Fixie micro-niche!


I just finished a excellent book called Fixed: Global Fixed-gear Bike Culture. The writing is style is essentially stream of conscious but the insight is appreciated. The book covers the history of fixed-gear bikes. A fixed gear bike (also called a fixie) is a bike with no brakes and no gears. A single chain ring and you can only go “as fast as you can go”. Pedal backwards and the bike will go backwards. To stop you must slow your pedal speed until you come to a stop. It’s very pure cycling experience compared to the incredible machines that companies like Trek build. (I love my Madone and it is definitely a complex machine.) Fixed gear bikes are popular (and have been for a long time) outside of the US due to their durability and weight. Only within the last ten years has the US fan base really grown. Fixed-gear riders are predominantly bicycle messengers. Messengers are an interesting breed of dare-devil/adrenalin junkie/athlete. The first time I was on a fixed gear was about 10 years ago. A friend and I went down to Colorado Springs to ride in the Velodrome. It was an amazing experience. You and the bike REALLY are one. Just like a shark has to swim to breathe. You have to pedal. Pedal to go. Pedal to stop.

I bought the book because as a huge fan of ffffound, I’ve been seeing beautiful images of bicycles for the last 2 years and the power of subliminalismism finally kicked in. There is a dizzying array of design variations as evidenced by these Google image search results. I was more interested in the current fixie culture and designs but did learn some things about the history of the sport/bike. A fixie is also called a track bike because, as you may suspect, they were used to race on tracks. Some of those races and other events are listed below.

Six day races. – It’s exactly as it sounds. There were races that were six days long around a track. The rules over the years evolved to allow for two separate riders and the winner(s) was the person who’d traveled the longest distance over those 6 days.

One hour races – Are track races featuring one person and the goal was to ride as far as you could in one hour. The records for the race are here and the book has a great quote from arguably the best overall cyclist in history, Eddy Merck:

How I ache. I can hardly move. It was the longest hour of my career. It was terrible; you have no idea what kind of intense effort it is until you have done it. The record demands total effort, permanent and intense. I will never try it again.

Keirin – This type of race was traditionally outside of the sport of cycling and was solidly in the middle of gambling. It’s more akin to greyhound racing than a sporting event. Over the years it has gained more social acceptance and created numerous Japanese master frame builders (who usually trained under Italian masters.)

Alleycat race – As the Wikipedia entry says; this is an informal race usually organized by bike messengers. In Denver, the Track Shack looks like the place to go to find out about these types of races. Very small shop on 13th and Tremont. (Going to check it out this week.)

Bike polo – This was a hot sport from the late 1890s to the 1960s in London. It has recently seen growth in popularity and is called hardcourt bike polo.

Roller racing – Rollers have been used for years as a method of warming up for a race. In the 1940s and 50s roller races were very popular in London and were all but forgotten until bike messengers discovered the Goldsprint competition in 1999 in Berlin. Since then this form of racing is also growing in popularity.

Culturally, I’ve been aware of bike messengers as a sub-culture for many years. I paid less attention to the bike until recently. Some of the cultural items of note are:

  • The MASH SF movie that came out in 2007. (Ive been told that “mashing” is flying through an intersection when the light is red, without stopping. SF = San Francisco. A fixed gear bike in San Francisco must be a killer.) This made many aware of the culture and the movie features @lancearmstrong inviting Mash SF to come down to Austin and ride. (Video below)
  • Macaframa – This is a site that featuring riders, videos and photos. Some amazing videos in there. You can see the aging BMX rider moving on to a fixed gear.
  • COG – I found this bi-yearly magazine through a coworker. The paper version is beautiful and I’m enjoying catching up.
  • FFFFIX – This is a great site that features different fixies. The diversity of designs are amazing and there’s something for everyone.

The fixed gear culture is naturally associated with the bike messenger culture and that’s a tough  job. I remember 10 years ago my friend forwarding me a site that listed bike messengers that had died in San Francisco. I could not find that old site but found this memorial. Seems like the leading cause of death is being hit by a truck/car. From what I remember of the old site, the leading cause of death were drug overdoses. Specifically heroin. Either way, the culture has traditionally been on the fringe. I’ve read other books and seen movies about sub-cultures/micro-niches such as snowboarding (Sick): A Cultural History of Snowboarding and skate boarding Dogtown and Z-Boys (DVD). It’s almost funny to think of either of these sports as sub-cultures or micro-niches now. The masses have embraced both. After all, snowboarding has been in the Olympics since 1998 and skate boarding may make the 2012 Olympics. I’m sure that people who were apart of those sub-cultures before they exploded, will say that the exposure/awareness killed the culture. This has been inevitable and I’m curious too see if social media can help embrace these micro-niches without destroying them.

I recommend reading this book. I’ve covered some basics here and the book is more thorough and well worth it.

Update: If you’re in Denver, I’ve found several other shops besides Track Shack. There is Pearl Velo, Urban Velo, Salvagetti and The Park Hill Depot. I’m sure there are more but these I’ve heard good things about. Also, if you’d like to design your own fixie online, I found this great tool at fixie studio.

By Michael Myers