I unintentionally had my initiation into the strange world of fixed-wheel biking last week, when I stopped to fix a puncture on my way home from work, and accidentally re-attached my back wheel the wrong way round.
I ride a single-speed Specialized Langster around town, and the back wheel has cogs on both sides – one that is fixed and one which allows me to freewheel.
Ever since I got the bike last year, I've always used the free-wheel setting – mainly because the thought of changing to fixed-wheel terrified me, but also because I failed to see the point of it. Why deny yourself the ability to stop turning the pedals?
When you're going downhill on a free-wheel bike, for example, you can let gravity do all the hard work for you – keeping your legs still, while you use your brakes, wits and balance to navigate the traffic. On a fixed-wheel bike, however, you have to keep your legs moving at the same speed as the wheels, and if you inadvertently try to stop pedalling, there's a good chance you'll end up being thrown out of the saddle.
Even on the flat, it all feels rather unnatural. One of the times I tend to stop pedalling is when I'm turning a corner – so that I can slow down and stay correctly balanced. Any cycling instructor will tell you that if you lean into a corner, it's much more stable to keep your outside pedal at its lowest position (ie. 6 o'clock). On a fixed-wheel bike that's not an option – your legs simply have to keep on turning.
Having said all of this, I have to admit that I've secretly been wanting to try out fixed-wheeling for some time – principally because there seems to be some kind of cachet to it these days. Furthermore, as sceptical as I might be about its merits, almost everyone I know who rides a fixed-wheel bike swears they'll never go back.
So, as I write, I'm two days into my experiment, and I'm going to stick with a fixed-wheel for at least a few weeks. At this early stage, my instinct is still that there's really no advantage over a free-wheel bike. It feels marginally more dangerous, I can't go as fast downhill – and I've yet to come up with anything that's better. But if I'm being totally honest, I do feel just a tad hipper than I did three days ago.