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Cross-country Fixer Ride
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by Chris Sachs
edited by Sheldon Brown

This article originally appeared as a couple of postings on the (no longer active) Fixed Gear email lis in August, 2001.

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My cross country ride was a Waterford track bike. The frame was built by those Wisconsin folks last year. IMHO, they do a great job with Reynolds tubing. I have logged many miles on two of their track bikes [my first now resides with my brother, who puts on 4,000 fixed road miles a year near Gettysburg PA ]. I have lived to tell about it, and my back etc. are in one piece. Any ambitious soul out there can actually see a picture of my current ride in Waterford's catalog for 2000 [gold colored track bike with Chris Sachs of Pepper Pike, Ohio listed as the owner]. More importantly, these bikes were fitted and built-up by some true experts at HubBub Custom Bicycles, here in Cleveland Ohio. One of the reasons for riding this bike was the confidence I had in it's durability. I needed something that could make the full 3,500 miles from LA to Boston, without a mechanical problem. In particular, the wheels were built by Brian from HubBub, whose engineering background and attention to detail make them close to indestructible. They have a great web site at http://www.hubbubcustom.com/ and there are some pictures of both me on the tour at http://www.hubbub.com/people_on_tour.htm and of the two Waterford track bikes I have owned side-by-side [good close-up of the bikes, with gold painted Reynolds 853 used for the tour on the left, while my brother Bill now owns the white Reynolds 531] at http://www.hubbub.com/images/BillChris1.jpg.

For a rough list of the components, I'm going to cheat and include a portion of a diary kept by one of our riders:

"One of the riders, Chris, 49, from Cleveland is riding an unusual bicycle. He had the bike custom made to fit him and there is only one gear in which to ride. No need to bother with shifting on this light weight, fixed gear bike. The front chain ring has 48 teeth, and the back one has 15 teeth. This is where 80% of his riding is done. For hills or for a change of pace, other gears can be fitted on the rear wheel. The choice is either 16 or 19 teeth where the other 20% of the riding is done. To change gears you must stop and remove the back wheel. The bike frame is of Reynolds 853 steel track bike material, and is made by Waterford. Phil Wood hubs, Campy Pista 170 cranks, and Campy front brakes only complete the components. No rear brakes. Chris must continue pedaling as long as the bike is moving. Going down hill is much of the challenge because holding back on the pedals increases his weight on the bike seat driving his bottom deeper into the seat. Chris is usually in front of pace lines pulling others along. He is very strong. Dick and I think without the handicap of down hill riding Chris would be out in front of us 100% of the time. For you bikers, just think, every bike movement means the pedals must turn."

[BTW, the original bottom bracket was also Campy, but was switched over towards the end of last year's 5,000 miles to Phil Wood].

That gearing might seem a bit tall for a fixer, but I'm a masher by nature. Also, I knew from my previous centuries that the biggest problem would be a sore bum, not sore knees. The lower cadence allowed the longish days to be more tolerable. I could lever out of the saddle more while seated, plus I had more "opportunities" to stand and crank. Who would have thought you would actually look forward with glee to an uphill so you could stand?! The 19 cog was for uphills in the Rocky's and Appalachians; the 15 for the downhills, flats and tailwind days; the 16 was for rolling terrain. Little did I know that the 19 would prove to be invaluable in Kansas, of all places, since nobody warned us that WE WOULD BE RIDING IN A HURRICANE. Not that I don't love that state, but what's with the 30+ MPH head winds with the 40+ MPH gusts for what seemed like an eternity [all day on the short 60 miler and half of the next day]?! Thankfully, by that part of the trip I had settled into riding with some strong partners [Dick on his Litespeed and Shawn on his Trek OCLV] and with some close pace line riding we were able to maintain 12 to 15 MPH giving it everything we had.

