Review: Fixed on the Cheap

Wikipedia:

  • Zen is a form of Mahayana Buddhism that places great importance on moment-by-moment awareness and ‘seeing deeply into the nature of things’ by direct experience.
  • A bicycle or bike, is a pedal-driven, human-powered vehicle with two wheels attached to a frame, one behind the other.
  • A fixed-gear bicycle or fixed wheel bicycle, is any bicycle without a freewheel and usually one gear ratio. The sprocket is attached to the hub without a freewheel mechanism, usually secured by a reverse-thread lockring.

 

 

 

 


American Classics… and undue influence. Three movies worth watching… sorta.

Maybe It was that summer I watched “Quicksilver”, “Breaking Away”, and “American Flyers” as they were perpetually broadcast via HBO and TBS. Tour De France fever was in full swing, and a friend out in Boston – who happened to be a messenger, had been prodding me for quite some to try it.

Try what?

A FIXIE. Or rather, a fixed geared bicycle. The more I thought of it, the more it made sense; 90% of my riding at the time took place in the mean streets of Columbus Ohio. Any real mountain biking involved a lengthy automobile trip outside the city, save for the occasional after work or Friday night street session.

So I investigated a little bit; read a years worth of threads on the bikeforum.net’s fixed gear forum, read the Sheldon Brown website several times, and watched “Quicksilver” more an more.

At the time, there were not a lot of fixed gear bikes being manufactured (although, at one time, almost all bikes were “fixed”). Locally, only one shop sold anything so “progressive”: Bianchi Pistas and Surlys. The Surly was out of my price range, and the Bianchi was at least a 30 day wait due to supply issues. I’m on the poorer side, and impatient, so my obvious solution was EBAY. Though there was a plethora of used fixed gear good available, I wanted something new if possible. Choices were down to either a KHS Flite, The “Hour” – by a company called Windsor, and I think a Fuji which was suspiciously familiar to the KHS. By luck of the draw and availability I settled for a brand called “Alpha”, or more specifically, the Alpha Mercury. If you haven’t guessed by now, this long winded introduction is actually my review/user report for this eBay fixie bargain.

The Mercury is made by a company called Frankenstein Bike Worx, also known as Philadelphia Bike Worx, logically located in Philadelphia PA. They had good feedback on their EBay profile, so I played my paypal to the tune of $350.00 (including shipping). Seven days later, I was cutting cardboard and zip ties, in feverish anticipation of spending the rest of the night practicing track stands on my hardwood apartment floor.

In the box, the Mercury was 90% assembled. All I had to do was decide which size bullhorn bars to use (it came with two), install the front wheel, pedals, and remove the rear brake. This was accomplished with a 15mm open end, and my Park Pocket tool, and took no more than fifteen minutes.


Start a Revolution…

After assembly, of course you have to give it the once over, double check all the things that were pre assembled, and just get an overall feeling of what I’m dealing with. At a glance, it’s a sharp ride; gold paint with black component’s, sort of like that ’79 gold Trans Am that Pontiac did a ways back. The frame has a more modern feel due to the deep bend in the top tube, something the company claims to take the edge off the rugged asphalt jungle. Coming from a mountain bike background, the geometry appears pretty aggressive – steep head tube, short rake straight bladed fork, short top tube, high bottom bracket – I can feel the scabs forming already.

The Mercury is honestly (almost painfully) a no frills set up, as I suppose any fixed gear machine is. No quick release levers (save for the seat post of all things), Chro-mo main frame (no fancy space age polymers or exotic metals here), and no designer graphics. Cables, if one is so inclined to use brakes, are externally routed through a couple tacked on loops along the top tube. I was (almost) surprised to see that there were mounts included on the rear dropouts, in case one wants to add a rack, and the brake bridge is drilled in case one were so inclined to add a fender.

As noted, the Mercury comes with two sets of bullhorn bars – large and small (both 40cm in width). I opted for the shorter pair (both pairs come pre-wrapped with black tape). Seeing as my new riding position will much like that of a Kentucky Derby Jockey, I didn’t see any reason to force my center of gravity any more forward. Nice that the stem is only 100mm as well. A nice touch is that the fork/headset are thread-less, for some reason the old stem and pivot bolt set up makes me nervous…

The drive-train consists of a black Dotech crankset, which transfers that power to the back wheel via a stock, steel 48 tooth chainring, and a sealed bottom bracket. The stock black chain connects to the 16 tooth rear cog, held in place by a fancy set of black aluminum chain tensioners, a nice touch, but not absolutely necessary. Oddly, there were no toe straps or cages included, instead the Mercury ships with a set of plastic platform pedals. All about that sub $350.00 price point I guess.

