Friday, May 7, 2010

Validated by Henri Desgrange

Whilst perusing a TdF coffee-table book (a gift from my brother, seeing as he did the cover art-work and all), my life got a little validation from no less than Henri Desgranges and his famous outburst "I still feel that variable gears are for those over forty-five. Isn't it better to triumph by the strength of your muscles than by the artifice of a deraileur? We are getting soft? as for me, give me a fixed gear".

So 40 isn't quite over the hill yet then and there are still a few years ahead of me before encroaching decrepitude requires that all my bikes be fitted with deraileurs or other "artifices". Certainly, my initial forays into racing the 40-44 age-group as a fully fledged 40-something have left a lot to be desired (I raced 40-44 last year but because of the vagaries of age-group definitions and the timing of my birthday I was 39 for all of last year's races). So it was nice to get this little attaboy, this little confirmation that whereas the the top of the hill can be seen, it hasn't been reached yet. Albeit an attaboy and a confirmation from a long-dead traditionalist in a frock-coat who makes today's UCI's Technical C'ttee seem positively forward-thinking.

Simply put, a fixed gear is a single sprocket screwed directly on to the rear hub; there are no pawls or other "artifices" between the sprocket and the hub. If the wheel turns, the pedals turn, and visa versa. Due to this direct drive feature, fixed is supposed to help souplesse, a fancy French word to describe pedalling technique. There is no freewheeling, and there is only the one gear, no changing up to climb and down to descend. If you descend at 45kph, you have to pedal correspondingly quickly; for those of a math bent the relationship is Speed(mph) = Gear(in) × Cadence (rpm) ÷ 336 (and do your own conversion to kph!). I recently hit 45 kph (27mph) on 68" fixed, which works out to be cadence of 138. Now granted I wasn't spinning 138 for very long, but still, if you didn't have good souplesse, the bike would have you off in short order!

Gear choice is critical; too big you can't ride the flats or the uphills and pop a patella or two; too small you spin out on the descents or just can't go fast enough on the flat and you're spinning your (track)nuts off. Plus, a gear change requires a 15mm wrench (to get the wheel out), a lockring spanner (to frees the sprocket), a chain whip (to screw the sprocket off the hub) and at least five minutes. Longer if you can't remember which ways the lock-ring and sprockets screw off. Not that that has ever happened to me! (Much!!).

I've got two fixies. One is pretty much a stock Paddy Wagon from Kona. It's built as a fixie, with horizontal drop-outs and a high bottom bracket. After-market mudguards and removing the chainring guard are the extent of my blinging it out. The new 2010 PW have a shiny, all aluminum cockpit, which I might emulate tho'.

The other fixed is the Lemond. This little beauty was put together mostly from bits and pieces in my parts bin. She's probably the closest thing I have right now to a "pure" racing bike. There's no flah-flah here; a Reynolds 853 frame, fixed gear, one front brake (the other lever is there for something to hold on to, besides, brakes only slow you down).

The lack of anything superfluous also makes her light, she weighs about as much as an entry-level Cervelo, and that's with box-section rims and plenty 'o spokes. That should satisfy the weight-weenies out there.

Her (his?) heart is the ENO eccentric hub, that allows a frame with vertical drop-outs to be used as a fixed. The hub, laced to a 36 hole Mavic Open Pro, makes a wheel that is a sweet piece of kit and real talking point amongst aficianados, especially those with beards, wooly jerseys and a fondness for real ale. It has to be said that with the hub plus rim, spokes and build, the wheel wasn't cheap, in fact the rear wheel alone could finance the better part of a new Langster or a Pista; but the world has one of those, and there's only one of these. Plus it's a guaranteed entry into any bike-porn related conversation in the world.

I've ridden each of the pure road bikes my stable recently (Old Bess doesn't count here) and I'm enjoying the Lemond most of all. The PW and the Carrot have seemed, well, stodgy. I'm not sure why; the tyres were pumped up, the frame angles didn't change overnight neither did the frames put weight on over the winter (more than can be said for me). I can't explain it, but neither bike seemed to have any zip, any zing, any get-up-and-go. Neither bike seemed to want to jump when I asked, they grumbled going up hills and, even though we didn't indulge in any race-foolishness, I can tell they wouldn't have wanted to sprint either. The Lemond has done all of this though, and in spades.

I'm going to reward the Lemond for her (his?) dedication to duty by racing on him (her?) at the Du It For Shelter event this weekend; in deference to the (allegedly) flat course I'll likely just slap on a pair of Jammers, probably in TZ, and make sure I've got an Allen key in my pocket in-case they work loose (happened to me once!). The bike had it's racing debut at the Riverport Du last October. She did well, and held her own against supposedly sleeker and more well equipped machines, by which I mean gears and decidedly un-boxy section wheels! As you can see from this short video from the event, her debut wasn't entirely without incident, spinning out (in excess of 100 rpm) in the 15 at well over 20 mph (for those of you wondering what an ideal pedal cadence should look like, worryingly this is it).

Ah, the curse of fixed; there's nothing worse than getting half-way around the loop and then thinking "I wish I'd put the 14 on" (as I had here). So I've decided to abrogate my responsibility in this area and put the question out to the triathlon community and asked them "what gear I should ride on Sunday". Should be interesting; will they respect my spinning roadie heritage or demand the biggest thing I can possibly turn? Or not, as the case may be. The early running is for a larger gear, say 72" although 84" was suggested (despite not being in the poll). Sadists!

Best get the lock-ring spanner and chain-whip out then. So now, if it's righty-tighty lefty-loosey, for a reverse-threaded lock-ring it should be the other way around........

See you Sunday



  1. Cool article-makes me want to go fixed gear!

  2. Laura, give me a shout and we'll get you (ahem) fixed up for a short ride to see how (much) you like it. Be warned however, once you go fixed you'll never go back :)