The weather in the UK has been pretty dire as of late, freezing rain, ice, snow, you know, basic crappy winter stuff, so to break up the monotony of cranking out miles on the roads, or having to avoid them because they’re just too dangerous I like to take to the trails. Now, that isn’t too unusual is it? Thing is I don’t own a mountain bike, I don’t have a cross bike, an adventure bike or even a gravel bike, so what do I ride? I take my ‘hack’ bike’. My steal frame, odd wheels, 69 inch fixed gear, single front brake, no nonsense ‘hack’ bike.
Back in the late 80’s at my first cycling club, Newark Castle CC, it became apparent that if I was going to join in with the pre Xmas club rides, then owning such a machine was a necessity. In the period between the end of the hill climb season and the start of proper winter training the idea was to just have fun, no structure, no pressure, certainly no goals and a big part of this involved riding a fixed gear, everywhere. Up to this point I’d never owned a track bike or even seen a velodrome, so riding ‘fixed’ was a whole new experience. For generations experienced club men have ridden fixed throughout the winter, just an old heavy steel frame, a single gear and a single brake to keep things simple and to work on their souplesse. It’s great for your pedaling technique, it always keeps you warm as there’s no freewheeling and there was very little to do maintenance wise, so after 5 hours in freezing conditions on crappy roads, all you had to do when you got home was chuck the bike in the shed and get warm. In our club, lead by our mentor Dave Kennedy everyone had a fixed gear and along with crunching the miles on the road, we all took it to the next level, we took them off road. A typical Sunday would involve an hour on tarmac, then, following an abrupt turn into a field, a couple of hours on lanes, tracks, paths, basically anything our machines could handle. It was a riot, getting bogged down, skidding around, it was great for bike handling and just a whole load of fun.
My first hack bike came courtesy of a hand me down from my uncle. For a few months I’d been running it with a single ring up front after the mech broke and gears at the back but now was the time for the transformation. I’d blagged an old track wheel from a club mate, stripped the old Peugeot back to its bare bones and was ready to go. The first time you head out on a fixed wheel can be and often is an unnerving experience. Having spent your whole life instinctively freewheeling when approaching an obstacle, junction, in fact anything, this was now not an option, you MUST NOT stop pedaling. For a couple of days I was doing fine, but then on day three on my way home from school and at some speed, although I can’t quite remember why, I impulsively went to freewheel and BOOM! Instead of my legs stopping they jerked me from the bike and I went flying, catapulted through the air and landing hard. Lesson learned. I NEVER did it again.
What gear we ran depended basically on either what sprocket we could find or what chainrings we had. We weren’t going to spend any money on these bikes unless we actually had to so it was always a case of mend and make do. The track wheel I was given had a 21 sprocket on already, so with a 42 or 52 tooth chainring at my disposal I had little choice other than to run the 52, which gave a gear of 66.9 inches, (which was pretty standard). Other key features of our bikes, we all ran 23mm slick tyres, naturally, perfect for the trails, and this being a more civilised time, we all ran mudguards, they were mandatory. Thing is, mudguards aren’t actually best suited to mud. They are fine at keeping a degree of water off you and your mates but you take a bike fitted with them into mud, well they soon clog up which in turn brings a new meaning to resistance training as you try to force your wheel round the gooey impediment. If you clog up though, you just stop, get a stick, force the mud out and get going, it’s all part of the fun, and yes, great strength training. Forcing a 69 inch gear up a 15% gradient on a muddy track with 23mm tyres is proper training, it’s eye balls out screaming, it’s weight lifting on a bike, and the foot must NEVER go down, no matter how slow you are going, you must fight, fight, FIGHT! My 45 min loop in Epping forest has six climb like this on it that take me deeper than I could ever go on the Turbo because it’s just survival, and I love it.
The hack bike isn’t just for Sundays though, it’s also your every day bike, your commuter, your cafe bike, pub bike, it is in constant use. You can lock it anywhere because it looks like junk and due to the fact that it needs such little maintenance you know it’s always going to be ready when called upon. When I moved to London in the mid 90’s my hack was the only working machine I had so not wanting to be without wheels that’s what I took. When I hit the city streets I found to my surprise that such a machine harbored great kudos because (way before the hipster invasion) the only people riding fixed were the street wise couriers who had also come to love and appreciate their simplicity and the purity of the machines.
For years the fixed wheel was a novelty on London’s streets but of course all this changed when fashion invaded cycling culture and the bearded clones of East London assimilated the fixed wheel scene and called it their own. The urban hack was now tarted up with rare Italian frames and idiots began commuting around the city on twin discs, calling them ‘fixies’. My blood boiled, how dare these impostors steal my identity, my culture and call it their own. The ‘fad’ still exists to some extent although it has faded now, but maybe a few of the fashionista found true joy from the purity of the fixed wheel and have since stuck with it because it makes sense, not just because it looks cool.
For me it’s always been my go anywhere bike. From 100 mile Sunday rides to transporting the kids to and from school to racing down a Belgian motorway because I’d missed a train (that’s another story). But most of all it will always be my messing around in the woods bike, I will never stop hitting the trials in winter on fixed, pushing a big gear up stupid inclines and trying to control it down the other side. It’s just basic simple cycling, it’s Rocky chopping wood and hauling rocks compared to Ivan Drago hooked up in a lab crunching the numbers. It’s primeval verses technology, it’s hassle free and yes, cheap.
Maybe if I had the space and the money then I’d have an adventure bike, a cross bike and a gravel bike but at the moment I have no need for any of them because I have my hack bike and I whole heartedly recommend you invest in one too.
The pictures show various incarnations of the third hack I’ve owned since my first back in ‘89. The first one lasted just four months before a van backed into it at a train station and crushed it. The second one I rode between 1990 and 2002 when it was stolen from our flat, which was devastating as it felt like I’d lost a family member. So now I’m on my third, an old Condor 531 road frame with mudguard eyes brazed on. Over the years components have come and gone, upgrades have been made, brackets for child seats added, wheels swapped. In fact last year I stumbled across some deep section Campag wheels on eBay going for a song so snapped them up, it was proper bling for a while, but then the rear one fell apart so I ditched them. Now I’m back on my trusty Miche track hub with an exquisite Campag Omega V rim at the back and an old Campag Neutron on the front. The seat is a ‘well’ worn Selle Italia Flight, bars and stem Cinelli, levers Tektro, front brake Campag Mirage, pedals Time, tyres 23mm Conti Gatorskins (nothing wider will fit under the mudguards), and that’s about it, oh and stickers, lots and lots of stickers. Oh and I now run a 46/18 gear which works out at 69 inches, that’s just right for Swains lane in London ;-)
I’ll be at Cadence Cycles in Crystal Palace next Month, Wednesday Feb 7th at 8pm if you want to come hear me talk about ‘The Joy of Hills’.
Places can be booked here