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Foreword: Sorry if this seems a bit long-winded.

TL;DR: I can't figure out if there's something wrong with my bike or if I'm just out of shape. What's your opinion?

I got the bright idea to commute to work by bicycle when google maps showed me a 4.1 mile path and said it should only take about 25 minutes by bicycle vs. the 1+ or almost 2 hours it can take by taking public transportation. I live in Brooklyn, NY for reference, commuting between East Flatbush and East New York.

So after considering a bunch of options (electric skateboard, electric scooter, e-bike, e-unicycle, etc), I ultimately settled on a bicycle.

I hadn't ridden a bicycle in years. The last time I rode one was when I was 11. I'm 39 years old now and figured it wouldn't be too hard and I would eventually build up my stamina and leg muscles.

Anyway, I bought the bicycle (plus all the safety gear and lights), a Cinelli Tipo Pista. I would of gotten a Wabi, but there's a bicycle shortage or something like that going on because I guess everyone got the bright idea to use one to avoid public transpo during the pandemic.

I assembled the bike and took it to the park a few times to relearn how to ride. It felt nice and zippy and nothing seemed wrong with it.

After the three times I took the bike to the park, it just sat in a corner in my apartment for a month and a half because I still needed practice before I could start riding in the street next to cars and it's really been too cold here in NYC for cycling. All of the cycling I did in my youth was on the sidewalk.

Eventually, yesterday, there was a brown out at my home while I was sleeping and I woke up late. I had to get to work on time and for some reason, no matter how much I refreshed Uber, they wanted an arm and a leg, which I didn't want to pay. So I took one look at the bicycle sitting in the corner, said "Damnn it all to heck!", grabbed my helmet, and hit the street telling myself "Ain't nothing to it but to do it!".

Long story short, things did NOT go as planned.

I rode to and from work. It took about an hour each way because I got turned around several times after google sent me down sketchy streets I didn't feel comfortable riding on and I just got off my bike and walked it to alternative streets that had less traffic. It was colder coming home than going and despite having thick gloves, I had to stop to put my hands in my pockets to get them to warm up (my toes were really cold and stinging inside my Chuck Taylors by the time I got home).

But what really messed me up is that I found myself, not really out of breath, but unable to continue at times. I would pedal maybe 4 or 5 streets and then my thighs would just start burning and the pedals seemed ridiculously hard to push. It felt like I was "fighting" with the bike. It wasn't at all like when I was in the park where the bike seemed fast and "zippy".

I don't know if it's just that I'm out of shape (my job can be very physical at times so I would like to believe I am at least somewhat fit) or if there's something wrong with my bike.

Here's a list of things I checked:

  1. Tire pressure. I put air in the tires recently, but when I'm on the bike, the back wheel flattens a bit. I read this is normal for road bikes.

  2. Brake pads. The pads are close to the wheels, but I didn't notice them touching while still or in motion.

  3. Chain tension. I did a "spin test" on both the back and front wheel. The front wheel spins for what seems like forever. However, the back wheel only spins for 1 minute and 3 seconds before coming to a stop. I'm not sure if the chain is too tight. I included a photo of the chain in a neutral position compared to when I pull up or down on it against the background of a ruler. Maybe you can judge.CHAIN TENSION

  4. Saddle position and height? I don't know if these would have anything to do with it, but when I said I had to go to the park to "relearn" how to ride a bike, I meant I had to learn riding with a raised saddle. The bike I rode when I was younger was a BMX and the saddle was much lower than the handlebars. I read your saddle height should be such that where your feet don't touch the ground? I have mine raised to just where my toes can reach ground. The saddle is positioned right in the middle. The bike felt comfortable while riding, with the exception of a sore butt. It's the next day, my knees don't hurt, my thighs have only mild soreness that's felt when doing squats, but my butt is still somewhat sore. For reference, I'm 5'6" and 148lbs. and I had a messenger bag on back with all of my work gear/tools which weighed probably about 8lbs. I purchased the smallest size, XS. SADDLE & FRAME SIZE

5. Gear ratio? I don't know anything about gear ratios except they can determine how hard it is to pedal up hills and how fast you can move on a flat surface? I think my bike's gear ratio is 48/19. It was on the fixed cog when it originally came, but they included a freewheel which I installed because I wanted to be able to coast. It has 19 spokes if I counted correctly. Might this ratio be too "aggressive" for a beginner?

