Friday, September 28, 2007

The Limberness of the Fixed-Gear Mind

I received a comment from an editor at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette telling about this article
"The Limberness of the Fixed Gear Mind" (they left out the the hyphen, not me) by Jeff Guerrero, publisher of Urban Velo, a Pittsburgh-based cycling magazine and daily Web site. It's a great read, probably the best single summary of fixed-gear riding. Hits all the main points sympathetically, including the idea of "being one with with your bike." And yet doesn't go off the deep end.

Here's the text. Click the above link for the proper read. (the drawing to the right, by Stacy Innerst, is from their website)

The Next Page: The Limberness of the Fixed Gear Mind


Look at all the bicyclists whizzing around town. Notice that some never stop pedaling -- until they stop moving. They're on a 'fixed gear' bike: the ultimate in simplicity in motion (if you know what you're doing).

Sunday, September 09, 2007
By Jeff Guerrero
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Bike culture is on the rise, in Pittsburgh and across the nation. Whether you know it or not, you have undoubtedly been passed by a nimble rider on a bike that never stops: a fixed gear bike.

Fixed gear riders can often be seen "trackstanding" at a stoplight, rolling the bike ever so slightly back and forth, eliminating the need to dismount. Their minimalist machine typically features just one brake (if any), a single gear combination and pedals that don't stop turning as long as the wheels are rolling.

That's right -- no coasting.

Riding a "fixie" requires constant pedaling, be it uphill, downhill or on flat ground. To the casual observer, riding such a bike might seem impractical at best -- perhaps even dangerous. Since the ability to change gears and coast has been available since the late 1800s, a practical-minded person might ask, "Why not embrace the available technology?"

The answer is not so simple. The bicycle industry thrives on selling innovations to make cycling easier. Modern road bikes feature 20-speed drivetrains and shifters built into the brake levers. Mountain bikes offer 27 speeds, hydraulic disc brakes and pneumatic suspension. And certain hybrid bikes feature an electronic, speed-sensitive, automatic transmission.

All of these technological advances facilitate higher speeds over a wide range of terrain, and ultimately help cyclists achieve what they set out to accomplish.

But just like an archer prefers the bow and arrow to a submachine gun, many fixed gear cyclists feel that riding a bike loaded with modern conveniences is unnecessary.


That's not to say every fixed gear rider wants or needs to be challenged to the hilt. Many cite more esoteric reasons for their choice in bicycles. Anyone who rides a fixed gear understands the concept of "being one with the bike."

If you want to ride faster, you have to pedal faster. If you want to slow down, the opposite applies. The technique for speeding downhill necessitates a Zen-like state where the rider relaxes their legs and lets the pedals push back into their feet. Even achieving a high rate of speed on flat ground requires the fixed gear rider to develop a high cadence (the number of pedal rotations a cyclist can make in one minute). It's interesting to note that cycling great Lance Armstrong was known for his exceptionally high cadence of 120 revolutions per minute.

When it comes to slowing a fixed gear down, better riders eschew conventional handbrakes in favor of using their legs to control the bike's momentum. The technique involves gradually applying reverse pressure against the pedals to slow down, and intermittently locking their legs to induce a series of controlled skids until the bike comes to a halt.

While it may not be the easiest way to get the job done, it certainly is fun.


A popular misconception is that a brakeless fixed gear cannot be effectively stopped.

While it's true that having a front brake is considerably safer, experienced fixed gear riders have an immense amount of control over the bike even without. The control comes from body position, as the farther forward riders positions themselves, the easier the rear wheel skids. As the rider returns to a normal riding position, his or her weight centers over the rear wheel, increasing the coefficient of friction and consequently intensifying the braking power.

By and large, the fixed gear's greatest appeal is its simplicity. And while the fixed gear's aesthetic appeal is undeniable, the real beauty is in its near flawless functionality. With just one brake and one gear pairing to adjust, there's very little to go wrong. Thus, the bike requires virtually no daily maintenance.

For bicycle couriers -- whose livelihood depends on having a functional bike at the ready -- the fixed gear is an appealing option. The same holds true for college students and bicycle commuters, many of whom also appreciate the low-maintenance aspect due to time or monetary constraints. Still others simply grow tired of malfunctioning gear shifters and dealing with overly complicated brake setup.

Plus it's undeniable that fixed gear bikes are something of a fashion statement. In the 1986 Kevin Bacon classic "Quicksilver," pop culture took notice of fixed gear bikes, and that popularity continued to grow throughout the 1990s. Along with the omnipresence of Timbuk2's tri-colored messenger bags, the bicycle courier look came into vogue. Suddenly the once inconspicuous fixed gear riders had a burgeoning audience.

More influential than the mainstream media's attention, however, has been the Internet's role in the proliferation of fixies. Web sites dedicated to the fixed gear subculture typically garner a fanatic response, and new sites continue to spring up daily. Among the most popular sites is www.fixedgeargallery.com, a hub for readers to showcase photos of their personal bikes.

Of course there's a certain camaraderie that comes with riding a fixie in the city. Birds of a feather flock together, and like-minded cyclists are especially prone to forming cliques. While the stereotype of "young white male wearing calf-length pants and a retro-styled cycling cap" is well-founded, the fixed gear community is remarkably diverse and inclusive. The informal society includes people from all walks of life -- from punk rock college girls to aging fathers with mortgage payments and office jobs.


