Fixation

I have joined the idiots.

I can blame the flat, grid-street town where I live now. I can blame the weird bike shop where I work. I can blame the boss for riding one. Or the small crowd of high school students who are into it. Or Andy for never picking up his bike. Maybe I can blame it on some sort of mid-life crisis.

But the truth remains. Even if I'm afraid to admit it.

I have a fixed gear bike. I ride it.

And I like it.

***

"Those guys are idiots." was pretty much my first thought when I heard of riding a track bike in the city. Pedal motion locked to wheel motion, no way to coast, clipped in and locked down, and -- the worst -- no brakes. My buddy Keet in Kona told me that he used to do it in some mainland city where he used to live. "It's not that bad, Greg. You just lock up the back wheel and skid to stop." Yeah, right. For a control-freak of my caliber, very little could evoke the fear of hurtling through urban traffic on a skinny tire bike with no brakes.

Bike Messengers liked "fixies" because while they were making deliveries, no one would steal one. "Kids" were cruising on them. Fixies were for stupid, young, punk-rock, urban-trash anarchists. Crap bikes for the car-less.

***

I live a bicycle lifestyle. I turned in my last car 10 years ago. I work in a bike shop. I ride to work and to the grocery store. I ride for transportation and for recreation. I've ridden from Colorado to Oregon. From Washington to Canada and to Alaska (with generous help from the Alaska Marine Highway). I've been over dozens of high mountain passes on my bicycle. Ridden in Borneo and New Zealand. Ridden from sea level to the top of the tallest mountain in the world. Ridden up the world's steepest street. I'm a believer. I believe that bikes have the power to change the world in ways that it desperately needs changing.

Ever since the neighborhood bicycle gang snuck away on our stingrays and rode miles away to the mall without telling our parents, I've been going places on bicycles. There were a few Dark Years, but overall, a bicycle has been an important part of my transportation, my recreation, my life.

For the last 10 years, most of my riding has been on some kind of do-it-all mountain bike. A steel-frame hardtail with medium-wide slick-center, knobby-sided tires. Lights on the flat bars for night riding. A rack on the back for carrying anything from lunch to everything-I'll-need-for-months. Smooth on the pavement. Great on gravel roads. Plenty good for mountain biking on rough trails. I've had a couple additional bikes over the years. But since none of them could do everything, they've never gotten as many miles as the ol' steel hardtail.

I've been satisfied with my All-In-One Bike choice. It's been the simplest choice for a guy who likes to keep things simple, or who at least likes to think that he likes to keep things simple. I've never stepped up the the latest, greatest full suspension bike nor put any carbon on my bike or tried the latest gizmo to improve my riding. My riding buddies consider me strongly Old School. And yet, I've said, "I like my gears and I like my brakes. Why take the improvments of 100 years of bicycles and take them off your bike?" Idiots.

***

I work at the weirdest bike shop in Grand Junction. Maybe the weirdest in Colorado. Maybe for several states. We carry lots of regular bikes. But also lots of tricycles, tandems, recumbents, even tandem recumbents and side-by-side tandems. The shop walls are a museum of bikes from all through the 1900s and some from the 1800s as well. The boss has made a reputation for himself by building special bikes to match people with special needs. There are assorted FrankenBikes coming in and out of the shop and his home welding shop. Mini high-wheelers, hinged-frame bikes, eccentric-wheeled humpy bikes. He's even going big with one of his designs; his Kidz Tandem is produced in Asia and being sold throughout the U.S.

Early this season the boss ordered himself a Bianchi Pista track bike. Fixed gear. No coasting. No brakes. (What an idiot.) He showed up to work on it now and then, but I never saw him actually riding it. He even ordered a couple track bikes for the shop. And the weird thing was, they sold.

Hundreds of miles from the nearest racing track, and in a town with lots of bikes and bike riding but very little "bike culture" it didn't make sense that anyone would buy a bicycle with no brakes. But they sold. First ones sold to members of a clot of awkward teenagers who had been buying up old bikes and converting them to fixies. These misfits, or "Mis-Fix" -- as I started thinking of them -- were obviously not the cool kids in school. (And they were idiots.) But I envied their group power, and wished that I'd have had a group of fellow riders to hang out with when I was in school, back when I was the only kid I knew who liked to ride.

A couple other guys who were old enough to know better bought track bikes. Or came in to buy parts for their own fixie conversions. Signs of a small phenomenon?

I was on my way back through town from a mountain bike ride when I stumbled on the Bike Gang, a rowdy but sober gang of riders who said they rode around town every Friday night. I joined in the fun and started going every week. Status in the Bike Gang seemed to hinge on the quality of the bike being ridden. The older, weirder or crappier the bike, the higher the status. Most folks were on junk cruisers. Some on nicely restored cruisers. An assortment of trash mountain bikes. Old stingrays. The occasional high bike or other oddity. I was low man on the totem pole with my nice mountain bike. I came the next week with odd lights all over my bicycle. But then had to step up and buy a 1970s girl's Raleigh from the thrift store. Basket on the front, fenders, and a bell. My Gang status improved.