That's about all I can think of.

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    It's a fixed-gear bike, which is less than ideal for your circumstances. Reportedly a 48 tooth crank and an 18 tooth rear cog. I'm not familiar with gear ratios, so can't say if it's a difficult setup, but I suspect it is, since fixed gear schemes in this price range are targeted at racers. Probably your best bet is to see if a bike shop can swap in a larger rear cog, to make it easier to pedal. Either that or get more practice in to build up your muscles. Jan 8 at 1:15
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    Have you tried getting out of the saddle in one of those moments? Does that change anything? Depending on how confident you feel out of the saddle, you could even lift your foot from the "bottom pedal", so that most of your weight is on the "top pedal" - please let me know if my suggestion is unclear.
    – pateksan
    Jan 8 at 2:48
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    @jay you're welcome to join the Bicycles Chat and bounce bike-fit questions directly.
    – Criggie
    Jan 8 at 3:44
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    Can I ask you why you choose a sports bike instead of a regular bike? I don't know what brands exist in the USA but back here in Europe I ride a bike like these link to work every day, also for a 30 minute trip. I attach a bag on the luggage rack with about 8kg of objects (a rucksack makes me sweat). This seems to work perfectly fine. Around here most people go to work with these bikes. We call them city bikes, don't know if that is also what they are called over there? Jan 8 at 13:46
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    I'm curious if you configured Google Maps to provide you cycling directions or if you left it on driving direction (the default)
    – Paul H
    Jan 8 at 16:27

11 Answers 11

64

Was going to comment, but I'll make this an answer - it's the bike, not you. No, I really do mean it's the bike.....

The bike as a fixie with 48/19 gearing is suitable for a cycle fit 20-something year old hipster with great knees now and a good health insurance plan for future orthopedic consultations. Installing the freewheel helps make it more versatile, but 48/19 is still a big gear for a novice rider to push. You should be riding at at least about 13mph on that gear - any less and your cadence is too low and will cause the muscle burn you feel and make the bike feel 'sluggish'.

On that bike, an average, no-cycle fit 39yo will almost certainly not enjoy cycling and give up. Your base fitness will help a little to start with when riding, but you are not cycle fit. Your legs are not used to the motion and you use different muscles. The body needs time to adapt to the new exercise pattern, yet that bike does not allow you to do so progressively.

You may be able to improve the bike by improving the fit (a professional fitter can help a lot here), but ultimately the bike is not the right bike for the task you have purchased it for.

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    The bike could be made into a useful commuter by replacing the rear hub with an internal gear hub. This can easily give 7 gears for relatively little money. (Probably it would be easiest to just replace the entire rear wheel with one that is built around the IGH.) The only other option that I see would be to sell the bike and get one with proper gears. (I would still prefer an IGH, especially in the city where switching needs to be frequent and fast, and for a new rider who needs as simple switching as possible.) Jan 8 at 10:30
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    @ojs The frame looks like steel to me, so it can probably be widened to 135mm rather easily (7.5mm on each side). You'd also need a longer BB axis to adjust the chainline (good idea, but not required, would mainly reduce chain wear - chain shifts allow for stronger cross chaining). But yes, if you still get a price for the low use 2nd hand bicycle that recovers most of the investment, selling the bike and getting a true commuter would be the better Idea. I mainly added my comment for the case that the losses of selling would be too stiff in comparison to an IGH rear wheel. Jan 8 at 14:37
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    @Jay The problem with single speed bikes in a city is, that you cannot bike in a good cadence all the time. Either your cadence will be too low when you are slow (which you experienced), or your cadence will be too high when you are fast (any good road or slight downhill). Biking in the city requires very frequently accelerating from a stop, but also includes good roads where you can go fast. If you adjust your bike to suit your acceleration needs, your feet will be spinning like hell when you could go fast. The gear for normal speed should be at least twice as fast as the acceleration gear. Jan 8 at 16:26
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    Since what you're saying is "the bike is not suited to the OP's level of cycling condition" surely this means the statement "it's the bike, not you" is not quite illustrating the full picture? Like if we could change one or other of the variables, both would result in a satisfactory situation. Really what you're saying is "since you can change the bike but you can't change you, there' s only one sensible approch to it"
    – Judy N.
    Jan 9 at 14:27
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    @Judy N - Not correct, putting a person on an unsuitable bike will reduce their enjoyment, make things harder than they need to be and possibly put them off cycling altogether. In the case of a fixie, a predictable outcome for a novice is a crash and possible serious injury, a single speed a predictable outcome is frustration and giving up. The OP is 39, not too old that he won't get over the training effort, but not as quickly or easily as a 20 something year old. Obviously this is based on typical, not details of a specific individuals personality and physical makeup.
    – mattnz
    Jan 9 at 20:24
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Great effort on both the write-up and the commitment to start riding again.

