Ten speeds is nine too many
Fixed-gear bicycles have no breaks and one speed—your own
Still looking for the perfect Christmas gift for that bicycle fanatic in your life? Skip the aluminum-and-carbon-fiber frame or the splashy spandex jersey and buy your bike lover a “fixie”—if they don’t already have one.
Fixed-gear bicycles, the street version of track bikes, lack a free wheel, so every rotation of the wheels requires a turn of the pedals. The bikes often lack brakes, too. This simplicity is making fixies more prevalent on Sacramento streets, whether ridden by a bike messenger whizzing between cars and buses, bike commuters who say the bikes give them a better workout, or longtime bike lovers who jump on to see what all the fuss is about.
Purists, skidders and trainers
“In my humble opinion, there are three main patrons of the fixed-gear scene,” said Jeffery Rosenhall, who volunteers at the Sacramento Bicycle Kitchen. “The bike messengers, who use them as they slink around the city delivering plans and briefs in their oversize Cordura sling sacks. Secondly, the young hipsters who emulate the messenger aesthetic, who are not employed by a courier service, but have nailed ‘the look’ cold.”
Thirdly, Rosenhall said, there are the average folks who are riding rather than driving, attracted by the relatively low-cost fixed gears that bicycle manufacturers are turning out more and more of.
Rosenhall himself doesn’t ride a fixie, saying “I heart gears,” but he helps more and more people work on them as they pass through the Bicycle Kitchen. Some are adding brakes to their bikes; others are taking them off for purity’s sake.
Fixie purists stop their brakeless bikes with sheer leg strength, pushing back on the pedals until the bike slows to a halt. Some risk bodily harm and infertility—but gain glory—through riskier stopping techniques. To do the aptly named “suicide skid,” a rider releases the grips, stands up on the pedals and throws his or her pelvis against the handlebars to slightly lift the back wheel, stopping its rotation and making it skid when it comes back to the ground. Most riders, however, perfect slowing the bike with a steady, strong resistance until it becomes second nature to prepare early for a stop.
“Not having a front brake means I can’t concentrate on the brake,” said Jeremy Pearson, a bike messenger for Capitol Couriers and a Bicycle Kitchen volunteer. “It’s a better connection with the bike.”
Chris Dawson, who commutes on his fixie to his job as a deputy legislative counsel at the state of California Office of Legislative Counsel, has brakes on both his front and rear wheels, but oftentimes he doesn’t use them.
“It forces you to maintain the speed that you want,” Dawson said. “You’re turning the pedals for every rotation of the wheel. If you want to go faster, pedal faster. If you want to go slower, you pedal slower. I don’t want to overly romanticize, but that’s the cool thing about it.”
Dawson started commuting to work on a bicycle in 1994 while training for a triathlon, but only started riding a fixed gear in the past couple of months. He built the bike himself after some trial and error.
“With a real minimal amount of mechanical knowledge, you can put together the perfect bike for you,” he said. “It’s gratifying to have a bike that I know is unlike any other. It’s my bike.”
Super simple and souped-up
A fixie can be made simply and on the cheap, said Walter Hubbard, a bike mechanic at City Bicycle Works on K Street, who rides a fixie with hand-built wheels.
“It doesn’t take much to put one together,” Hubbard said. “If someone wants to build one, they buy an old road bike and slap on a new wheel. You could do that for $100 to $200.”
Others take bike modification to another level, bringing the value of their bikes up to several thousand dollars each with hand-built wheels, Japanese track-bike frames, angled stems and handlebars only as wide as their shoulders—the better to zoom through traffic with.
Even a tricked-out track bike is basic, however, and that seems to be the appeal for most people. “It’s a matter of simplicity for me,” Hubbard said. “I’m a bike mechanic and I work on bikes all day long and I don’t want to work on my own very much.”
Dawson agreed. “I wanted a fixed gear because it’s simple, it’s easily maintained and it’s flat here,” he said. “It does really make you stop and think about what is necessary versus what’s sort of pure to the experience. It’s a really elegant solution to my question of how do I get myself to work every day and how do I optimize my cycling experience?”
