David L. Stanley
David L. Stanley
600 Words in Praise of the Fixed Gear
David Stanley is an experienced cycling writer. His work has appeared in Velo, Velo-news.com, Road, Peloton, and the late, lamented Bicycle Guide (my favorite all-time cycling magazine). He blogs regularly for Dads Roundtable. Here's his Facebook page. He is also a highly regarded voice artist with many audiobooks to his credit, including McGann Publishing's The Olympics' 50 Craziest Stories and Cycling Heroes.
On average, December 13th in my hometown of Flint, Michigan has a high temperature of 34F and a low of 20F. Normally, there are six inches of snow on the ground, with another six more inches on the way before the new year. At this moment, it is 60F, with a predicted high of 64F. My grass is green. The dog poop on the deck is not buried under the snow. It is right out in plain sight and it awaits my shovel and plastic bag. My confused Magnolia liliiflora tree looks like it is ready to bud.
These issues raise a serious question for a serious cyclist: Fixed gear or road bike?
In December, my bikes should an afterthought, hanging in the basement. I should be on skis: cross-country and downhill. I should be out at the rink on my skates. I should be thinking about deadlifts and squats and plyometric box dumbbell step-ups. Tire widths and PSI, headband or beanie under the helmet, wax or lube on the chain? These are issues which shouldn’t come to mind until mid-February.
Where do I stand?
With my leg over my fixed gear. The fixed gear is the elemental basis for our sport. As John Lennon said when asked about the basis for his music, the blues is a chair. Not a design for a chair, or a better chair…it is the first chair. It is a chair for sitting on, not for looking at. You sit on that music. And the fixed gear is the blues for a true cyclist.
Throw your leg over a fixed and ride with Henri Desgrange, the founder of the Tour de France, and Maurice Garin, in 1903, Le Tour’s first winner. Yes, Virginia, they rode the first Tour de France, 1,500 miles over six stages, on bicycles with only one gear. Derailleurs would not arrive in the Tour until the 1930s.
Maurice Garin with his fixed-gear bike and ciggie after winning the 1903 Tour de France
Rise slowly out of the saddle to pedal more gingerly over railroad tracks and ride with Arthur Augustus Zimmerman, the fastest velodrome racer in the world during the 1890s. Zimmy, with no toe straps and a 68 inch gear, was once clocked in the flying 100 meters in 5.4 seconds. Forty MPH.
Press back against your pedals to slow yourself as you near a stop light and ride with Major Taylor. The Indianapolis born Taylor (born 11/26/1878) had to leave the US to avoid the rampant, violent racism against African-Americans of the time. Once in France, he became the second black world champion in any sport.
Out on the fixed gear, life is simple. Look down. That chain is the direct link between you, the bike, and mastery.
On the fixed one learns acceptance. You have a tailwind? Pedal faster. You have a headwind? Suck it up and suffer. Need to slow down for a light? Relax the legs. Need to get back up to speed? Stand up; get the gear turning over before you sit down again.
Joyous silence. No noise from a scrubbing front derailleur. No ting ting from an out of kilter rear changer.
With the winter solstice nine days away, daylight is scarce. On the forty-third parallel, I have nine hours and three minutes of sun today. A forty-five minute spin on the fixed gear, no coasting, is plenty of work.
Tour de France boss Henri Desgrange on a fixed-gear bike in the 1930s
Connect with cycling’s glorious past. As Henri Desgrange said in 1902,
The derailleur is for old people. Isn’t it better to triumph by the strength of your muscles than by the artifice of the derailleur? We are getting soft … As for me, give me a fixed gear!
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