ON BIKE CULTURE IN EUGENE | Fine blogging since 2010 (with periodic long breaks)
Before you fixie guys start flinging spoke cards at me in indignation, let me assure you that I have nothing against the fixed-gear bike per se. (“Per se” being a Latin phrase meaning “It’s a bike, not a fashion statement!”)
But I am not a fixie-hater. I mean, who could hate something as adorable as this?
It would be like hating a kitten. But if you do notice me roll my eyes, it has less to do with the actual mechanical arrangement known as the fixed gear and more to do with all the trimmings that sometimes come along for the ride — such as this bike’s yam-like orangeness.
(Even for someone as ambivalent about the Ducks as I am, that is a lot of orange to be riding around this town.)
I have to say that I am reluctant to wade into the vast and increasingly tepid waters of fixed-gear stylings. But I feel obligated to proceed, because these floodwaters have spilled over and are now threatening society at large. There are all manner of Frankenstein-like offshoots, wannabes, hybrids and copycats bobbing around.
And, my, there is something intoxicating about these particular floodwaters. It’s like we have become swamped in vodka and lost some of our better judgment. We have also lost some of our brakes.
So what I’d like to discuss today is not the actual, real, fixed-gear fixie, but the phenomenon known as “fixie-ness.” Fixie-ness is a style, an attitude, that can be applied to bicycles that are not really fixies at all — but try to look like they are.
Charitably speaking, you might call this “imitation.” Others might call it “posing.” You could also call it “herd behavior.” And the cynical among us might call it “marketing,” with regard to something such as the $369 Schwinn “Cutter,” which comes complete with a little top-tube pad, or protector, or … I don’t know, maybe it’s just painted on. It doesn’t really matter. It’s about “the look.”
Of course, the important thing to remember is that this is not a fixed-gear bike. It is a “coastie,” with a single-cog freewheel:
It’s fine, I suppose.
But here’s your first question in today’s fixie-ness quiz: If you buy a bike like this, what is the first thing you do to increase your fixie-ness quotient?
If your hand did not quickly shoot into the air as you blurted out, “Oh, OH! You take off the rear brake!!” you will have to be remanded to summer school.
For those who have not kept current, we should review some recent history. So, for a moment, let’s back up — which, ironically enough, you can do on a real fixie.
This video demonstrates quite well the essential quality of a fixed-gear bike. That you do an extremely lame little wheelie just before riding out of the frame, you ask? No, no. It demonstrates, of course, that a fixie has no freewheel. There is no coasting. You pedal backwards, and the wheel turns backwards.
Here is another cool fixie:
No coasting possible here. And you will notice this machine’s utter lack of any brakes at all. Why? Because fixies don’t need brakes. A practiced toddler can simply slow the pedaling motion to reduce the speed of the wheel and bring his Fold2Go trike to a stop.
If we then extrapolate to the adult world, we can understand why the brakes on a fixed-gear bike like this may be considered superfluous …
It’s because the brakes can then be melted down and reforged into a really awesome Cetma front rack.
Another way a skilled fixie rider can stop his or her bike is by halting the pedaling motion altogether, thereby locking up the back wheel and skidding elegantly to a stop. Especially on a downhill:
The posture used in this technique has its origins, oddly enough, in the frigid climes of Scandinavia, as human beings used their boundless imagination to dream up yet another extremely bizarre activity to consume their leisure time:
But we aren’t supposed to be talking about actual fixies. All we need to know from this history lesson is that riding a fixed-gear bike without the aid of brakes has become a trendy statement of freedom, simplicity and awe-inspiring coolness.
Now, if somebody wants to ride an actual fixie without brakes and has learned how to do so competently, far be it from me to tell them not to.
But I have to say I am given some pause by the boundless proliferation of brakelessness on bikes that are not actual fixies. On a single-speed “coastie,” you cannot, of course, slow down or stop the rear wheel by altering your pedaling action. So what is a cyclist to do?
You drop a couple grand on a sweet Co-Motion, and then … you remove the clearly unnecessary rear brake.
Why do you do this? You do it for the greater good, of course. You do it in order to give of yourself.
You take off the brake, and you donate it to Rear Brakes for Refugees, an altruistic nonprofit that sends our wealthy society’s boundless spare parts to the neediest peoples around the world.
Here’s another example. We spotted this rather new Trek one-speed, a model known as the “Soho S,” along Pearl Street in downtown Eugene.
Here’s the Soho S, as it appears on the Trek website:
The next question in our quiz asks you to spot the key alteration, the one that maximizes fixie-ness. Can you do it?
Got it? Good! Yes, I’m rather certain that neither Trek itself nor any of its dealers would ever sell a Soho S — or any other bike for that matter — without a rear brake. A blinding flash of light would erupt from Wisconsin as all of the lawyers at Trek corporate headquarters spontaneously combusted.
Here’s another example, this time on a more vintage bike:
Oh, sure, this looks like a cool, retro fixie conversion. No, no, no. He was happily coasting around. But of course he has left his rear brake on the junk pile of history.
Now, some will say that a rear brake doesn’t do much, that the front brake is where the real stopping power comes from.
Can you get by with just a front brake? Of course. Why would you want to? I have no idea.
But let’s grant for a moment that a front brake is sufficient. Then you spot a guy like this:
He was riding a coastie on Willamette Street toward the Hult Center. Don’t be distracted by the fact that he is wisely riding around with his hands in his pockets.
Look closely at his bike, and you see that he has no front brake on this bike. Only a rear brake — which possibly he got a really good deal on, given the surplus supply that must be on the market these days.
But it gets weirder still. Here’s a guy who hasn’t even bothered setting up this old road bike into a fixie-like single speed. It’s just a vintage 10-speed, from the days when road bikes were actually called 10-speeds. He’s got a regular freewheel and a derailleur and — what has he done?
I hope you’re getting the hang of this by now. Yes, he has located the rear brake. And he has removed it. Then he carelessly tore off some handlebar tape. Sometimes, what you are after is a more subtle form of fixie-ness. As with aftershave, just a touch can go a long way.
Here is another variation on the theme. This is colloquially known as the “poor man’s fixie.” Here is one, spotted outside Sweet Life:
This involves remediation not of the brakes, but of the derailleur. But you keep the bike’s original multi-cog freewheel — thus eliminating the cost of buying or building a new wheel. This guy’s fixie-ness quotient falls a few points, though, since he has kept both of his brakes on.
Lest you think the poor man’s fixie is an anomaly, here’s another one, seen rolling south on Willamette Street:
And another still, outside the Kiva:
Surely there is, somewhere in Eugene, a growing mountain of abandoned derailleurs. Do not despair, however. They are not sitting idle, but are being prepared for distribution by the tireless and selfless aid workers at Derailleurs for the Destitute.