From the Tracks to the Streets: The History of Fixed Gear Bikes

From the Tracks to the Streets: The History of Fixed Gear Bikes

Combining speed and power, fixed gear bikes have been an American pastime longer than most sports.

Fixed gear bikes have risen in popularity throughout the past decade. Now considered "urban chic", fixed gear bikes, or "fixies" for short, are ridden by young urban American cyclists looking to feel the control and speed of the single speed road bike.

Typically ridden without brakes, fixed gear bikes have become a staple in American history as far as the 19th century. Before the invention of the derailleur in the late 1800s (a system of chain and sockets to create multiple gears), fixies were the only available bicycle for consumers, increasing their popularity as "the first bike" in history.

Who Created the First Bicycle?

Even though the single-speed road bike consists of minimal technology and considered by many today as "simple", the history of the bike seems to be more controversial than most other inventions.

Mechanics of a fixed gear bike.

Some believe Giovanni de la Fontana created the first bike in 1418, calling it a human-powered, four-wheel invention with a loop of rope connected to gears. Though not technically called a "bike", the origin of the first fixie bikes can be traced back to Fontana's contraption.

400 years later, in 1813, a German aristocrat mimicked the invention by Fontana, creating his own four-wheeled human-powered contraption. However, it was Drias' debut in 1817 of a two-wheeled invention in Europe that began the legwork for the modern fixies we know today.

Messenger Couriers Made Their Symbol the Fixed Gear Bike

Since the history of the bike is controversial at best, it is difficult to determine when the first fixie was built outside of a generic "19th century" answer. However, as fixie bikes became increasingly popular for Americans and Europeans alike, it was adopted by the mail courier system in the 1800s for delivery of sensitive documents for businesses.

Even today, American and European businesses still use couriers to deliver checks, legal documents and other sensitive documents in dense urban areas with a central business district. The easy maneuverability of the fixie makes it more efficient for riders to get to their destination in a timely manner than an automobile.

In a 2005 interview with Wired magazine, a 12-year veteran in the courier system, Jim Wirtanen spoke about fixed bikes and their overall impact on America. Referred to as "Deadguy" by colleagues after being hit by a Lincoln car and being thrown 40-feet across an intersection, hitting his head on a light pole, Wirtanen has valuable experience with his fixie bikes.

"Basically a track bike is the perfect invention," says Wirtanen, "You can't make it any better."

Single Speed Road Bike on the Track

Fixed gear bikes were cherished in the 1800s and early 1900s. The invention became a revolution.

Beyond being a popular commodity by today's urban youth and messenger couriers, fixies also gained acclaim in the late 1800's when bicycle racing became a popular sport.

America was the first monopolized on the opportunity, creating a velodrome racing track in one of today's most visited areas. In 1876, Madison Square Garden was built to hold a velodrome-racing track specifically for fixed-gear bike enthusiasts.

Referred to as the "Madison races" (named after Madison Square Garden), bikers competed with a partner, making it a "team" sport. While six (6) racers pushed hard, each of their partners would circulate around the track until they were "tagged" into the race.

The average racer in the 1800's made $150,000 on average compared to a tradesman who averaged $5,000 annually.

Racing is still a popular sport even today, making it an unsuspected "pastime" for Americans and Europeans alike. Legendary racers such as Eddy Merckx and Francesco Moser created a fixie made of washing machine parts and they are the inspiration behind the movie "The Flying Scotsman", showing just how influential fixie bikes have been throughout history.

Urban Youth is taking the Reins on Fixie Bikes Today

 Urban youth still enjoy the power of the fixie bike. The unlimited speed potential with only a single gear and the strategy involved while riding with no brake or an optional front brake gives an appeal to the youth of American cyclists.

"Now all the college kids want them because they have had courier bags for the last five years," says Jim Wirtanen in his Wire magazine interview, "and now they want the bike to go with it."

As the history of the fixie bike continues to grow, the simplicity of the bike remains the same. At City Bicycle Co., we keep the bike's integrity by keeping the design simple, but giving you the best manufactured parts for a smooth-sailing on the road.