The Next Page: The Limberness of the Fixed Gear Mind
Look at all the bicyclists whizzing around town. Notice that some never stop pedaling -- until they stop moving. They're on a 'fixed gear' bike: the ultimate in simplicity in motion (if you know what you're doing).
September 9, 2007 4:00 AM
By Jeff Guerrero
Bike culture is on the rise, in Pittsburgh and across the nation. Whether you know it or not, you have undoubtedly been passed by a nimble rider on a bike that never stops: a fixed gear bike.
Fixed gear riders can often be seen "trackstanding" at a stoplight, rolling the bike ever so slightly back and forth, eliminating the need to dismount. Their minimalist machine typically features just one brake (if any), a single gear combination and pedals that don't stop turning as long as the wheels are rolling.
That's right -- no coasting.
Riding a "fixie" requires constant pedaling, be it uphill, downhill or on flat ground. To the casual observer, riding such a bike might seem impractical at best -- perhaps even dangerous. Since the ability to change gears and coast has been available since the late 1800s, a practical-minded person might ask, "Why not embrace the available technology?"
The answer is not so simple. The bicycle industry thrives on selling innovations to make cycling easier. Modern road bikes feature 20-speed drivetrains and shifters built into the brake levers. Mountain bikes offer 27 speeds, hydraulic disc brakes and pneumatic suspension. And certain hybrid bikes feature an electronic, speed-sensitive, automatic transmission.
All of these technological advances facilitate higher speeds over a wide range of terrain, and ultimately help cyclists achieve what they set out to accomplish.
But just like an archer prefers the bow and arrow to a submachine gun, many fixed gear cyclists feel that riding a bike loaded with modern conveniences is unnecessary.
That's not to say every fixed gear rider wants or needs to be challenged to the hilt. Many cite more esoteric reasons for their choice in bicycles. Anyone who rides a fixed gear understands the concept of "being one with the bike."
If you want to ride faster, you have to pedal faster. If you want to slow down, the opposite applies. The technique for speeding downhill necessitates a Zen-like state where the rider relaxes their legs and lets the pedals push back into their feet. Even achieving a high rate of speed on flat ground requires the fixed gear rider to develop a high cadence (the number of pedal rotations a cyclist can make in one minute). It's interesting to note that cycling great Lance Armstrong was known for his exceptionally high cadence of 120 revolutions per minute.
When it comes to slowing a fixed gear down, better riders eschew conventional handbrakes in favor of using their legs to control the bike's momentum. The technique involves gradually applying reverse pressure against the pedals to slow down, and intermittently locking their legs to induce a series of controlled skids until the bike comes to a halt.
While it may not be the easiest way to get the job done, it certainly is fun.
A popular misconception is that a brakeless fixed gear cannot be effectively stopped.
While it's true that having a front brake is considerably safer, experienced fixed gear riders have an immense amount of control over the bike even without. The control comes from body position, as the farther forward riders positions themselves, the easier the rear wheel skids. As the rider returns to a normal riding position, his or her weight centers over the rear wheel, increasing the coefficient of friction and consequently intensifying the braking power.
By and large, the fixed gear's greatest appeal is its simplicity. And while the fixed gear's aesthetic appeal is undeniable, the real beauty is in its near flawless functionality. With just one brake and one gear pairing to adjust, there's very little to go wrong. Thus, the bike requires virtually no daily maintenance.
For bicycle couriers -- whose livelihood depends on having a functional bike at the ready -- the fixed gear is an appealing option. The same holds true for college students and bicycle commuters, many of whom also appreciate the low-maintenance aspect due to time or monetary constraints. Still others simply grow tired of malfunctioning gear shifters and dealing with overly complicated brake setup.
Plus it's undeniable that fixed gear bikes are something of a fashion statement. In the 1986 Kevin Bacon classic "Quicksilver," pop culture took notice of fixed gear bikes, and that popularity continued to grow throughout the 1990s. Along with the omnipresence of Timbuk2's tri-colored messenger bags, the bicycle courier look came into vogue. Suddenly the once inconspicuous fixed gear riders had a burgeoning audience.
More influential than the mainstream media's attention, however, has been the Internet's role in the proliferation of fixies. Web sites dedicated to the fixed gear subculture typically garner a fanatic response, and new sites continue to spring up daily. Among the most popular sites is www.fixedgeargallery.com, a hub for readers to showcase photos of their personal bikes.
Of course there's a certain camaraderie that comes with riding a fixie in the city. Birds of a feather flock together, and like-minded cyclists are especially prone to forming cliques. While the stereotype of "young white male wearing calf-length pants and a retro-styled cycling cap" is well-founded, the fixed gear community is remarkably diverse and inclusive. The informal society includes people from all walks of life -- from punk rock college girls to aging fathers with mortgage payments and office jobs.
Unfortunately, riding a fixed gear is not for everyone.
While fixies perform well in flat cities like Chicago or New York, the steep hills in cities like San Francisco and Pittsburgh pose a challenge that many riders are not eager to overcome. And for cyclists unfamiliar with riding in the city, riding a fixed gear in heavy traffic is a daunting proposition. Even some fixed gear enthusiasts eventually revert to a freewheeling singlespeed or a multigeared setup, often citing knee pain or a need for greater speed and distance.
On the other hand, many fixed gear riders ascertain the experience strengthens their legs, improves their cycling skills and sharpens their reflexes. While you don't need to be an expert cyclist to ride a fixie, chances are anyone you meet riding one has more than a cursory knowledge of cycling culture and history.
And while riding a fixed gear is not necessarily rebellious in and of itself, the rejection of modern convenience does make a statement. Regardless of their rationale, one commonality among fixed gear riders is a deep-seated love of cycling.
Where It All Began: On a Track, an Endless Loop
Fixed gear bikes are not just a modern urban fad. Since the inception of bicycle track racing, the only bikes used on the wooden banks of the velodrome have been fixed gears.
From the 1890s through the 1920s, bicycle racing was among America's favorite spectator sports, often drawing crowds that rival modern-day sporting events. Despite losing market share to road races like the Tour de France, track racing continues as an Olympic sport and remains a popular activity where facilities exist.
In Japan, track racing still enjoys tremendous popularity in the form of Keirin racing. With over 50 racetracks, highly trained professional riders, strict regulations and heavy betting (reminiscent of American horse racing), Keirin racing is a 1.5 trillion yen industry. Not surprisingly, nationally approved Japanese track racing equipment (stamped NJS) is highly sought after by American fixed gear enthusiasts.
Despite not having a true velodrome in Pittsburgh, the city's track racing heritage is kept alive thanks to the Pittsburgh Masters Velo Club. Every other Friday throughout the summer, Oscar Swan puts racers through their paces on the paved bike track on Washington Boulevard. Swan, a bike rider and racer since the 1960s, leads them through classic track events such as the Madison, Snowball and Match Sprint races.