Look Ma, No Brakes!
Stripped-Down Fixies Have Long Been The Bike of Choice Among Couriers. Now, Hip Urbanites Have Gotten the Message.

By David Montgomery
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, September 28, 2009

What a profile they cut, slicing through the city: gorgeous, exotic, dangerous. You see them parked like emaciated steeds outside the coolest clubs.

They don't make much sense, yet for one more fleeting season at least, they are the rage in certain circles. Sort of dumb and super hip: the twin characteristics of many things in life.

We are talking about a bicycle. A very special kind of road bicycle, called a fixed-gear bike, or fixie for short.

A fixie has one speed, which makes it difficult to pedal uphill. A classic fixie has no brakes, which makes it difficult to slow on the downhill. A fixie has no freewheel, the part that makes coasting possible. Instead, the chain directly drives the rotation of the rear wheel, which means the pedals always turn while the bike moves.

What else do they have going for them?

Well, fixies are impractical, perverse throwbacks to a time more than a century ago, before the invention of the derailleur and the Tour de France, when the bicycle chain and the pneumatic tube were novelties, and the high-wheel penny-farthing "ordinary" bicycle had just been eclipsed by the chain-driven "safety" bike.

And yet despite all that -- or is it because of all that? -- a fixie manages the neat trick of simultaneously communicating taste and rebellion.

To each his own bicycle, in a town where bicycling is an ever-expanding religion, with many rival sects. But a fixie? Speak to us, pilgrims.

Jason Stevenson was one of Washington's earliest fixie converts. He remembers the first time he saw one. It was the leanest machine he had ever seen, a contraption almost completely unknown in Washington. He was spellbound.

"So clean, so fluid. I just had to have one," he says. "I was like, whatever bike that is, I want to ride something like that."

The year was 1993, and Stevenson was a bike messenger, as he is now.

He knew of only three messengers riding fixies then. Washington was a little behind the curve. Some date the dawn of fixie chic to the 1986 movie "Quicksilver," starring Kevin Bacon, which glorified fixie-riding messengers in New York.

But countercultural couriers and speed-demon messengers didn't invent fixies. The inspiration was handed down to them by the obscure yet mighty gods of the velodrome, who race indoors on one-speed brakeless track bikes. Fixies take the track bike concept and relocate it to city streets.

From the roguish example set by the bike messengers, fixies spread to post-skate-punk urban kids, who revered the bikes' mechanical simplicity and sheer speed. Since then, fixies have been adopted by the boho aesthetes, the greens, the anti-corporate activists and, finally, the new urbanites with money.

A fixie map of Washington would center on a handful of neighborhoods. Your fixie is what gets you from your futon in Columbia Heights to your computer screen downtown, then on to peruse the produce and fiction in Logan and Dupont circles, finally delivering you to an outdoor table on U Street NW, a rope line on H Street NE or a bike polo match at Eastern Market. Fixies haven't made it in a big way to the suburbs, and may never, for strictly topographical reasons. They aren't good over long hilly distances.

At City Bikes in Adams Morgan, near the heart of fixie culture, in recent years fixies have accounted for between 10 and 20 percent of road-bike sales. That doesn't factor in all the homemade fixie conversions from old 10-speed Raleighs, Peugeots and the like -- a huge factor in the fixie market, where shade-tree fixie mechanics will rip out the gears and cables, purging their machines of mere convenience, obeying the ideal of fixie asceticism. Nor does City Bikes' tally reflect the new wave of fixies being marketed over the Internet, including a recent model from Urban Outfitters, the clothing chain, signaling the fixie's transformation into an article of downtown fashion.

But we're getting ahead of ourselves.

More fixie evangelism, please. Make us believers.

Back to Stevenson. No matter what skeptics may think, there is nothing like the experience of riding a fixie in the city, he says.

"You have to be super-aware of your surroundings," he says. "You have to pick your lines a lot further ahead of time. It gives you a sense of invulnerability almost. You know how catastrophic things could get. If you're good at it, you feel untouchable."

Fixie riders also talk about achieving a sense of "flow" as they navigate streams of cars. They describe a kind of "dance" set to the rhythm of traffic lights. You can't coast through life on a fixie.

The euphoric riding experience is achieved via the discipline of the fixie's low technology. In zealous self-denial, a fixie rider experiences more with less. The reason you have to be super-aware of your surroundings and think ahead is because stopping can be a challenge. Fixie riders are like sharks, constant motion is an existential requirement.

Cool, but here comes the steep hill up 14th Street heading north past Florida Avenue. Now what?

