Fixie Bikes Go to the Olympics

by Maya Bornstein
 

Fixed Gear Track Bikes in the OlympicsPhoto by: Flowizm | Flickr.com

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.
 
Setbacks
 
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.

  1. When track racing began, whether indoor/outdoor on gravel, wood or grass, pretty much all racing bikes had a fixed rear cog; there were hardly any freewheel or ratcheted cogs back then, and not always any brakes. So it’s not the case that earlier racers ‘chose’ fixed gear bikes – that’s all there was at the time. And it’s not the case that modern day racers ‘prefer’ fixed wheel bikes – that’s just the rules that all racing authorities have agreed with. When the rules of track racing were first laid down, they adopted the brakeless standard build of racing bikes that where being used at the time, both for track, road racing and cyclocross (yes, it existed in the 19th century). And track bikes have remained brakeless to this day. Nice of you to say that wooden velodromes were popularised in England (I’m British !). They were more popular in the USA throughout the origins of the sport. Madison Square Gardens was named as such because, as you’ve already mentioned, the biggest spectator sporting event at the time was a form of ‘doubles’ track racing called ‘Madison’. It was the rise of the ‘automobile’ that killed off the sport in the early 20th century, but many NY residents don’t realise how big the sport was back then. A few other minor points – track bikes don’t necessarily need to be lighter, and in fact some pro sprinters machines are getting on for 7kg+ which is about the same as a bike used in pro road racing. Stiffness and aerodynamics are the most important aspects – having no gears or brakes benefits the latter. In terms of race speed fluctuations – they do indeed occur, all the way down to ‘cat and mouse’ sprints. The thing that makes the riders need to keep up some speed is the steep banking, and of course the fact that a pro is only ticking over at about 25mph ! so they’re not always going hell for leather, even at the Olympics. A really nice thing about track racing regulations is the existance of the ‘Athlete’s Hour’ record which stipulates a bike design similar to that used in the 1970s, which itself was hardly any different to a track bike from the early 20th century. I can’t think of any other professional sport where a completely valid and respected event, that has an official record/champion status, uses legacy technology, out of respect as much as anything else. It really is unique. In a strange twist, it sort of allowed the UCI, in some people’s minds, to get away with all the restrictions they were making to the aerodynamics development. It was an interesting time when it all took place (around the year 1999/2000). Me personally, I love my track bike, but it only ever gets used for racing on the track. On the road, I love my gears and brakes thanks very much, and I can outpace anyone on a fixie any time: I can accelerate faster from the lights, reach higher top speeds, stop much quicker, go round corners much quicker, bunny hop whenever I want etc etc.. Most couriers I know actually prefer having brakes and a freewheel. Singlespeeds are another matter – they’re fine, low maintenance and sensible. But riding on the roads without brakes is just pointless, and as I value my life a lot, I’d never take that risk. Sorry to sound like I’m having a bit of a rant – I just can’t understand why a fashion movement would promote legacy bike technology. It seems to me that the same people who use to make fun of me being into bikes 10/15 years ago now think they’ve discovered lightweight road bicycles – hence the bemusement of anyone who’s been racing over the last couple of decade ;)


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