Social Study

Quest for a Fixed Gear

By Jim Miller
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, June 18, 2006

Like most avid cyclists, I'm a bit of a gearhead. I flip through the Colorado Cyclist catalog like gourmands might peruse Harry & David. I even have a pinup of a Craig Calfee bamboo-frame bike on my cubicle wall where others hang snaps of offspring.

The problem is this: I'm cheap.

I'd just as soon cut off a toe as spend the $5,000 required for the bamboo bike of my dreams. My titanium road bike was reasonably expensive, and at my level, I can't justify spending much on upgrades, never mind a whole new bike.

So I needed a two-wheeled distraction on the cheap. And what I found was a fixed gear.

Fixed-gear bikes, aka fixies, are those clean-looking city steeds you often see messengers riding, the ones without multiple gears or even, in some cases, brakes. The gear is "fixed," meaning that if the wheels are turning, so are the pedals -- no coasting allowed.

Fixed gears have boomed in popularity over the past few years, according to Euan Fisk of City Bikes in Adams Morgan. The coolness factor comes from two sources. First, experienced cyclists seek out fixies because riding takes a more-advanced set of cycling skills, so it's a new challenge to master. Second, much of the cachet of a fixed gear comes from building it yourself like a cash-strapped messenger, slapping on some anti-car stickers and ending up with a bike unique to you.

That's what I wanted: A simple cycle cobbled together (mostly) from whatever I could scavenge. I figured I might expand my limited knowledge of bike maintenance -- and therefore become a better, more-accomplished person. And, of course, I figured it would be cheaper that way.

After a few fruitless calls to local bike shops seeking a suitable used frame, I hit the high seas of the Internet, where a few weeks of trolling snagged me an orange Peugeot frame for a mere $70, including shipping.

An orange Peugeot? Mon Dieu!

Since this project had to sate my bike lust for a while, I decided to go stylish and ordered up some orange two-finger brake levers. I also bought a "bargain" rear wheel with a flip-flop hub, 14-tooth track cog and lock ring -- not that I knew what to do with any of it. Total: $78.15.

Jimmy Talley, the service manager at D.C.'s Chain Reaction, helped me out with a stem, front wheel and handlebars. But the experience was mixed: I came up empty on other items, and the seat post the mechanic jammed into the frame, where it was good and stuck for a week, was obviously the wrong size. Cost: $47.

Since my frame was an older French model, it required an obsolete French bottom bracket. Vintage parts are expensive -- I could be in for around $110. Ouch. But perseverance born of thrift led me again to eBay, where $60 later the problem was solved, cranks included.

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