I already wrote a bit about completing my fixed-gear bicycle last week, and since then I have had the chance to ride it around San Francisco a good bit. I live in the Inner Sunset, by Golden Gate Park, and I work downtown on New Montgomery. Its around four and a half miles from my house to the office - usually I cycle along Market up to Page and then on to Irving. If I stop by Krav Maga on my way home, I end up going along Pine to Masonic, then through the Pan Handle and into Golden Gate Park. The point to all this rambling about my bicycle route is that it has a few quite considerable inclines along it. The main thing that worried me about riding fixed-gear was the hills. Not so much going up them, since I figured if it was too hard I'd simply walk the bicycle up. Going down however, worried me. Leg braking well enough to control descent down some of these hills requires practice - and more importantly, hard leg braking is supposed to be hard on your knees and can even make your muscles weaker. According to Sheldon Brown "Heavy duty resisting is widely reputed to be bad for your legs, and to be counterproductive for building up muscles and coordination for forward pedaling [...] Eccentric contraction is reputed to cause micro-tears to your muscle tissue, so it actually weakens your muscles, unlike other forms of exercise."
Despite many people riding fixies without any brakes, I thought it wise to put on a front brake a) because I don't yet know how to brake properly b) in an emergency, if the chain comes off or breaks, how do you stop? c) to reduce stress on knees, especially on steep hills. The disadvantages of having a front brake are: it costs about $20, it takes a bit of work to install, it weighs a little more, and perhaps it makes you seem less macho. None of these disadvantages bothered me - what is $20 for something which could easily save your life? The extra work to install was an enjoyable educational experience to me. Increased weight only means increased resistance. Finally, I'd rather be alive than macho and dead any day.
In practice, I find myself using the front brake very heavily on steep hills with a four-way stop at the bottom. I don't yet have the strength and/or knack to control my speed on these very steep hills using just my legs yet. For predictable stops - e.g. intersections, lights and so on, leg braking is fine. Letting legs go limp and simply weigh on the pedals while seated is sufficient to brake at a low speed, at higher speeds, a similar approach but while standing on pedals does the job.
As for going up steep hills, I was surprised to find I could manage it. A fixed-gear drive train is supposed to be more efficient than a derailer, and it feels it! Also the moustache handlebars are better for climbing compared to the drop bars I was using previously. Additionally, if you are climbing a steep hill on a fixed-gear with SPDs, there is considerable incentive to push yourself. If you let yourself go too slow, you will fall over! I have been having fun on my commute trying to beat fellow cyclists with geared bicycles up hills. While they can switch into lower gears for maximum efficiency, I must mash my way past them. I can see how cycling fixed-gear makes you stronger!
I agree with the general attitude that fixed-gear is more interesting and more challenging. It also feels somehow smoother and closer to the bicycle than a freewheel. Overall I enjoy it very much, this project has made me feel much more enthusiastic about bicycles and cycling in general. Its put a lot more fun into bicycling for me. All in all I heartily recommend a fixed-gear project!
Niall O'Higgins is an author and software developer. He wrote the O'Reilly book MongoDB and Python. He also develops Strider Open Source Continuous Deployment and offers full-stack consulting services at FrozenRidge.co.Tweet