Monday, April 30, 2007

Bike Polo

Also in the Times, there's a good video about bicycle polo.

Registration probably required.

And of course there are good 1st-hand accounts on Bike Blog. How come his friends are cooler than mine? And I think my friends are pretty cool.

Sunday, April 29, 2007

Fixed Gears in the Times

It’s not a bad article. Actually, once you get past the part that implies fixed-gears can't stop because they don't have brakes, it’s surprisingly good. But I can imagine writers convincing editors about their story about these crazy people that ride bikes… get this… Without Brakes(!). FYI, my fixed gear has fenders and front brakes.
Live to bike another day, I say.

The article implies that you have to buy an expensive fixed gear. Not true. One of the reasons to ride a fixed gear is that you can take almost any old frame (like the one abandoned on a fence because somebody stole part of it), and put a fixed cog on it and a new chain and you’ve got yourself a bike for almost nothing. It wasn’t that long ago that you couldn’t buy a fixed gear. These bikes were the intro course into bike building, the cheapest way to assemble a bike from parts. Part of what made a fixed-gear culture possible was that every one was hand built, usually by the person riding it.

They were also, as long as most people couldn't ride them, short-term theft proof (great for messengers). Anybody trying to ride away would quickly get thrown off.

So now can we put a moratorium on articles in the main-stream press about fixed-gears? I think the topic has been well covered. Sometimes a bike is just a bike. And there really are lot of other things to write about in the urban bike world.


New York Times
April 29, 2007

WHEN is a bicycle not like other bicycles? To begin with, when it has no brakes, or at least no visible brakes, or possibly just a front brake. That means you can’t ride this bike very well on your first try, and certainly not very gracefully, easily or safely.

The rear cog is bolted directly to the hub, so that whenever the vehicle is in motion, the pedals go around, making coasting impossible. This bike doesn’t have a shift lever or extra sprockets, and the chain is shorter and wider than on traditional bikes.

There are no fenders, and the rear wheels are probably bolted onto the frame to deter theft. You slow down by reversing the pedals, or skidding, or doing a skip stop. And that’s just the beginning of the differences between your run-of-the-mill 10-speed and a track bike, or fixed-gear bike — fixie for short — as it is also known.

Many fixed-gear adherents contend that their bikes are the ultimate and all others are pretenders. And these fixed-gear zealots are a growing presence on the streets of New York. Perceived by some as nuisances, or as troublesome, anarchist Dumpster-diving punks who happen to ride bikes, they are occasionally reviled, but they are also the subject of curiosity and interest. Just as die-hard skateboarders 15 years ago stood on the cusp of providing a new lifestyle, so the fixed-gear bike culture could be the tip of something that nobody can accurately predict but something that is huge.

Riders of fixed-gear bikes are as diverse as bike riders in general. Messengers are big fixie aficionados, but more and more fixed-gear bikes are being ridden by nonmessengers, most conspicuously the kind of younger people to whom the term “hipster” applies and who emanate from certain neighborhoods in Brooklyn. You see these riders weaving in and out of traffic without stopping, balancing on the pedals at a stoplight and in the process infuriating pedestrians and drivers alike.

In Williamsburg and points south of Grand Street, these bikes are legion. But they are fast gaining popularity, not just in those bastions of trend followers, and not just among 22-year-olds. Fixed-gear bikes are being ridden all over New York, by messengers, racers, lawyers, accountants and college professors — a diverse and not necessarily youthful cross section of the city’s population. They’re being ridden by people who work in sandwich shops and don’t know or care about gear ratios and bike history, and by people who have been racing these bikes for years in places like the Kissena Velodrome in Flushing, Queens, with its banked, elliptical track. They’re ridden by militant vegans who are virtual encyclopedias of arcane bicycle history, by thrill-seeking members of renegade bike gangs like Black Label, by shopgirls, street racers, Critical Mass riders, your aunt.

There’s also the phenomenon of city riders returning to fixed-gear biking’s roots and getting back to the track, entering races like the Cyclehawk Velo City Tour, to be held at the Kissena Velodrome on May 6.

