Fixed for good: Cycling’s counterculture

© James O'Rourke

Ten years ago, if your curiosity about fixed-gear bikes got the better of you, your best bet was to try and find a frame builder and get yourself acquainted with a wrench. Four years ago, if you lived in New York, you could just don your best skinny jeans and head to the Urban Outfitters store to get your hands on their new range of garish customisable fixies. Today, you may not even need to do that, you lucky trendsetter, you – Americans needn’t go further than the Wal-Mart website.

If that comes across a little sharp, then you’ll probably know all about the pain of being a hipster. Internet message boards, tumblrs and so on hum with vitriol aimed at anything dubbed with the h-word. Fixed-gear bikes are as easy a target as horn-rimmed glasses; they have become an icon for fashion over form and accessory over utility.

Still smarting? You should be: fixies were rare not that long ago and now they’re everywhere. They once said something about you as an individual, but now all they say to the undiscriminating eye is ‘I want to look like those guys’.

When you have something special it’s hard to watch it grow into the world of money and fashion and watch it judged and satirised and devalued and mass-produced. Your favourite band once played the show of their lives to a handful of people and you were there and you fell in love and now they’re on the radio and their music is in an advert for a department store and it’s simply not the same. You know this disappointment.

Fixed-gear culture is stronger than this.

Vive la resistance

Let’s be clear, riding a fixed gear bike isn’t about tattoos, 10-inch handlebars or ironic moustaches. The ephemera that’s grown up around the bike and its riders is quite easy to ridicule – no surprise that a show like Portlandia, which specialises in poking fun at the subcultures in the US west coast, would find it an easy target.

But those ideas are just echoes of what people actually get from a fixed gear bike and, understandably, don’t have much interest in talking about what it’s actually like to ride one. The beginning of this latest resurgence wasn’t about fashion and when you peer past all the signifiers that you’ve learnt to accept as part of cycling’s largest underground, what you’re really looking at is a simple frame without a flywheel.

This being one of the earliest and most common bike designs, it seems strange that today it should be the outsider to the mainstream geared machine; more complex and more expensive.

Writing in L’Equipe in 1902, Henri Desgrange was in no doubt: “I still feel that variable gears are only for people over forty five. […] We are getting soft […] As for me, give me a fixed gear!”

His enthusiasm came from the practical advantages of the fixed gear – gears detracted from the experience. When bicycle messengers, particularly in US cities towards the last part of the 20th century they too treasured the light, manoeuvrable, customisable fixies and made them part of their identity. What started out as a practical advantage became part of the flesh of the most hardcore underground cyclists in the world.

Since Desgrange made his comments, the relationship between cycling and cities has also changed dramatically and fixed gears have become much more associated with urban cycling. The roots that the fixed gear community has set down in the 21st century have been about defiance and individuality within the urban landscape.

When David Kitchen set up the London Fixed Gear and Single Speed Forum (LFGSS), as he tells it, his marriage had gone to hell and he was looking for a way to get away from it all doing something he loved.

“I set up the forum because I wanted that same experience that I’d seen in the States in London, I wanted people who like to ride for fun and have a drink to have a way of getting together,” he tells &Bike. Despite coming across as genuinely surprised at how much fixed gear cycling has grown, there’s no doubting where the initial enthusiasm came from.

“It’s now got quite large, but the origins of the community come from a few things – they’re all avid cyclists and there’s often that mix of fun and anti-authoritarianism,” he explains.

That sentiment transcends borders. Police in Berlin told the press they regarded fixed gears as a “dangerous trend”, while countries from the US to Denmark have drafted legislation over the retail of bikes without rear brakes, yet communities develop in defiance of the rules and the mainstream dominance of derailleurs.

London was ripe, Kitchen says, with that kind of passion and interest; a large urban environment, with lots of rain, few hills and plenty of reason for cyclists to see themselves as anti-establishment.

Jacob, a familiar figure behind the counter at the London branch of the Tokyo Fixed Gear store and the proud owner of an S1 classic lugged track frame agrees: “The London scene has developed alongside others in cities in the US and elsewhere but its definitely distinct from the rest, and is probably the biggest in the world.” 