Kenda 700x23c tires are wrapped around a set of Weinmann double walled semi high profile rims with machined sides in case you actually need to use the brakes. The hoops are laced to a basic set of Quando “semi sealed” bearing hubs. The rear hub is a flip flop; that is, one side is threaded for a freewheel in case you lose your nerve after the first spin around the block, and the opposite is threaded for a fixed gear/lock-ring set up. (but no freewheel is included). Stopping power is provided by you, your legs, or your feet if you’re clever enough to remember just where to jam your foot in the tire. Frankenstein Bike Worx was keen enough to figure that not everybody will be a Quicksilver fan, and included a set of Tektro dual pivot brakes (front and rear), coupled with some pretty trick looking triathlon levers. Your rear end is supported by a stock-ish OEM black padded saddle with what looks like an ergonomic slit down the center. I thought it was bit on the soft side though.


The Alpha Mercury, with blinging gold chain upgrade…
note the uber padded seat as well.

What initially attracted me to the Alpha was the crazy bent up frame, it reminded me of a time trial frame. Welds are about standard for a 3 bill bike, not all that great, but not pigeon poop either. Paint was pretty standard too, better than I can do with a can of Krylon, but not quite in the same league as West Coast Choppers. Looking from back to front, the rear triangle was assembled/welded straight, which is nice because a new bike that dog tracks is really a drag. As for the bend in the top tube – it’s a smooth bend, probably the best you can do with straight-gauged steel, but there was a small ripple right at the center of the bend. Nothing major though, and I’m sure it does not harm the structural integrity of the build.

After I figured I was not going to learn to track-stand with the plastic platform pedals, I switched them out, installing a set of old Wellgo steel caged clips with straps. More visions of scabs, possibly stitches loomed in the back of my head.

My initial spin around the block was a brave new world. The size I ordered was a 49cm, equivalent to a 52cm according to Alpha’s documentation. I still think it’s closer to 49. The cockpit is tight, and the wheelbase quite short, at least in comparison to my Diamondback XTS 3. There’s also a little bit of toe overlap when either of my feet are in the forward position. More visions of scabs…

Once in motion though, the bike is nimble. The 48 tooth chain ring takes a minute or two to get up to a comfortable spin, but once you’re going, it’s easy to keep your pace. Acceleration from mid pace to top speed is a real blast. Hard to say if I go any faster on the Alpha than on my mountain bike, but it sure feels faster. And 700x23c tires at 100psi are a tad less forgiving than the Tioga 2.3’s that I’m used to. Worth noting is that once you get up to full speed, you are sort of stuck there.

For me, this was a good thing. It teaches – no, it forces you to handle things in a new way. I thought myself a decent navigator on my mountain bike; picking lines through twisty single track, rock gardens, downhill, I figured I was ready for anything.
The Mercury showed me how short sighted and cocky a rider can become. 25Mph through traffic, strapped to your pedals, one brake, and no ability to coast – these things will teach the most seasoned rider new ways to deal with life.

Steering on the bike was pretty quick, but I could not get over the feeling that the front wheel was about to wash out from under me at any time. This was probably due to riding 700x23c tires for the first time in my life. Once I had the backpedaling down, slowing down within a given distance was easy, and I even figured out how to skid – which comes in handy when you need to quickly scrub off a couple mph when nearing an intersection, or even when you find yourself in a panic situation. I’m not sure, even after two years, that the bends in the top and down tube do anything but make the frame looks cool. It’s a pretty stiff unforgiving ride. Not that I’m complaining, it’s definitely a direct drive experience. And especially fun in the rain.

I lived in Columbus, Ohio for about 4 years. The first 3.75 I commuted solely on my mountain bikes. The Alpha fastly became my main commuter squeeze. For city riding, a fixie cannot be beat. I read a lot of peoples descriptions of what it’s like to ride a fixie, or whey they do it, but there’s no real tactile answer. You just have to do it and live the experience. You feel more connected to the ground, and feel like more a piece of the bike, rather than a rider on a bike. You pick up new skills or hone the skills you posses already. Going downhill takes on a whole new reality. Traffic takes on whole new meaning as well. Instead of sort of participating in it, you become it. The path of least resistance becomes your mantra, and you see your commutes in a different light.


Everybody should ride a fixie in the rain, at least once…

 


Out on the town, Columbus Ohio. It is definitely a conversation piece.