These disparate riders represent a rainbow coalition, a movement that’s about bikes as part of a way of life, as an identity. Although fixed-gear bikes can be seen as a trendy accessory, they also allow a mild form of rebellion against what many of these bike riders see as a wasteful and insipid way of life. Fixed-gear riders embrace the contrary notion of taking a different route.

“We own the streets,” the spray-painted stencil reads. Not really, but fixed-gear riders are, in a benign way, promoting an alternative to accepted norms.

Anarchy in Motion

So what’s the big deal? It’s just a bike, right? On some level, yes. Two wheels, a chain, a cog, a seat and handlebars. But in the way that one of Marcel Breuer’s vintage Wassily chairs is just a chair that costs $10,000, the top fixed-gear bikes are just custom-made bikes that cost 10 times as much as a regular factory-made bicycle. The pinnacle of two-wheeled transport, they are beautiful objects with simple, clean, stripped-down lines that make them look fast even when they’re standing still.

“They’re the prettiest bikes out there,” said Gina Scardino, owner of King Kog, a store on Hope Street in Williamsburg that sells only fixed-gear bikes. Indeed they are, with a modernist blending of form and function and a look that matches what they’re made for, which is going really fast on a banked velodrome track.

But the question arises: Especially in this city, isn’t it insane to ride a bike that you can’t easily stop? By riding a bike that’s meant to be raced around a special track on the chaotic streets of New York, aren’t you risking life and limb?

It doesn’t make sense. But that may be the appeal, and has been ever since the bikes appeared on the scene more than a century ago.

Fixed-gear bikes have a rich past. Before the invention of the derailleur, the device that made multiple gears a reality, fixed-gears were the racing bike. The original Madison Square Garden, built in 1879 at 26th Street and Madison Avenue, was built for a velodrome. Races testing speed and endurance drew huge crowds, with the top riders among the sports stars of their day.

The bike races at Madison Square Garden were all the rage around the turn of the last century. A velodrome circuit flourished around the country, with the best racers earning $100,000 to $150,000 a year at a time when carpenters were lucky to make $5,000. And all this was happening on the forerunners of the bikes being ridden today.

Johnny Coast’s Coast Cycles sits at the end of a desolate cul-de-sac in the heart of Bushwick, Brooklyn, near the Myrtle Avenue stop on the J, M and Z lines. Mr. Coast, a 31-year-old with dreadlocks down to the small of his back, is a former squatter and current member of Black Label.

Coast Cycles is not your typical bike store stocked with rows of three-speeds and road bikes, along with locks, water bottles and other doodads. It is an old-fashioned, one-person workshop where chickens wander in from the yard. Here, Mr. Coast builds two or three custom-framed bicycles a month, most of them fixed-gears, “tailored to suit a body’s dimensions, to an individual’s geometry and affording the maximum of comfort, design and style,” as he put it in an e-mail message.

Mr. Coast, who works surrounded by Bridgeport lathes, jigs and blueprints, is a believer in fixies as a metaphorical extension of a squatters’ lifestyle that connotes, as he puts it, “living a certain way, subsisting on recycling, not wasting, finding liberation, freedom as a revolutionary act, like in a Hakim Bey sense, primitivist, spiritualist anarchism.”

He laughs at the absurdity of a brand like Mountain Dew approaching Black Label with an offer of sponsorship, as he says happened last year, and is wary of exploitation of the fixed-gear bike culture by corporations that have little to do with biking. “I saw what happened to skateboarding and surfing and punk,” Mr. Coast said grimly.

Look, Ma, No Brakes

The dangers of a small world getting bigger were vividly illustrated a few months ago when a hipster wearing square-frame glasses wandered into King Kog. The store, which sells fixed-gear bikes starting around $800 and going up to the thousands, also carries Jason Chaste’s Fortynine Sixteen clothing line, named for a gear ratio, and high-end parts like Sugino cranks, Izumi chains, and Dura-Ace and Ciocc frames.

“Um, I’m looking for a track bike,” the visitor said.

“What’s your price range?” Ms. Scardino asked.

“Three hundred dollars,” the visitor replied.

“Hmmm, you might want to try Craigslist or eBay,” she suggested gently.

When Ms. Scardino asked the visitor how he planned to use the bike, he answered, “I’m just going to be cruising around.”

You got the sense that this wasn’t the place for him, but also that he might come back one day. As he put it when he left: “I like your shop. It’s neat.”

