Fixie fanatics

Two Chico men have done things on fixed-gear bicycles most people wouldn’t even attempt

Nikko Shelton (left) and Max Feiler say fixed-gear cycles are cheaper and easier to maintain, among other advantages.

Nikko Shelton (left) and Max Feiler say fixed-gear cycles are cheaper and easier to maintain, among other advantages.

Photo by Ken Smith

With their penchant for riding without brakes and stoic rejection of the convenience of gears, fixed-gear riders have a reputation among traditional cyclists for being a bit unhinged. Longtime friends and fellow fixie enthusiasts Nikko Shelton and Max Feiler do little toward changing that perception.

Shelton may be the only rider to have completed the Wildflower 100 on a fixed-gear bike, which is a bicycle with no freewheel mechanism, meaning riders must pedal continuously and cannot coast. And, within hours of saddling up on his first fixie, Feiler embarked on a dangerous endurance ride that would make even veteran long-distance road cyclists cringe.

As the men explained in a recent interview at City Plaza, there are many reasons why fixie aficionados tend to lean toward the fanatical.

“You’re more in touch with your bike and attached to it in a really weird way while you’re riding,” Shelton said. He has chosen fixed-gear cycles since 2008, when he was in his late teens and at the height of a fixie fad that still persists. A former bike mechanic who still repairs friends’ cycles for burritos or beers, he said the simple mechanics also are appealing.

“The biggest advantage is not having to deal with a derailleur, and they’re also cheaper to buy and maintain than most bikes,” he said. “If you buy the least expensive geared bike, you’re likely to have a lot of mechanical problems with it, but that’s not a problem with even the cheapest fixies.”

Many fixed-gear cyclists prefer to ride without brakes, relying instead on leg muscles to slow down. Shelton rode sans brakes for many years, and just recently installed them on his bike. He said he’s been in four minor accidents with cars, but said they could have happened on any cycle, and claims the only major safety difference is when riding downhill.

“On a road bike you’re relaxed, you just coast, but on a fixed gear you have to pedal harder than ever,” he said, adding he doesn’t do large declines without a helmet, brakes and mirrors. “With your cadence that high, it’s difficult to remain stable and really hard to stop.”

In situations where most road cyclists would simply shift gears, Shelton gets off his bike and replaces the cog, pictured here, with a smaller or larger one, depending on whether he’s climbing or descending.

Changing elevations isn’t much of a problem in Chico, though: “When I did the Wildflower two years ago, it was my first time climbing a hill, ever,” Shelton said.

Shelton said he’s heard rumors about another cyclist attempting the 100-mile route on a fixed-gear, but he believes he may be the only one. The year he completed that race, he was riding about that distance weekly. That was his only form of preparation, he said. He’s been training recently, though, and this year will attempt the Wildcat 100, a more demanding course in which the flat ride through the orchards west of Chico is substituted with a 20-mile, 6,000-foot climb to Stirling City.

“I’ll definitely complete it unless something breaks,” Shelton said, not specifying whether he meant his bike or his body. “I just won’t feel good at work the next day, or the day after, but I’ll enjoy being done. It’s something that you absolutely hate the whole time you’re doing it, but it feels good when it’s over.”

Feiler similarly sums up the experience of riding his fixie more than 400 miles three years ago, during a trip he dismissed as “a slap-dash kinda thing.”

“I graduated [from Chico State] in 2012, my lease was up and I wanted an adventure,” Feiler said. He ordered a $200 fixed-gear and had Shelton assemble the bike, which he dubbed “Froderik,” then took a turn around a cul-de-sac to make sure it fit him correctly. Less than 48 hours later, Feiler started riding down Highway 99 headed for San Luis Obispo, with the goal of reaching Temecula in time for a wedding.

For a week straight, Feiler walked and rode down that and other highways, including Interstate 5, through temperatures reaching 105 degrees, stopping to sleep on grassy patches in gas station parking lots, under freeway overpasses and once in a vacant fireworks stand.

“They, as in the ‘Royal They,’ didn’t like me riding on the freeways much,” Feiler said. “I got pulled over outside of Lodi and the cop’s exact words were, ‘Get off the goddamned freeway or you’re going to jail.’ But he was a county sheriff, so I just walked to the county line and got back on my bike.”

Feiler eventually reached San Luis Obispo, then took a train to Orange County and biked the last 60 miles, arriving at his final destination with just enough time to shower before the nuptials began. Feiler said that, other than some serious chaffing, the trip was a great experience.

“That whole trip I was riding just feet away from semis for hundreds of miles, I almost got run over by a tractor one morning when I woke up in an orchard, all this crazy stuff, then I got back to Chico and cut off the tip of my finger,” Feiler recalled. He was working on his bike and stuck his finger in the turning wheels, expecting it to stop like free-wheeled bikes do—an accident he said is common among new fixie owners.

“I wouldn’t advise anyone to attempt a long trip on a fixed-gear without training. That was all his idea,” Shelton said, nodding toward Feiler. “As a general rule of thumb, I tell people to look at whatever Max is doing, and do it safer.”