Cornering on Your Fixed Gear

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.

Cornering on a Fixed Gear

Understanding Your Fixed Gear Bike

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.

The Physics of Cornering

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.

Practice Cornering on Your Fixed Gear

  1. START SLOW!!!: I can't express this strongly enough. Riding a fixed gear is very different than riding a freewheel bike. You're not only going to train your body to react in new ways, but you also need to train your mind to maintain a new level of situational awareness. Go slow and try each movement or circumstance at a pace that allows you to learn and tweak on the fly without putting yourself at risk.
  2. Use Short Crank Arms: Long crank arms are fine on a coasting bike, but on a fixed gear they spell trouble. Building with short crank arms ensures that you're less likely to contact the ground or passing objects when pedaling.
  3. Avoid Moguls: Small steep hills or bumps where you're immediately descending after an assent can accentuate the likelihood of a pedal strike. Think of the hills at a pump track. When your rear tire nears the top of the hill, your front is already part way down the backside. This lowers your overall clearance in relation to the peak. Angsty teenagers will slash your tires if you rip up every roller on a pass through their park. Cornering adds even more risk in these situations.
  4. Use Toe Clips or Straps: The distance between your pedals and the front wheel is not great. This is not a problem on a coasting bike because we usually position the crank arms vertically to coast through a corner. You must avoid striking the front tire with your toe on a fixed bike. I like to strap in using a vintage pedal set on my fixie, but toe clips work well too.
  5. Counter-Steering: For sharper corners at higher speeds, a quick push of the handlebars in the opposite direction you want to turn (followed immediately by a turn in the correct direction) can help set your lean angle quicker.
  6. Look Far Ahead: When you're on a fixed, you need to plan farther ahead than usual. Start thinking about the speed you need to decrease to long before turning.
  7. Beware of Wet Surfaces when Cornering: The motion of your pedal rotation adds another dynamic to each corner and can be enough to cause you to lose traction on slippery surfaces.

The key to progression is practice and a commitment to safety. Be patient, learn at your own pace, and enjoy the journey.

Happy riding!