The French Fixie Conversion

Earlier this spring, I was over at my buddy Al’s house picking up some tools I need to finish  up a job at the house and he showed me a couple of old bikes he had hanging from the rafters of his shed. Both were road bikes equipped with some pretty casual looking handlebars, fenders and big old seats, but the one thing that really stuck out was the overall size of the frames and how light they both were. Especially this 1970′s era Peugeot Cadre Allegé, compared to my current mountain bike, this thing was about half the weight if not more. I asked him why he kept them both in the shed and he simply shrugged  his shoulders and asked if I wanted the bikes. Well I couldn’t pass up the chance to get my hands on such a classic bike, which let’s face it was about as old as me. He also gave a big box of parts that had been swapped out for the casual stuff you see in the picture above.

Once I got it back to my workbench, I knew immediately that there was no way this thing was ever going to be ridden in it’s current state and rebuilding it with today’s parts was going to be a very expensive and laborious task. However the frame, even if a little scuffed was in very good shape and like I said before incredibly light. From everything I have read so far, these earlier bikes were made from some pretty good quality steel which makes them very strong, very light and very forgiving on our Montreal roads and cycle paths. So after speaking my riding buddy John and Fab, a colleague at work, I decided to do the only logical thing and build myself a fixed gear bike.

The oldest and simplest type of bicycle is the “fixed-gear” bicycle. This is a single-speed bike without a freewheel: that is, whenever the bike is in motion, the pedals will go around. You cannot coast on a fixed-gear machine.

– from SheldonBrown.com

OK, I’ll admit that it does sound a little crazy to ride a bike a that you can never coast with. Yet these are the same kind of single speed fixed geared drive trains that they ride on tracks and velodromes, you get the most amount of control over the bike, your cadence sets the speed and the deceleration. Also since there are no derailers, extra sprockets and sometimes no rear brake, these bikes are very low maintenance and ideal for commuting and flat land rides. Anyway, if you want to know more about Fixed-Gear bikes you really need to take a look at Sheldon Brown’s site.

So once my mind was made up, I set about talking the bike apart and seeing what I could Peugeot Stem Badgere-use. The 27 inch front wheel was in pretty good shape, nice and straight, the rear wheel was a little warped but the cassette appeared to be fixed on. Both tires and tubes were completely worn out. In fact all of the cabling was also fragged. And the original white flex tubing has been seriously yellowed with time, Thankfully I was ripping all that stuff out. I had considered scrubbing down the frame and repainting it, but the decals and badges are so cool, I just couldn’t do it. In it’s current state, it might actually act as a theft deterrent too. This actually turned out to be a blessing as it was the only sure way to identify the bike as being French built and not a Canadian build. The “O” is what give it away, or so I’m told.

Unfortunately, the pedal arms and crankset were welded together and there was no way to  remove one the cranks. Also the bottom bracket had cotter pin type fittings so that meant I would be stuck with 40-year-old pedal arms forever. The chain was also useless since it was made for a derailer and would never fit on a single speed crankset. So in order to make this work I would need some new parts for this old foreign bike.

  • One Ole-Skool French Bottom Bracket
  • One 46 tooth Crankset with 170mm pedal arms
  • One 16 tooth Shimano fixed gear
  • One Lock Ring
  • One 27inch or 700c Flip-Flop wheel (More on flip flop wheels from SheldonBrown)
  • 2 New inner-tubes and high pressure road tires

So basically, the entire drive-train.

