My 14-year-old son spent the summer biking all over Chicago on a "fixie". I spent the summer dreading a phone call from an ER. Fixies have a devoted following among teen-age boys. They are the cool, hip bikes to own. They also have created anxiety among parents like me, who just want their kids biking it from point A to point B in one piece. I know there are legions of adult fixie enthusiasts who swear by these bikes, but theoretically, they are more mature and have more cycling experience than the 13, 14 and 15-year kids I'm talking about.
For those who don't know, "fixie" is a generic term for a fixed gear bicycle. Its drive train has one gear that is "fixed" to the rear wheel of the bike. One gear. That's it. When I was a teen-ager, a three speed was considered lame, let alone a "one speed". Not anymore. A fixed gear bike is minimalistic and has sort of a "less is more" aura to it. However, once you start peddling a fixed gear bike, you have to keep on pedaling it. No coasting with a fixie. No coasting ever! The rider's legs are constantly moving around and around and around. No sitting and coasting with your feet at twelve and six. No doing a standing coast, with your feet at three and nine. Your legs have to be in motion, always. In case you think that this inability to coast is no big deal, I'll give you a real life scenario where coasting might have come in handy: One day this past summer, as my son and his friends were biking home from the lake, the seat of his fixie fell off. The bolt holding it on snapped in two and the seat dropped to the street. Luckily my son managed to avoid a painful impalement on the exposed end of the seat mount by quickly jumping off the bike. The ever-spinning pedals whipped around and gouged out a Morse code looking pattern in his calf. (It will probably leave a scar but I was told that would look cool.) My son retrieved the seat, put it in his drawstring bag on his back and then rode standing up, as in never sitting down, never coasting, just standing and peddling and peddling and peddling, from the lakefront to his friend's house, six miles away. Six miles of standing and peddling with no way to sit down and no ability to give his legs a break, because you can't coast on a fixie! Contrary to what you might be thinking, this entire scenario was absolutely no big deal for my son. It was a completely acceptable peril of fixie ownership. The only thing my son said after finally making it back home was "What's to eat?"
Another aspect to a fixie that disturbs parents of teen-age riders is the fact that the one and only brake is on the front tire. This is in complete opposition to what I grew up knowing to be true of bicycle safety, that if you try to stop your bike by squeezing the brake of the front tire only, you have an excellent chance of taking a header over the handlebars. Yes you will stop, but it's stopping the hard way. Here's another story, this one illustrating the danger of braking using only the front tire: My twin brother and I were fifteen, riding bikes home from a park. My brother was carrying a basketball under one arm, that hand holding the ball. His other hand was on the handlebars. He needed to stop and discovered too late that his handlebar hand engaged the front brake. The front tire stopped, and my brother kept going, flipping over the handlebars. He head connected with the road and he was immediately knocked out. The basketball rolled away to the curb. That's what can happen when you use the front tire only brake...the only brake a fixie has. Now, I've been told often by my son that there is some sort of magical thing you can do by simultaneously applying the brake while putting pressure on the back tire, but this process cannot be explained to, nor understood by anyone over forty. During our recent block party, four adult men asked if they could take my son's bike for spin. Not one of them could brake it effectively. They hopped off quickly handing the fixie back to my son, saying, "I can't stop this thing". As for my brother? The fifteen year old passed out in the street with a head injury? He lived to tell the tale. He might have had a concussion, but we'll never know. I shook him awake, retrieved the basketball, and then the two of us walked our bikes the rest of the way home. We agreed to never speak about what had happened, to never tell our mom, because "she'd just freak out". So I know full well that teen-agers routinely keep near catastrophes from their parents in an effort to keep them from "freaking out".
In addition to the inability to coast and the potential for flipping over the handlebars when breaking, the fixie tires are super skinny, like maybe they are meant for racing and not city streets skinny. Skinny tires are down the list of concerns, but seeing as how Chicago streets are made up of mostly cracks and potholes, it's definitely worth mentioning. It is really easy for these super narrow tires to get caught on uneven pavement and throw the rider off balance, perhaps into a moving car, not to mention the more that average risk of a blowout. My husband, who rides a decidedly uncool but serviceable bike, took one look at my son's fixie and declared "that is a flat tire waiting to happen".
Summer ended and my son and all his fixie peddling friends are back in school. They are biking a lot less now. Actually, my son isn't biking at all. As forecasted, by my husband, my son's last trip on Chicago streets ended in his skinny fixie tire getting a flat. The bike hasn't left the house since, because the words " how are you going to pay for it?" is a pretty effective method of stopping the foreward motion of any fourteen year old, even a fixie rider.