Around downtown Santa Barbara, one may wonder who all those townie kids are with their gigantic messenger bags, rolled-up jeans, and strangely simple bicycles. They are the fixed-gear bicycle, or “fixie,” crowd. Their bikes have no ability to coast, so the riders must pedal every instant that they are in motion. It’s a rather odd phenomenon but one that has sprouted and grown quite naturally under the colorful umbrella of bicycle culture.
A fixed-gear bicycle has no cluster of gears on the rear wheel, which happens to give the bike huge aesthetic appeal, at least to aficionados. Instead of the usual arrangement, the sprocket is screwed directly onto the rear wheel’s hub and it is connected by the bike chain to the front sprocket holding the pedals. This means that the pedals always move in sync with the rear wheel. Many riders also choose not to put brakes on their bikes. All they have to do is apply pressure to the pedals in the opposite direction of motion.
Most likely, the origins of the fixed-gear craze are in bicycle messengering, according to the vast consensus of riders. Bike messengers are those daredevils employed by courier companies-typically in large cities such as New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles-in order to ensure same-day delivery of parcels and papers. Even with advanced technology and large package delivery companies, bike messengers are still preferred by some because of their ability to snake through complex downtown traffic and arrive at a destination before the end of the workday. Some messengers choose fixed-gear bicycles over a geared bike because of their agility and easy upkeep. There is a lower chance of something breaking on a fixie, as well as fewer parts to steal. A messenger’s job depends on his bike, and it needs to withstand the inevitable wear and tear that comes from riding 30 to 40 miles everyday. Messengers may also choose to ride a fixed-gear because it keeps them alert every moment of their long workday.
Since slowing down, avoiding potholes, and weaving through traffic are all skills experienced much differently on a fixed-gear bicycle-and are much more difficult to master-riders are forced to become much more aware of the details of the terrain and everything going on around them. Cyclists learn to figure out when to start slowing down, what drivers are doing, and if there are any police around who might cramp their style. The riders appear to derive pleasure from the mental and physical prowess this requires.
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Mike Woods, an employee of Santa Barbara’s Open Air Bicycles, said riding a fixed-gear bike is much better exercise than riding a geared bike since the cyclist is always moving. He said nothing beats the sense of control and “being one with the bike and one with the road.” The “weird feeling” one gets in this syncopation is hard to convey to the uninitiated, he said. Michael Firn, of Ann Arbor, Michigan, added that as much as he loves his 1975 Schwinn Paramount, he only uses it now when he goes on longer rides and feels it is necessary.
Santa Barbaran Matt Renfro started riding a fixed-gear about three years ago and has since been working to form a community with other riders around this common interest. Indeed, he has discovered that they have more than just bikes in common and have formed lasting friendships. Renfro organized “Fixed Gear Fight Night,” a 10-week series of fixed-gear bicycle races that took place in different locations week to week, like a rave. Each participant had to do a time trial to qualify for the night’s race, then each qualifier’s name was put into brackets, tournament style. A prize was awarded to the winner of the night, usually something goofy and useless, but occasionally something practical like bike gear.
The winds were especially high Wednesday, May 21, and racers were going faster than ever before. During the qualifying time trials, racer Jonny Hoyt came to a curve in the road going almost full speed, hit the curb, went flying, and slid into a fence. He was taken by ambulance to the hospital along with another rider who suffered a minor concussion in a separate mishap. Hoyt overcame his scrapes and bruises to come back and win the final race in the 10th week. That Wednesday was the only night in which an ambulance was called. After that, all riders were required to have toe clips, and helmets were highly recommended. The number of people wearing helmets went up significantly. Renfro found it gratifying to see the turnout for the races grow as the weeks went by. “I’m really grateful that this has turned into what it has,” he said.
Woods, Renfro, and Firn all built their fixed-gear bikes themselves; Woods said that it was absolutely necessary to build it himself if he was going to correctly understand how it worked and how to make repairs should the need arise. “Building the bike makes you look at the bike in a new way. The process is special,” Firn said.
Not everyone looks on this obsession so fondly. Many from the “fixie scene” are accused of trying too hard to look hip and dressing all the same. Some satirical blogs have gone as far as to come up with “How to Be an Urban Clone” and “How to Dress Hipster,” complete with a head-to-toe “riding outfit.” However, many of the accusers cannot complete their arguments because they are not actually familiar with the community of cyclists here in Santa Barbara. If they were, they would find not several versions of the same person (as they claim they do), but rather a vast difference in personalities and talents. This crowd of “hipsters” is in fact very diverse-Renfro is a teacher’s aide for children with special needs, and others are graphic artists, full-time students, servers, a metal worker, and even a violin maker. Firn said that he can take this sort of hassling; he knows why he rides and won’t let these detractors get to him.
All it takes is spending five minutes with some of “them” to learn that they are not following this growing trend because it looks cool; they can’t help that. They do it because they love it. Perhaps Firn said it best: “With a free-wheel, you’re riding on the machine. With a fixed-gear, you’re riding with the machine.”