Piece of cake right? Well not really. In fact the 27 inch rear wheel would have been quite expensive to order from Harris Cyclery as the delivery and duty costs alone would have added far too much to the total cost of the order. So I decided to try to source everything locally in The Great White North. This meant settling for a 700C rear wheel which actually fits really well on the bike with only minimal brake adjustments. And, yes I am putting a rear brake on this bike, riding in Montreal is hilly and dangerous enough that TWO brakes are usually a good idea. After scouring the net for while and always ending up on BC sites for small shops that want you “come in with your frame”, I discovered a small shop downtown called Bikurious.  An unfortunate name considering where it’s located in Montreal but a truly fantastic shop with some of the most knowledgeable and honest staff I have met in a very long time. They are the ones that immediately recognized the Peugeot as being an earlier French built model and not a Canadian built version from later in the 70′s. They were also honest enough to let me know that if I did take on this fixie conversion, it would end up costing me more than if I had picked up an old Raleigh or CCM bike. But since was the tallest frame I could find, I decided to go ahead with it. They also suggested I get a AlexRim 700C wheel, rather than build my own or attempt to rebuild the 27 inch. The wheel is not only pretty cool but very solid and light with more than enough spokes to support my 6’4″ frame. I also picked up the bottom bracket and crank-set from there as well. They took the time to review my gear choice and after explaining my usual route and objective of 5000KM agreed that 46/16 crank/cog set would be fine. John had already given me the 16 (Shimano Dura-Ace of course), so all I needed was a lock ring and a 46 tooth crank-set with 170mm arms to fit on a “Old French” style bracket. The odd thing about the bottom bracket is that:
A) It’s about twice the price of a standard American bracket.
B) It has a double clockwise thread, so it’s very easy to mount it backwards. Which I did of course.

The drive train was actually pretty easy to assemble since there really isn’t anything complicated about fixed gear bike. Simply get the bottom bracket and crank-set on properly, install the rear wheel and then careful fit the chain making sure to align the cog and crank for minimal rubbing or torsion and then use a chain fitting tool or a quick release chain ring to secure the chain. Be very careful of your fingers when you do this, remember that if the wheel is turning, that chain is moving and that one gears will grind whatever gets in the way. Because the crank is a proper fixed gear crank and not one converted from a road bike, I also had to make to get a 1/8th chain. I picked up a heavy-duty chain similar to a BMX chain at the local shop to handle the extra pressure of my large frame and the grind of my long levers on Montee Peel. At this point the bike really started to look right, once that drive train is on all you need is some brakes to stop it before you can take it for a test ride. Some hard-core fixie riders will boast the merits of brake-less stopping and skidding but that’s just not for me.

I swapped out the original spring-loaded seat (seen up top) with a slightly more rigid leather Schwinn seat I had lying around (pictured above). The seat post was still too short, but having a 23.4mm down-tube meant it wasn’t an easy item to replace. That’s when I discovered that BMX chromolly seats are usually 22mm and extra long so with an extra shim I could potentially use with my road seat, beware that is has to be chromolly for extra rigidity and to endure the stress of a heavier rider. After a few weeks riding I also swapped out the 38cm handle bars as the original stock bars where rather narrow and I could feel my chest tightening after an hour of riding. I picked up some 44cm drop bars from MEC at a nice price of $24 and added some black cork grip tape and the suddenly I had a real commuter to haul my back side up and down the windy Lachine Canal every day for the next 4000KM

I started building the Peugeot Fixie in late June and managed to get in on the road for July which turned out to be a relatively dry month. The whole reason I built the bike was to make my time in the wind a little easier. However it turned out this bike is such a joy to ride, that I ended up taking it out for errands, extended rides home and even on longer weekends rides too, the tune pf 940KM.  I guess I’ve always loved the speed of road bikes as I did own two “sweet rides” as a younger man, but living in various rural areas over the years as well as cycling with the kids got me into mountain bikes. But let’s all be honest, there is nothing more fun than the sound of thin tires whizzing along a nicely paved road, but the real thrill is taking a fixed gear bike over a nice path and can be a real joy to ride. This might sound a little like Sheldon Brown, but I honestly think I have become a better rider from putting in my time on this Peugeot. My cadence is stronger and more consistent, my turns are better paced and my overall control of the bike just seems more intuitive and natural especially compared to trying to fumble with 28 gears before a stop light. And yes I still use my brakes even if they sounds like a screaming eagle, I’m not an idiot after all. The overall maintenance has been minimal, I’ve had to change one tire due to some bad road conditions and apart from keeping the chain lubed, I’ve only had to pull the rear wheel back once and only after a particularly fast descent on a 116KM weekend ride. Building it was a fun and taught me a lot more about bikes, but riding has been a real blast and has really taught me a lot about cycling.