Try and separate the issues:

  • Your route was suboptimal due to trusting google
  • Getting off and walking a bike is surprisingly tiring
  • your speed is quite fast for someone who is just coming back to riding after a multi-decade long break
  • You were under time pressure to avoid being late, and therefore pushing hard.
  • I bet your park pathways were nice smooth asphalt, and the roads are less-smooth which adds to the resistance
  • You're on a fixed gear which is hard work at the best of times. Fortunately there were no hills on your path!

Some of these you can resolve and minimise, your choice of bike is locked in for now.

ROUTE

It looks like you have few good options. Based on the Strava Heatmap, https://www.strava.com/heatmap#13.23/-73.92722/40.66005/hot/ride suggests that the most popular road for cycling is Pitkin Ave, which has "sharrows" allowing you to "take the lane" This can be scarey especially if you're on a fixed gear.

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I notice Blake Ave has bike lanes too but doesn't show up well on heatmap. This is likely a distinction between sporty riders and those riding for transport.

Oddly, the Belt Parkway comes in as popular but streetview shows its not at all bike-friendly. Google may have made similar bad suggestions.

I notice Flatlands Ave is very car-centric and to be avoided, but one road north is Cozine Ave which looks much quieter and has shoulder space. Van Siclen Ave also has cycle lanes.

Without knowing your general start and finish, its hard to suggest exact routes, but find the one that you feel safest on, even if its a little bit longer. You can use Street View to check out the road before you ride too.

Not sure of the rules in New York - you should check if you're legally allowed to ride on the pavement/sidewalk/footpath which adds more options. edit no, not legal in New York, but may be elsewhere.

Preparation and planning prevent poor performance :)


ALSO give yourself more time. Being late and stressed did not help.

Set a backup Wakeup alarm on your cellphone which is battery powered, to help prevent this happening again.

For at least the first few days, allow more time, and ride a bit more relaxed rather than pounding along as fast as you can.

Talk to someone locally who can see you on your bike, and might be able to suggest better fitting. Could be your saddle is too low or something, we can't tell from the bike alone.

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    Actual useful traffic advice for a New Yorker from someone in New Zealand who doesn't know the neighborhood personally. Wow, the internet is wonderful for some things!
    – rclocher3
    Jan 8 at 7:35
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    @rclocher3 thanks :) Its more a matter of knowing the resources like streetview, and the drawbacks like its age. Strava's heatmap is great but its self-selected to be faster roadies on-road and MTB types off-road. I find it hardest to change sides of the road.
    – Criggie
    Jan 8 at 11:28
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    "your choice of bike is locked in for now" I wouldn't say that's true. The OP spent a fairly large chunk of money on an expensive niche bike which is entirely unsuitable for their needs. It would take very much less money to go into any store selling basic mountain bikes and buy the absolute cheapest. Or buy a cheap MTB off Craigslist, Facebook Marketplace or the like. For the OP's level of cycling ability and fitness, that would be orders of magnitude more suitable. And based on the OP's consideration of options, they can certainly afford it.
    – Graham
    Jan 8 at 17:02
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    @phoog no I didn't, thanks. I'm using the resources avaiilable which indicate that parkway is "popular" in strava, so perhaps its people running or riding any pathway beside the road ? Or people who are driving to/from an exercise park but have left their strava recording going ? Local knowledge wins out over book/web knowledge every time - Since you have local knowledge, do post your own answer as well.
    – Criggie
    Jan 8 at 22:54
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    @Criggie that parkway is "popular" in strava Probably riders driving home and left the GPS on after riding? My father was from NYC, so I've been there a lot visiting my grandmother - and I got quite the chuckle when I read your "the Belt Parkway comes in as popular but streetview shows its not at all bike-friendly." I remember as a kid being able to see the traffic on the Belt Parkway from the back seat of our car as we'd cross the Verrazano Bridge and the thought of riding a bicycle on that road... Jan 9 at 17:02
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4.1 miles, mostly flat, are on paper doable by any human with two legs in about 90 minutes. Walking. A bicycle? it should be at least 1/3 quicker (although I would expect it to be 3 or 4 times faster than walking). Even a super-heavy dutch bike will allow you to cruise at 8-10 miles per hour, so the distance should take you about half an hour.

