Fixed gear training update

I’m just back from my third ride on my winter fixed trainer. I lost a week of riding due to a nagging flu-like cold, but I’m back in the saddle now. After the first couple of rides I’ve got the bike dialed in the way I want it, and am getting the hang of riding fixed. You have to re-learn simple things such as clipping into the pedals and coming to a stop! The high cadence works well with the current cold spell (a week or two of below freezing round the clock is about as bad as it typically gets down here…) The constant movement can be a strain, I feel my feet wanting to coast for a minute, but that’s not an option. On the plus side, it seems that sometimes with a fixed wheel you can keep pushing when you would have backed off riding a freewheel, due to the crank carrying the momentum of the wheel.

One issue I’m having is with the saddle. I opted to try out the Brooks professional I’ve got hold of, judging it to be the most similar in shape to my erstwhile go-to San Marco Rolls. It’s simply not comfortable for me on this setup (maybe not quite an ‘ass-hatchet’, but still). Leather saddles will mold to the users hind quarters over a period of time, but if it’s not comfortable at all at first it’s never going to become comfortable. The Professional (as the name would suggest) is designed for an aggressive, low position. I’m probably riding more upright than that, meaning I’m not putting my weight on it as I should be. It’s also possible that it’s just not suited to my body shape at all – a saddle is a very personal thing.

I’ll put the B17 on and see if that is any better. If I can’t make that work I guess I’ll get on Ebay and buy myself another Rolls for my eventual Coppi build.

Fixed Gear Winter Trainer

Most people probably associate fixed gear bikes with either cycle couriers or hipsters, but they go back way further than that. I remember mentioning my brother’s Bob Jackson fixie to my grandfather,  who said “well when I was a boy, every bike had a fixed wheel”. Freewheels were developed in the early 20th century, but were initially exclusive to dedicated cycle tourists. Fixed wheels are still used for racing on the track, and were traditionally used for winter training by road cyclists.

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My Fixed winter trainer

In the new year, following a couple of months off, cyclists would get out their track frame or put a fixed wheel on a road bike, and start the season by training with a fixed gear. There are several claimed benefits. Spinning a lowish gear on the flat encourages a fast, smooth pedaling style. The fixed wheel ensures that power is applied through the full cycle of the stroke, engaging muscles that might not otherwise be engaged (and the opposing muscles when slowing down). The high cadence also means that the cardiovascular system is working hard without straining the leg muscles too much, and the body is kept warm by the constant movement. A final benefit is that the fixed wheel allows a degree of ‘traction control’, valuable on wet or icy roads. Coaches of the day suggested riding fixed wheel through January and into February, when gears were once again permitted.

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‘Suicide’ freewheel hub conversion

I might be a few years behind the trend, but I thought I’d give fixed gear training a go. I’ve built my Townsend beater road frame up with an old 27″ wheel converted to fixed. Although the rear ends are conventional horizontal road ends, rather than track ends, this is in no way problematic. The hub is a conventional freewheel hub, with the track sprocket secured by a bottom bracket cup lockring. True fixed hubs have two threads, one for the sprocket, the other for a left handed thread lockring, which ensures that the cog does not unscrew when back pedaling. Using the bb lockring conversion, sometimes referred to as a ‘suicide hub’, there is a risk that the sprocket and lockring loosening (when stopping, for example!).  To avoid this risk, I will be using both front and rear brakes, although it should be noted that the cog unscrewing is not the only potentially dangerous element of fixed riding (see Sheldon Brown’s section on fixed conversions for more information.)

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Brooks Professional saddle

My fixed bike will also serve as a testbed of the handlebar, stem and saddle I’ve set aside for my vintage Coppi build. I want to make sure the Cinelli bar and stem, and Brooks saddle are right for me and correctly set up when I hopefully finish the project this summer. Because of the hilly area where I live, I’ve set the bike up with a very low 36×16 gear (these also happened to be the bits I had lying around).