At Bike Kill, an annual racing event sponsored by Black Label and held in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, nobody seemed worried about the issue of fixed-gear biking becoming too popular; everybody was having too much fun.

Vehicles used in the event, held on a blustery autumn day near the Samuel C. Barnes Elementary School, included tall bikes (two frames on top of each other with a seat about six feet off the ground), bikes with metal rollers as front wheels, tiny bikes and BMX bikes (little single-gear bikes used for tricks) and, of course, fixed-gear bikes.

Stopping on a Prayer

Mr. Coast was there, along with members of Black Label’s Minneapolis and Reno, Nev., chapters and members of other biker groups like C.H.U.N.K. 666, which has footholds in Brooklyn and Portland, Ore.; the Rat Patrol, from Chicago; Dead Baby, from Seattle; and the Skidmarxxx, from Austin, Tex. A lot of unwashed dreads, denim, leather and facial tattoos were in evidence, along with a carnivalesque assortment of voodoo top hats, orange jumpsuits, bunny ears, Mexican wrestling masks and a Pee-wee Herman doppelgänger waving from his Schwinn cruiser.

There were copious drinking, including a contest to see who could ride around in a circle while drinking a six-pack fastest, and the “Blind Skull” event, in which riders wearing big foam skulls over their heads pedaled until they fell over or ran into somebody.

Toward 8 p.m. the drunken tall-bike jousting began, with knights of both sexes armed with padded plastic “spears.” The only dissonant note occurred when a cassock-wearing interloper on Rollerblades with a motor attached was expelled by a Black Label member. “Get your motor out of here!” the biker yelled.

That’s the cardinal rule. No motors. For environmental reasons. Or practical ones, recalling the West Indian messengers who pioneered urban fixed-gear riding in the 1980s, bringing their ingenuity to New York from the islands, where bikes that didn’t have much of anything on them to steal were a decided advantage.

But pinning down what constitutes the fixed-gear movement gets complicated. After all, what does the insanity of Bike Kill have to do with someone like “Fast” Eddie Williams, who runs the bicycle-themed Nayako Gallery in Bedford-Stuyvesant, has published a book of photographs of messengers and competes in Alley Cat and Monster Track street races?

Mr. Williams’s scene is the messenger scene, in which he has been a participant since the early 1980s, when he first encountered the West Indian messengers hanging out at Washington Square Park. “I saw them riding,” he said. “I liked how they maneuvered, stopped at a red light and didn’t step down. And I thought, ‘How do they do that?’ ”

Mr. Williams got a Matsuri, a fast fixed-gear bike, and started working as a messenger. Twenty-five years later, he’s still at it, looking incredibly fit and younger than his 43 years. “Track bikes are not made for street,” he conceded, “and sometimes I need a hope and a prayer to stop short.” But he rhapsodized about their charms. “It’s like playing chess,” he said. “You think out your moves from a block away.”

John Campo, the salty-tongued director of the racing program at the Kissena Velodrome, is another fixie aficionado. As with Mr. Williams, the fixed-gear lifestyle seems to be a healthy one; Mr. Campo looks at least 15 years younger than his 60. Biking isn’t his profession — he’s a jazz musician who has played with Miles Davis, among others — but it is undeniably his passion.

Mr. Campo missed out on the glory days of the Kissena Velodrome, but he tells tales about the father of Vinny Vella, the actor who plays Jimmy Petrille on “The Sopranos,” racing at Madison Square Garden to win enough money to buy a scale for the pushcart he sold fish from, then earning enough to open a fish store on Elizabeth Street. Mr. Campo remembers all the Polish, German and Italian bike clubs, and he remembers Lou Maltese, a member of the Century Road Club who held many cycling records, including the 100-mile national record in a race from Union City, N.J., to Philadelphia.

‘A Zen Thing’

Far from worrying about fixed-gear bikes getting too popular, Mr. Campo yearns for them to return to the their prominence of a century ago, and he welcomes street riders to Kissena. “These kids are lovely,” he said. “They come; they win, lose or draw; they have a great time. This is an American spirit thing, to be free, to do what you want to do and express yourself in your own medium, like surfing or skating.”

