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Dave’s Fixie Obsession

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By Wabi Guest Blogger, Dave Brillhart

I’m committed to riding almost all of my ROAD miles on my “fixie” this year. My theory is that it’ll make me stronger. I have Powertap P1 power meter pedals on this puppy and wear an HR strap. I can track my effort – my power and cadence and heart rate. I’ll likely put 7000+ miles on it this year (the rest of my 10,000 on my MTB and trainer).

Here is my beautiful steel steed. Cue Bon Jovi’s Dead or Alive: “On a steel horse I ride….” I *may* complete in the Sebring 24hr race next year on this baby. We’ll see how the training goes and how my knees respond.

What is a Fixie?

A “single speed” bike is a bike with exactly one gear – a fixed gear. You can’t change gears. Except a single speed allows coasting. A “fixie” is a bike that has one gear AND the rear wheel is locked to the drive train. No coasting. When the wheel is turning, the chain is moving, and your crank arms and pedals are turning. You can never coast. Your speed determines the speed your feet are spinning.

Fitness Benefits of a Fixie

The wide range of cadence a fixie requires will stress my leg muscles and cardio in a way a bike with gears won’t (or, rather, that you won’t when you can shift). On a geared bike you naturally adjust gears to keep your cadence in your comfort zone. That is great for racing when you also want to optimize your efficiency. But you get stronger by forcing your body to respond to varying stress.

For example, producing 300 watts at 60rpm and 120rpm are very different. At 60rpm each leg is producing a peak force of maybe 220lbs on the pedal, once a second. At 120rpm your legs are only producing a peak force of 110 lbs on each pedal, but twice a second. Same avg watts, same bike speed. But one is more about leg strength and one is more about cardio efficiency. The math is a bit complicated, converting watts to Nm to ft-lbs, adjusted for crank arm length, skewed for the asymmetrical application of power, and modulated by the partial assist of the opposite foot applying some power on the upstroke.

On yesterday’s ride in the hills of Clermont, my cadence varied between 20 and 156! More on that later.

With a geared bike you pick a cadence that balances the two (leg muscles and cardio) and that feels right. With a fixie, the bike and conditions (wind, speed, incline) determine your cadence. You deal with the highly variable stress. And get you stronger. Or, your knees take a beating. Thankfully, so far, my knees are good.

Other Benefits of a Fixie

Having a direct link from legs to asphalt is a pretty cool feeling. Track stands are much easier and you can even ride backwards LOL. They are very quiet and smooth. Climbing somehow feels easier with a direct drive connection compared to a bike with a ratchet-style hub (coasting capable). A ride that feels simple and pure.

This is a very lightweight high-tech thin walled steel frame made by Wabi Cycles. Steel is one of the best materials at absorbing vibration. Buttery smooth is often used to discuss the feel of a steel bike on the road. I’ve added 25mm (wider than traditional 23mm road) tires, running tubeless, at 80psi. And I’ve added a flexible Infinity saddle. The ride quality is amazing.

This thing is bomb-proof. Check air pressure, and clean the chain now and then. Done. Maintenance is almost non-existent.

The chance of something breaking on my ride is dramatically reduced. Tubeless wheels (with sealant) almost eliminates flats. Almost. I ride right through most punctures that take out a rider due to flats (like those pesky little radial wires). The single speed chain is super strong and remains in a perfectly aligned chainline (unlike geared bikes that flex left and right for the cassette), so a chain break is almost never going to happen. I don’t have a derailleur to bend or break or get out of adjustment. I don’t have shifters to break or shifter cables to snap, like happened to me in the Tejas 500. Ride ending mechanicals are nearly eliminated.

Oval Chain Ring

I use an oval chainring on my Mountain Bike. And recently converted to ovals on my geared road bike. I LOVE ovals. I know, it might be a placebo effect. But the theory is that bio-mechanial leverage is not symmetrical, not optimized for a circle. Quads and hamstrings are not perfectly balanced. An oval more perfectly distributes force to the capabilities of a human leg. Who knows. It works for me.

