I was riding south on Pearl Street, through downtown. I stopped and waited at a red light at Seventh, and I noticed a guy on a fixie pull up and wait behind me. It turned green, and we headed through.
Pearl is one way here: There are two lanes of traffic heading south, with a bike lane on the left side of the street.
I wasn’t overly surprised when — right in front of City Hall — the guy on the fixie passed me. I was a little surprised, though, that he passed me on the left, between me and the curb. Not exactly orthodox — but, hey, the whole idea of riding a fixie is to be unorthodox. Well, except that it is has become so utterly orthodox.
Anyway, the guy shot ahead, looked back over his right shoulder and hollered something like “aaiiieeee.” I’m not sure if it was directed at me, at a car, or just a general, “Hey, look at me kick ass on my cool bike.”
Then he moved into the first (left-hand) lane of auto traffic, hammering along right behind a car. He then moved into the far lane, the right lane, and — right in front of Cafe Zenon — he sailed past the car he had just been following in the left lane.
Then he drifted back into the left lane, ahead of that car. Finally, he ended up back in the bike lane on the left — all this before we had reached the Greyhound station at 10th.
It was a nifty bit of riding, I have to say. Reckless? I don’t know. I can’t say he violated any laws. I mean, he wasn’t signaling his lane changes, but that wouldn’t seem to be a law based on how many cars in town don’t seem to do it either.
I didn’t have a chance to notice whether he had brakes on his bike or not. (Fixie brakelessness is something we’ll come to later in our studies — it’s worth a post of its own.)
Anyway, this guy appeared to be a capable cyclist. He could certainly fly on a one-speed. I wish he were wearing a helmet, for his sake, but I don’t like people telling me what to do, so it’s his decision … I guess.
Meanwhile, I just stayed in the bike lane this whole time as I watched him. And if you think about it, of course, there is no reason he couldn’t have stayed in the bike lane this whole time, too — as there were no obstacles ahead of us. But where’s the fun in that?
The whole point of the urban fixie is to dart in an out of traffic in “Zen-like” fashion. Yes, “Zen-like.” If Buddha rode a bike, it would be a fixie. But we’ll get to that in a moment.
When he got to 15th, he turned east toward campus, and I lost sight of him. So let’s parse what we have here, shall we? This breed of single-speed/fixie rider is afflicted with the following characteristics:
- Is credibly fast.
- Likes the thrill of riding in and out of traffic — especially when said riding is gratuitous.
- Likes to hoot into the air while riding in and out of traffic gratuitously.
I could be wrong, but based on my reading of fixie history, this is probably the sort of personality that helped begin what would snowball into what is now the fixie fad. For a guy like this, riding a fixed-gear bike fast in traffic (perhaps without brakes) affords a level of thrill and challenge that is exciting to a certain breed of adrenaline junkie.
The most devoted of fixie faithful describe this activity with words such as: “pure”; “simple”; “zen.”
For instance, from Bigshot Bikes, a company that builds and sells custom fixies:
(Fixies are) the ultimate item in urban chique [sic]. Messengers glide effortlessly in and out of traffic in a show of defiance and freedom among lines of cars chained to the grind of the daily commute.
How punk! Well, except for the “chique” part.
Fixie riders who ride without brakes have to anticipate their next move much further in advance than their free-wheeling colleagues.
You don’t say? I didn’t think brakes served any purpose at all.
Fixie riders talk of the feeling of Zen-like peace and flow as they become as one with their bike …
Or as they become one with a lightpost.
So, it’s defiant, it’s freedom, it’s chic, it’s … Zen. Well Zen-like. Is there a more overused — probably wrongly used — word than Zen? But wait! No, it’s not quite those things. It’s … it’s … chess!
Others compare riding their fixie to a game of chess, anticipating the movement of the traffic as a chess player would anticipate the moves of his opponent, and reacting accordingly.
Which is all well and good. But in Zen-like fashion, I’m left with more questions than answers. Such as:
When do you become unnecessarily hazardous to others — especially to another cyclist, or to a pedestrian?
What about the wannabes and hangers-on who buy or build the bike but don’t yet have the skill, who are still two with their bikes?
To what monastery does one go to learn this zen focusing of the fixie mind?