Join the fixie crowd

Urban cyclists dropping traditional bikes for stripped-down machines

You’ve probably seen them around — the zenith of cool ripping by with slung messenger bags tight rolled-up jeans and clean retro-looking bikes. You might see them — with a vintage cycling hat and burning cigarette — jumping in and out of lanes balancing on pedals at stoplights and often pissing off people in their path. They are the fixed-gear bicycle or “fixie” crowd.

Originally intended for the velodrome (a track-cycling arena) couriers took these simple bells-and-whistles-free bikes to the streets and now a young demographic has curiously latched onto the trend in the last few years making them the hippest things since Wayfarers. With a fixed gear cog on the rear end the bikes have no ability to coast so you can’t stop pedaling or take a break on these things or you’ll be tossed and shredded. Might seem like a rash move but a wave of urban cyclists from New York to London to Calgary are dropping traditional bikes for a stripped-down machine.

Minimalist in every sense you slow down by resisting your pedals and brake by locking your legs and skidding. Pedal backwards you go backwards. All this means you have no derailleur no brakes no cables or complex moving parts to go wrong. It’s a return to cycling’s roots in an age of all-time technological advances. Out in the garage instead of souping up a beefed-up frame with titanium and carbon-fiber components for maximum power and awesomeness the cool kids are minimizing by ripping apart dad’s old 10-speed and removing all but the most necessary moving parts. “Give me some of that old-time manpower” they say defiantly. “It’s good enough for me.”

Hills take on a whole new meaning because you need every ounce of muscle to power the climb since there is no shifting into a lower gear. On the way down fixed-gear riders traverse back and forth their skidding tires carving into the pavement like a snowboard cutting across a slope. You can usually spot someone on a fixie from way back so nimble and graceful. If you don’t ride smoothly the bike will throw you. In essence it turns the rider into a cog of the system as there is little separation between the rider and the bike — this is cycling at its most primal level.

No one can say for certain exactly when the fixie renaissance was sparked but there is a general consensus that the revival started within the bike messenger scene in New York City. They used stripped-down beaters to deliver mail and packages around the downtown core. The lack of parts to repair or be stolen plus the beauty of being directly connected to the bike and weaving in and out of traffic to carry or lose momentum appealed to the urban warriors. At some point West Coast messengers began putting fixies together and bombing the steep hills of San Francisco. Nowadays these bikes have become as much fashion as function shifting their focus from utilitarian workhorse to urban art pieces commanding attention from those in the know.

That has sparked a whole subculture of riders as diverse as the bikes themselves. Messengers are the first-generation fixie fans but because of the bike’s pure lines and clean esthetic plus the instant street cred that goes along with riding one urban denizens hipsters and bike aficionados alike are following suit and coming along for the ride. Some use them for commuting others as flashy vehicles to ride to the bar and some even mod them up with slick components and regard them as art a bicycle transformed into a completed canvas. In some ways the fixed-gear bike scene is to today what skateboarding was in the early ’90s a subculture with no rules and no outside influence that once trendsetters caught on quickly became mainstream.

Although it’s still just a sliver of the overall market many of the world’s biggest bike manufacturers are vying for a piece of the action. Specialized’s Langster Kona’s Paddy Wagon and Giant’s Bowery are all examples of the big dogs coming out to play in this reinvented market. However many purists are still after vintage frames or the sleekness and unique designs of Euro and small independent bike builders.