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History of Fixed Gear Bikes: Origins and Future of The Fixie

These roots run deep.

Historic one wheeled bicycle.
Historic one wheeled bicycle. Source: Greg Boll, Unsplash

Fixed gear cycling has its own passionate subculture, wich has increase over time. There is no shortage of Facebook groups, and Instagram accounts dedicated to sharing the passion of riding fixed.

With this recent rise in popularity, it can sometimes seem like its a new thing. However, the history of the fixie goes a long way. 

So, let’s take a moment to discover the origins of fixed gear cycling, how they came about and where the fixed gear culture is headed.

Editor’s note: This article was updated on November 9, 2021, to include additional information regarding the history of cycling.

What is a fixed geared bike?

A fixed-gear bike is a bike with only one gear. Fixed-gear bikes are often revered for their visual simplicity and minimalist design.

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Fixed-gear bikes are also called fixies and you will often hear the term used interchangeably.

A fixed-gear bike requires continuous pedaling. Unlike a typical bike, a fixed gear bike does not allow you to coast. Most bikes have a freewheel cog that allows the wheel to move independently of the pedals. With a fixed gear, you must pedal (even while riding downhill).

Fixed-gears usually include both a front and rear brake. However, fixie purists stick to only a front brake.

Many cyclists prefer the simplicity of a fixed-gear bike because they are easy to maintain due to there being fewer moving components that may get damaged and need to be replaced. 

They are also often less expensive and lighter than a conventional multi-geared bike, making them excellent commuting bikes.

But what is a fixie, really? There’s a wonderful quote that goes.

You can always add something to your bike, but you’ll get to a point where you can’t subtract anything else, and that’s a fixed gear.

Graeme Obree

I think this statement perfectly captures the essence of fixed gear and the beauty of its simplicity. 

The History of the fixie

Here’s a little on the history of fixed gear cycling. We’ll divide fixed gear bike history into five distinct periods. 

  • Early cycling era
  • Track racing era
  • Bike messenger era
  • Mid-2000s’ hipster’ era
  • Modern era

Early cycling era

Even though the single-speed road bike utilizes little technology and is seen as “simple” by many today, the bike’s history seems to be more contentious than that of most other creations.

The oldest examples of fixed gear bikes date all the way back to the invention of bicycles. 

All of the early bikes, in their many variations, had some type of fixed gear system. They employed a wheel linked to a pedal by the chain, and the hub and cog of that wheel were one and the same.

Things stayed this way for years until the freewheel was invented, followed by derailleurs and multi-gear bicycles.

Who Invented the Fixed Gear bike?

Giovanni de la Fontana, according to some, invented the first ‘bike’ in 1418, describing it as a human-powered, four-wheel creation with a rope loop attached to gears.

Though not exactly a “bike,” the earliest fixie bikes may be traced back to Fontana’s invention.

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Drawing of the first bicycle by Giovanni Fontana.
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Drawing of the first bicycle by Giovanni Fontana. Source: Wikimedia

Four hundred years later, in 1813, a German nobleman replicated Fontana’s innovation, developing his own four-wheeled human-powered vehicle. However, it was Drias’ introduction of a two-wheeled creation in Europe in 1817 that laid the groundwork for contemporary fixies as we know them today.

Because the bicycle’s history is contentious at best, determining when the first fixie was created outside of a general “19th-century” response is difficult. However, when fixie bikes gained popularity among both Americans and Europeans, they were used by the postal courier system in the 1800s for the transportation of vital business papers.

Bicycles started taking a more contemporary look with the Lawson safety bike, wich allowed you to steer the bike with the handlebars.

Image of the Lawson safety bicycle.
Image of the Lawson safety bicycle. Source: Wikimedia

Track racing era

Fixed gear bikes remained enormously popular in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Major cities like New York City often sponsored massive track races, and Madison Square Garden began hosting a velodrome track in 1876. As a consequence, these events became known as the “Madison races.” In these team races, participants pushed themselves to the limit, circling the course until they were “tagged” into the race.

In the 1800s, the typical racer earned $150,000 yearly, compared to a tradesman’s average of $5,000.

Track racing was (and continues to be) dominated by fixed gear bikes. While the sport of track racing has evolved throughout time, the usage of fixed-gear bikes has remained consistent.

Even now, racing is a popular activity, making it an unknown “pastime” for both Americans and Europeans. Legendary racers such as Eddy Merckx and Francesco Moser invented a fixie built entirely of washing machine components, which served as the idea for the film “The Flying Scotsman,” demonstrating how important fixies have been throughout history.

Track racing was (and continues to be) dominated by fixed gear bikes. While the sport of track racing has evolved throughout time, the usage of fixed-gear bikes has remained consistent.