The trip logistics were run by Tracy Leiner, who owns CrossRoads. This may not be the total pampering of some European tours, but it comes close. Hotels, meals, SAGS, full time mechanic and even luggage delivery to your room make for a pleasant experience, even when the weather doesn't cooperate [e.g. Kansas winds, 95 miles of cold rain from motel door to motel door in upper New York]. Her web site is at http://crossroadscycling.com/index.shtml . For a very nice write-up of the tour, with some good pictures, go to: http://expert.cc.purdue.edu/~brownkl/ . This type of support was the only reason I considered doing a cross country ride on a fixed gear, minimalist type of bike............I may be crazy, but I'm not stupid [well, maybe just a little]. And as you might guess, it took some work to convince Tracy that the stupid factor was not high, since she strongly recommends that people come to the tour with triple chain rings.

Enough on the trip background. My plan is to write some fixer specific thoughts on touring in a later post.

This is the long delayed follow-up I mentioned in my earlier post. That August 2001 post covered the basics of my LA to Boston ride with an organized group. In this posting, I thought I would reflect on things I learned by riding fixed for 3,500 miles in 7 weeks.

BIKE FRAME

I rode a Waterford Model 2800 track bike, which can be seen at http://www.waterfordbikes.com/pframe.htm [click on "Competition Track" on the left, then "Photos" at the top, then the gold bike photo on the left]. Also, clicking on "Specs" at the top, gives basic information on the bike [mine is a 55cm with some customization].

In a nutshell, my track bike uses a Reynolds 853 tube- set with stainless steel dropouts. Those dropouts are a somewhat expensive, but truly wonderful feature, since it allows many wheels changes without slippage or paint marring [and the rust that tends to go with it]. Believe me, with numerous flats and the occasional gearing change, I had plenty of opportunity to remove the rear wheel on this tour.

BRAKES

This bike is outfitted with two brake hoods, even though I just run a front brake. My first fixers only had the left hood, and I was comfortable with that setup for many long rides. What I was missing was an ability to grab the hoods while standing. My approach was to go to the drops for cranking out of the saddle. With the additional hand position, I have more leverage for standing on really steep hills, plus it helped eliminate neck strain from being so low on the drops, whenever I stood. That's a nice feature when your cue sheet reads, "Make left turn and begin climbing for 15 miles."

Only having one brake on the front was something agonized over while planning the trip. It turned out to be a total non-issue. My worst fear was getting caught on some wild mountain pass, spinning into a gravel coated corner with limited ability to use body English, and having to stop suddenly for a car/deer/whatever. With the use of pedal resistance and occasional braking, I was able to control my speed to anticipate situations calling for sudden braking. A rear brake might have been nice [or at least added to my comfort level], but I am not sure readjusting the brakes [to fit the changed position of the rear wheel, with gear changes] would have been worth it. That being said, if I had the braze- on's and bridge to handle a rear brake, I would probably run one, if I did a similar trip in the future.

One thing I found helpful by riding fixed was the ability to layoff the brakes on rainy days. The other riders did a pretty good number on their rims having to brake with grit covered wheels. I was able to almost never touch the brakes by putting special emphasis on resisting the pedals. This not only saved on the rim wear, but gave me more sense of control.

GEARING

I know that most folks on this list tend to gravitate to a 70'ish gear inch. Being a masher by nature, and riding long miles that tend to generate "saddle issues", I typically ride an 80'ish gear inch. At home I ride 46/15 [80.6 gear inch], which gets me up all but the steepest of hills, while allowing me to hang-on in the flat and downhill terrain. I have developed a low pedal revolution approach, which has never caused knee soreness and provides plenty of power.

On the trip, I rode with a 48 chainring, to allow for more extremes in the terrain. Roughly 60% of the time was spent with a 15 cog [84.1 gear inch]. That allowed me to stay close to the "coasty's" on long descents, actually beat those folks on short downhills, stay with the fast guys when we had a tailwind, and keep the cadence low enough so the pressure on the pedals kept my butt from killing me. When we hit the mountains, I flipped the wheel over to get the 19 cog [66.2 gear inch]. That seemed to be low enough not to kill me, and was all that the rear dropout would allow, with the chain I had. It came in very helpful in Kansas, where the winds made it tough to maintain much more than 12 mph. When we were in the rolling hills during 25% of the trip, the 19 came off and I put a 16 cog on [78.8 gear inch]. Having ridden this on my first fixer in 1999, I knew it would give me just enough juice to get over the short but steep hills in Missouri, Ohio and NY, without spinning too wildly elsewhere.

