Sunday, July 13, 2008

Fixin' to Ride

Lao-tzu said "Limiting is what results in clarity; minimizing is what results in attainment. Therefore when the external is controlled by the center, nothing is neglected. If you can attain the center, then you can govern the external." ***

I think if Lao-tzu rode a bicycle, it would be a fixed gear. Over the years I've ridden many bicycles and logged many miles on fixies. Now things run ahead, now things run behind and bicycles ebb and flow through my life. "Ownership", like this life itself, is only some sort of temporary condition.

Here and now, the government has decided to task me with stimulating the economy. Who am I to disagree? Something in my sense of propriety is offended by the fact that this Fuji League has languished on the sales floor of Bike Works for weeks. I decide to spend locally and bring this bike home.

Lao-tzu famously advises “To gain knowledge, add something everyday. To gain wisdom, remove something everyday.” Having just gained a bike, I set to the work of regaining wisdom.

The drop bars, the derailleurs, the multi-cog freewheel, the big chainring and the excess chain all go into a satisfyingly heavy bag, destined for some other machine on some other day. My hands, feet and butt know how this bike should fit me. Flat bars with bar ends, BMX platform pedals and a WTB saddle all find their proper place.

My friend Mark Vande Kamp has observed that overall, I'm fastest on a fixed gear bike and while being fast is not the point, it is an interesting phenomena. My friend Jan has also rightly noted that when derailleurs were introduced into the Tour de France, average speeds went up quite a bit. I have a theory that reconciles these two facts and it goes like this:
  • Racers use gears to go faster
  • I am not a racer
  • I am lazy
  • I use gears to go slower (shifting into an easier gear to climb)
  • Fixed gears don't shift (or coast)
  • The fixed gear forces me to be strong on the climbs and to spin quickly on the descents.
  • Because the bike is less, I have to be more.
I don't train, I just ride. For riding, sometimes a fixed gear is just right.

The bike is silent except for the sounds of tires on the road and breath in my lungs. Pedals turn, wheels turn, the earth turns beneath us. The road goes from here to there, up and down. Geography instructs my legs, reminding me of the true shape of the land. We have negotiated a mathematical bargain, 42:16 with 170 mm cranks and 700c wheels. I no longer trade time for comfort, but today's efforts become tomorrow's strengths.

There is something light and strong and right about this bike. It gets me to work a bit faster than my other machines and after just a few days the effort is becoming effortless. I do not to tell my heart to beat, my lungs to breathe, my legs to turn. I grab this machine and riding is automatic, like a heartbeat.

*** This quote is from Further Teachings of Lao-tzu translated by Thomas Cleary, page 6.


Unknown said...

While not exactly the same thing, I certainly find the I ride faster on my singlespeed mountain bike than I do on my geared one. Faster climbing out of necessity.

Anonymous said...

How do you like riding fixed without foot retention?

Greg Z

Pondero said...

Well said, Kent, as usual. You comment, "I use gears to go slower (shifting into an easier gear to climb)", is something I've noticed about myself. I've just added gears and coasting to my fixed gear bike...and now you write this. Now I wonder why I thought adding gears was a good idea. Now I just feel silly.

Kent Peterson said...


The "no-retention" thing has been unexpectedly uneventful. I thought I might have a problem with the pedals trying to get away from me on descents but as it turns out the pressure up on the backstroke pedal of course is equal to the speed of the forward pedal. The only place a pedal might "get away" is at the dead top and dead bottom of the stroke and with the little pegs on the BMX pedals meshing into my Keens that just doesn't happen. It was Dave Nice who got me thinking about trying this, his riding off-road without retention inspired me to give it a shot.


Cory Grunkemeyer said...

"I don't train, I just ride." These are words to live by.

Anonymous said...

Lao-tzu famously advises“To gain knowledge, add something everyday. To gain wisdom, remove something everyday.”
How many bicycles do you own now Kent? :)

Kent Peterson said...


Right now I'm at three bikes: the Fixed Fuji, the M2 Stumpjumper SpeedCruiser/Adventure bike, and the Dahon D3 folder. I've been as low as one bike and as high as seventeen. As I said, ebb and flow. All just passing thru.

Anonymous said...

You became one with your bike :) that's romantic!

Anonymous said...

Yours is the first thing EVER that made me lament my congenitally malformed knees and wish that I could give fixed gear street riding a serious go. Great writing.

Matt said...

Your fenders look like you've made them out of recycled something-or-other...did you make them, or buy them? If made, how so?

brad said...

It's all one eternal round. Or in the words of Cyprus Hill: "What goes around comes around"

Still, recumbents get shorted out of this one eternal round? There are no doubt some pretty displeased middle aged men reading this who must feel that their patron saint hath passed them over.

Perhaps instead of one eternal round, it's more of a whirlpool. Tighter, faster, more efficient, until like Superman, you turn so fast that you can turn back time.

Fuji makes great bikes.

Kent Peterson said...


You must be new around here! I've been making fenders, bags and other things for my bikes out of coroplast for at least a dozen years. Coroplast is the corogated plastic that is used for political campaign signs in this damp part of the world. If you type "coroplast" into the search box at the top of this blog, you'll find lots of examples. Here are a couple of places to start:



Anonymous said...

I like the link between lao Tzu and fixed gear. I definitely think Lao Tzu would have like the Tao of Cycling.

Unfortunately, fixed is a bit more difficult if you live in Yorkshire...

Jim G said...

Kent wrote: "Right now I'm at three bikes: the Fixed Fuji, the M2 Stumpjumper SpeedCruiser/Adventure bike, and the Dahon D3 folder."

Kent, what happened to The Green Bike?

This new Fuji is quite similar to both your old Kogswell Model G and even your older Eddy Merckx. Do you ever regret getting rid of those?

It seems to me that you somewhat-restlessly "cycle" through a lot of bikes -- do you just get bored with 'em?

Kent Peterson said...

Jim G.

The green bike went to my friend Chris. I tend to hang onto a bike long enough to learn something from it but if I get the sense somebody else would get more use from it, it goes. I gave away both Merckxs, the Monocog and the Kogswell. I sold Smokey back to his original owner for the cost of the parts I'd put into it. I've never regretted passing a bike on. You have to empty your cup before you fill it again and at the end of the day, you don't even own the cup. The key to traveling light is too not lug around more than you need. My problem always has been a matter of having too much, not too little.


Anonymous said...

Now that you're working at a bike shop with a large supply of old miscellaneous parts, we're going to have to keep an eye on you lest you end up writing your own version of Johnny Cash's "One Piece At A Time". Well I got a '79, '80, '81, '82, '83, '84, '85, '86 bicycle.

I recently got myself a speed cruiser. 700c x 47 Continental CityContact wheels and Shimano 8 speed Alfine internal gears. No dirty deraileur. The speed cruiser is right at home carrying a rack and panniers. My fixie is happy because it no long has to suffer the indignity of trying to carry a rack and trunk bag.

Rob said...

A question:

How well does the colorplast "fender" zip tied simply to the down tube work? Compared to a fender that moves with the front wheel?


Kent Peterson said...


The front coroplast splash guard works pretty well at keeping much of the spray off but a wrap-around fender with a mud flap will keep your feet dryer. Advantages of the splash guard are lighter weight, NO effect on the front end handling of the bike and it never jams with mud.


CSA said...


It's cool to see you're riding fixed again ... but kinda sad to find out you gave away the Monocog. After your Great Divide Race triumph,that bike should of been bronzed and put in a glass display case along with your story ... it still inspires me !

Chris / Novi, MI