Fixing up a fixie

August 4, 2011

No matter how many miles I rack up in Portland traffic, my credentials as a genuine Portland bicyclist are deficient until I can course through town on a fixie. The real bikies do it; young kids in scruffy cut-offs, middle-aged professional men with street shoes and loosened ties, and young women in short skirts and high heels. But so far, not me. All three of my bikes are serious roadies equipped with an old man’s triple cranksets and oversize cassettes so that I can conquer hills.

Fixies are single speed bicycles on which the cranks have to turn whenever the wheels turn. In their purest form, they don’t even have brakes because you slow down or stop by backpedaling, thus forcing the forward motion to slow down, stop, and reverse. The chief advantage of a fixie is that it trains the cyclist to keep legs moving rather than coasting (loafing) on the job. Fixies, so their aficionados claim, are a purer and therefore superior way to bicycle. Since much of metropolitan Portland consists of relatively level land with only moderate climbs, fixies work pretty well for cyclists in good training.

A less demanding approach is a single speed bicycle with a freewheeling hub. These bikes allow cyclists to coast when they feel like it, and they require brakes, which become the primary means of slowing down or stopping.

Most people acquire fixies or single speed bikes by modifying a geared machine, and that’s what brings me to this column.

“By bringing this bike frame down to you,” my friend told me, “I’m making one wife happy and another unhappy.” He had bought the Alan aluminum bike twenty years ago, ridden it for a while, put on a newer style carbon fiber fork, and then retired the bike from service. It was cluttering up his storage area and he had to get rid of it. So down to my place it came, stripped of all components except fork, headset, and seat post.

It is absolutely beautiful, Italian-made, lightweight and limber, designed for all-Campagnolo components. In many ways, it is exactly right to fix up as a fixie.

Why did he quit riding it? One answer is implied in the question a bike shop mechanic asked when I took it in to talk about making it rideable again. “What are you going to do with it? Hang it on the wall as sculpture?” He explained that the original editions were wimpy and quickly came apart when ridden hard. After looking this one over, however, he concluded that it was a later, OK model, and we talked a little about making it work again.

There are two challenges, however, that I must first resolve, even to make it a fixie I would enjoy riding..

1)    The frame is a smidgeon too small for me. The 54 cm seat tube can be made to work by extending the seat post to its full safe distance. The forward reach, however, is nearly 5 cm shorter than on my other bikes. Maybe bullhorn bars, which sometimes are used on fixies, would be just right. Or, I could decide that since this bike is mostly for fun an upright position is OK.

2)    Clearances are so tight that 700 cm wheels (including a spare set I have in storage) use up all of the space. There isn’t room to accommodate the 28 or 30 cm tires I would prefer to use. Worth considering for a fixie would be the increasingly popular 650 cm wheels. They would require long reach brakes. Even with the smaller wheels, there probably wouldn’t be room for fenders. But on a your basic urban fixie why would anyone mount fenders, anyway? What’s a little rain (or a lot) to a real webfooted bicycle rider in Portland and the Northwest?

Will this beautiful Alan frameset soon grace the streets of Portland? Too soon to tell. Advice, anyone?


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