So I wanted to try this on my fixie. However, the way a fixie works is that you set the rear wheel back to adjust chain tension. An oval causes the chain tension to change as it rotates. So, this might not be possible. But, it worked!! The longer teeth and the wide/narrow design of the teeth (an innovative no-drop design) provided flawless engagement and zero issues. No noise, no hint of chain slap, and zero risks of the chain dropping. Yeah!

Mountains?

I’ve thoroughly enjoyed riding my fixie on my mostly flat rides in/around Central Florida. I pick my gear ratio to ensure my cadence is about right for my speed and just ride. No big deal. Other cyclists are impressed, but really a fixie on flat ground is not a big deal. I ride between 18 and 24mph usually, and therefore a 46/16 works fine for me. That means my cadence will vary between 80 and 110. Perfect. In sprints, up to 30mph, my cadence can exceed 130rpm! But that doesn’t happen often or for long. So that is ok. I can put on a 14T rear cog if I know I’ll be spending a lot of time with the fast guys. A 46×14 gives me a speed range of 21 to 28mph at 80 to 110 rpm.

But a total unknown to me was how this would work in rolling hills. I assumed I might have to put on a much easier gear for the uphills. But then the downhills would be insane. I’d have to spin at 200rpm (think: road rash), or feather my brakes all the way down.

I have a 170 mile cross-Florida ride next weekend, in which the last 50 miles have rollers. So I needed to figure this out.

I went to Clermont yesterday and rode 100 miles with 6000 ft of climbing (and another 6000 ft of downhills)…. And decided to try my first 34-mile loop with my default gearing of 46×16. I didn’t know any better and could swap gears after lap #1 if needed.

I hit the hardest slopes, of Sugarloaf, the Wall and Buck hill. And learned a lot! Here is a summary:
* My gear choice actually was ideal, for a nice balance of cadence on the ups and the downs. Any easier and my speed would be capped on flats, and I would have to apply brakes a lot more on downhills. The hard climbs do require a very low cadence, but a good technique makes those bearable.
* On downhills, 125rpm gets squirrelly if I relax my legs and sit on the saddle, under little to no power. When bouncing around a bit, facing downhill (less weight on the back wheel), and applying the rear brake – it almost feels (and might actually be happening) like it wants to lock up. Not good!
* On downhills, I learned that if I release the brake and just “go for it” and engage my leg muscles and pedal, bouncing stops and my pedal action is smooth! I mentally act like I’m chasing someone down in a sprint… pushing on quads will lift most the weight off my butt, so I’m kind of floating over the saddle. I don’t need to apply much power, and don’t want to downhill – speed is not my friend on a fixie going downhill. I just apply enough to use quad pressure to float over the saddle. 120W or so. This seems to work well at up to about an 8% grade. Speed gets up to about 35mph, a cadence to about 150. Any more than 8% and I needed to sit up and feather the brakes. With more practice, I could probably go faster, but 150 ish seems like a good limit.
* On really steep uphills, I discovered that Powertap pedals stop sending power data under 30rpm and cadence under 20rpm! LOL. So I pushed harder, up to 450W or more, to keep my cadence over 30rpm on the steepest stuff. On longer ultras, I would not want to hit over 300W – match burning effort.
* On those crazy steep ascents over 12% or so, on a fixie, it helps to stand and carve figure S curves with the front wheel. I don’t mean crisscrossing the lane, but rather keep a straight line trajectory with the bike but as you lean the bike left and right with each pedal stroke, let the front wheel dive/curve left and right a foot or two. This is a new technique (for me) I discovered accidentally on a climb, and it works! You don’t get out of your line much at all, but it seems to reduce the effective grade of the climb. I got down to 20rpm on the Sugarloaf climb. But could keep going.

Here is another pic from yesterday’s inaugural fixie ride in the hills of Clermont. I saw this beauty around mile 95 of my century and had to pull over and say hi. I’ve always had a thing for long hair. Gets me every time LOL.

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