Twenty years ago, I took my first ride on my newly built Fuji fixed gear and ended up flat on my back within minutes. The trouble began when I reached an intersection just down the street from our home in Tempe, Arizona.
I had too much speed and realized late that I would have to turn sharply to keep from blasting through a busy intersection. Years of avid cycling kicked in, and I reflexively positioned myself in a coasting position only to have the bike try to rip my leg off at the hip.
I then pedaled through the corner hugging the curb on my right side. In a cruel twist, the curb's height exceeded the ground clearance of my rotating pedals. The contact between the crank arm and the curb launched me and the bike into the air, catapulting us away from the curb and into traffic.
I overcorrected to avoid being crushed by an SUV, only to catch the toe of my shoe on the still-rotating tire. This sent me forward (groin-first) into the handlebar riser and eventually over the bars and onto the pavement... Cornering on a fixed gear is an art form.
In contrast to a freewheel bike, a fixed gear bike can't coast; the absence of a freewheel mechanism ensures that the bike's motion is tied to the pedal's movements. The wheels turn as long as the pedals do, and the pedals move as long as the wheels are in motion.
This direct connection between rider and machine can create a beautifully responsive, tactile riding experience. It offers unmatched control and feedback from the bike but also requires the rider to adjust their instincts and techniques, particularly when it comes to cornering.
Understanding this key difference is essential to mastering corners on a fixie. Unlike a regular bike, where the rider can stop pedaling and coast through a turn, a fixed gear bike requires the rider to continue pedaling throughout the turn, introducing unique challenges such as pedal strikes, where the pedal can hit the ground if the bike leans too far into the turn, or in my case, a high curb.
To truly master the art of cornering on a fixie, it's essential to understand the physics at play. As you navigate a corner, you're in a constant battle against multiple forces - gravity trying to pull you down, inertia attempting to push you straight ahead, and the friction between your tires and the road surface keeping you upright and on track.
When you enter a turn, your bike wants to continue moving in a straight line due to inertia. However, by leaning into the turn, you create a gravitational force that pulls you toward the center of the curve, helping to counteract this inertia. Meanwhile, the friction between your tires and the ground provides the necessary traction to keep you from slipping outwards.
The act of cornering is about managing these forces. As a fixie rider, your ability to control these forces is affected by your bike's constant pedal movement. Therefore, understanding the continuous interplay between gravity, inertia, and friction is critical to avoid mishaps like pedal strikes or losing balance and control.
For example, if you lean too far into the turn or the pedal strikes the ground or an obstacle like a curb, it can disrupt the balance of these forces, leading to a potential fall or crash. On the other hand, if you don't lean enough, inertia might push you straight off the road or into traffic.
So, the physics of cornering on a fixie is a delicate balancing act - one where the rider must synchronize their actions with the unyielding rhythm of the fixed gear mechanism to safely and effectively navigate through turns.
The key to progression is practice and a commitment to safety. Be patient, learn at your own pace, and enjoy the journey.