Stand and pedal hard, dude. No granny gear for you. Or get off and push, a lame shame. Fixie riders tend to be in good shape, though a surprising number smoke.

Now you're heading back down the 14th Street hill. Picking up speed. Pedals churning faster and faster. Uh-oh.

Fixies are built for speed, but if you must slow down, one way to do it is to resist the pedal momentum with your leg muscles and knees. (Your poor knees.) Toe clips or cleats help you pull back on the pedals. A more dramatic recourse is the skip-stop, which involves leaning forward, hopping the rear wheel and locking one leg to start a skid when the rear wheel comes down. In the unlikely event your chain falls off, you will be a helpless, speeding missile with only a helmet for protection, if you wear one. Some do, some don't.

Or you can install a hand brake. All you need is one in front, the lever usually placed near the center of the handlebars.

To brake or not to brake is a debate within the fixie community to which conventional bikers can listen only with astonishment.

Riding without brakes gives an extra edge to the riding experience.

"It's definitely more dangerous," says David Waterman, 27, a high school math teacher locking his brakeless fixie one night outside the Black Cat on 14th Street, where seven of 15 bikes parked before the show are fixies. He prefers muscle power to skidding as a slowing strategy, because skidding wastes tires. But, he allows, "You look really cool when you skid."

"I'm not interested in destroying my knees," counters Corey Dipietro, 31, a collections manager for the Smithsonian, parking his fixie with a brake at the club for the same show.

A fixie with a brake is a more conventional though still athletically challenging ride. Your fixie with a brake distinguishes you from the biking masses because of the degree of difficulty involved. It takes a couple weeks to get the hang of riding one, with or without a brake -- an initiation that adds to the mystique.

But a brake cable mars the clean lines of a fixie. The aggressively minimalist profile is a fundamental part of the appeal. A fixie is the essence of bicycleness reduced to a few lines and curves, like Picasso's sketch of a dove. The bodies of the riders accentuate this aesthetic. As a tribe, fixie riders tend to be cropped, unadorned, skinny people, like stick figures dashed off in the same spare style as their bikes.

"I like a bike that still looks like a bike and not an accessory," says Todd Gajewski, 35, a mechanic at Capitol Hill Bikes, showing off the fixie he put together a few hours earlier. He took a Giant frame, dispensed with the gear clutter, spray-painted it flat black, trimmed it with red grips and a red brake cable. "You look at these bikes, they're not so beautiful, but they got a lot of heart and character because they've been put together piece by piece. They also look cool, in a post-apocalyptic kind of way."

Now corporate America is catching on. Bike manufacturers are attempting to re-create the anarcho, no-logo, idiosyncratic fixie soul in color-coordinated models that can be purchased off the rack or online for $400-$800. The color palettes scream iPod and Volkswagen Bug. There are lines of fixed-gear apparel -- skimpy art-school canvas deck shoes with reinforced rubber toes to handle toe clips ($52), messenger bags and T-shirts that say "Fixed Gear Revolution."

Bikemaker Specialized's new riff on the fixie is called the Roll. It's gorgeous, but not so dangerous: Front and rear brakes are standard -- though installation is optional, a nod to fixie purists. And it's not so impractical, coming with a "flip-flop hub," allowing riders to switch from a fixie to a one-speed with a freewheel by taking off the rear wheel, turning it around and putting it back on so the freewheel side engages with the chain instead of the fixed-gear side. Then you can coast.

The Roll is aimed at "late adopters" and more "mainstream" customers, says Specialized brand manager Garrett Chow. The online ad copy promises: "The Roll will live up to the most competitive urban assaults and still keep an unmistakably clean, cool and collected attitude."

"This is a lifestyle tool," Chow says.

All of which may be evidence that the whole scene is about to die, transform itself again or completely jump the shark. Fixie riders greet the prospect with a characteristic understated shrug.

"Urban culture is always co-opted," says Devin Miller, 28. He's riding his brakeless fixie home after a dog-walking job, flowing with carefree grace through Columbia Heights. Five of the seven partners in his worker-owned dog-walking collective ride fixies. He made his first fixie a decade ago from his mom's 25-year-old Raleigh because he didn't have any money. This one with a fancy imported frame he got more than a year ago at an auction for about $450.

"Any place that's fallen victim to gentrification will have these parked outside," Miller says. "It won't be cool in a few years, and people will be back to geared bikes."

Stevenson, the early adopter, will never give up his fixie. But now he's almost 40. His knees are getting older. Like many fixie riders, he keeps a fully geared road bike on the side.

"You don't want to ride a track bike every day," he says. "It just wears you out."

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