Surfing and skating are mentioned a lot in relation to fixed-gear bikes. Something about these activities prefigures much of what is going on today in the bike community. Surfing 50 years ago and skating 25 years ago were small, below-the-radar pursuits with their own rituals and secret codes and vernacular. Now they’re billion-dollar industries, popular the world over. And in the opinion of many aficionados, a little bit of soul was lost along the way.

Bicycling is obviously different; there are more bikes than cars in the world, and bikes have a longer popular history, not to mention the fact that fixed-gear bikes predate “regular” bikes. But something about the trajectories of surfing and skating from unexamined, semi-underground secret societies to blown-out cheesy “sports” could forecast the future of the fixed-gear bike.

Surfing and skating retained some of their rebelliousness, in part because of the varied, unpredictable demographic of who is involved: 5-year-olds and 80-year-olds of both sexes, doctors and garbage collectors, law-abiding citizens and criminals. That makes the skating or surfing “movement” hard to locate exactly, just like the amorphous bike movement.

Johnny Coast. Gina Scardino. Fast Eddie. John Campo. The menagerie at Bike Kill. It’s a broad swath. The group also includes people like Toni Germanotta, a 42-year-old owner of an art studio that serves the apparel industry. “When you’re on a fixed gear,” said Ms. Germanotta, who works in the garment district, “it gives you a higher skill level. You have to be constantly aware, always watching the road. You don’t just ride, and it feels a little crazy.”

And it includes Kyle Fay, a designer for Urban Outfitters who is a relatively new convert. “You take the blame if you get hit,” he said. “It’s self-reliance, being responsible for yourself. It might sound kind of corny, but it’s a Zen thing, being one with the bike.”

And it includes Alex Escamilla, a 23-year-old book artist from Fort Greene, Brooklyn.

“I had a couple of friends who made fun of me for riding one because it was trendy,” Ms. Escamilla said. “But the problem with looking at bike riding as a trend is that you lose sight of everything that is positive about bikes. You know, the renewable energy source, exercise, convenience, saving money, saving time, community, seeing the city in a whole new way, blah blah blah.”

Besides, she added: “Track bikes are fun. And they’re beautiful.”

Jocko Weyland is the author of “The Answer Is Never: A Skateboarder’s History of the World.”

Saturday, April 28, 2007

B.S. for Bike Safety

Here's a link to the NYC bike safety report. It doesn't really say much. Or blame cars enough. And most of the statistics are pretty useless, most often because they have no denominator. What's the use of knowing bike injuries by month if you don't know how many people ride each month?

And despite my dislike of helmets, the fact that only 3% of fatalities involved riders with helmets is pretty damning evidence in favor of helmets. Still, it would mean more if it said what percentage of riders use helmets. I would guess around one-third of all recreational riders. And if you include delivery bikes (as you should), the number probably goes down to one-fourth.

And speaking of not blaming cars enough, the report says the biggest cause of bike crashes is, "bicyclist crossing into a vehicle path [accounting] for 84% of documented bicyclist contributing factors." That's because here in New York, when cars hit bikes, bikes are always to blame and drivers never get cited (unless they're driving drunk down the West Side Bike Path and kill a doctor). To say that bikes cause crashes by going in front of cars is like saying the Jews caused the Holocaust by walking into gas chambers. What bullshit!

Fun on a one-speed

A post about Heaven on Keep It Street Level:

Riding a one-gear bike takes effort, especially when hills are involved. And sometimes it’s a real struggle out there. But every so often, Heaven is reached on the road. The grade of the road, the selected gear ratio and leg strength all come together at once to form Heaven on Earth. And then at this point, you are effortlessly flying down the road, like you are being towed up a ski slope, passing anyone who stands in your way.

For me it typically happens, but not always, on a long, slight uphill. But you can never truly predict when you’ll reach Heaven, but you’ll know for sure once you are there. There’s no denying it. And as soon as it happens, it’s over. Don’t try to hang on to it. Let it go brother; walk away from it. Too much of a good thing is bad. Look what happened to Adam & Eve.

The funny thing is that I don’t reach Heaven on my geared bikes. Yeah sure, I get into a nice groove on my racing machine, but it’s not the same thing. I’m not sure why? May be we (i.e., one-gear riders) are being rewarded for all of our suffering.