FLIPPING THE WHEEL

Recently, there was a thread on how often people flip their wheels for more optimal gearing. By way of background, I ride at home and flip the wheel maybe once a season, just to make sure I remember how! On this trip, I figured that minimalist approach was going to be tough with the varied terrain, including some very long climbs.

I learned that flipping the wheel frequently during the day typically wasn't worth the bother. I remember one mountain pass in particular, coming into Prescott AZ, where I flipped the wheel to the 15 after having spun for miles with the 19 on a downhill. Lucky me, there was another several miles of uphill, and it started immediately around the next bend! After that, I just relaxed, went slow, and enjoyed the scenery.

Although I would still follow that approach, I did find that I was totally tapped out after a day in the NY mountains, spinning like crazy to keep up with my friends. They were hitting the bottom of the several mile hills, refreshed and ready for the next grade, while I was exhausted. Naturally, they were sympathetic to my plight and took it easy on me as we cranked up the next hillÖyeah, right! These were the same folks that would heckle me on the downhill sections with, "I can coast, I can coast, ha, ha." It took two days to recover from that 80 miles. [Actually my two companions were very good about giving me moral support, when they realized I was really suffering, not just dogging it.]

Another lesson learned the hard way was that I needed an ACCURATE description of the next day's route. Many of the tour staffers try not to scare you with the difficulty or have vague memories. I soon discovered that my best source was the tour group's mechanic from New Zealand, since he understood what I was trying to achieve [e.g. hills tomorrow mate, better put the big cog on].

One entertaining story occurred in Kansas. We had FINALLY turned so that the wind wasn't fully in our face. Shawn, who had ridden with me from the start, had become my pit crew. Dick had only just begun riding with the two of us, when his normal partner couldn't keep the pace riding into the hurricane. As we made the turn, the realization struck that the wind was mostly at our backs and I called out, "Gear shift needed!" Shawn stopped immediately, grabbed the back of my bike, as I rummaged in the rear pack for my wrench. Dick turned around, after going up the road some, and rode back inquiring if I had flatted. By then Shawn and I were fairly coordinated, so we were most of the way through the flipping process. Shawn calmly said, "No Dick, we are just changing gears, we'll be there in a second." Dick was amazed that we were finished and on our way, long before the next group was even visible on the horizon [a LONG way in Kansas]. We assured him that practice makes perfect and he could join in the practice sessions in the future. He was advised that he had to think in terms of a racecar pit crew.

PACE LINES

When I signed up for this tour, their one request was for giving people time to adjust to me never stopping pedaling, even when slowing down. I had learned, from group rides at home, that using pedal resistance in a pace line required judicious application, or some audible/visual warning. It was clear that experienced riders intuitively use the stopping of the pedals as an indication that the rider ahead was slowing. The tour encouraged very conservative riding etiquette [e.g. calling out "stopping" any time someone was braking], so this never became a problem on the ride.

I found that riding much of the day in a close pace line increased the sore butt tendencies. The inability to get out of the saddle, to keep a steady pace, was the cause. The cure was to jump out of the saddle every time I rotated to the back, regardless of whether it was needed to latch onto the back, or not. If the pace line was not that close, I would stand for around 25 pedal strokes just to get some butt rest. That approach allowed me to maintain the 80 mile daily average [with several over 100], without too much pain and minimal saddle sores. The only tough days were the tailwind rides where I was spinning over 100 rpm for much of the day. Of course, Dick looking over at me, while riding in his 53/11, and asking if I was having fun yet, helped immensely!

Chris Sachs
Pepper Pike [Cleveland] Ohio

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