Unfortunately, riding a fixed gear is not for everyone.

While fixies perform well in flat cities like Chicago or New York, the steep hills in cities like San Francisco and Pittsburgh pose a challenge that many riders are not eager to overcome. And for cyclists unfamiliar with riding in the city, riding a fixed gear in heavy traffic is a daunting proposition. Even some fixed gear enthusiasts eventually revert to a freewheeling singlespeed or a multigeared setup, often citing knee pain or a need for greater speed and distance.

On the other hand, many fixed gear riders ascertain the experience strengthens their legs, improves their cycling skills and sharpens their reflexes. While you don't need to be an expert cyclist to ride a fixie, chances are anyone you meet riding one has more than a cursory knowledge of cycling culture and history.

And while riding a fixed gear is not necessarily rebellious in and of itself, the rejection of modern convenience does make a statement. Regardless of their rationale, one commonality among fixed gear riders is a deep-seated love of cycling.

Where It All Began: On a Track, an Endless Loop

Fixed gear bikes are not just a modern urban fad. Since the inception of bicycle track racing, the only bikes used on the wooden banks of the velodrome have been fixed gears.

From the 1890s through the 1920s, bicycle racing was among America's favorite spectator sports, often drawing crowds that rival modern-day sporting events. Despite losing market share to road races like the Tour de France, track racing continues as an Olympic sport and remains a popular activity where facilities exist.

In Japan, track racing still enjoys tremendous popularity in the form of Keirin racing. With over 50 racetracks, highly trained professional riders, strict regulations and heavy betting (reminiscent of American horse racing), Keirin racing is a 1.5 trillion yen industry. Not surprisingly, nationally approved Japanese track racing equipment (stamped NJS) is highly sought after by American fixed gear enthusiasts.

Despite not having a true velodrome in Pittsburgh, the city's track racing heritage is kept alive thanks to the Pittsburgh Masters Velo Club. Every other Friday throughout the summer, Oscar Swan puts racers through their paces on the paved bike track on Washington Boulevard. Swan, a bike rider and racer since the 1960s, leads them through classic track events such as the Madison, Snowball and Match Sprint races.

Interested participants can visit www.pittsburghmastersveloclub.com for more information.


First published on September 9, 2007 at 12:00 am

Jeff Guerrero is the publisher of Urban Velo, a Pittsburgh-based cycling magazine and daily Web site: www.urbanvelo.org

Thursday, September 27, 2007

Fixed-gears need brakes

So I was riding my fixed-gear bike to work the other day. While going over the new horrible series of bumps on Crescent St. as you approach the bridge, my chain came off. It’s never happened before. And it wasn’t a big deal, because I have a hand brake on my fixed-gear bike. So I stopped and put it back on. Chains on one-speeds aren’t supposed to come off. They can’t come off if you’re paying attention and make sure it’s not too loose. But mine was too loose (how often do you check your chain tension?). There’s a belief that true fixed-gears don’t need hand brakes because your feet do it all. 999 times out of 1,000, that’s fine. But that’s not good enough. All I’m saying is don’t ride a bike without a back-up brake.

A small step in the right direction

The only way any city can really become bike friendly is to provide bike paths that get you from point A to point B. Not bike paths, but separate bike lanes. A lot more people would bike if they could where they’re going without having to fight traffic for the bulk of their trip. Traffic scares people from biking (as I suppose it should) because you can do everything right and still be killed. Personally, I worry that I’m not scared enough.

Good bike lanes that actually take you places are still a distant dream in New York. Even the East River bridges, which actually have great bike lanes, don’t really help get people on bikes because the bridge approaches are shamefully horrible. See, for instance, all the bikes going the wrong way off the Queensboro Bridge because both sides put you in places where you can’t legally bike anywhere you want to go. The Queens side in the most shameful because there are two unused lanes: one empty Jersey-Barriered lane that could be used. And another lane occupied by illegal parked (city-related) cars. Space is the not the issue. Priorities are. And until bikes are deemed more important than illegal car parking, all the bikes will continue to bike the wrong way down the street.

But this is a start. They call it a Copenhagen-style bike lane. Call it what you will. It’s great. But it’s only for 5 blocks from 16th St to 23rd St on 9th Ave. I don’t know how they will judge this a success or failure. But it is the answer.

Speaking of space, New York City has lots of space. But it’s all for cars. I don’t like cars. But I hate parked cars even more. At least driven cars are actually helping somebody get somewhere. Parked cars just take up space. Subsidized public space. In a city that has very little space for people.
(I stole both the pics from Transportation Alternatives, my source for all this)

I love when people do this. People in cities are good at using small spaces. And parking spaces aren’t actually that small. One bench is a lot better than one car. Parking for 10 bikes is also a lot better than parking for 1 car.

The bike parking problem in New York could be solved if one car parking space were fitted with a bike rack (or if they put parking meters back). So simple. So easy. So not going to happen.

Saturday, September 08, 2007

New Queensboro Plaza Bike Store

Just opened: L.I.C. Bicycles. 25-11 Queens Plaza North.
(718) 47-BIKES
I bought a few small things from here. You can't beat the location, just off the Queensboro Bridge bike path. He said Andres at the wonderful Bicycle Repair Man Corp isn't too happy with him right now. But I think Astoria/Southern Long Island City can support two good bike stores. I won't be too sad if one of these guys replaces one of the two not-so-good Greek bike stores.