Men with bad knees on bikes without brakes

"It’s like the Ferrari of bikes" says photographer Sam Ash. In Friday’s Financial Review Magazine Ash is pictured standing next to his red Tommasini fixie — a bike with one gear and no brakes. Given that the average age of AFR Magazine readers is 46 this doesn’t bode well for the fixie’s future as a sub-cultural status symbol.

The fixed gear craze started among bicycle couriers and quickly became a symbol of urban cool along with paraphernalia like the ‘messenger bags’ they used to carry their deliveries. With no brake levers, gear shifters or cables, a fixed gear bike has an elegant, stripped down look. But with no freewheel, a fixie can be tricky to ride. It’s not like the BMX bike you had as a kid. The rear gear is fixed to the back wheel which means that if the wheel is moving then so are the pedals. You can’t coast.

In the past the bikes were owner built — sometimes using a bike frame designed for velodrome racing and sometimes using and old road bike frame. But now many of the major brands are selling off the shelf single speed and fixed gear models. The craze has attracted mainstream media attention with articles in the Guardian, Christian Science Monitor and Wired Magazine. Even the Wall Street Journal is in on the act. Last year Hannah Karp reported:

Newer devotees represent a milieu far from the bike-world fringes – including doctors, teachers and Wall Street traders. This summer, hundreds of fanatics will descend on Traverse City, Mich., for the second annual Fixed Gear Symposium, organized by a 60-year-old real-estate broker. Bailey Fidler, a sales associate at Boston’s Wheelworks bike store, says it used to be unusual to see anyone over age 40 shopping for a fixed-gear bike; now, he says, about half the bikes go to those in that age range.

In the Weekend Australian Magazine (Oct 13-14) Fiona Harari wrote about the more mainstream craze for lightweight road bikes. She quoted Bicycle Queensland manager Ben Wilson, "People can’t afford a Porsche. Not many can drive them. But many people can afford a $4000 bike. It’s less than a John Howard baby bonus." So for the cashed up 40-something lawyer having a mid-life crisis, the only problem is making the thing go… or stop.

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Ken Lovell
14 years ago

Christ … these days I look for another gear to walk up hills.

conrad
conrad
14 years ago

Speaking as someone that used to race bikes for many years, excluding the lack of brakes, fixies are not bad for training in some instances, since you have to pedal at highly different cadences and you have to constantly pedal. I wouldn’t have the faintest as to why they have become cool, however.

pablo
pablo
14 years ago

My guess is that they will go the way of the small wheeled scooter or the pogo stick. Without having seen one can they be folded up and shoved in the back of the Porsch?
The thing I find most disturbing about bikes in general is their lack of re-sale value. As the owner of some 4 – 5 treadlies, I would gladly pass on most to any worthy novice local or overseas. Having bought yet another racer over the weekend for the princely sum of $10 – an Apollo that appeared never to have been used – it worries me that these vogue crazes (fixed wheel) won’t do anything to make cycling a real long term transport alternative. But it is heartening to see Sydney bicycle commuters up 18 percent in one year according to the SMH.

Dave from Albury
14 years ago

I’ll take my two wheel experience with an engine if it’s all the same.

Russ
14 years ago

I had a fixed wheel with no brakes when I was young. It isn’t really true that you don’t coast. Because the pedals have angular momentum they push your feet around when you would normally be coasting. Your legs might be moving, but you aren’t providing much force.

The problem was that on any decent incline, the pedals would start moving faster than my young legs could rotate. I had some spectacular abandonments until I learnt how to use my feet as a brake (and until I moved to a town without hills).

Joshua Gans
Joshua Gans(@joshua-gans)
14 years ago

I don’t get it.

timboy
14 years ago

Fixies are cool because they are a cheap and highly efficient form of transport.

Old people on the other hand are sad and should be shot.

Like Don says there is virtually nothing that can go wrong with a fixed gear bike- maintenence is a breeze, you barely even need to oil the chain.

A good site for those interested in all things fixed gear: fyxomatosis

The AFR article sounds like another ‘cycling is the new golf’ story that the broadsheets like to roll out every six months.

The Worst of Perth
14 years ago

Why have they got no brakes?

timboy
14 years ago

Because you don’t need them, if you use a light enough gear you can stop the bike using your legs.

