crankedmag

{ ride a bike… everyday, everywhere }

Chat About Fixed

page 12-15, Issue #4
-Michael Webber

The setting: Hales Brewery on Leary in Seattle, WA. The evening is light, the balcony table is wobbly, the background conversations and ‘70’s pop music is ample and the beer is fine.
The characters: Charles Hadrann, getting to the table after a hectic day running his shop: Wright Bros. just up the street a ways. A unique character, one of his best topics is fixed geared bikes, their efficiency, their simplicity, and the ways to blow your knees with them. He has always referred to his friend as a source of knowledge regarding fixies. His friend is our second character, Jerry Baker. Jerry is a long time Seattle area cyclist; he is an integral part of the Marymoor Velodrome Association, and has quite the history riding fixed geared bikes. The third character in this discussion is myself, but I’m mostly listening and enjoying these two chat.

[Our conversation starts out with Jerry reminiscing about training regimens in the ’70’s…]

Jerry Baker:
…when I was training a pursuit team [1977], we’d do intervals on Lake Washington Blvd and we’d gear them in intervals, we’d do a 39×16…

Charles Hadrann:
… or 42×16 because cranksets were only small 42’s…

JB:
I was in a 42, but everybody else had a 39. But you’re talking middle to high 60’s [gear inches], I’d have the interval start from real low speed, 10 mph, two minute intervals and you’d rotate the pace line, the leader would pull for 20 pedals, and pull over and the next guy takes over. You’re trying to get these guys used to exchanging under duress because when you’re riding pursuit on the track you’re riding a much bigger gear, you go much faster, you’re going about 35mph. So the long and short of it is we were finishing those things, in the mid 60’s [gear inches] only in the middle 30’s [miles per hour] at least, they were finishing about 145-160 RPM and when you got down on the track to 120 [RPM] they were smooth. Because if you could pedal 160 and not kill your butt, you’d have to be somewhat smooth.

CH:
You see, your foot has this circle (motion) that’s connected to your leg, connected to your butt sitting on your saddle. The minute you go out of that circle your butt starts doing this thing on the saddle.

JB:
Basically if you’re over-revving, some people over-rev at 100 RPM, some at 180 RPM, depends on who you are. And the reality is, the higher your rev limit is, where you stop pedaling in circles and start pedaling in squares, then when you back away from that lower RPM limit you’re smoother. For instance you don’t want to ride Seattle to Portland with your butt bouncing all the way up and down.

Michael Webber (that’s me):
And this is what is meant by pedaling in squares?

JB:
Yeah.

CH:
What happens is, that when you start bouncing on the saddle, you’re not used to riding in that higher RPM, so you go outside the circle, but the minute you learn the control in your circle, no matter how high you are, you’re super smooth, but when you do it in higher RPMs then when you back down—it’s all training.

JB:
Anybody under 40 years old can pedal 120 [RPM] no problem, if they train themselves to do so. You lose your agility with age—it’s sort of the shits.

MW:
It seems inevitable.

JB:
Age is a given, I haven’t found anybody that beat that age crap. I keep working on it, but it doesn’t seem to help. I can still pedal 120 [RPM], but I can’t do 160 [RPM] anymore…

CH:
I can argue, for 20 minutes to this young guy, to get out of his 81-inch gear, he wants to go to a higher gear, riding on the road. And I look at his bike, I look at him…

JB:
How fast is he going?

CH:
He’s not doing 25-30 mph. I go, “you’re geared way to high. You need to be geared to where you can spin. Where you should be comfortably spinning anywhere from 80-120 [RPMs].”

JB:
The thing is that almost any kind of job you’re doing (if you’re a messenger) any kind of riding you do in the city, any competition, you need to be able to accelerate and decelerate.

CH:
Exactly, you’re not just accelerating you need to slow down. You’re geared too high again you don’t have the control to slow down easily. You’ll get tired. When you’re geared down you have control of how fast you can pick up your speed and how easily you can slow down. You’ll have control when you have a lower gear. I cannot tell you—it’s been my mantra for two years—that’s why I bring you [Jerry Baker] along, because…

JB:
I’ve done it maybe longer than that…

CH:
Yeah, he’s done it longer than me. But we concur that that’s what you have to do. And it’s just so… its like we’re these lone prophets out in the desert. With our staffs saying, “Children of the bicycle, please listen to the Gear of the Lord…”

JB:
I’m doing these Monday night races at the track, the educational deal where I get those guys—we got a whole bunch of the Counterbalance messenger group, it’s a pretty big team—and they’re coming around. They’re figuring out that the big gear doesn’t work. It’s just really interesting how that works.

MW:
An analogy that I think of is coming down these hills here in Seattle. And, like you’re saying “pedaling in squares, coming out of the saddle,” I’m controlling it, by going all over the place, I’m controlling it, but I’m coming out of the saddle…

CH:
Because you’re outside of your circle, see what’s happening is you’re not used to doing that higher RPM. So automatically your butt starts coming off the saddle to compensate because you’re not used to it.

JB:
So anyway, the question I don’t think that anyone really thinks about is, that a lower gear makes a lot of sense. The problem is you’re not dealing with logic; you’re dealing with macho. And macho is a hard thing to deal with.

CH:
When you have control, when you gear down a little bit, you have control of getting in and out of a situation which is what you need to do in the city. And there is definitely too much macho. And you know what I hear from these guys, “God, I’m tired.”

