Fixed gear bicycles were among the very first forms of bicycle invented. Comprising of a drive train that cannot change gear and lacking a freewheel, they continue to provide a mechanically simple form of propulsion. In fact, the recent trend for using fixed gear bicycles as a means of transportation has reasserted them at the forefront of cycling. Their status, standing somewhere between a fashion statement and budget transport solution, seems to be slowly morphing from short fad to permanent fixture. As someone who has seen this cultural phenomenon from a range of perspective, I fully appreciate how ridiculous it looks.
On one hand, it’s easy to see why fixed gear bikes, as with cycling in general, have seen a resurgence over the past decade. British cities, that have expanded organically, could never have foreseen the number or size of vehicles now thrust upon them. A bike can be much quicker, especially an agile fixed gear. As a young adult, I think cars are ridiculously expensive, and in a post-recision economy bikes are cheap, especially a stripped down fixed gear. Then there is the benefit of doing more exercise, something a bike with a single gear will certainly achieve. So, riding a bike is a very sensible, especially a fixed gear or single speed one. But in my experience, fixed gear and single bikes have become a common sight across cityscapes because they are a practical choice.
It’s just as easy to give examples of why fixed gear bikes aren’t sensible. Would someone sensible ride a bike that has no brakes, gears or ability to stop peddling? Being the weapon of choice for furious alley cat races and the antics of messenger riders has inspired the riding of a bike as an act of rebellion. Fixed gear bikes are not built for comfort. You get places fast, but you get drenched in sweat or rain water and mud, depending on the season. Ten years ago, as fixed gear bikes were beginning to peak in mainstream culture, it wasn’t even possible to buy one. Riders were forced to construct abominations, combining components from whatever was available. Whats sensible about that?
For me, as with many others, it was actually this lack of pre-built bikes that instigated an obsession with cycling. Through building one I learned that fixed gear bikes are a very personal form of transport. A lot of thought goes into how the bike is put together. Even now, when a fixed bike can be bought off the shelf for a modest sum, the myriad of colours available ensure you will never encounter another rider with the same set up.
Fixed gear bikes are all unique, but being able to express the “individuality” of the rider seems to be a superficial reason to justify the increased popularity. The customisation process is more than just making an eye-catching fashion accessory. An engraved iPhone may be a very personal object but it would not create the same bond as exists between fixed gear rider and bike. While an iPhone and a fixed gear bike share an elegance of simplicity, an iPhone remains somewhat mystical in hiding the sophistication of how it works. Through building a fixed gear bike, one becomes intimately acquainted with the form and function of every single component. Even to a layman, how a fixed gear bike works as a whole is immediately clear to the eye. This generates a level of understanding that greatly enhances the experience of riding.
To start getting to the point, riding a fixed gear bike is way more fun than any other kind of bike because of it’s connection with the cyclist. The way you have to work with the bike at all time to control speed gives a very strong sense of involvement in what the bike is doing. And of course most fixed gear bikes are pretty quick, carrying at many features from their track cycling pedigree. As you know exactly how tension is transferred from your legs to the wheels, the smooth momentum that comes with instant acceleration is something really special. You become one with the bike. The problem is, as soon as you start trying to describe this, almost mystical, experience the best you can do is come across as portentous.
Surveys, statistics and rational explanations may give a number of reasons as to why cycling has returned to the public consciousness as a viable means of transportation. But this can’t tell the full story of why people ride fixed gear bikes. There is a lot more to riding a fixed gear bike than the rational decision to get on one. It’s about the experience. It’s an art form. And seeing as my most sincere efforts to convey how awesome it is will no doubt fail to do it justice, it’s probably just best if you go out and find out for yourself.