Since the purchase, I changed out a few pieces: New bar tape, tan color and padded that sort of matches the color of the frame – a purely aesthetic choice. As mentioned – added some toe straps/clips which are a necessity for riding a fixie. Also ebay’d a gold chain- because a fixie has to have some bling. And because that 48 tooth ring was just a little steep for my taste, I picked up a 43 tooth which also happens to be gold. Designed and printed my own set of frame stickers too. The saddle also found it’s way to the spare parts bin, and I picked up a keen white jobbie during a special that Nashbar was running. Finally, I got rid of the 23c tires, and found a set of Michelin 700x32c’s that just fit in the rear triangle. Yea, a little on the fat side, but I’ve been toying with the idea using it as a fixed cyclocross deal when the weather turns nicer. Over the last two years, those are the only replacements, save for a few tubes due to the goat-heads of Albuquerque (if you’re not from the desert, you’ll have to look it up).

The last mod I had to perform was installing a freewheel on the flop side of the “flip flop” hub. This was out of necessity, not by choice. One fine morning on the way to work, going down a short, steep road, I started to apply some back pressure through the cranks in order to keep my speed down a bit. Usually, you’ll feel the resistance from the fixed wheel fight back against you. But this morning, instead of back pressure, I felt the strange sensation of coasting – that is, rolling and NOT pedaling. The cog had unthreaded and threw my chain between the dropout and hub, the cog back-spun against the threads and effectively shred them to bits.

At the bottom of the hill, I managed to re-thread the cog back on to the threads, but there were not enough healthy threads left to attach the lock ring. Out of necessity, I limped the remainder of my commute without backpedaling. When I made it home that evening, I spent a good deal of time trying to chase the threads a bit, but after an hour or so, I decided it was a lost cause, and installed the freewheel. Voila – single-speed.

The Alpha has been in single, non-fixed mode since November. I still use it occasionally for the work commute, but it’s just not the same as riding it fixed (no pun intended). I guess this is the perfect excuse to get some of the keen deep dish anodized jobs, that cost as much for a pair as the bike did complete. Talk about bling…

The stripped threads on the fixed side of the hub is the only failure I’ve had with this bike in two years, and it was really through my own neglect. The bike has held up better than I expected. No cracks in the frame, forks haven’t choppered, droputs are still straight. Really, there’s not much that can go wrong with a fixed gear, and that’s half the beauty of it. The other half is the experience of riding one – or being one – I should say.


Alpha, with my personalized stickers and gold bling chain/chainring…

If you’ve got a little extra dough burning a hole, or that daily commute to the daily grind is growing monotonous, the Zen of the fixed gear bicycle may be your answer. In the last couple years, more companies have an entry level fixed gear offering: Kona, Raleigh, Bianchi, KHS, and others I’m sure. Or, you can zoot yourself out and build one from the ground up; Independent fabs, Soma, Surly, Gunnar, or a host of other independent companies will be happy to help you on your way to two wheeled enlightenment. If you’re a DIY type, there’s plenty of used goods on eBay or even at your local shop that you could reincarnate into your own personal ride with.

The “Moment-by-moment awareness and ‘seeing deeply into the nature of things’ by direct experience” – this digital definition of Zen could not fit the fixed gear more perfectly. Get one, and it will change the way you ride, and it might just change your life a little too.

Fixed gear resources:

 

Sheldonbrown
Fixed Gear Gallery: http://www.fixedgeargallery.com/
Fixed Gear/Singlespeed forums at bikeforms.net: http://www.bikeforums.net/forumdisplay.php?f=178
Fixed Gear Fever: http://www.fixedgearfever.com/
63xc.com: http://www.63xc.com/

 

And of course, the page for the Alpha Mercury, still availabe
(although not in gold anymore!)
The Alpha: http://www.frankinstienbikeworx.com/alpha.html
Their Ebay place: http://stores.ebay.com/bike-worx

 


The Alpha with all upgrades: seat, bar tape, chain, chainring, and fancy green tires…

12 thoughts on “Review: Fixed on the Cheap

  1. Great artical. Thanks for sharing your experience, im also looking at putting toghether a fixed or single speed bike and now I think Fixed is the way forward!

    Cheers!

  2. Pingback: Boxing » Review: Fixed on the Cheap Soul Side Down :The Forum For Bike Freaks

  3. I’ve had that same bike (minus the bling) for almost 3 years now. Its great. you should see it flying around columbus pretty much all year.

  4. You can’t please all of the people all of the time, haters! The alpha isn’t designed for bike snobs. It rides fine. Geometry is as tight as a Cannondale track bike, more so than the basic Fuji. It has low quality parts, but it’s $350 complete. I’ll be riding my Alpha around Philly, despite your sour whining, Jimmy Jones! Peace on the streets, my brothers and sisters!

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