Commentary

If it's not fixed, it's broke

Updated: September 25, 2009, 3:28 PM ET
By Mary Buckheit | ESPN.com

There's a new fix-ture of urban living.

[+] EnlargeFixed Gear Bikes
Courtesy Mary BuckheitThe urban fixed gear bike culture movement is alive and well in your city; just look around.

Just as bulky SUVs and expensive luxury vehicles have lost their cool with the kids in the city, so too have mega mountain bikes with tiers of teeth, and carbon-fiber, gazillion-geared, Tour-de-Finance roadsters.

Stand on any street corner and you're bound to spot a sporty and simple breed of speed. They're everywhere -- sewing through New York traffic, circling the squares of Boston, flying down San Francisco hills and hanging from the hooks of Portland's public transport.

Though fixed-gear bicycles have been experiencing an urbanite riding renaissance for the past decade, they've been around for centuries and obviously preceded their multispeed brethren. (The first Tour de France was staged in 1903. Roger Lapebie, who won the Tour in 1937, was the first to win it on a geared bike. You do the math.)

Henri Desgrange, the originator of the Tour de France, and tyrannical cycling purist, is known to have denounced multispeed bikes, saying, "I still feel that the variable gears are only for people over 45. Isn't it better to triumph by the strength of your muscles than by the artifice of a derailleur? We are getting soft. As for me, give me a fixed-gear!"

Desgrange died in 1940 and the sport of cycling slipped to the trend of 10-speeds and sprockets a' snuggling of every size. Still, I'll bet the salty French road soldier wouldn't be surprised that a rear single-cog revival would play out some 50 years later.

Even though they've been around for ages, the mechanics of fixed wheels are still readily misunderstood, and their simplicity is scoffed by spandexed multispeeders. Since the fun with fixies recently reached my legs, I thought it was about time to tell their story.

My fixed affair started when I asked an old friend -- a bike shop tech at Landis Cycles in Scottsdale, Ariz. -- to keep an eye out for a used frame that would fit me right. Old friends' favor fulfillment ratios are mind-blowing and it wasn't long before a giant cardboard box was dropped at my front door.

Out of the box came a bunch of parts, some I could identify: a frame, two tires, dropped handlebars, one small white chain. My bike-savvy better-half skillfully assembled all the bits and pieces into my new fixed-gear bicycle. The whole process took about 20 minutes. It's a simple beast.

There was no derailleur to deal with. No shift levers and only one sprocket. My bike was equipped with a front brake; no rear brake -- you've got two legs for that. In fact, said better-half chooses (like many maniacal fixers) to ride without any brakes installed on the bike at all.

For those keeping score at home, that's one bike, one gear, one brake (if any). A fixie's major mechanical difference is its rear cog that is attached or "fixed" to the rear wheel. By design, the fixed-gear rider's pedaling speed is in constant sync with the motion of the wheel. That means a fixer is not capable of coasting because the pedals are literally chained to the wheel. If the bike is in motion, so too are the riders pedals.

Intriguing, right? If you're scratching you're head, know that riding one makes instant sense of it all.

I remember my first time. My resident expert reminded me of the mantra as I rolled away, "You just can't stop pedaling." From the second I slid my feet into the baskets (there to keep your feet from flaking out on the eternal task at hand) and gave them a push, I could feel the connection fix devotees describe. Push harder and you're empowered with this instant sense of control and command. The bike moves with you. It responds without any hesitation or hiccup in its cadence from the clicks and delayed catch of a chain to a different gear.

To slow down or stop on a fixed, just resist back at the pedals with your legs (an intuitive response reminiscent of skids down the driveway on my Big Wheel.) The point is, it's a dance. When I move you move. Exerted effort from the rider is directly proportioned to the speed of the bike's back wheel.

[+] EnlargeHenri Desgrange
AFP/Getty ImagesTour de France originator Henri Desgrange decried the use of variable gears as better suited "only for people over 45."

The experts at Cambridge Bicycle on Massachusetts Avenue in Boston explain that because it has only one gear, fixies are technically a subset of single-speed bicycles, "but fixed-gears are better thought of as a separate category of bicycle entirely, with their own enthusiast culture."

Be forewarned: Mastering its exact, synchronous sensation often becomes an undertaking of addictive proportions.

From racetrack to city street

What's interesting is, there hasn't been a whole lot of evolution from racing track bikes of old to the fix you see on the streets today. Many of them are just old bikes converted to fixed and/or cleaned up; some of them are new models that companies are molding as much like the originals as possible. "The revolution isn't the bikes, it's who's riding them," quipped 24-year-old Alex Eubank of Cal Coast Bikes in San Diego.

What was once reserved for the sport's fastest legs in the sport eventually began popping up beneath the buns of urban cowboys. The progression makes sense. Fixed-gears fell out from the Tour de France staged race and found their way to the velodrome (the first and the largest daily sports newspaper in France was Le Vélo, which sold 80,000 copies a day). Fixeds' streamlined speed made them the best bike (and only bike permitted) on track racing.

When track racing's popularity lulled, track bikes were left to collect cobwebs. "For years, there were tons of track bikes sitting in people's attics, basements and garages. City couriers were the first ones to do something with them because they were the only guys skilled and crazy enough to ride a bike without brakes. Plus they were cheap enough for guys who rode bikes all day," explained Richie Ditta, 36, a longtime messenger who earned his chops on the streets of New York and San Francisco.