David Rubie
David Rubie
14 years ago

Call me old fashioned, but I like brakes. I especially like those funky skeleton brakes that Campagnolo made for 2007, which I’m saving pennies for to put on my bike. Not because they stop any better, but because they are, I dunno, nice.

Count me in as a pushing forty cyclist – there’s nothing quite so cool as chunky old blokes in Lycra sweating their way to work. That’s why everybody stares, isn’t it?

All I need is somebody to invent a magic Magpie repellent. I hate the bloody things.

Rex
Rex
14 years ago

Nothing can ever approach the coolness of the dragster.

It was the quintessential fashion accessory for the age 8-14 crowd. With its high handlebars, banana seat, three gears on a frame and sissy bar it was the ‘must have’ mode of transport for all kids.

It was, without doubt, one of the most hazardous bicycles ever to be in fashion. With the rider sitting in a reclining position over the back wheel, it was a very simple matter to overbalance backwards and fall bottom first topped by the bike. After many accidents and intense training most riders developed the skill to ride and steer on the back wheel alone with the front wheel about 2 feet in the air.

P Buddery
P Buddery
4 years ago
Reply to  Rex

I had a 3-speed dragster in the 1970s and it was slow. Every kid had one, and they were all slow. The seating position was inefficient and the crank arms were short.

So I got a big old 3-speed English roadster thing and it was so much faster. The seating position was far more efficient, and more force was possible on the pedals. Subsequent 10-speeds and mtbs also have continued the speed for the same reasons. Dragsters are slow!

Ken Parish
Ken Parish
14 years ago

My theory is that the so-called “fixie” craze emanated with young bike couriers whose testosterone levels greatly exceeded their IQs, and has since spread to sad middle-aged middle class wankers trying to recapture lost youth and potency (or at least convince themselves that they haven’t lost it). it’s a down-market version of the 50 year old with a bad rug driving a bright red Porsche Carrera convertible.

If you’re inclined to doubt the sexual connotations of the treadly, check out this story. I must confess to a degree of puzzlement, however. Even assuming high levels of desperation, my own bike lacks a suitably shaped and sized attachment/orifice.

Nicholas Gruen
Admin
Nicholas Gruen(@nicholas-gruen)
14 years ago

“sad middle-aged middle class wankers trying to recapture lost youth and potency”

No need to get personal KP.

Robert Merkel
14 years ago

Really can’t understand the appeal of fixed-gear bikes myself.
Even on flat terrain, the optimum gearing for comfortable travel varies a hell of a lot depending on wind direction.

If you don’t like derailleurs, have a bike fitted with a nice set of hub gears and fit a chain guard for extra practicality.

Caro
Caro
14 years ago

Being a road and track rider, if someone’s really going to get into this craze, perhaps they should also consider purchasing a 10-pack of long, multicoloured stripey socks and don retro wool jerseys.
Fixed wheels have their purposes and are great for fitness however, there’s nothing more comfortable (and enjoyable to ride) than a well-appointed road bike.
Having had a number of accidents on the road, I fully appreciate the benefits brakes bring with them and those who claim they can “bounce” to a stop may not have experienced reality.

Joshua Gans
Joshua Gans(@joshua-gans)
14 years ago

The whole thing is a mis-timed April Fool’s Day joke. Coasting is nine tenths of the fun of cycling. If you want simplicity, walk. And as for easy maintenance, apart from the occasional wipe with a damp rag and a spray of WD40, I haven’t expended so much as fifteen minutes on ‘maintenace’ in the twenty years I’ve owned my touring bike.

Jimmy
Jimmy
14 years ago

True, fixies have become an obsession for some. For others, it’s an obsession with this obsession.

Have a peek at http://bikesnobnyc.blogspot.com/

Gives you a good sense of how vogueish these bikes are for many users.

rf
rf
14 years ago

Call me a middle class wanker if you want but I want one. Now I know what to do with the the old Gordonson racer in the shed so I’m off to the bike shop to get the neccesary bits to modify it.
I’m presuming it’s just like the bikes kids start out on – no brakes just back pedal to stop. My son never seemed to mind the lack of brakes when going downhill on his first bike.

Karl
Karl
14 years ago

Im presuming its just like the bikes kids start out on – no brakes just back pedal to stop.

No, those bikes had brakes in the hub. On a fixie you are the brake. How are them knees?

