Back-to-basics biking movement takes hold in cities
'Fixie' riders, seeking adventure, dart through streets with bravura and no brakes.
John "2Tone" Woodroof rides his bike the way an intrepid sea captain rides a storm: always moving, eyes peeled to the horizon. Zipping around Atlanta's mean streets, Mr. Woodroof is the epitome of two-wheeled bravura.Skip to next paragraph
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He and his comrades match a punk rock aesthetic with a bike courier twist: Their essential fashion statement being scuffed Vans sneakers and leg-hugging jeans, a practical chain-avoiding attire that gives them the profile of asphalt-sailing buccaneers.
But the most impressive piece of Woodroof's outfit is his bicycle: A stripped-down race bike with no brakes and a single-speed, fixed-gear rear hub that, in effect, turns man into a cog of the machine. This is biking at its most primal – no stopping, no coasting with the pedals stationary, no helmets. It's a ride built on adrenaline and danger, like walking across a lava flow in flip flops.
"All you need is air in the tires and a chain that works," says Woodroof, who co-owns No Brakes, one of the only bike shops devoted solely to so-called "fixie" bikes in the Southeast. "It's about simplicity."
In some of the toughest traffic in the country – New York, Atlanta, Chicago, Los Angeles – recreational bikers are stripping down their Schwinns and Cannondales and going back to the original setup that can be seen in pictures from the first Tour de France. Put another way, they're riding bikes torn from the velodrome and plunked down in the urban jungle. The fixed-gear movement is, in fact, influenced by track racing, especially a Japanese version called "keirin."
It is also rooted in a rebellion against the overaccessorized culture of spandex and 21-speed bikes of normal cycling. Its popularity can be seen in the number of clubs springing up, new shops catering to riders, and manufacturers starting to build bikes long thought to be an anachronism.
Yet, as with any edgy movement, a backlash is brewing. Some motorists question the sanity – and legality – of no-brake biking, while even a few professional riders, though impressed with the devotees' courage, worry about their astuteness. "These guys are adrenaline junkies," notes Atlanta track racer Leigh Foti. "They're going out there with no brakes!"
Zane Freebairn of Salt Lake City has become a fixie fanatic. He's given up his car. All he does now is ride his one-speed bike. "It's the most basic form of cycling you can ever do," he says. "You can wear your tennis shoes and your walking clothes. There's one gear, no brakes, no cables, not many moving parts, and nothing to break." He says the movement has gotten "huge" in Salt Lake City in just the past year.
Fixie riders are often sly and clubby, the very definition of cliquish. Most are young to middle-age white men. Many are as leery of authority as the punk rock tunes they pump through their iPods.
"It's been referred to as an old boys' club, primarily by women," says Jay Townley, a bike industry analyst in Lyndon Station, Wis.
The movement is being driven by growing numbers of young people who are moving into downtown areas and searching for outlets for adventure. In the no-brake bikes, they find it. Enthusiasts wear bumps and bruises like badges of honor, and organized events often feature awards for "best crash."
They may also be changing the politics of biking. On the one hand, fixie riders bring an energy and excitement to mainstream biking that could help open up roadways to more than just Saabs and SUVs. "What I love about fixed gears is the culture – it has brought so much pride to bicycling," says Sue Knaup, the executive director of One Street, a bicycle advocacy group in Prescott, Ariz. The movement "embodies the quintessential goal of bicycle advocacy: to create streets where the most vulnerable users can flow out into them and not be run down."