Tuesday, May 24, 2005

Fixed Gear. The Screamin' Salmon has a new look!

The Screamin' Salmon has news look!

Of course almost nobody reading this knows the old look. But let me tell you about the Screamin' Salmon. This bike was originally built and named in Boston by my friend Ryan Tacy. It was also ridden by John Gertsen. I underpaid one of them (I think Tacy) back in 1999 and it became mine. It’s the only bike of mine with a name.

It's a fixed-gear bike. I learned to ride this bike in Baltimore. I didn’t bring my Bianchi when I moved to Baltimore in late 1999 so I’d be forced to ride the Salmon. It worked. I rode it to the police academy everyday for 6 months and less so after I had to buy a car. But it was my Baltimore bike.

Then it sat in the Cambridge basement for the past four years (it actually improved a bit as Tacy put some more work into it). It’s not easy to move bikes long distance without a car. I have a bag large enough (and specifically designed) for bikes. And thanks to the Chinatown bus (they don’t care what you throw down there), I finally brought it back about a month ago to its new home in New York City. It’s mine again!

A fixed-gear bike means you can’t coast. When the rear wheel turns, the peddles turn. A little nomenclature: all fixed-gears are one speeds, but most one-speed bikes are not fixed gear. Most bikes are free wheel or free hub, meaning when the rear wheel goes forward, the peddles don’t go with it. And any bike that doesn’t have a derailleur can be called a single track. A single-track bike (it’s not a very common term, I don’t think) can be your old 1-speed, a fixed gear, or an internally shifting bike with many-speeds (like the Bluebird).

And all track bike (racing bikes for track racing) are fixed gears; but not all fixed gears are track bikes. Most fixed gears you see on the street, like the Screamin’ Salmon, are converted road bikes. Now you can actually buy a new fixed gear in a bike store. This is a new development. It shows they’re gaining popularity, but they’ll never be mainstream.

How can you spot a fixed gear? Look at the rear cog. If it looks like a racing bike and it’s only got one cog in the rear (as opposed to a standard “10-speed” setup), it’s probably a fixed gear. But it could just be a one-speed. Next, look if there’s a rear break. Fixed gears don’t have rear brakes. That’s what your legs are for. Many fixed gears don’t a front brake either, but more on that later. Finally, look if the rider stops peddling when he or she slows down. If the rider coast, it’s not a fixed gear.

Finally, look at the rider. Is the rider a white guy with dreads? Is the rider somebody you wouldn’t want to meet in a dark alley? Is the rider somebody you wouldn’t want to date your daughter? Is the rider somebody you’d like to date? If the answer to any of these questions is “yes,” then the bike is probably a fixed gear. If it is a fixed gear and you’re caught staring at it, feel free to give the rider a knowing nod and a sly smile.

Fixed gears are very old-school (I’m talking 19th-Century old-school, not Afrika Bambaataa old-school). Fixed gears are very popular among bike messenger. Fixed gears get you some street props. They’re generally considered hard core. But in general, being able to coast is good. He who invented the freewheel was on to something. So why, you might ask, would anybody want to ride a one-speed fixed-gear bike?

Fixed gears have a couple of big advantages over “normal” bikes:
1) They’re really light. There are no extra parts like deralleures and breaks and shifters.
2) They’re really simple. Because they don’t have extra parts, they really get to the essence of what a bike is about. And there’s less that can break.
3) They’re so efficient to bike. Nothing takes less energy to peddle than a fixed gear. It’s a combination of light and efficient. There’s no wasted effort on your part. What you peddle is what you get. No friction, no noise, just power.
4) They’re really precise and easy to steer at very low speeds. Useful for city riding.
5) They’re great going uphill. Many people find this surprising. I did. People have gears for going uphill. It doesn’t makes sense that a one-speed is better. But fixed gears always pass racing bikes going up hill (and everything passes mountain bikes. I really don’t get why people have mountain bikes with big nobby tires in New York City. It just don’t makes sense). I’m not 100% sure why fixed-gear bikes are so good uphill. But it’s got to do with being light, being efficient, and the fact that you have no choice. Since you can’t downshift, you just have to keep peddling. The ability to zoom uphill, to me, is the main advantage of riding the Screamin’ Salmon. Pretty much the only big hill where I go is the bridge into the City. On a fixed gear, I know that the half-mile Queensboro Bridge uphill will be a piece of cake.
6) You’re much more “at one” with your bike when you’re riding. I don’t want to get too Zen here, but trust me on this one.