So it is the bike.

As other pointed out, your bike is a fixed bike, maybe a single speed, but it is an aggressive bike, it means you have to push hard on it. Given the gear ratio (how many teeth you have in the crank divided how many you have on the rear wheel, the higher they are the higher the optimum speed ... and the harder you have to pedal to reach it).

Likely it has an optimal speed of about 25 km/h. In the park, you could easily push until reaching that speed, then coasting freely and happily, but out in the urban jungle you have to accelerate and brake depending on external conditions, so you probably never reach the optimal cruising speed, but you are constantly trying to reach that speed, getting extremely tired.

Add to this the continuous checking of the map (no offense in this, but the first ride always takes longer and it is tiring because your brain has to accomodate all the visual and sensorial informations ... a car detaches you from the exterior, so it is much more relaxing to travel in unknown lands/streets/cities by car).

So I suggest to get rid of that bike (and get another one, really any other one that is not a fixed bike or a single speed road bike with drop bars). Do that before someone else does that for you: your bike is a magnet for thieves.

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    I don't have to worry about it being stolen too much. At least when it's outside. I'm a federal employee, it will be secured to a bicycle rack on federal property, in a parking lot that requires an electronic badge to access + going through a manned security checkpoint, and under 24/7 surveillance by both security cameras and armed guards. If someone manages to steal it under those conditions, they've earned it!
    – Jay
    Jan 8 at 15:05
  • @Jay good to hear, then you can try two solutions: (A) swapping gear/crank for something with a more gentle ratio; (B) get gears, by fitting an Internally Geared Hub (IGH): the main issue is finding a hub that's narrow enough to fit the dropouts (so called OLD spacing, halowheels.com/frame-spacing-hub-o-l-d-information ), plus that the locker/thread/axle can be safely closed... there may be some tinkering involved, very old IGH may fit (old like from the 60s/70s) and newer IGH may do the job, I am not very aware of these products specifcations actually on the market
    – EarlGrey
    Jan 8 at 15:17
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This is an updated form of my answer, partially in response to the other answers.

It is you, not the bike. The bike may be a bit of a tough, perhaps over-ambitious choice, but it is in principle ok for the task.

Many of the other answers argued that a singlespeed drop-bar bike is fundamentally not suited for a city commute. I disagree. Such a bike can be used perfectly well in a reasonably flat city. In fact, precisely because the tempo changes so often & spontaneously, it can be more effective to just handle efforts by getting out of the saddle briefly, rather then shifting down and up again. This does demand either some fitness (which you would probably build up with this bike quicker than with more comfy ones) or a rather lower gear ratio (note that the Holland-style bikes popular with non-sportive European commuters are also often singlespeed).

I would still say that some gears would be good to have, but they're not necessary. If right now this bike as it is is your only option, here's how to use it for minimum frustration:

  1. DON'T PANIC. If you exhaust yourself going to the limit right at the start of your ride, it's obviously getting harder later on.
  2. Stand up to accelerate. In principle, getting out of the saddle makes pedalling less efficient, however it does allow you to put down more torque using muscle groups that are also trained in non-cyclists. So on each traffic light or ascend, make use of that.
  3. Sit down and relax as best as possible. A race-ish bike encourages going fast right away, and it can go fast, but even though it has better aerodynamics than more upright bikes you will require a lot of power if you accelerate to the tempo that feels appropriate for the bike. Instead, accelerate only to a tempo where you can almost-coast in sitting position.
    In order to get the sitting position comfortable, you may need to experiment with saddle positions a bit.

If you do it that way, then the commute should never be a disaster like your first attempt. It will still be slow of course. But the nice thing about that bike of yours is that it will naturally encourage you to go a bit faster each time. Ramp it up slowly.

Original answer

Wow, you've really took it to your heart to analyse the problem, hm?

