For the last five years, this column has avoided covering one of the hottest youth-culture urban crazes in the bike world: the fixie — a minimalist, single-speed bike with a fixed gear and no brakes. Some people like them ugly, others gaudy and others tricked-out with doodads and custom paint jobs. To be honest, I thought these bikes, which have introduced thousands of former non-cyclists to two wheels, were dumb deathtraps (hey, no brakes?) and that the fad would disappear along with the first crash.
Well, fixie-mania keeps growing, and a big reason for it is that the bikes are getting fixed. Riders and manufacturers, responding to public safety laws and common sense, have added brakes, multi-gear hubs, freewheels and fluorescent night-light paint. This makes for safer, more practical bikes that are faster, can coast and are more enjoyable to ride — all while keeping the minimalist and mandatory fixie look.
GT Meatball: Aluminum-frame two-speed with an automatically shifting hub and a rear coaster brake
Likes: Logic and simplicity. Same cool fixie look with a simple frame and flat, gray paint, but with the addition of two gears, a brake, no cables and no thinking — so you can fit in yet go faster. The rear hub, using the centrifugal clutch of the SRAM Automatix 2-speed hub, reads your speed and shifts automatically into the higher gear when you hit about 10 mph. The big gear allows for a fast cruising speed. To manually downshift for hill climbing, just coast momentarily; it'll downshift. The auto-shift quickly becomes second nature. Purchased separately, the Automatix hub ($87) can be retrofitted to your old bike.
Dislikes: There is no fixed gear, so it's not a fixie. Since it auto-shifts for you, if does not give you a feeling of control, as with the 2-speed "kick-back" system of the Torker KB2 (see below). As with all the internal-geared and fixed-geared bikes in this review, there is no tool-free, quick-release lever; a 15-millimeter wrench is required to remove either wheel.
Price: $780. (800) 843-2453; http://www.gtbicycles.com
Pure Fix Cycles Kilo: Steel-framed fixie with front brake, flip-flop hub and glow-in-the-dark paint.
Likes: Classic fixie with additional style and safety features. The 13/4-inch deep aero rims are stylish, and the fluorescent paint and left front brake will keep you alive on night rides. While you can't coast with a classic fixed-gear because the pedals keep moving, the "flip-flop" hub allows you to convert the Kilo from a fixie to a practical, coasting freewheel bike by simply flipping the rear wheel over to the other side; takes about 3 minutes. Frame holds one water bottle.
Dislikes: No rack mounts or quick-release hubs.
Price: $399. (855) 255-5011; http://www.purefixcycles.com
Raleigh Cadent i2 x 8: Do-anything, aluminum-framed fixie lookalike with a hidden 16-speed drivetrain created by an internally-geared crank and rear hub.
Likes: The ultimate looks-like-a-fixie/isn't-a-fixie bike. The beautiful, minimalist frame is not cluttered with visible gears, even though it is so loaded with them that you could use it as a commuter, fitness, or touring bike. The 16-speed sleight-of-hand pairs a sleek two-speed Metropolis planetary-gear crank (which replicates 28- and 45-teeth chain rings) with a time-tested Shimano Nexus eight-speed hub and their cables. The shifting works perfectly via two handlebar-mounted twist-shifters; There are no other clues that gears are present. A carbon fork and rack/fender mounts complete a handsome, versatile package. Note: Purchased separately, the two-speed Metropolis crank can be retrofitted to any fixie ($299).
Dislikes: Has no fixed gear or quick-release hubs.
Price: $1,100. (800) 222-5527; http://www.raleighusa.com
Torker KB2 2-speed: Fixie replica with a two-speed Sturmey Archer "kick back" rear hub.
Likes: Clean, simple design, with no shifters and cables, and one coaster brake and two gears. This Sturmey Archer hub, quite different from the SRAM 2-speed hub on the GT Meatball, shifts from "low" to "high" gear and back when you kick the crank back halfway, not far enough to activate the brake. This technology has actually been around for generations (I put one on my Schwinn Stingray as a kid) but is rarely seen today. Too bad — it works. For normal braking, apply normal backward pressure. There's a very short learning curve. Other features include rack and fender mounts, a see-through chain guard, an attractive crystal-red paint job and a far lower price than the Meatball.
Dislikes: No quick-release hubs and no fixed gear. Also, it changes gears every time you brake, which can be annoying at first.
Price: $429. (800) 283-2453; http://www.torkerusa.com
Caraci Fixed-Gear F5.0: Aluminum-framed fixie with front and rear brakes and aero wheels.
Likes: Striking looks, with matching neon green paint on the hubs and grips, white tires, deep rims, bladed spokes and a unique frame design with an internally run cable. Includes a flip-flop hub for freewheel coasting. Steel-framed model is $30 less.
Dislikes: No water bottle hardware or quick-release hubs.
Price: $335 to $420; available in late November. (626) 213-1318; http://www.caracibike.com
Wallack is coauthor of "Bike for Life: How to Ride to 100" and "Barefoot Running Step by Step." firstname.lastname@example.org