I comment:

So true. And for reasons I can also not explain. The only time I get passed going uphill is by a one-speed fixed-gear bike.

I have tried to explain to people the best thing about a fixed gear is going uphill. And they never believe me because going up hill is *why* people have multi-speed bikes.

The real advantage to a ten-speed is you can go a lot faster on level ground. And that is a good advantage. And also, going downhill on a fixed gear isn't much fun. And that's a real disadvantage. Because going downhill on a bike is what fun is all about.

Bikes allowed on Roosevelt Island ramp

So I was coming back from the Lower East Side biking home at 3am. Unromantically, I left my wife to take the subway because she didn’t bike. But the Queensboro Bridge bike path is closed. For construction. Like is has been on and off for a year. But instead of waiting for the bus or taking the subway I take the tram to Roosevelt Island because it’s nicer. Looking from the tram, there’s no construction on the bike path. Bastards.

Anyway, the good news is bikes are now officially allowed on the ramp by the parking garage on Roosevelt Island. Before you were supposed to take the stinky elevator. But the ramp was always more fun and not dangerous. Just another random “bikes are bad” thing. And what’s with pissing on elevators? I mean, if you have to go, and I often do, why do it in the elevator?

So between there and home, I saw a cut in the road. A standard two-foot-wide construction cut. But it wasn’t filled in. So I jump. Jump like my life depends on it. Luckily it doesn’t. Because my rear wheel comes down on the far side of the cut. My rear blinky light breaks off on the landing. Fetching that, I notice my rear tire is going flat as well.

I change the flat. But poorly so I have to ride with a bump in my tire back home. But because I use a cartridge, I can’t fix the bad fix (I real strike against the air cartridge system, because you only get one shot). But I do get home without blowing the new tire.

And in the two blocks between the 30th Avenue Stop and home, I see my wife walking from the train. All my problems, and biking still isn’t slower than a long wait for the N Train.

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Keep it street level

I’ve just unabashedly borrowed this cartoon from another bike blog I’ve just discovered.

There is other good stuff on this blog, too. Like this post on bike commuters.

Sunday, April 22, 2007

Bizarro parade permit

Check out the NYPD's parade permit, now needed to assemble groups on bikes.

Believe it or not, I still have faith that the courts will rule this in mad-crazy violation of, well, the First Amendment. I'll be really scared when it turns out I'm wrong.

I like the bizarro permit from Why I ride much more.

I should mention that I love Mayor Mike Bloomberg more than I like to admit in public. Really. I like Mike. I like to think that all the bad things that happen only sneak by because he's too busy doing more important things or wagging his middle finger while shaming people into doing what we all know is right. And the congestion pricing (see picture of London's successful system below) he's proposed is the best idea in the world. I can't imagine it actually happening because car-obsessed New Yorkers are fuckers. But a man can dream.

Friday, April 20, 2007

New Orleans, Louisiana

New Orleans was great. Still very fucked-up, mind you. But a wonderful city. Good biking. Great food. An easy city to strike up a conversation with strangers. I was charmed. Too bad the city was destroyed and nobody seems to care. It’s two years later, for Christ’s sake, and it looks like the storm hit last month. What kind of country do we live in? For more on my trip, see Roving Gastronome. For more on the city, read Dan Baum’s great blog in the New Yorker. He and his wife were nice enough to show us around (on bikes), and give us the insiders’ perspective only an outsider can provide.

The first thing I did was take a cab to the French Quarter and rent bikes at Michael’s on Frenchmen Street. They were good bikes. With locks. Two bikes for four days was $150. Plus they put a mirror on for Zora for free, which was nice. There were far more handlebar streamers in this store than at any bike store in NYC.
We went for my friends’ wedding. I became a online reverend for $15 and married him and his wife in the wax museum.
We were warned about the horrible roads. But coming from New York, they weren’t that bad. On average they were bad. But a bad road there was no worse than a bad road here. And the lack of traffic, though spooky at times, was great for biking.

