by Maya Bornstein
It turns out that fixed gear bikes aren’t just a massive hipster trend riding through the Pearl District in Portland. Outside of the notoriously hip subculture associated with them, fixed gear bicycles exist in another well-publicized yet strangely overlooked arena: the Olympics.
A Brief History
The track cycling we have been watching with fervor at the London games this year dates back to 1870, when wooden tracks were commonly used. Mainly popularized in England, these tracks eventually evolved into the velodrome as we know it today – a steeply tilted indoor track made up of two sharp turns and two long straightaways, all banked at an angle. Riders at velodromes most often use fixed gear bikes, and this practice was revived at the Olympic Games in the summer of 1896.
Why Fixie Bikes?
Olympic and other competitive track cyclists prefer fixies for many of the same reasons that street riders do. Without the excess weight of gears, derailleurs, brakes, and wider tires, fixed gear bicycles tend to be much lighter, and therefore faster and easier to maneuver. Advances continue to be made to increase the aerodynamics of Olympic track bikes to improve speed.
The lack of brakes and gears helps cyclists connect to the ride and focus on moving fast toward the finish line, as opposed to being distracted by shifting gears, hand placement, etc. Riders cannot coast either, as the lack of a freewheel means the pedals must always be in motion. Without the elements of freewheels and brakes, the race’s speed doesn’t fluctuate much. As Nathan Hurst said in his Wired article on the subject, “It’s the Olympics; if the riders wanted to slow down, they wouldn’t be there.”
Track fixies are also made of the strongest and lightest materials possible, not only for aerodynamic reasons, but to cope with Olympic athletes exerting so much power – not a problem typically encountered in road bikes or commuters.
Like any Olympic sport, the construction of these bicycles is strictly regulated. The Union Cycliste International and the International Olympic Committee (or the UCI and the IOC, respectively) maintain stringent control over the design and materials that make up the cycles, and this makes it very difficult to deviate. Some people in the field, like former Olympian Jamie Staff, affirm that the UCI has been decent about making allowances for cyclists with physical differences. After all, if a double amputee like Oscar Pistorius can compete in an Olympic footrace, why shouldn’t riders with altered anatomies race on the track?
Still, it is clear that the UCI, the IOC, and other event organizers apply these measures in attempt to put every contestant on even ground. Luckily, these establishments are the only obstacles design engineers have to contend with, as the indoor track eliminates the problems of weather and unexpected obstructions. With such consistently flawless conditions, it’s no wonder cyclists prefer the lighter, speedier, and far simpler vessel of the fixed gear bicycle. If you share their mentality and crave the purest, fastest possible ride, visit FixieBikes.com and get on the road today.