Unfortunately I have to say that it is most likely you, not the bike, that's the problem.

Fortunately I'm optimistic that the problem will mostly solve itself if only you keep going! If you haven't really done any cycling for years then it's inevitable that you're not in great physical condition for it. And that makes a huge difference. A well-trained cyclist on a poor-quality, horribly misfitting bike will easily beat a non-cyclist on a top-notch high-tech road bike.

And training comes with... well, training! It's not going to come in a matter of days, but it will you come over time if you regularly ride that bike.

(Case in point, at one time in my life I was so out of shape that I would basically collapse after 25 km of flat riding. Nowadays I have no trouble with 100 km/day through the Norwegian mountains, and that is still laughably little to any pro cyclist.)

The bike does matter too. Yours is certainly a capable machine, but the one thing that I would consider a really bad idea is that it's singlespeed. 48/19 is not a crazy ratio – a trained cyclist will be able to ride this on almost any road, though not at best efficiency and the uphills will require getting out of the saddle. For a beginner, climbing in such a gear can however quickly become painful. Switching to a smaller chainring would definitely help with the burning thighs, albeit of course at the cost of lower top speed. Well, if only there was a device that could modify gear ratio during the ride as needed...

The other thing that can have a significant influence is saddle position, but I won't go into that. You'll find plenty of advice on how to set up your saddle on the internet.

Then there are plenty of smaller details like clips vs flat pedals, handlebar measures, crank length, tyre pressure etc. etc.. Listening in to cyclists' conversations can make you think that these make all the difference world. Well, it's not that they don't matter at all – all together they can very well win or lose a race, but compared to rider physique they're absolute peanuts.

Gross mis-setup, like strongly rubbing brakes, obviously would be more harmful, but this really doesn't seem to be the case for your bike – if both wheels stay spinning for > 1 min it means that this has a negligible contribution to total drag.

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    "48/19 is not a crazy ratio – a trained cyclist will be able to ride this on almost any road" That means that an untrained cyclist will not be able to ride this on almost any road. Plus, do not underestimate how much strain can put on you by cycling on an urban environment with continuously adaptation to your route. Even when the OP says " that I found myself, not really out of breath, but unable to continue at times", that is 100% not the body: it is the mind blocking him. Norwegian mountains? yes, physically tiring, but your mind is free.
    – EarlGrey
    Jan 8 at 8:26
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    When you are young and fit you think that everyone else is young and fit, just a little bit of training will solve their problems. Unfortunately as you get older you realise that's not true. Some people need to make life easy for themselves, and that means buying a bike that's suitable for a beginner.
    – UEFI
    Jan 8 at 9:53
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    I think this is the answer, sometimes it's not your lungs that are stopping you, it's muscle related. Just give it some time, your legs will adapt (then your lungs will start screaming 😂). FWIW I'm now riding SS 63/17 including hills, taken a while to get here though. Jan 8 at 11:45
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    Where do you even get 63t chainrings?
    – ojs
    Jan 8 at 13:19
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    @EarlGrey yes, but they may still be able to ride it on a) most roads b) a lot of roads c) all the roads in their vincinity d) most of the roads in their vincinity e) the roads they need to ride on to get between any points they may need to get to, etc. leftaroundabout's point is that a trained cyclist can ride this gear on literally almost any road in the world, i.e. including up alpine passes and so forth. So the less trained, the less extreme the roads you will be able to ride it on. Most people don't need to be able to ride on "almost any road"
    – Judy N.
    Jan 9 at 14:32
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Despite their already being multiple good answers I am going to post this because I think each answer has good points but it is useful to have them in one place.

I agree with everyone who said a single speed bike is a significant source of your problems. Even a three speed internal hub would have been much better for you. As your fitness improves you will become better with it so if you can't trade it for a bike with gears you will probably find it works for you eventually. Fixie and single speed evangelists make these bikes seem amazing and that can be very misleading.

It is normal to have to optimise your route. Criggie's answer showing heat maps is a great example of how to research and change the route you take. When I start a new job it often takes me a couple of weeks before I find the exact route that is best for me. The shortest one might have too many difficult junctions. The flattest one might be longer than it needs to be. The fastest one might miss a short detour down a beautiful tree lined lake shore drive. It should be rare to have to make huge changes but you should try small changes until you find the best route for you.