Fixed gears also make you a better bike rider. You learn how to ride a bike much better when you can’t coast over bumps and through turns. The first time you ride a fixed gear, it’s tough. You can’t stop peddling. You instinctively try to coast and you almost get thrown by the peddles. The peddles will move you. Momentum is on their side.

When you learn to ride a fixed gear, it’s a little like learning how to ride a bike all over again. And since you don’t forget what you already know, you become a better biker.

But breaking is what tends to define a fixed-gear bike. Many don’t have any brakes. But that’s just dumb. Why not have a front brake? Chains can brake. Rarely. But they can. Why risk it? But most fixed gears, including the Screamin’ Salmon, have a front-wheel brake.

To slow down on a fixed gear you just sort of reverse peddle. You can’t really reverse peddle, of course, as long as you’re moving forward. But you apply force in the backwards direction. To break medium hard you basically stand on the peddle as it’s coming up. It’ll lift you, but you’ll slow it down. A lot.

With a little practice on a fixed-gear, you can also lock your legs and freeze the rear wheel, This slows the bike down with a rear-wheel skid. But I’d just a soon use the front brake for quick stopping. And using the front break lifts the back of the bike up a little, making it easy to lock the rear wheel. Fixed gears require toe clips or bike shoes. Your feet have to stay on them peddles.

If you can't picture this, think of your old Big Wheel (I don't think I ever had one--I was on to "real" tricycles pretty quickly--but I sure thought Big Wheels were cool, especially the skid-inducing read-wheel hand break). Big Wheels are fixed gears, or they would be if they had a gear. You slow down on a fixed gear like you did on your Big Wheel.

I think a fixed gear is safer to ride than a normal bike if you tend to ride fast, like I do. Because the fixed gear is a one-speed, you tend to bike slower on the level roads than you would on a 10-speed. But slow and steady wins the race. And on a fixed gear you also start slowing down a bit earlier.

What’s the downside? Not coasting can be a downside. But really there’s only one: going downhill. It’s not as fun or as fast on a fixed gear. You can’t go too fast downhill, because your legs have to keep up. And it’s not as fun, because you can’t coast after you crest a hill.

Truth be told, if I could only have one bike, I’d take my Bianchi over the Screamin’ Salmon. But the Screamin’ Salmon or any fixed gear is a great second bike. I probably ride it half the time I could take my Bianchi. Especially for short to medium distances.

So what’s the new look? (please excuse the--as Ali G might say--digestion) The handlebars! The Salmon had straight mountain-bike handlebars. I didn’t like them. They were too hard on my arms, especially my wrists. It’s much harder to absorb shock in your arm on straight handlebars and with your fists straight out and horizontal.

I’ve always wanted to try these handlebars. So I ordered me some Moustache Handlebars on e-bay. About $35. And I had to buy a road-bike brake lever (about $20). Along with looking slick, these handlebars give your hands lots of positions, a huge advantage. Because of the multiple hand positions, moustache handlebars aren't great with brakes and shifters (which demand that your hand be on them). But they're perfect for a fixed-gear.

The brake lever is up on top so that I can put my hands anywhere on the bars. And you don't need to keep your hand right on the brake on a fixed gear because your legs are the main brakes. I'll cover the bars with handlebar tape. I have some coming in the post. The only obvious disadvantage to these bars is that they're a bit wide. Not good for sneaking through stopped cars and avoiding side-view mirrors.

And I took off the bar ends for the old handle bars and put them on Katie’s bike. I feel like it’s good charma to put a bit of a old bike on a new bike. Like passing the flame.

The real color is actually a bit more pink than in these pictures.

Want more on fixed-gear bikes?

Of course, Sheldon Brown has something to say about fixed gears.

This a good article from Wired.com. I especially like the comparison between breaking on a fixed-gear with breaking on a Big Wheel. I stole the concept from this piece.

Here's another very good article called the fixed gear purist cult mentality thing. This article reminds me, did I mention how smooth a fixed gear is? Very.

And the fixed-gear gallery.

Finally, a quick "how to."

1 comment:

Jeff said...

Good story. I'm gradually building myself a fixed gear. I may compromise and use a flip-flop hub but I'm trying it.