However I suspect that Desgrange used the phrase "fixed gear" to mean what we would call single speed.
Obviously Desgrange used a French phrase, apparently "pignon fixe", not "fixed gear".
I still feel that varable gears are only for people over forty-five.
Isn't it better to triumph by the strength of your muscles than by the artifice of a derailer?
We are getting soft...As for me, give me a fixed gear!
--Henri Desgrange, L'Équipe article of 1902
This paragraph has been repeated on so many websites that fixie-hipsters seem to think that Tour riders had to use fixed wheel before 1937. You can even get t-shirts printed with the quote, word for word. But has anyone actually look at where this quote (in English) came from and who translated it?
I agree with the previous replies, the freewheel would have been around at the introduction of the chain driven safety bicycles, if not before.
I've always thought that quote is talking about a single gear, ie a single gear ratio, not fixed wheel (fixed gear to the Americans).