Worcester, Mass.
April 30, 2000

Fixed-gear riders keep on pedaling

By Lynne Tolman

  It's easy to pick Jim Shepardson out of the pack on a Seven Hills Wheelmen road ride. When everyone else is coasting down a hill, Shepardson also is descending as fast as gravity will take him -- but he's pedaling like crazy. He rides a fixed-gear bike.
  That is to say, his bike has only one speed. No freewheel. No coasting. Whenever the rear wheel is turning, the pedals are going around.
  Why ride a single speed, mashing your knees on climbs, when today's bike technology offers smooth shifting of up to 27 gears?
  "You feel more connected to the road and the bike," said Shepardson, 27, a truck driver from Worcester. "It's a great workout."
  Moreover, he said, "It's the only way I can afford a lightweight bike." With no rear brake, no derailleurs, no shift levers, no extra sprockets, and a shorter chain than a multispeed bike, a fixed-gear rig can be considerably lighter. And it has "a nice clean look," he said, "without cables all over the place."
  Shepardson became intrigued with fixed-gear bikes after stumbling onto Sheldon Brown's Web page on the subject, . "There is a purity and simplicity to the fixed-gear bicycle that can be quite seductive," says Brown, owner of Harris Cyclery in Newton.
  Shepardson built his fixed-gear on an old steel frame, a Sterling from the 1980s that he had bought used. "I stripped the bike down to the frame, then spray-painted it black. I had a set of Shimano RSX components left over from, ironically enough, converting my other road bike to a triple," he said. (A third or "triple" chainring adds low gears for easier climbing.)
  "I bought a fixed-gear wheel, cog and a few other accessories from Sheldon for about $150. I also bought a new stem and handlebar. Total cost: well under $300," Shepardson said. "Without derailleurs and shifters to mess with, putting the bike together is pretty simple."
  Track bikes by definition have fixed gears, but today's resurgence of fixed-gear fever is geared toward the road. Road racers who used fixed-gear bikes in training know that the constant leg motion and fast cadence helps smooth out their pedal stroke and improve spinning technique.
  "It gives you a nice sense of tempo," says longtime racer Dick Ring, 65, of Chelmsford, announcer at many New England races, who looks forward to Monday and Friday road workouts on his track bike. "To me it's very relaxing."
  "I started racing in '49, and all the criteriums were on track bikes then," Ring said. "The Tour of Somerville (a venerable New Jersey race) didn't allow road bikes until 1952. Francois Mertens won the Tour of Somerville on a track bike in 1951."
  Riding a fixed-gear bike takes some getting used to. "There is going to be a fear factor," Ring said. "The first thing you're going to try to do is stop the bike by stopping pedaling, and if you do, you're going over the front of the handlebars. I've seen it happen.
  "As for the downhills, I will tell a rider: Relax. Your legs are not going to come out of their sockets. Don't fight the pedals."
  "I kind of look forward to the challenge of uphills now, but you can't rest on the downhill side," Shepardson said. "Steep hills can be a little rough on the knees. Getting clipped in is a challenge until you get the hang of hitting a moving pedal."
  Riders who learn the idiosyncrasies, Brown said, find fixed-gear bikes are "more nimble and controllable than freewheel bikes." That's one reason they're popular among urban bike messengers. Also, fixed gears are so simple, there's almost nothing that can break or get out of adjustment. And fixed-gear bikes are theft-resistant -- they don't look fancy and a na´ve thief won't get far trying to ride away on one.
  "They also lend themselves to a certain amount of macho posturing that fits in with the courier mystique," Brown said.
  Or, as Shepardson put it on his own fixed-gear Web page ( ), "You can put your $300 fixed gear next to a $2,000 Ultegra-equipped carbon fiber bike and get all the attention."
  Three racers from the Worcester-based Hot Tubes/Century Road Club Association juniors team are competing in Poland this weekend, the first American trade team ever to contend for the Junior World Cup. Entered in the stage race are Hot Tubes/CRCA 18-year-olds Dustin Rademacher of Monson, Ian Stuart of Burlington, Vt., and Peter Mazur of Dundoff, Ontario, who is a dual citizen of Canada and Poland and has won junior national track cycling titles in Poland. Mazur, who also rides for the Kissena team, based in New York, won the 3.5-kilometer prologue time trial yesterday in the Polish race. Rademacher placed second, 6 seconds back, and Stuart was seventh, 12 seconds back.
  Matt Wilson, 18, of Northampton, and Dan Wolfson, 17, of Belmont, will join their Hot Tubes/CRCA teammates in the Netherlands next month for two more of the 10 Junior World Cup races, and some other European racing.
  Hot Tubes owner, team director and coach Toby Stanton of Leicester, who has been recruiting top juniors from around the country since 1991, is confident this year's team is a winner. "Everyone has just matured at the right time. They're monsters," he said.
  Rademacher, for example, beat pro Frank McCormack (Saturn) of Leicester at the Gill Road Race on April 1.
  TIP OF THE HELMET to Worcester-bred Marc Witkes, 33, of Durango, Colo., who ran his first Boston Marathon this month in 3 hours, 12 minutes. That was a short jaunt for Witkes, who is training for a triple Ironman -- kayak 22 miles, bike 336 miles, and run 78.6 miles, with a 60-hour time limit -- in Virginia Beach, Va., Sept. 16-18.

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