I remember the first time I heard about fixed gear bicycles. My roommate at the time had alluded to a new trend in cycling, with the chief characteristic being that the bike had no brakes. I scoffed at him aloud, claiming that he couldn’t possibly be reporting that information correctly, and that the mere suggestion of such a vehicle defied reason. (Sorry about being such an asshole, Joe)
Fast forward to 2011, and fixies are ubiquitous, for better or for worse. A go-to staple of “hipster” culture, they’re also generally dismissed as a fad, and an impractical one at that. From mainstream to lamestream, the fixie has seen everything from Wal-Mart imitation to feature film adaptation starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt (With the LOL worthy tagline of “I like to ride. FIXED GEAR. No brakes. Can’t stop. Don’t want to either.”) With lineage traced back to New York City bike messengers whose agenda was neither to coast or stop, user friendly fixies are now available at every suburban bike shop in Los Angeles.
As with everything that achieves sudden and overwhelming popularity, the fixie has met it’s share of steadfast detractors. Hell, it was me. Where it became associated with “hipsters” is fuzzy. I could write 1000 words deconstructing the aforementioned term, but it’s probably better left summed up as “you know one when you see one.” The parameters for such a character have always been loosely defined, and describe just about everybody to some extent. Have a mustache? Hipster. Like Animal Collective? Beatnik. Enjoy the occasional inexpensive lager, say…Pabst Blue Ribbon? YOU FUCKING DILETTANTE.
As a bartending, music writing, glasses wearing journalist with an affinity to ride around on a transport without brakes, what can I tell you? I’ve realized the merit of the fixie and it has nothing to do with cultural constructs. Maybe it has something to do with my childhood affinity for BMX. Maybe I enjoy skidding every time I stop. It could be the inherent danger that gets me all hot and bothered. It could just be the extremely engrossing way you can personalize them, like changing laces on a pair of sneakers. I’m a fixed gear rider, and it has nothing to do with any ambiguous societal term. Save for a few friends that fly around delivering sandwiches at Jimmy Johns back home in Indiana, most cohorts don’t comprehend why, and will refuse to accept a basic understanding of preference. So here it is. The merits of riding fixed gear:
1. Low Maintenance – I recall walking into Janos bicycles in Valparaiso, Indiana a couple of years ago and asking if he had any fixed gear options in the store. I rode a SE fixed at the time, but was starting to treat fixies as a hobby, and made a point to stop into most bike shops when I got the chance. Janos appeared to specialize in high end road bikes, a contradiction from my childhood when he kept the store stocked with BMX options. What followed was a five minute exchange where the asshole running the shop – let’s call him Mr. Janos, because I’m fairly certain it was the owner – belittled me for inquiring about a “fad” that he couldn’t believe hadn’t died out yet. Quite frankly, he was acting like a pretentious hipster fuck in response to a simple question. As I turned to leave he kept speaking. “I tell my riders, strip your bike of the gears, brakes and anything else and tell me if you like it.” Well Mr. Janos (You condescending POS), you just outlined one of the reasons I do like it. Fixies are the bicycles broken down to their utmost simplicity. Gears are perfectly useful, and I would never try to cite road bikes or mountain bikes as inferior to fixies, but the complexity of all those mechanisms break down. They can be clunky and switching gears can distract from the ride. With fixed gear, the power is transferred from your legs to the wheels, and that’s how I prefer it. There’s drawbacks in some scenarios, but on pavement, it doesn’t get better.
2. Low weight – Strip the bike of all it’s superfluous hardware, and you’re left with a sleek, streamlined ride that is most user friendly. No cables, gear shifters, multi-layered chain rings, or freewheel hubs. It’s something you feel, and when your attention is never diverted from the road, you appreciate it.
3. Skill – I don’t mean to toot my own horn, but riding fixed requires a certain amount of skill. Most fixie riders choose to leave the front hand brake on – something I would absolutely recommend at first. If you’re driving amoungst traffic, especially terrain that might not always be flat, you’re going to want that brake when your legs aren’t trained to stop the momentum of your pedals. There’s a reason why Joe Gordon Levitt gets hit by a car three different times in the trailer for “Premium Rush”, and that’s part of why riding fixed is a blast pretty much every time. In the U.S., it’s illegal to sell bikes without an affixed braking system. I’m willing to bet the type of riding I’m describing is illegal in many cities in the U.S.. You don’t really want to argue with me about how much fun breaking the law is, do you?
4. Legs For Days – Because stopping a fixed gear is probably the most difficult aspect of riding once you drop the hand brake, it takes some time to develop the muscles in your legs to (semi) safely reach top speed on the street without worrying about caroming through an intersection, spread eagle, not able to stop your bike. It’s important to find some space to practice skid stopping at various speeds before removing the brake. Did I ever tell you guys about the time I skipped that step and thought I gave myself a hernia trying to skid at a red light at Purdue? Seriously, practice this, it’s worth your while. Between skid stopping, developing BITCHIN’ quad and calf muscles AND breaking the law, you’re going to be lucky to keep the chicks from running into heavy traffic and trying to hop on your handle bars.
(Speaking of, if you enjoy females & fixed gears and you haven’t heard of thefixfixfix.com, you’re welcome) (NSFW)
5. They’re Beautiful– The initial reason why I was turned on to fixed gear, I’ll admit. Perhaps it’s my hipster love for all things minimalist. Because the bike is composed of rudimentary components, it’s easy to swap out accessories such as handlebars, cranksets and rims. Stuck with just a frame? It’s an absolutely dope looking fixed gear in no time. Mix and match some parts and it’s like you have a whole new bicycle at a fraction of the cost. Behold, the POSSIBILITIES!
….and yours truly….