JB:
Basically, if they have a lower gear, they’ll be able to accelerate, they’ll be faster up the hill and they’ll be more in control going down the hill. So they’ll actually be quicker.

CH:
The macho person… they think it’s the high gear. They don’t understand that strong is the guy that can go and go and go in an easier gear. Over time… more miles.

JB:
My buddy Clark and I are about the same age. We were riding the trail a lot, from University Village out to Redmond for coffee. We’d ride early in the morning, 8 or 8:30 at the same time those type-A Microsoft guys would be cruising the trail too, to work. So what we’d do—we’re sorta obnoxious—and we’d get some type-A come up on us and he’d go right by us, so we’d speed up and settle up behind him. [Clark] looks older than I am, we don’t look all that young anyway, so we start talking about the retirement home and how shitty the breakfast’s are and this guy started speeding up a bit and we keep up on him. So we start talking about regular changes at the home, so pretty soon the guy starts setting some squares. And then finally he starts getting really tired, then I’ll say to Clark, “shit, you know, we gotta get coffee pretty quick let’s pass this guy, he’s going pretty slow.” At which point he’s going about 80% inefficient.

CH:
Grinding the gear.

JB:
Grinding away. [I]t is very funny to watch; you just see these guys, they’re literally pedaling in squares.

CH:
Our mantra is for this area. I mean, it could be different for Chicago, or different for New York City. But for this mantra, for where we live, rolling hills…

MW:
I don’t think of rolling hills when I think of Seattle. When I think rolling hills, I think Wisconsin maybe. The hills here are fucking steep.

JB:
For Seattle, the high 60’s [gear inches] is about right.

CH:
Yeah.

CH: [on beginning fixed]
Mine was 1978…

JB:
1960…? Well, I started riding a fixed… what I would do, I’d ride a fixed gear, I was mostly riding road, we didn’t have a track here in the 60’s and I was road racing, but usually in January I’d first start my season, I’d try to get 500 miles on the fixed just to make sure my pedaling was straight. At that point we rode the fixed longer than 500 miles. You’d let the fix pull you over the top. You had the ability to cheat…

MW:
That’s the beauty of the fixed gear.

JB:
…that is the beauty of the fixed gear but it would be a detriment if you wanted to be a competitive road rider. So it was great to do a fixed for like 500 miles, a certain portion of your training in your early season. I started doing that in the late ‘60’s, like ’68 or ’69.

JB: [On track racing]
We didn’t have a track here so Alpenrose was our closest track. Alpenrose Dairy donated the facility and so what they did was they had a narrow piece of property. It is a 1/6th of a mile track, 45 degree banking, but they screwed up the transitions initially so the transitions—they misread the plans or something—so you have yourself a ramp going into the corner if it wasn’t done right. And you could get airborne going up. And coming off the transition, you can get airborne coming down. Brutal. And minimum speed on there at 45 degrees, you have to be going at least 11 mph otherwise you’d drag your outside crank.

CH:
Bad.

JB:
The way you design a track… like Marymoor track is a pre-computer track. So, obviously you want the radius to match the speed in combination to the banking. So as you go into the corner the banking has to be less, so the radius should to be less. So what we did at Marymoor we used a dual-radius so it blended. The entry and exit to tracks is not symmetrical, it’s different. Now what you’ve got is the ability of the computer you can make the whole damn thing variable. Marymoor is 25 degrees and you’re dead perpendicular to the surface at 30 mph, Alpenrose is 45 degrees, it’s a sharper radius and you’re pretty much perpendicular at 30 mph.

The interesting thing is though, when I do this little lesson on this Monday night track deal. The first thing I have them do is a one-lap time trial; held-start. It does three things. One, the held-start means they can start off pedaling real hard in their fixed gear and not pull out their damned pedals. Number two, they can stand up and start real hard under stress and not fall down. And number three, more important, when they finish, they keep pedaling. We had one guy stop pedaling; he was doing about 28 mph. I was really just astounded at how high the bike got, the bike was up in the air about 18 feet.

JB: [On riding long distances fixed]
I was thinking of doing STP [Seattle to Portland] on a fixed gear, you know what fixed gear I was thinking? A high-wheeler.

CH:
Now that’s a fixed gear. A penny-farthing. I’ve ridden one of those.

JB:
I’ve done a match-sprint in Marymoor on one of those. If you’re cruising the bike track on a high-wheeler, and you’re up by the rail you look down on the spectators. And you look down that way it’s a looong way.

JB: [On the simplicity of fixed]
They’re [Shimano & Campagnolo] not getting the bike messenger game and that side of it. And just riding a fixed gear. They don’t see that simplicity. They’re going after the techy stuff.

CH:
They’re into perpetual consuming. They want you to buy the newest and latest. No matter what it is. We don’t need 10 cogs in the back. We really don’t need it.

JB:
Oh, I like my 10 cogs!

CH:
I understand you do. Two in the front, five in the back!

CH:
It still blows me away to buy like a used car for 500 bucks, a Honda or a Toyota 18 year old car and then look at these new bikes and they’re selling them, you know, just buying a… the top of the line brake levers with their gears is 4-500 bucks. So, you take these things in your hand and look at this car over there. 500 bucks….

These two could go on for days and they will, be sure to check out the links below, and if you get a chance, swing by the Wright Brothers shop in Seattle’s Fremont neighborhood for great repair and conversation, and get out to Marymoor and take a spin around the track.

marymoor.velodrome.org
wrightbrotherscycleworks.com
obra.org

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