True wheels

“What first attracts most people is they are cheaper to buy and cheaper to maintain than road bikes, and just as quick through the streets in London,” Jacob tells &Bike.

“If people really enjoy riding fixed gear bikes specifically its because of the way they ride, you feel less detached from the bike on a fixed gear bike because the motion of your legs is more intrinsically connected with the motion of the bike and for me it feels more natural.

Similarly, Kitchen describes the “zen” of the fixed-gear experience; a way of moving through traffic and connecting with the machine that has something to do with the simplicity of design and something bred of the level of obsession that this type of cycling encourages.

There may be more fixed gear bikes manufactured than ever before, but that beating heart of the community has stayed strong. The culture that was created years ago is still about gathering around sharing an experience that’s physical, political and beautiful. In that context, the prosperity of LGFSS makes sense.

“It could be boring if you just go and cycle and then that’s that, but it’s much better to have a place to hang out and get involved with others who think similarly,” says Kitchen. “The fixed community would have stuck around anyway, but the forum just added an extra dimension to that.”

Tokyo Fixed Gear’s story shows how retailers have reacted; while big retail has entered the market, stores that are able to occupy a niche and connect with the community are still able to thrive. That a company like Brick Lane Bikes, which prides itself on tailoring its product to the discerning fixie lover can agree to a tie up with a well-known high street retailer like H&M speaks to the cache that fixies have. How well those brands are able to retain that and how easy it is to develop is trickier to understand.

“I dont think we will see many more fixed-gear specific shops popping up,” says Jacob. “Its hard to make the right name for yourself in the fixed gear world and we have seen people try and not be as successful as we have.”

Making themselves part of the scene and engaging with riders has been key to standing out. “The biggest change recently is the number of people racing fixed gear bikes in street competitions, or criteriums like the Red Hook series or The Hunt,” says Jacob.

Fixer upper

Crisis of identity? Selling out? It’s not a question that’s weighing heavy on those who genuinely enjoy the fixed-gear experience. The fashionable appeal of a customisable design has seen people from Essex to Shanghai using those bikes to express their identity, while big business is still looking at appealing to fixed-gear adopters as a means of accessing the youth market. (Would you believe that Honda announced this month the launch of a range inspired by fixed gears?) But that all seems a world away from the community of fixed-gear enthusiasts that really know and love their wheels.

Kitchen is optimistic. “It’s like fashion in some ways, you see what’s on the catwalk and what the pros are doing, but it still has to exist on the street-level. Without those grassroots, there’s nothing to feed the industry and that’s where fixed gear sits. We see many people who are in clubs or involved in a serious away in one cycling event or another, but the fixed gear community still represents that street level to them.”

He’s excited about the rise of the 29er single speed – he rides a bespoke Cielo model – and he’s still seeing plenty of growth in new registrations to the forum to suggest that fixed gear has the impetus to continue to outpace the growth of cycling in general in the UK.

Fixed-gear bikes are cheap, light, fun, good looking and there’s a vibrant culture around them. As a fashionable item, they ultimately have a lifecycle like everything else. 

What’s remarkable is how fixed-gear enthusiasts have become closer as their culture has been mimicked and mass-produced. But then, kicking off against the rest of the world is what they do best anyway.

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  1. StuW

    You know what – this irks me no end! I get fixed, I understand the attraction, the minimalism, the ease of use/ownership, I ride fixed when the urge takes me too but the idea that it is a culture in itself is rather self absorbed and vapid. The fixed culture is just another machination of the herd trying soooo hard to be different that in the end they become rather laughable and a parody of the individualism that they sought out in the first place.

    It is what it is, bike riding!

