August 20, 2013



On the way home, I reached the conclusion that I had picked exactly the right time in my life as a cyclist to build and start riding a fixed-gear bike. I used to relate to such machines and the people who rode them with a mixture of suspicion, confusion, and awe. The way they coped with traffic, terrain, and fatigue was mysterious, bordering on the incomprehensible. At some time around March of this year, I decided I wanted one. It was the depths of the Scottish second Winter, when the brief period of spring-like weather that had tormented us in January and February gave way to almost constant hail, sleet, snow, frost, rain, howling winds and bitter, bitter cold. I lost yet another derailleur to that wonderful Aberdonian combination of heavily gritted roads, constant damp conditions, below-freezing temperatures, and energy-sapping short days that sap your enthusiasm to protect your bike from these harsh elements. Purely because it would be easier to maintain, I thought, I’d like to put a fixie together. It only has one component that could conceivable seize up: the front brake. Your average road bike has four, and I’ve lost at least one of each in every one of the last four Winters. I’m not kidding: the springs get coated in salty grit, freeze, and lose their springiness, never to fully regain it.

So now I find myself somewhere between Auchenblae and Stonehaven, on a Summer’s day, on 44×17, and if not loving it, then at least, still riding all right after thirty-odd miles, and confident of keeping going well for the thirty-odd miles left between here and home. I have bullhorn handlebars, home-made from an old pair of drop bars with a hacksaw and a pipe cutter. My hands aren’t used to being on them for this long, though, and a little synaptic twitch keeps asking me to put them down on the bottom part of the drops – until I realise it isn’t there. Another instinctive movement of the hand is to reach for an imaginary gear shifter at the bottom of hills – I’m so used to the luxury of clicking a little button a couple of times with my thumb to make pedalling easier. Nice try, sunshine. You’re just going to have to use more force. And I do.

There are compensating advantages to the lack of a freewheel, though, and I had to actually get out and ride a fixie before I fully realised this. The “flywheel effect” of the back wheel is very noticeable – the kinetic energy you put in to keep it moving up the hill is released as the road flattens out, giving you a much-needed boost of momentum there where the freewheel leaves you, already having worked hard to climb, with the need to put out even more energy to re-accelerate. Because of the lack of derailleurs and such unnecessary paraphernalia, furthermore, the bike itself can be very light – mine weighs little, if at all, more than my very fancy road-racing bike. The latter I keep in cotton wool and only dare go out on it on nice days, after which it needs a careful and detailed maintenance and cleaning session before it can be put away again. The fixie, of course, is nothing like so delicate.

The bit I keep waiting for is the climb out of Stonehaven on the Netherley road. It starts to go uphill immediately from the end of the beach, ramps up steadily under the railway and road bridges, you turn left off the slip road for the dual carriageway, and then there’s a sharp bend to the right and a wall going straight up for about a quarter mile. When I get there, it’s full out-of-the-saddle effort all the way up, heart and lungs heaving under the unaccustomed strain, but I make it. It only gets easier from here to home. I don’t quite make it back before the day’s second downpour saturates my clothing which had just nicely dried out from the first. This is North-East Scotland.

There is still no accurate recording of the distance, but from reading roadsigns and guesswork I would say about seventy miles. Straight down the coast from Aberdeen in the company of a friend whose own single-speed, handpainted, pink-and-green road bike “God’s Guidance” may one day be the subject of another post. There are still no pictures, except the old one of my bike above. I have since found my camera charger, though, so perhaps I’ll be able to illustrate these write-ups a little better in future. My riding companion was headed for Dundee. I left him to it somewhere just North of St. Cyrus, and turned inland over the range of low hills known as the Garvock. The unexpectedly steep descent into Laurencekirk caused some apprehension, I’m still learning how to push backwards into the pedals and resist the acceleration conferred on the bike by gravity. It’s one serious disadvantage as against a freewheel: not only do you have to do work descending as well as ascending, you also have to go slower. At least, you do if you’re being cautious, and following the principle that you should be able to stop in the distance you can see is clear in front of you. But one compensation is that that distance decreases as your skill level improves.

Out of Laurencekirk, and on with by far the prettiest section of the ride, back up through the area known as the Mearns to Stonehaven. It’s picturesque, and deserted on this Sunday afternoon. When the wind drops, the stillness and silence are almost unsettling. It’s flattish, just rolling terrain as far as the very pretty village of Auchenblae, which sits in a hollow surrounded by low hills, as a result of which you descend steeply into it and climb steeply out of it. I take advantage of the lack of traffic and “Paperboy” from side to side of the road, trying to reduce the gradients. The hills get gentler, but the road is never flat between here and Stonehaven – where it is flat, for a very short distance, before the aforementioned climb, the last serious difficulty before Aberdeen.