Affixing a hand brake to a bike is a simple matter, too, and many riders prefer to choose between stopping with the strength of their legs or squeezing a brake for a quicker halt.
“I always put a brake on the front, especially in San Francisco,” said Jake Mann, who builds fixed-gear bikes in that city and used to live in flatter Davis. “I think if I ever live back in a flat area, I might go without the brake. There’s a lot of purists that would say that’s not truly in the fixie spirit. I’m older; I’m not going to be crazy and ride a bike like that.”
Although riders appreciate the stripped-down, basic technology of a fixed gear, most recognize that the rise of the fixie is driven by trend and emulation. “I think it’s become kind of trendy,” Dawson said. “It’s kind of funny because it really is a throwback. It’s not like seeing a teenager wearing a Joy Division T-shirt, but it’s beyond that.”
Bicycle manufacturers have responded to the trend, and many now are producing fixed-gear bikes. Trek, Raleigh and Giant all have introduced fixed-gear bikes, ranging in cost from $500 to $1,100.
“A lot of people are actually coming through and buying them,” Hubbard said. “We’ve sold more in the last couple of years than in the past 10 years. It really is one of those things that’s kind of a trend.”
Sacramento vs. San Francisco
The trend seems to come and go, said Pearson, who also has worked as a bike messenger in San Francisco. “Old-time bicyclists” coming through the Bicycle Kitchen tell Pearson that fixies were just as popular 20 years ago before they dropped into obscurity.
As with many Sacramento trends, the current fixed-gear fascination seems to have started on the steep streets of San Francisco. Spawned by messenger culture, the craze was picked up by Mission District hipsters, ebbing some of the messenger cool away from the stripped-down bikes.
“I seem to see messengers riding more 10-speed bikes,” Mann said. “They seem to be going away from [fixed-gears] because they got co-opted.”
SF Weekly picked up on the hipster fad and responded with the column “Ask a Track Bike,” in which Ephraim the Track Bike writes: “And there you have it. My track bike species now starts its slow descent from avant-garde chic to common irrelevance.”
Mann found the column a “scathing take on hipster culture and fixed-gear bikes” and sees it as the death knell for the trend in San Francisco. He said he’ll keep making the bikes and giving them to his friends regardless.
“They’re also easy for people getting into bikes,” he said. “And they look cool. There’s nothing on them. You just pick the right seat and the right wheels, and you know, they have a really cool look to them.”
In Sacramento, the fixed-gear trend is still driven by the messenger culture, according to Pearson. Sacramento has the added benefit of being flat, allowing people to actually ride their fixies around town. San Francisco’s parabola-like streets can sometimes deter a person with no brakes and no ability to coast.
Despite Sacramento’s relative flatness, it took some time for Dawson to adjust to his fixed-gear bike. “The first time I went down a very gentle grade, the Sutterville [Road] overpass, and I’m spinning over 120 revolutions per minute, I thought I was going to bounce myself right off the bike,” he said, laughing.
Past the trend
Ultimately, those who will keep riding fixed-gear bikes after the trend has cooled are those who profess a love for simplicity, low maintenance and a connection with the bike.
Dawson probably will stick with his fixed gear because it allows him to train on the way to work. “You get really strong because you’re always pedaling,” he said. “It makes you a stronger rider; it makes you a better rider.”
And at a time when most people are behind a steering wheel, clutching a cooling cup of coffee and grinding their teeth in traffic, Dawson is doing something he loves. “I say, ‘Look, if you could golf to work, if you could knit to work, would you do that?’ ”
He’ll always own a bike with more gears, but commuting on his fixie has made Dawson appreciate the bike as a machine. “It’s funny because the more bikes I acquire, the more old-fashioned and cheaper they get,” he said. “There’s something kind of fun about its 1890s technology. I can’t think of a better way to get to work.”