“C’est un velo de ville” remarked an old man on seeing my fixed gear bike in the admittedly incongruous location of Col de l’Iseran. At a altitude of 2770 metres, it’s - well, a large hill. And one whose ascent would be alleviated with gears. Or would it?
I love riding my fixed gear - not just in town but also for my favourite local rides in Yorkshire and Cumbria, two of England’s hilliest counties. Purists harp on about “being at one with the bike” - fear not, I won’t - but there is something infinitely fun about it. So when it came to cycling in the Alps, there was only one bike to take.
My fixed gear has now endured three trips to the Alps. I’ve always been accompanied by my friends, the Fanny Pack, a group of girls who enjoy riding together at home and abroad. They include Jade, former Restrap seamstress and fellow fixed gear afficionado. I was therefore not the only one sans gears.
Yorkshire and Cumbria are steep, brutal places. In comparison, the Alps are far more leisurely, with climbs generally reaching no more than 12% at their steepest. But they are long and on a fixed gear this becomes particularly noticeable on the descents. Ten, twenty miles of spinning around vertiginous hairpins requires a certain degree of mental concentration - far more, I would venture, than the smooth descents that gears would afford. It’s a long old way down with your legs dancing out of control and the valley can seem particularly distant at times.
But what of the climbs? The climbs are wonderful. Tough, but rewarding and with a ratio of 44:16 completely manageable when compared to the towering walls of tarmac that characterise British roads. The routes wind beautifully upwards, zig-zagging their way to the summits. There are awful moments, granted. Times when you are forced from the saddle, your legs barely managing to turn. But, for me, at least, therein lies the reward.
We stay in hostels and BnBs when touring. This requires merely a saddle bag with change of clothes, tools and a toothbrush. I have not yet attempted to carry a tent and its paraphernalia on my fixed and perhaps that may be a step too far. But for Jade and I, our “velos de ville” fare very well in the mountains. There's a fluency to the ride that came from not worrying about gears and simply plodding on, whatever the terrain.
In our years of cycle touring we’ve only ever seen one other member of what we’ve termed the “Alpine fixed gear club”. A solitary figure churning up the pass as we were spinning down. We braked, gave a wave and continued the long way down. Chapeau.
Once upon a time, of course, everything was fixed. The Tour de France riders of yore made it up harder and rougher ascents than we did. We’re certainly not trail blazers. But our bikes did raise eyebrows amongst the skinny French roadies smashing their way to the top and are still an unusual way to travel the Alps. And for me - the only way.