It is totally normal that you will have muscle pain and other discomfort when starting to cycle. You may be fit in general but cycling will be a bit different than your normal exercise. Going from out of shape and 10 years of not cycling to a 15km uphill commute meant I got to work with sore legs and a sore ass. A month later I was a lot faster and had no discomfort at all during the commute. Don't be concerned if you are experiencing discomfort (not pain) now and be confident that is a temporary circumstance.

Your detailed explanation of your bike set up makes it seem fine to me. If the wheels spin freely when off the ground there are no brake problems. Rear wheel stopping after over a minute seems fine to me too. Your saddle does not sound like it is too low, in my opinion your feet should be able to touch the ground! Toes only though, not flat on the ground while you are still in the saddle. Another (better probably) way is to verify that your knee almost, but not quite, locks straight at the maximum extension of your pedalling stroke.

It's worth pointing out that this is probably the worst time of year to take up cycling. If you keep it up in a months time I predict you will love cycling to work and will be kicking yourself for spending an hour on public transport to get to work for so long.

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Both.

  • You really, really, really don't want a bike without gears. In the city you'll rarely ride at the optimal speed for that transmission; instead you need to stop and start frequently and adapt to flow with the traffic which is much easier if you can switch gears. Try to sell yours as long as you can advertise it as "practically unused" and buy some standard commuter bicycle in the same price range. That will serve your purpose nicely. I cannot make a specific recommendation here because I'm not acquainted with the American marked. But I would prefer a neutral position (no lowered handle bar) because in an urban environment you are unlikely to spend long stretches at high speeds where it really pays to minimize wind resistance at the cost of comfort — there are just too many intersections and other obstacles.

  • You may be in reasonably good shape physically but biking is a fairly lopsided affair physiologically: It's mostly thigh muscles. It's good cardiovascular exercise, too, no doubt, but it uses few of the other muscles in your body. Don't be surprised that your thigh muscles tire, you are stressing them more with that commute than you ever have in your life (which is, in the grand picture, a good thing).

A bit of advice at adjusting your new bike:

The one thing to pay great attention to because it directly affects the legs is the saddle height. Make sure it is not too low: While it may feel safe and even comfortable in the beginning a low saddle would hurt your knees over time. A high saddle, on the other hand, tends to hurt your lower vertebrae because there is a lot of see-saw action in your hip, bending the spine back and forth sideways, when your legs try to reach the bottom. Of course both maladjustments also make your riding less efficient.

For the handlebar height: Riding too upright will hurt your back over time because all bumps are going vertically into the spine. Make sure to sit roughly at a 45 degree angle or lower. Riding too low is not bad but may be generally uncomfortable. You'll have to keep your head up (even more with eye glasses) which can stress your neck. Your hands may start to hurt on hard grips if pedaling with tired legs does not provide enough lift for your upper body.

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    The first bullet also explains why the bike felt so much better in the park. In contrast to the stop-and-go nature of urban traffic, riding through the park at a constant, comfortable speed is much easier. This is especially true if there's no gearing to help get the bike up to speed. Jan 8 at 14:29
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I will just add that when I was your age I resumed commuting by bike after a hiatus of a couple of years. I was riding from Astoria, Queens, New York, to downtown Manhattan, a distance of just over 9 miles each way by my most frequent route over the Williamsburg bridge. I had moved to New York a couple of years before from Amsterdam, so I was no longer accustomed to riding a road bike, and that took a bit of adjustment.

The commute took about as long, 40 to 60 minutes, as the subway ride, but the variation in the subway time was due to the degree of rush-hour congestion, while the duration of the bike trip depended on the wind and the temperature.

I had a 12-speed Raleigh road bike that I picked up second hand in Astoria, which I think was made in the early 1980s. I'm adding this answer to recount my experience on the bridge. At the bottom, all the young whippersnappers hipsters would breeze by me on their fixies, and I would just churn away in one of my lowest three gears. A couple of minutes later, halfway up the bridge (or sometimes rather sooner than that), I would pass them, huffing and puffing, standing on their pedals, straining to keep the bike and themselves moving. Of course they were all in much better shape than I was, but I had the better tool.

They also reminded me of myself in my late teens. Then I had a ten-speed road bike, and I had this idea that I should set myself a goal of being able to make it all the way around Central Park in top gear. Don't do this. I still have problems with my right knee that first appeared when I was trying to achieve that goal.