These were our bikes. The first time I ever really rode a bike with suspension (AKA shock absorbers). It made biking on these roads a lot better. I still think it makes biking worse. But I was happy to have it.
Shrimp po-boys rock.
Armored national guard units on patrol in the Bywater.
New Orleans is bit larger geographically than I was expected. We never did make it across the river, but we covered a pretty good distance from the Lower Ninth, to City Park, to Jefferson. And it was windy as hell.
Just a nice bike on the street. New Orleans is actually a very good biking city and there are a fair number of bikes. But of course there's something strange about biking around city that is in large part a disaster area, knowing the police department is barely functional. They're still operating out of trailers. Something like 4 percent of murders last year ended up in conviction. And everybody talks about crime. It's like real estate in NYC, except deadly. There is something Mad Max about it all. There are a lot of desperate people, and you just hope that nobody jumps you or pulls a gun.

Food from the back of trucks is great. Especially if it’s a full-on smoker. Though they were just grilling, I got a pork chop.
The Single Ladies Social Club on Parade in and around mid-city, in the ghetto.

It turns out that no "second line" is complete with a few guys pulling coolers of iced beer on carts. A whole informal economy springs up as it all passes. It’s actually not easy to sell beer and make change and pull a cart at the same time. If you slow down or stop, the four police horses pulling up the rear will run you over. Imported beer was $3 a bottle.

This was the bridge I had bike over to get to the Lower Ninth. I wasn’t looking forward to it. And though there was a great view on top, it really wasn’t safe to stop on the top and take pictures. I’m happy this wasn’t the last picture I ever took.
There are about 1 or 2 inhabited houses per block in the Lower Ninth. 80% of the city flooded, mind you. But the Lower Ninth got flooded with force. Housing were ripped off their foundations. The rubble from the very worst part has been cleaned up. So now just north of the bridge is a big empty lot. Just south of the bridge the houses are still on their foundation, ruined from 10 feet of water.

Back in the Bywater.

On closer inspection, the search and rescue mark is cast iron, placed over the original. Most houses in the city have the mark. The bottom quadrant is dead people found. Most are zeros, but not all.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Biking in New Orleans

I'm back, with stories and pictures... In a few days. I'm getting a new computer as my old one is telling me in no uncertain terms that it's tired of life.

Meanwhile read what Zora says:

New Orleans is a fabulous place to ride a bike. The fact that I’m mentioning this before the food is saying a lot. It has been a long winter, and I’m a little bike-deprived, so that may account for some of my enthusiasm. Another big asset: We had excellent guides in the form of Dan Baum and Meg Knox, who advised us on everything from where to rent the two-wheelers to which streets had the worst potholes. (Yes, the very same Dan Baum whose New Yorker blog I was admiring just a week ago. Lordy, I love the Internet.)

But in addition to all that, New Orleans is mostly level ground, completely anarchic without being crowded (read: I don’t have to follow traffic rules), and every person you pass has a little something to say, often about your hat. I’m sure in some neighborhoods, at some times of the night, the commentary from the sidewalk might not be so heartwarming, but this trip really reminded me why a bicycle seat is the best space to inhabit as a tourist. And certainly a bike is ideal for 2007 New Orleans, where you have this prurient interest in seeing just what the place looks like post-horror, but don’t want to seem like you’re staring. A bike goes a polite speed, a tactful speed.

(For the record: it is still a disaster, even though/because it’s not in the news much anymore. The trauma is palpable. Everyone wants to talk about it, but no one has anything else to say. It’s a strange place to be a tourist. Compare with Cancun, where everyone sports “I survived Wilma” T-shirts and laughs a lot; only the stubby palm trees are a clue that the biggest hurricane ever in the Caribbean landed here, not long after Katrina hit New Orleans.)

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Off to New Orleans

I'm off to New Orleans for a wedding. We got a heads-up about a place to rent bikes. So we should be tooling around in style. I'll be the one wearing a green top hat, if I can find one.

For a little preview on biking in the city, see Dan Baum's excellent New Yorker blog. Click here, then scroll down to "DOMINATION."

The bride-to-be writes: "In my old neighborhood in New Orleans, there were kids who thought it was a great game to try to throw sticks through your spokes when you rode through on a bike. I never heard of them succeeding."

I watched Spike Lee's, "When the Levies Broke" for homework. And if you look at Google Earth, huge chunks of the still looks like complete devastation. Worse than Baltimore. That's my slogan. How does a country allow a city to be destroyed? How does everybody basically manage to forget about it?