    1. Steve Hall

      Hi Stu. Fighting talk there: like it alot. I wouldn’t want to argue with a lot of that – one of the core conflicts that I wanted to touch on in the article is how difficult it is to be an individual by adopting a trend that a lot of other people are also adopting to try and be individual. It’s a ridiculous idea, you’re right.
      But I don’t agree that it’s just ‘bike riding’ – for me it is, only in so far as it’s on two wheels: mountain bike culture has different traits from racing culture has different traits from fixie culture and so on. There’s a lot of overlap and its always difficult to pin down, but go on lfgss and you don’t need the big heading at the top of the page to work out where you are. You might not like fixie culture – it’s annoying as hell to some people – but I don’t think you can discard it just because its been adopted by a lot of hipsters? To be honest, I would love someone to come on here and defend fixie culture – but I suspect they’d tell me I didn’t do them justice anyway…

      1. StuW

        I’m working at home whilst my daughter is potty training, if I can do that I can take on the world!

        One of the problems with the FGSS culture is that it’s a little same old – same old in what it appears to represent. I see no innovation of thought or technology or dare I say it – culture, I see the resurgence of retro (which is lazy if you ask me) and I see it putting nothing back in to the generic culture of cycling that covers the MAMIL to the granny on the folding shopper bike. It has a very insular, even aggressive feel to it, almost a tribe as opposed to a culture and it’s because of this that I can’t really get to grips with it. Fixed may have aspirations of being a culture but in all honesty it’s a tribe within the culture of cycling as a whole.

        Scuse me while I go poke sticks through the turning faux aero wheels of Artisan Hoxton Hipsters and curate the experience on Instagram 😉

  2. David Rae

    Maybe the issue is that the fixed ‘tribe’ is an extension of the courier culture, which I’d argue probably is a culture – at least the real ones that earn their living from it. The thing is that couriers tend to use fixed gears for practical reasons (maintenance and cost) rather than fashion. To a point.

  3. Post
    Steve Hall

    You know, I like that there’s a bit of identity to the fixie tribe, or fixie culture, or whatever it should be called. There’s a history there, there’s an aesthetic, there’s hangouts and races and art…yes there’re rules and people can get a bit protective, but they’re not exactly the only people who do that. I like Mr Kitchen’s view of it: its about fun and hanging out with people who like similar things…if you buy into the things that make fixies special, it’s surely not too hard to look past a lot of the fashion rubbish if that doesn’t interest you. Me, I’m thinking of taking him up on his offer to borrow his 29er…

  4. james

    Isn’t cycling as a universe full of tribes though? I’d argue that road riders are insular and somewhat aggressive, but then so are mountain bikers, cyclocrossers, cycling purists and bmxers. It’s a sweeping statement, but so are those about fixies and hipsters. Fixie culture would likely have existed anyway, regardless of its fashion cache, purely because people who didn’t ride fixies professionally (on the track) or for a living (messengers) would still find the practical benefits… well, beneficial. If fashion dictated that 80s BMX bikes were hip, then all the fashionistas would be twirling their lip furniture atop Raleigh Burners.
    To be fair though, in a world where stick thin models with sculpted cheek bones and perfect abs are worshipped, the fixies had the deck stacked in their favour. All those skinny, clean frames, free from the weight of shifters, cassettes and (ugh) derailleurs… You gotta admit, there’s *something* about a well put together fixie, or even an patched up old fixie beater that’s just simple and attractive.
    But then it’s a bit like saying you really liked their early stuff, back when it was more ‘raw’. Bloody hipsters.

  5. Dermot

    This debate reminds me of one often heard in the gay community – that we are all some homogenous mass that think and act the same and have similar interests whereas we are actually all members of compartmentalised little sub-groups who actually don’t have much in common beyond a basic common denominator.

    As someone at the sportier end of the commuter spectrum, I don’t feel I have much in common with either FG/SS riders or women on Pashleys with wicker baskets aside from the fact that we’re all getting from A to B on two wheels (and hurrah for that) but I don’t aspire to join either group and only take notice of them insofar as they may affect my own use of the streets.

    One observation I would make about FG/SS riders is that, according to the article, fixies/single speeds are “just as quick through the streets in London”.

    If this is so, it shouldn’t be such an imposition to stop at red lights (here we go..!!) Or does the frequent physical effort involved getting back up to optimum speed on a single speed after a wait at red lights make *not* stopping a more attractive option? Just askin’… 🙂

  6. Pingback: Defectors, hipsters and one gear &Bike

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