I never understood the fad for fixies. Some people are obsessed with weight, and gears add weight, which is why track bikes don't have them. Who are these people kidding? They're not competing at the top levels of international sport, they're getting around town. How much faster are they going to get to the office or the gym?

Another reason track bikes lack gears is that tracks are flat. The real world isn't flat, and it has unpredictable winds. Look at the great road races like the Tour de France and others. Are they riding fixies? Of course not. It would be insanity. The benefit provided by the gears far outweighs the cost of a couple of pounds of extra weight.

Get a bike with gears. Your commute is mostly flat, but you'll have the flexibility to adjust to a stiff headwind or tailwind, either on your commute or while biking to the Rockaways or elsewhere around Jamaica Bay. Take your bike to Cypress Hills or Prospect Park. The circuit on the Prospect Park drive is a nice bit of exercise. It's downhill on the west side and uphill on the east side. With gears, you can adjust the intensity of the workout to suit your mood.

Another advantage of gears is that you can use them to help keep warm in very cold weather. Use a lower gear and spin faster than you otherwise would: you generate more heat, and there's less wind. Now I live near downtown Brooklyn, and when the temperature goes much below freezing I tend to take a heavy Citibike over the Brooklyn bridge instead of my road bike, because it's warmer.

Think about gears as letting you work at a constant level of intensity, which you get to decide, and the gears let you adjust the speed of the bike to the conditions so you can maintain that intensity. With a fixed-gear bicycle, you are at the mercy of your environment. Gears give you control.

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    Upvoted for don't do this, and reporting lasting damage. I can concur: Some joint issues simply never quite completely disappear again. Many do; but you simply don't know beforehand. The ones that remain aren't debilitating, mind you. One learns to manage them, one avoids the sort of stress which makes them be felt, but the lesson from this 56 year old is: Be nice to your body early on. Don't lift too heavy. Avoid accidents. Don't be stupid. The body is a recording device with an incomplete and somewhat random erase function. Jan 10 at 13:30
  • One of the reasons fixed/single-speed bikes are popular with young people is money, which a lot of more-established-in-life people who are 'into' cycling seem to just disregard entirely. Given the choice between a brand new lightweight bike you can do all your own maintenance on and a rusting 10 speed is it really so surprising
    – Judy N.
    Jan 10 at 14:00
  • @JudyN. Perhaps. But I have never known anyone at that stage in life who made that choice. In Amsterdam, where I was for 6 years, initially as a student, lots of people had single-speed (used) "grandma" bikes for that reason, but it's flat there and the gear ratios are reasonable. Still, I got a used bike with a 5-speed hub transmission for less than $100. I first encountered the fashion for fixies as a student in Bloomington, Indiana, but mostly by way of rumor: I didn't know anyone who actually had one.
    – phoog
    Jan 18 at 14:49
5

This size frame seems pretty small for your height. I would think a small or medium (50/54 cm, according to Cinelli) would be the right size for you. But that wouldn't account for the problems you experienced. It does mean that getting into an efficient, comfortable position will be harder.

When you find it hard to turn the pedals over, is that because you're encountering mechanical resistance, or because your legs are shot? After a few minutes/hours/whatever to recover, is the bike zippy again, or is it still fighting you? I could imagine the rear wheel getting pulled out of alignment in its dropouts and rubbing against the chainstay if the axle nuts are loose, but that would not self-correct.

I'm not an expert on single speeds, but chain tension seems fine. You want it loose enough not to bind the gears when you pedal, but not looser.

Are you riding the bike on the fixed gear or the freewheel?

3
  • It's kind of hard to tell because I guess I'm comparing it to running. If I start running, I'll get to the point where I have to stop because I'm out of breath. When on the bike and get tired, however, it doesn't feel like I'm out of breath and gasping for air. My legs just can't pedal any more and the pedals feel resistant. After stopping for a bit and then getting back on the bike, it's zippy again until the process repeats. The bike with a free wheel "cog" which I screwed on to the other side of the wheel and use instead of the fixed gear side. The pedals don't move when the bike is coasts.
    – Jay
    Jan 8 at 2:35
  • 2
    When my legs get tired, especially when I've been going up a mountain for a while, I sometimes think that I must have a tire going flat, because it feels like the problem is the bike. But the tires are almost always fine, and the problem is almost always my tired legs.
    – rclocher3
    Jan 8 at 7:40
  • 1
    @Jay it's definitely your legs. Cycling uses very specific muscles groups that you have had no cause to develop condition in – e.g. running won't develop these muslce groups in the range/direction of motion used for cycling. They're simply getting exhausted by having to exert continuous effort. Of course if you keep at it they will develop that condition.
    – Judy N.
    Jan 9 at 14:46
4

As a serious multi decade rider with two bike clubs I will say that it is both.

