Wednesday, 4 May 2011


I first became aware of fixed gear bikes when I met some friends for a picnic on Hampstead Heath. I was on my Raleigh 3-speed, and they were on fixies. We decided to go to a pub, and my suggestion of The Flask was declined with the explanation that they couldn't go there because it was up a steep hill that they couldn't ascend on their single speed bikes. 

My first experience of fixies, then, was a negative one - of bikes that are restrictive in their use. Like moccasins worn without socks or dreadlocks in fair, straight hair,  the effort and discomfort required to project the aesthetic overwhelms the aesthetic itself, and suggests affectation. I would regularly get stuck behind a fixie going down Dartmouth Park Hill on my ride to work. I love to freewheel down a hill. It's often reward for a hard uphill climb; I even love the rattling whirr of a freewheel mechanism as a bike coasts down a hill. But the fixie-rider must pedal like billy-o to descend a hill, his limited speed forcing me to keep my hand clamped around my brakes, unable to enjoy a glorious coast down a long steep hill.

Before mechanised gears, racing bicycles had different ratio gears on either side of their rear wheel, and racing cyclists would dismount to remove their wheels and change gearing for different sections of a course. There is no optimal single-speed gearing for variable conditions; if you ride a bike with a single speed, you will transfer less of your energy into motion. Why make life difficult for yourself?

The answer to this is that fixed gear cycling is said to increase feedback on tyre grip and of the road in general, and create an "almost mystical connection between a fixed-gear cyclist and bicycle." This has led to fixie riders replacing their saddles with dildos to promote a deeper experience of the city streets beneath them (this is not intended to be a factual statement).

I guess it's obvious by now that I don't wish to offer a fair and balanced account of fixies. On a logical level I appreciate that anyone on a bike, fixed or not, is doing something positive for themselves and their cities. But I find it enjoyable to foster a dislike for an erstwhile harmless phenomenon (one day I'm going to get around to writing about extreme razor scooters).

Here is a typical fixie-rider in Sydney. Fucking cool, right? He demonstrates 4 stupid things about fixies:

1. No helmet. Helmets are mandatory in Australia, but it's common to see fixie riders without them. They often wear those little peaked bike caps instead. Perhaps this person rides so infrequently that he is prepared to risk police fines rather than shell out for a helmet. Or perhaps he would rather take a fine than wear a dorky helmet over his dreads. I've heard theories that it is more dangerous to wear a helmet, as cars tend to give less room to cyclists they perceive as less vulnerable, but it seems preferable to wear a helmet rather than get a fine and a bollocking from a cyclist-hating cop.

2. Cards in spokes. Riding a fixed gear bike with some cards in the spokes qualifies you for membership of an urban subculture called Bicycle Culture. What is awesome about Bicycle Culture is that you don't need to be skilled in any way other than an ability to ride a bike - it's not like skateboarding where you need to spend a few years actually learning an ability - you can bypass this entirely and jump straight into some urban cool by acquiring a fixie and putting some cards in your spokes. You might also want to replace the front wheel of your fixie with a mag wheel. There are some magazines that you can buy that will help you be a member of Bicycle Culture.

3. Riding on the pavement (rather than the road). If you ride a fixie, you are going to get peeled out on by cyclists with geared bikes, because you are less able to transfer your energy into speed and so will be slower. But you can avoid this if you ride on the pavement and ignore road rules. I am perhaps naive in thinking that if cyclists want to be safe and taken seriously on the street, they need to observe the same rules as road traffic. Speak to any non-cyclist and they will list anecdotes about cyclists behaving hazardously. They see one cyclist breaking a rule, and infer that all cyclists break the rules. This is like saying that all drivers are drunken, fly-tipping perpetrators of murderous hit and runs - it's wrong to infer generality from a few noticeable occurences. But one cyclist breaking a rule does harm to us all. Because fixies take more effort to get up to speed from a standing start at traffic lights and junctions, it encourages riders to blast through those junctions, and perpetuate this antagonism between cyclists, pedestrians and other road users.
4. No bar tape. This must be awful when it's cold. Combine bare drop bars with woolen gloves for a mouthful of headset. Looks great, though.

DISCLAIMER: None of the above applies to any of my friends, or to John Cardiel. I just realised that a photo I had posted here was of a bike that belongs to a friend. I have removed the photo, and I hope I didn't hurt his feelings.

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