Fixed gear bicycles have become an integral part of the bike messenger culture. They’re present in movies and countless videos on YouTube depicting the dangerous life of bike couriers.
To outsiders, this choice of machinery may appear somewhat illogical because bike messengers spend the entire day on the pedals and cover a lot of ground.
Yet instead of seeking all the possible comfort, they choose to ride a rigid bicycle with thin tires, no gears, and sometimes no brakes.
Why? Why do bike messengers ride fixies?
Bike messengers ride fixed-gear bicycles for five main reasons – tradition, fashion, low maintenance, reliability, and cost-effectiveness.
Fixies are light, stylish, mechanically simple, and have fewer parts that could break. This makes them attractive to bike couriers who need a machine that complains as rarely as possible.
The Reasons Why Bike Messengers Choose Fixies
Below you will find the reasons why many bike messengers rely on fixed-gear bicycles for their work:
The bicycle has been used for delivery purposes for quite a while. David Herlihy’s book Bicycle: the History describes the couriers employed by the Paris stock exchange in the 1870s.
In 1874, the French newspaper Le Moniteur Universel began relying on cyclists to transfer reports from the National Assembly in Paris to the paper’s press in Versailles. Then, bank agents at the stock market organized a group of 30 couriers burdened with the task to deliver messages to the central telegraph office.
During the 1890s, the Western Union in the U.S. hired a large number of bike couriers known as bicycle telegraph boys. The tradition continued into the 1900s.
At the time, the messenger bicycles were quite simple. They had only one gear and no way of breaking other than back-pedaling.
Primitive gear systems were already under development, but the available tech wasn’t a viable option.
Even though the modern fixed-gear bicycles are more sophisticated and lighter than the machines used at the time, their simplicity is still reminiscent of the early era of bicycle couriers.
You can think of the current fixies as modern cars preserving the symbolic characteristics of previous models.
Fashion & Aesthetics
The fixie has an elegant clean look that many messengers find appealing and even necessary to be а stylish bike courier.
The effect is so strong that sometimes even cyclists who aren’t technically messengers try to recreate the style by riding fixes, wearing jean shorts cut above the knee, and carrying a messenger bag over their shoulder.
Legit bike couriers often consider those men “posers” for having no skill and recreating only the surface of a deeper urban culture.
Rite of Passage
Some bike messengers don’t consider non-fixie couriers hardcore enough. The strength of this snobbish mentality depends on one’s location and the code of conduct at the workplace.
No rule states that a bike messenger should ride a fixie. However, as it often happens, the environment creates unwritten, silent regulations that people follow to be accepted by the group.
Many riders who want to be seen as “real messengers” hop on fixed-gear bicycles to emulate their idols and hopefully earn the respect of the authoritative bodies in their social circle.
Of course, that’s a wrong reason to ride a fixie because the person is trying to satisfy external expectations based on questionable and somewhat made-up standards.
Fixies without brakes require very little maintenance. Outside of annual servicing or an emergency, the riders only have to lube the chain and pump the tires.
There are no derailleurs that can get bent nor brake pads to replace. Also, the hubs of a fixed-gear bicycle are fairly simple and should last a long time if they’re of high-quality, and the machine is ridden on the intended terrain.
Subsequently, fixed gear bicycles don’t have to be “caressed” as much as road bikes. This quality makes them attractive to messengers who accumulate many hours of riding every day and throw their bicycles around all the time.
Below is a list with all the parts of a fixie and the maintenance that they require:
Frame, fork – In general, rigid parts don’t need maintenance other than cleaning and regular inspection for cracks.
The cleaning part is more needed during the winter months when the roads are treated with various substances preventing the formation of ice.
Stem, handlebars – occasional cleaning, inspection for cracks, and tightening of the bolts;
Brakes – If the rider uses brakes, the pads, the brake cable, and the housing will have to be replaced periodically.
Wheels – The wheels will need cleaning and eventual truing due to the frequent riding.
Hubs – servicing, potential replacement;
Seat post – cleaning and greasing;
Chainring and rear cog – cleaning and replacement upon reaching noticeable wear and tear;
Chain – frequent lubrication, tension adjustment, replacement at one point;
Crank arms – cleaning, inspection for cracks and bolt tightening
Bottom bracket – Occasional servicing or replacement
Headset – Servicing, potential replacement of the bearings
Tires – air pressure maintenance, replacement
Pedals – servicing
Most of the tasks above aside from the chain and tire maintenance are not done frequently. This increases the attractiveness of the fixie in the eyes of couriers who just want to focus on riding.
Another bonus of fixies when it comes to maintenance is that they’re easier clean thanks to the absence of a cassette and multiple chainrings both of which tend to be the dirtiest and the hardest places to clean on a geared bicycle.
The fixie is a simplified bicycle. This increases its reliability because there are fewer parts that can break.
This is an important factor because mechanical problems slow down the working process and result in financial losses due to incomplete or postponed deliveries.
Nonetheless, I’d say that this property of fixies is severely over-hyped.
Truth be told, geared bicycles are very reliable too. It’s not like people who ride with gears break derailleurs and shifters every month.