Ken Parish
Admin
Ken Parish(@ken-parish)
14 years ago

I still want to know how that bloke managed to pork his bike???

Francis Xavier Holden
14 years ago

test

Francis Xavier Holden
14 years ago

test from IE

Francis Xavier Holden
14 years ago

The whole bike courier fixed wheel thing is sooo late 2005. Good god nabakov and myself used to ride around the cbd in early 2003/2004 with fixed wheels no brakes (no breaks) with christ like nails holding our dunlop volleys to the eggbeater pedals. We searched the world to buy merino wool jerseys that fitted like a japanese condom on john holmes. Our patched 3/4 length woollen combat pants only required washing every week or so and we practically invented cards in the spokes. Our tribal tatts were the envy of all. Scooting up and down collins st, sans brakes, helmetless, with our dreads tucked up under our woollen beanies, we’d sneer at the suits and cubicle monkeys crossing WITH the lights and wed dream of getting to nyc just to ride the wrong way up a one way street.

Francis Xavier Holden
14 years ago

The broken limbs never bothered us just as we never bothered the shower, the soap or the comb. Neither did gravel rashes dent our passion although crotch rashes certainly did. I gave it away cold turkey with the help of a kindly but fierce defrocked catholic priest then I lost touch with nabs one day when he rode up a small garbage lane, around a corner and out of sight.

Now I pootle around with on a straight commercial middle range unit with a rack, panniers, yellow safety jacket and lights and bell. I wear metal clips around my strides or tuck my trousers into my socks. I stop at lights and the only risk I take nowadays is wearing a T-shirt I made myself inscribed “One Less Fixie”. Depending on the demand I might start selling them from my website http://www.mildly.critical.mass.com.au

ke
ke
14 years ago

Ken, imagine he took the seat off his bike and then sat on the tube.

timboy
14 years ago

Not everyone who rides a fixed gear bike does so without brakes- very few do.

No other bikes feel as smooth as riding a fixed gear, no road or geared bike can even come close.

But of course there is a massive poser thing going on.

I just wish rich middle aged men stopped buying bikes and forcing prices to stratospheric levels.

Rex
Rex
14 years ago

Very James Lee Burke FXH. Nice.

Helen
14 years ago

Not everyone who rides a fixed gear bike does so without brakes- very few do.

No other bikes feel as smooth as riding a fixed gear, no road or geared bike can even come close.

I’ve been reading some of the articles Don has linked to and they all talk about the sensuality and “feel” of a fixie. Something I don’t understand though: if you’re really going fast (and surely that would be one of the greatest pleasures of it when conditions allow as it’s basically a track racing bike), wouldn’t the absence of coasting mean that your feet are going up and down comically and uncomfortably fast – I wouldn’t find that a particularly good “feel”. Is there something I’m not getting here (seeing as I’ve never ridden a fixie and would probably never get up much speed on one.)

With the normal kind of bike, I really enjoy the coasting with that gentle buzz/clicking of the freewheel – it’s a lovely sound.

Nicholas Gruen
Admin
Nicholas Gruen(@nicholas-gruen)
14 years ago

Helen, I’m with you – and James. The whole thing is seriously weird.

Ken Parish
Admin
Ken Parish(@ken-parish)
14 years ago

At the risk of derailing this thread from a completely different tangent than my previous low-rent comments, one thing I particularly noted while in Melbourne last week was the almost complete absence of cycle paths (except around the waterfront from Port Melbourne to Brighton etc).

Here in Darwin, both Jen and I cycle to work most days, do the shopping on our pushies and even ride into the city and back at night to see movies, theatre or go out to a restaurant. In fact we don’t use our cars much at all. We can do that comfortably here because of the extensive network of cycle paths. You seldom need to ride on the road. No such network exists in Melbourne (or Sydney for that matter), even though the terrain is just as flat as Darwin. I wouldn’t even consider using a bike as my standard means of transportation in Melbourne. The traffic is terrifyingly dense for anyone with a greater level of commonsense and self-preservation than the average twenty-something dickhead with delusions of immortality.

Seems to me that this is a much more important issue to discuss than the alleged esoteric delights of “fixies”. What with global warming, rising fuel costs etc, cycling would be a viable even preferable mode of primary transportation in a city like Melbourne if someone had the initiative to begin constructing a decent network of cycle paths. I hope someone starts doing it soon. Melbourne is so progressive and people-friendly in so many other respects (compared with Sydney anyway). We’re seriously thinking of moving to Melbourne in a year or so, and I don’t really want to give up or drastically curtail my cycling habit. It’s the only thing that stops me getting even fatter than I already am.