When I caught up with Ditta, he was spinning his story while working on a bike in the back of Adams Avenue Bicycles in San Diego. After a few minutes, a handful of shop patrons, the intern and co-workers had huddled within earshot of the always animated adventurer. And Ditta charmingly welcomed his audience all by offering cold Tecates from the mini fridge with one hand, and waiving a wrench to the story as if he was conducting an orchestra with the other.

Ditta is a fun-loving character with a wife and a baby boy at home, but bikes on the brain at all times. He's well-known internationally in the industry and when I poke at his celebrity status he is quick to correct me. "Quasi. Quasi-celebrity."

His quasi-celebrity status was bolstered by his appearance in Mash SF, the 2007 documentary film by Michael Martin and Gabe Morford that featured city bike messengers such as Ditta weaving through cars, tricking around town, eking out intersection near-misses, sailing the steeps of San Francisco and sharing their street-scraped flesh. The film premiered in 2007 at the Bicycle Film Festival in San Francisco and is agreed to have set the benchmark for the urban fixed-gear bike culture movement.

If you don't think it's in your city, take a closer look at what's chained to meters in front of bars and bookstores, or the rack that's full of them outside the market. See that kid stopped beside you at a red-light standing poised atop his pedals, striking a track stand -- he's riding a fixie.

They might wear a plain, white T-shirt and cutoff jeans and a bike cap, or corduroys and a cardigan, but no matter what fixers are wearing near you, we will agree that they look markedly different from their Lance-like counterparts. Fixed-gear riders have effectively tipped the two-wheeled trend while simultaneously coining a kind of chic that's quite contrary to cycling's long love affair with Lycra.

"The tight jeans, the skinny shoes, white belt, tattoos, mustache, floppy hair -- that kind of stuff," explains Ditta. "That's the stuff that started when I was living in San Francisco and guys in bands were riding fixed. Fans were always imitating their style, right down to what bike they were riding. That's why there is usually such a connection in cities between bike culture and music and art exhibits. There's all this crossover counterculture."

Fixed-gear culture has a way of permeating whole pockets of urban life. Consider that if a bunch of kids hop off their bikes and cruise downtown wearing narrow sneaks like Vans or Chuck Taylors (because that's what fits into pedals), and skinny matchstick jeans (because those don't catch the chain ring), and a bandana around their collar (to quell the wind chill when riding), they haven't just biked downtown, they've staged a fashion show.

It's like NASCAR for scenesters.

You can see how the fire spreads.

Fixed-gear bikes have become so hot among hipsters that the king of mass-producing chain-store cool, Urban Outfitters, now sells them direct. Surely this makes many a red-blooded bike messenger wince, even if the bottom line is increased bike awareness and attention.

[+] EnlargeJanine Gaines
Courtesy of Janine Gaines Janine Gaines rides one of the fastest fixies on the streets of New York.

To get the sentiments of a street ninja, I called up Janine Gaines, better known as "Dagga" and believed to be the fastest female on the streets of New York. Dagga has delivered for Elite Couriers for the past three years and worked in bike shops before that, but even with her most respectable crank rank, she kept her cool about the trendy tilt. "Messengers definitely scoff at the kids with pimped-out bikes riding around. They're on these bright fluorescent things begging to be looked at and they don't even know the rules of the road. Today, kids come out of nowhere with the craziest stuff because it's so available; if not in a store, all over the Internet. It's easy to get the outfit."

It's easy to get the bike outfit but almost impossible to get the bike messenger job. New York City is estimated to have more than 800 couriers making deliveries daily, only some 10 of which are women, giving Gaines super street status, even if her warm cool fools you.

"Messengers are really skilled riders, sure we resent the trend that some kids pick up like it's a label, but in a city like New York or Boston, somebody's always going to give you that eye roll when you complain about it. Someone will always be there to call you an elitist."

But the fact is, Gaines and Ditta and big-city messengers are elite. They have honed their skills, bent over handlebars for years.

"The first time I rode fixed on the street I crashed into a van and had to go back home and get my mountain bike," Ditta admits. "It presents this initial challenge. It takes a skill set, and there's a serious learning curve but after a while you develop this Jedi sense of riding and you learn to see the whole road. You cast this stare out at what's in front of you and anticipate anything that might happen. There's this badge of honor about mastering fixed."

Ditta has earned some of his honor in official competitions such as the annual Cycle Messenger World Championships (going on right now in Tokyo). Gaines is also fresh off competition -- the North American Cycle Courier Championship (NACCC) held in Boston this summer. While consummate couriers make inspired missions out of nearly every ride, they seem to understand why so many unassuming city slickers have become fixed-gear addicts.

"When you think about city riding, there's usually not too much climbing. Most people who have geared bikes will even tell you that they hardly ever change their gears, and when they do, it's just sort of distracting. With a fixed bike, you don't have to deal with any of that. They are cost-effective, fast and fun to ride. I don't blame anyone for falling for them."

So, like many other simpletons before me, I too am totally taken by the clean lines, candid charm and fast response of my fixed-wheel bicycle. Alex Eubanks, who at 24 has already worked in the cycling industry for a decade, looks me in the eyes when I ask if he hates people like me for hijacking his fixation. He sighs, hardly smiles and finally delivers dry. "Hey, guys like me have been waiting our whole lives for bikes to be cool. If this is what it takes, we can't complain."

Mary Buckheit is an ESPN.com Page 2 columnist. She can be reached at marybuckheit@hotmail.com.

Mary Buckheit started as ESPN.com's college intern in 2000. She signed on full-time as an editor in 2002 and became a Page 2 Columnist in 2006. She went west to cover life in California, the UFC, AVP, X Games and anything else she can dig up under the sun.