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Cinelli ’64’ Giro d’Italia and 1R stem

I took the bike out for a mid week shakedown, and I must admit it took a little getting used to. Rather than start on the road, I went to a local park to get the hang of things somewhere the worst thing I could do is fall off in front of a group of kids! I didn’t tumble, although I had a couple of hairy moments. After 20 minutes of so, including a quick stop home to make some adjustments, I was happy to go out on the open road. I started to enjoy it pretty quickly, getting into a good rhythm. Although it was a short ride, I can already see the potential benefits. It felt like more of a workout than if I had been on my road bike, and the next day I ached in some new places!

Brooks Saddles

If you’re buying a new top of the line bike today, chances are it would be very different from an equivalent bike a century a go. The one exception could be the saddle, which in both cases might well be a Brooks.

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Left to right: Professional, B66 and B17

Brooks originate from Birmingham, the powerhouse of British bicycle building in the twentieth century. They stand out as British components exported all over the world, along with Reynolds tubing and Sturmey-Archer gears (all three Companies were part of the TI Raleigh group for a time). Brooks managed to weather the storm of the European cycling industry’s fallow years and are now booming again, producing both classic designs and new models. Even in France, which had it’s own Ideale brand, Brooks were reputed as the best.

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The B17, ‘the most comfortable saddle of all time’

Shown here are three common models; the ubiquitous B17, a Team Professional and a B66. The B17 is often referred to as the most comfortable saddle in the world – the choice of club riders and long haul cycle tourists. The Professional is a narrow racing model with characteristic copper rivets. The B66 is a sprung model for upright bicycles.

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The Team Professional has large copper rivets

I’ve been riding a San Marco Rolls saddle for years and it’s very comfortable, but for my Coppi build I want something more classic. I’ll be putting either the B17 or Professional on it, depending on which I find more comfortable over a few test rides.

French Lessons : Randonneur

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My Motobecane Randonneur, (or so I thought!)

I recently posted a Motobecane randonneur on French vintage bike forum Tonton Velo to see if anyone could help me identify the model. I was expecting some debate as to whether in fact it was a ‘Becane, or whether it was really Reynolds 531, but I wasn’t expecting someone to question whether or not it was actually a randonneur or not. It seems that in being imported into English, the meaning of the word has been slightly skewed. In English, the term is generally taken to mean a vintage or retro lightweight touring bike with 650B wheels. It’s a style that’s going through something of a resurgence, as was the case with fixed gear bikes did a decade ago. The French meaning of Randonneur is slightly different, randonneur literally translates as ‘trekker’, and can apply to walking, horse riding or biking. The bikes are sometimes referred to as Randonneuse (the feminine form applies to the feminine noun Bicyclette, rather than the masculine Velo). In bike terms, it refers to a bike that is comfortable and practical to ride all day over long distances and varied terrain. Some say a true randonneur must have a custom frame and hand picked components and should be built by someone the customer has met personally.  The fact that the bike is tailored to the user is what sets it apart as a true randonneur.

Here’s a quick run down of other types of bike in French.

Velo de Course A road or racing bike; 700C wheels (preferably tubular), no mudguards, racks or accessories (save for perhaps a frame pump and a spare tire under the saddle)

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Skinny tires and high gears make this a ‘velo de course’

Cyclotouriste A general term for touring bike.

Velo de Cyclocamping A true long distance, loaded tourer.

Velo de Ville Town bike. Traditionally had 650b wheels, now more likely to be 700 or 26″.

Demi-Course A road bike fitted with mudguards and a rack. This is something of a poor relation to the Randonneur, the term Demi-Course being reserved for low end gas pipe bikes.

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Mudguards, gas pipe tubes and cheaper components indicate a ‘demi course’

Dame A ladies step-through frame. Ladies’ Cole de signe (swan neck) frames have curved top and down tubes.

Mixte In English, mixte has come to mean a ladies bike with no top tube, but two small diameter tubes running fom the head tube to the rear ends. In French the term is a bit less prescriptive, and can mean any ladies-specific frame designed for ‘real riding’.