One of the riders in the Gang was Brendan, who either rode the new track bike he'd gotten from our shop, or one of his recent home-brew fixie conversions with modified bars. I got to see a fixie in action at last. I got to see Brendan try to stop quickly when the traffic light changed suddenly and everyone stopped in front of him. I got to see Brendan fall down. He wasn't hurt, but he was an idiot.

***

My nocturnal internet ramblings led me to a YouTube video of a woman named Ines riding a fixed gear bike in an acrobatic fashion. Backwards, handstands, bar-spins... Nothing that pertained to me. But it lead me to other videos of urban fixed-gear riders mixing it up with cars in the street. Even though they were obviously idiots, I was intrigued by their command of their chosen form of transportation. They didn't ride with any sense that they lacked control. Instead they rode with the confidence of knowing they were just as in control as I am -- armed with my gears and brakes. Hmm. I began to see the possibilities. And the challenge.

The final push came from one of the Mis-Fix kids named Andy. Early in the summer, he brought in his green Schwinn Varsity fixie conversion for repair. Turned out he'd stripped the freewheel/cog threads off his rear hub. Needed a new rear wheel. $40 repair on a $10 bike. Not as much an idiot as I'd originally thought: he never called back to have us do the work and he never picked it up.

By shop tradition, repairs that aren't picked up after a couple months, despite repeated phone calls, become trash. Sold for the cost of any repairs. Parted out for other projects. Or adopted by employees. I adopted the hulking Varsity and ordered a new rear wheel. Spun the cog on, followed it with a bloody splash of thread-locker and a lockring, and BAM! I had myself a fixie trainer. A super cheap entry into the world of fixed-gear riding. I fully expected my intrigue to last a day or two, at which point I would slap a freewheel on the bike and try to get rid of it.

The Schwinn had flat pedals and a front brake. Two things which allowed me the confidence of knowing I wouldn't be trapped on a runaway bike. And it was old and ugly enough that I wouldn't mind throwing it down and leaping off to avoid a crash. But I knew that using the front brake was "cheating" so I made a point of ignoring it as much as possible. The boss gave me a quick lesson in skidding. All I had to do was lunge forward and brace my body against the handlebar, while locking against the rear pedal. Yeah right. Actually, after a couple tries, I could kinda do it on his nicer bike, with double toe straps. But struggled on my heavy flat-pedal bike.

The first time I rode it anywhere -- four blocks away to pick up lunch -- I was coming back through an intersection when the light turned yellow. I sprinted on across, no problem, but then tried to coast. The pedals threw my feet off and I ended up riding along in front of the ready-to-go cars with my legs all spraddled out, trying to find the brake and trying to not use it until I was clear.

Then I got a tip from Rizzo, a fellow Bike Gang member (and fixie rider) -- a tip that he'd picked up from a member of the Minneapolis Mafia (who presumably ride fixies). For flat pedals, all you had to do was hook your toe under the forward pedal while locking against the rear pedal. Uh... No problem. But I tried it. Lunge, hook, lock and... SKID! Whoa! Cool.

I showed up on Bike Gang night with my fixie and a very, very basic ability to skid. We rode and I skidded. I skidded at every opportunity. I skidded to get comfortable with lunging forward in order to stop. I skidded to learn to stop with almost no notice. I skidded with one foot forward and then the other. By the end of the two hour ride, I was exhausted. My upper body was tight from the clenching and lunging. My knees were wondering what I was doing to them. There was blood on one shin, bruises on my forearms, and a scrape on my inner thigh. Even my lips were tired from the awful and strained face I would make at every skid.

But I had the basic skill under my belt. I had survived the not-particularly-dangerous streets of Grand Junction on a fixie. And I was hooked.

I rode nothing else for a week. Made it my commuter and my errand bike. Went for a fixie ride with the boss, where we turned the skate park into a velodrome and rode high-speed banked laps. I was amazed at the feel of the direct connection with the road. Amazed at the effectiveness of the simple mechanics. Amazed at the quietness of the drive train. Fascinated by the continuing challenge of gaining full control and confidence. Perplexed that the very barest soul of a bike was helping to bare my own soul. After 40 years of riding, was I finally getting my punk-rock, urban-trash anarchistic groove on?

After a week, I wheeled one of the brand new track bikes off the showroom floor. Lean and light. Toe cages and straps. One fixed gear. And no brakes. I told the boss I'd buy it, then locked in and rode it home. Grinning like an idiot.

 

 

Epilogue:
I "made" my doubting co-worker ride the old green Schwinn. He shook his head, but took it out in the alley behind the shop. After five minutes and some successful skids, he grinned, "Dammit Greg. I'm feeling it." Ten minutes later he was already skidding better than I can, and was practicing riding it backwards. Then he lost it and tossed over while riding backwards, caught his ankle wrong and twisted it. I took the bike away while he was laying in the dirty alley holding his ankle and moaning in pain. But as soon as he was able to stand up and speak again, he was talking about an old frame he had at home that would make a perfect fixie. He's hooked.




Update: The new bike doth evolve.


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