I have well over 15k of commuting on my bike and have bent my derailleur only once. I’ve never had problems with my shifters and shifting cables.
Many bike messengers ride dirty, non-pretentious fixed-gear bicycles with steel frames scratched at multiple places, torn bar tape, and deteriorating paint.
The look of similar bicycles and the lack of accessories and shiny elements on them is useful when you’re trying to deter a thief away.
Another reason why some thieves avoid fixies is the learning curve. Fixies don’t have a freewheel and most beginners cannot ride them safely and efficiently. And if there are no brakes, the escape plan of the robber becomes even more complicated.
Furthermore, fixies have questionable resale value because average people prefer to ride a bicycle that can coast and has brakes. This limits the pool of potential buyers.
Even cheap fixies can be exceptionally light because they use fewer components than geared bicycles.
If the frame and fork are made of higher grade alloy, the bike’s weight can drop under 20lbs.
It’s great to have a light bike when you have to toss it around all day and sometimes even climb stairs with it on your shoulder.
If the same weight was to be matched by a geared bicycle, the price of the machine will go up substantially.
Some people ride fixies not for technical reasons, but because they love “the fixie experience”.
They like to feel as if they’re a part of the machine when moving through the city jungle in fluid motions.
The Demographic Dictates the Fashion
The background of the people who are the most likely to work as bike messenger matters too because those are the individuals dictating the fashion trends.
In the 1980s, many bike messengers were also competing in track cycling. Naturally, many of them began using their track bicycles for work. This influx boosted the use of fixies as courier bicycles.
Do All Bike Messengers Ride a Fixie?
The popularity of fixed-gear bicycles among bike couriers is pretty high, but not all of them ride fixies. Many bike messengers use whatever bicycle they have or a model, often electric, offered by the delivery company.
At some locations, it’s not uncommon to see bike messengers on hardtail mountain bikes, electric bicycles, and even BMX bikes.
Another factor other than availability that may steer away bike messengers from fixies would be the home residence of the rider.
If you live in a hilly area and have to ride a great distance to reach your operation radius, a fixie may be inadequate. Conversely, if you live near the city center, a fixie may be a very comfortable option.
The Downsides of a Fixed Gear Bicycle
Even though fixies are very fashionable among bike couriers, it would be naive to conclude that those machines don’t have low points.
The downsides of fixies are as follows:
When you’re riding a fixie, you’re in the wrong gear most of the time. This type of cycling can have a negative effect on one’s knees and endurance.
Experienced fixie riders develop the ability to “think 10 moves ahead”, but the most dangerous situations always “come out of nowhere”.
And when your bicycle has an inefficient braking system, you are very likely to get caught unprepared.
Similar moments may involve children and animals since they tend to have less predictable movement patterns.
One time I experienced an unpleasant situation at the local park after tearing the cable of my front brake.
A domestic dog came out of the bushes and stood in the middle of the lane. I tried stopping with my rear brake and by putting my foot on the ground but failed and hit the dog slightly. If I had no brakes at all, the situations would have been worse.
Hence why many bike messengers leave their ego aside and put a reliable front brake on their fixies.
Somewhat ironically, many claim that they’re faster when riding with a brake because it allows you to be more aggressive.
Back Tire Wear
Frequent skid stops wear out the back tire quickly. This is a component that needs frequent replacement when the fixie has no dedicated brakes.
Another safety concern with fixed-gear bicycles is the possibility of catching your pants or shoelaces with the chain, chainring, or pedals.
This could lead to seriously damaging circumstances because the cranks will continue to spin and pull as long as the bike is moving. If that happens on a downhill section or in traffic, the outcome could be catastrophic.
Constantly pedaling results in accumulative fatigue.
Inefficiency During Descents
Since a fixed-gear bicycle requires the rider to move his legs with the pedals all the time, descents could become sketchy.
Also, the top speed will always be limited by the ability of the cyclist to keep up with the tempo.
The wheels on fixies aren’t all that strong, especially if they are of poor quality. For that reason, some veteran bike couriers ride rigid mountain bikes with robust 26-inch wheels than can take an unreal amount of beating thanks to the thicker rims, more spokes, and wider tires.
Thin, high pressure tires
Fixies come with thin road tires that offer little cushioning and are difficult to replace without strong tire levers.
Lack of fender mounts
Fixies are track bicycles and many models come without mounts for fenders. This is a downside when riding in wet conditions.
One of the solutions is to put a rear fender that clamps on to the seat post and another one on the downtube to act as a front fender, but the effectiveness of this method is largely inferior to the protection offered by full fenders.
Lack of rack mounts
Some fixies don’t have rack mounts either. This could be problematic if you want to carry cargo on your bicycle.
Having said that, there are ways to circumvent that problem. For example, some front racks have supports that connect directly to the front axle and can, therefore, be installed on a bicycle that doesn’t have rack eyelets.
There are technical reasons why fixies are selected as bike messenger machines, but ultimately, the aesthetics of those bicycles, the fashion trend, and the unique style of riding that they offer are the primary reasons for their popularity among bike couriers.
Herlihy, David V. (2004). Bicycle: the History. Yale University Press. p. 177. ISBN 0-300-10418-9.