And, due to the popularity of fixed geared bikes, many road bike competitors were already acquainted with them, and fixed gear bikes remain a popular off-season training option for road cyclists since they provide a unique exercise and help them improve their pedal cadence.

If you love history, check out this video from the OpenLearn from The Open University YouTube channel detailing the history of the bicycle.

A video called Design Behind the Bike from the OpenLearn from The Open University YouTube Channel.

Bike messenger era

When you think of fixed gear cyclists, you probably envision a cool bike messenger. A bike messenger (also called a bike courier) is a person who is employed to transport a package or letter from one place to another. Bikes are always around, but they gained popularity around the 1960s, 70s, 80s, and 90s. 

Bike couriers are still essential for intercity document transportation. Companies in the United States and Europe continue to rely on couriers to transport cheques, legal papers, and other sensitive documents in densely populated metropolitan regions with a central business center. The fixie’s ease of mobility enables users to reach their destination more quickly than a car.

Bike couriers would modify their bikes to make them more suitable for quick movement around the city. This resulted in fixed gear bikes that were both light and swift, as well as requiring significantly less maintenance.

Fixed gear bikes and track bikes are still preferred by many bike couriers. Jim Wirtanen, a 12-year veteran of the courier system, discussed fixed bikes and their overall influence on America in a 2005 interview with Wired magazine. Wirtanen, dubbed “Deadguy” by coworkers after being struck by a Lincoln automobile and hurled 40 feet across an intersection, colliding with a light post, has vital expertise riding fixie bikes.

“Basically, a track bike is a perfect invention,” says Wirtanen, “You can’t make it any better.”

Mid-2000s hipster era

This is where we have to address the elephant in the room. Around this time, the word ‘hipster’ started becoming some sort of derogatory term. And this term was typically associated with fixed gear bikes. 

For a time, anything nostalgic was considered ‘cool’. Including the huge handlebar mustaches from the late eighteen hundreds, which were so popular with hipsters in the mid to late 2000s. 

The simplicity and timelessness of a simple bike also accompanied this aesthetic perfectly. This is why I believe hipsters and fixies were so synonymous. 

While it is true that fixed gear bikes started as a subculture. Like any subculture, it gradually started making its way into the mainstream and became extremely popular. 

Another reason why people started to associate the ‘annoying hipster’ with fixed gear bikes is because, as fixed-gear cycling became part of the mainstream, it started becoming a sort of fashion statement. People would use their bikes as an accessory and nothing more. They wouldn’t know how to ride it. This would create hazardous conditions on the road, especially when people try to ride brakeless without knowing how to properly stop.

Additionally, companies like Wal-Mart suddenly kept them in stock. 

So, naturally, at some point, fixies started to be used as a derogatory term in the fixed community to address someone who is a poser (people who used fixies as a fashion statement). 

(Note: I use the word fixie all the time because I’m not an elitist jerk)

However, the spirit of fixed gear cycling is still alive and well, as a matter of fact, I would argue that we have entered a new era of fixed gear cycling; The modern era. 

Modern era

Now that the posers have worn out their fixies and gone back to road bikes. Fixed gear cycling has entered the modern era.

The general interest has grown, and there are now several fixie clubs in major cities, as well as numerous sanctioned and unauthorized racing circuits. 

You can see the newfound passion for fixed gear cycling in the countless Instagram accounts related to fixed gear cycling. The culture is tighter and more connected than ever—with true cyclists, not posers.

Conclusion

The history of the fixed gear bike goes as far back as the advent of the bicycle. And the future of the fixie is also secure. As I have addressed in this article, the scene is alive and well.

Now, that the fixie hype of the mid and late 2000s, the posers have disappeared, fixed gear bikes are not around like they once were, but this has led to a tighter community of truly passionate cyclists.

In this article, we covered the history of fixed gear cycling and where the community stands today. Here are some key takeaways:

Key takeaways

  • The history of the fixed gear bike goes as far back as the advent of the bicycle.
  • Track racing has origins in madison square garden.
  • Fixed gear bikes were the perfored chiiuce fro bike messangers and often still are.
  • For a while, fixies were synomomus with ‘anoying hispters’ and were seen negetavly by assosition.
  • The fixed gear scnee is undergoing a reawakening.
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So, died we miss something? would you like us to expand on a topic? Let us know in the comments below (we read and reply to every comment). If you found this article helpful, check out our full blog for more tips and tricks on everything fixie. Thanks for reading, and stay fixed.

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Written by Bradly Knight

As a native New Yorker, Bradley is no stranger to the fixed gear scene. He’s been riding fixed for over ten years. When he’s not on the bike, you can find him practicing his many hobbies including playing guitar, video production, and photography.

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