, or avid, you should recognize and use the correct terms, and know why they are correct.

Mike in mt

Anonymous said...

I had a fixed wheel in 1959 when I was 11 on a little American styled Triumph.
I used to stand on one pedal and bob up and down as it went down Shooters Hill to Shoulder of Mutton Green.
Marvellous but a bugger when climbing the hill to do it again.

mander said...

Mike in MT, in North America "fixed gear" is the correct term as used by avid cyclists. You are in MT, and MT is in North America so I suggest you adopt this terminology. Also, it's incorrect to say "if you fancy yourself in the know". "Fancy" is an adjective used to describe Hetchins lugs and the like; it's not a verb. Instead, I suggest that you say "if you consider yourself in the know".


Anonymous said...

actually, 'fancy' can be used as a verb and a noun in addition to being the adjective you know it to be. i guess it's not 'fixed.'

Anonymous said...

""Fancy" is an adjective used to describe Hetchins lugs and the like; it's not a verb. "

As staed fancy can be a verb, a noun or an adjective according to the Oxford English Dictionary. An American dictionary may say differently. I fancy.

mander said...

As staed? You Brits have a funny word for everything.

Buffalo Bill said...

Britain and the USA:

two nations divided by language...

jimmythefly said...

What if I have a Sturmey ASC fitted?