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.”
“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.
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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