It is partly you because you are out of shape but that will fix itself if you ride regularly.

It is more the bike.
You got the WRONG bike for what you want to do.

Even a clunky bike with 3 speeds would have been better than that single gear racing bike you bought.

Far better would have been a cheap ten or 12 or whatever speed is common these days.

You need much lower gears for your use, although you should have some in the higher range too, but not super high.

I took a Sears lugged frame and changed out the gearing and wheels to make a 15 speed (12 usable) WIDE speed (24-105) touring bike that I rode for 30 years. I climbed mountains with it leaving others in the club behind because I had a genuine very low LOW gear. On the other end I was limited by my fitness for speed on the flats (but still above average just not A level). Going downhill my weight gave me the edge in speed.

I strongly suggest you get a new bike and also exercise during the winter to keep your fitness up. I wore out two indoor bikes and one treadmill doing that.

3

Jay a couple things to think about:

  • It is good you are getting back into riding. I was in a similar position where I got back in to riding after taking a break and thought how hard can 13 miles be. Well the short of it was harder than I expected.

  • So with that said you probably are using muscles you have not in a while and it will take some time to build up endurance.

  • A simple thing to focus on when starting is first be able to ride for a certain period of time on flat terrain that lets you pedal for 45 minutes straight. If you have a cadence meter you can focus on keeping your rpm between 75-90.

The difficult part is with a fixie or single speed bike, you as the rider have to compensate in effort for the terrain. While 48X19 is not too tough to push for a road bike cyclist, starting out on certain hilly terrain that can be less than ideal (e.g most road bikes come with 50X(34-11) ).

You have two options. One is you could train a bit on a stationary cycle/turbo trainer to build up endurance and strength. The other is you could get another bike that has gears in the back that will allow you to ride outside and not feel like you have to work as hard on hills.

If I was to go the route of a road bike with gears, I would go with something that has a 105 groupset at least and this way once you build up endurance and strength you have two options of great bikes to ride vs. one of them feeling like it is just the other bike.

I know that may not be the answer you want to hear, but usually people on fixie that are riding them far have some time on other bikes that they have built up their endurance on or they are not worried about how fast they get to their destination because they know they may have to go slower to compensate for the lack of gears.

5
  • 2
    Commuting in New York on a bike with 105 is an absolutely terrible idea.
    – MaplePanda
    Jan 8 at 6:49
  • 1
    @MaplePanda commuting in itself it is okayish ... the parking is the problem ;) Even a Claris group will do wonder.
    – EarlGrey
    Jan 8 at 8:22
  • 3
    @MaplePanda Theft issues?
    – awjlogan
    Jan 8 at 11:57
  • @awjlogan yup. I hear it’s really bad in NY, with near-professional groups of thieves running around with angle grinders and whatnot. The retro-looking fixies (like the one OP) has are less vulnerable. Much less so than a flashy new road bike with 105.
    – MaplePanda
    Jan 8 at 18:19
  • 1
    @MaplePanda Grim, depressing how little resistance even a decent lock is... I was worried I would get sued by a thief in London if they stole my city bike, sure they could claim it was not road worthy, and so actively dangerous they were risking their life riding it! :D
    – awjlogan
    Jan 8 at 21:00
3

I am a 39 year old who also commutes via a fixed gear bicycle. It will take time to get used to riding like that. I was in to cycling for years before I bought my first fixed gear. I hated it for the first 3 weeks, because the feeling is much different and it can be a lot of extra work.

If you want to stick with this, I’d suggest waiting until spring when you aren’t fighting weather as well. Riding fixed can be a real pleasure, but it’s an acquired taste.

Also, and this is just my opinion, using the freewheel with a bike designed as a fixed gear sucks. When I tried it, I always felt like I was wasting energy as my pedal strokes were quickly eclipsed by the speed of the bicycle on flats and descents.

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