Jc
Jc
14 years ago

Ken

The weather here is a little less trust worthy in some ways. I could imagine the evenings and early morn to be great weather to use a bike in Darwin.

Melbourne is coldish in winter morns, quite windy and the threat of the rain cloud is always there although with the permanent drought it may be worthwhile taking your chances.

It’s also a bigger city and and a longer ride than Darwin.

Having said that I know a several execs who bike to work every day. Don’t know much about the northern burbs, but there are lots of bike tracks from the south leading to the city and some good rides along the river too.

I’m sorta suprised you say that about Melb. I’ve lived back here for about 4 years now and the thing that struck me about this place was the number of bike riders out there with the latest spivvy Italian riding customes and 10 grand bikes. Get the colors and testicle choking tights right and you’ll get into the swing of things down here in no time.

Russ
14 years ago

Ken, some (actually most) areas are worse than others. The areas with the odd cycling path are seeing fairly significant increases in numbers and mode share. Having said that, there isn’t much direction in terms of what role cycling might have in the transport system, and cycling consistently loses out when you have a choice between cycling and cars on the road (at intersections for example). Changing things takes time though. Retro-fitting places for cycling won’t happen unless the relevant people see some need for it.

FDB
FDB
14 years ago

The inner north of Melbourne is pretty good. Dedicated paths are thin on the ground, but most streets have a cycle lane.

timboy
14 years ago

Helen

‘if youre really going fast (and surely that would be one of the greatest pleasures of it when conditions allow as its basically a track racing bike), wouldnt the absence of coasting mean that your feet are going up and down comically and uncomfortably fast – I wouldnt find that a particularly good feel’

It’s a flow thing- the feeling of perpetual motion is just as enjoyable as coasting.

That is the meditative quality of a fixed gear bike- after a while spinning becomes natural.

You vary your leg speed, rather than changing gears.

And if you’re legs are going to fast, a gentle touch on the brakes will slow you down.

Helen
14 years ago

Thanks Timboy.

Rode “to work” today (ie. to local hub station, which gives me a nice ride but avoids the v. scary inner city – see Ken’s comment above); Left work at 6PM but still had to miss one #$%& train because #$%&* Connex had mucked things up again and it was too $%^** crowded… Do I sound irritated?????

I hate Connex. Mixed mode transport is necessary for some people.

I agree with everything Ken said about bike paths – and yes, some suburbs are better served than others… Ours are shit, and appear to be arranged by a cycle hater who wants to kill off as many as possible.

Francis Xavier Holden
14 years ago

Ken there is in fact a very good and extensive segregated Bike Trails/Path network in Melbourne, largely based on following the creeks and rivers, but it’s probably fair to say it’s set up more for recreation than commuting.

Melbourne isn’t that flat once you are out of the inner city suburbs and comparing it with Darwin is a bit rough. I think Darwin sits at about 100,000 people and flat with a maximum commute of about 5ks (and no one cares about being on time or arriving at work sweaty and smelly – uuuaargh) and Melbourne 4,000,000 people with plenty commuting 50+ ks each way (and well dressed and clean).

Francis Xavier Holden
14 years ago

It’s possible to ride 100ks from north west of Melbourne in Jacana on trails all the way to Bonbeach on the south east almost without going on any roads. Via Mooonee Ponds Creek trail, Main Yarra Trail, Scotchmans Creek ttrail (or Waverley Trail) to Dandenong Creek Trail around Jells Park then down to the beach.

Francis Xavier Holden
14 years ago

Theres other similar rides.

Its possible to pedal from the inner city (on trails mostly) up to Warbuton, around 80Ks, for a weekend holiday in the hills.

Some Trails are used a bit for commuting but they tend to circuitus routes. The exception is the Yarra Trail which is heavily used for commuting from the south east. I can’t remember the figure but I saw one count which I think was over 200+ bikes an hour in one section in peak hour. Certainly if you have a look near the exit near Fed Square the bikes pour out of a morning.

Helen
14 years ago

FDB said:
The inner north of Melbourne is pretty good. Dedicated paths are thin on the ground, but most streets have a cycle lane.

No, cycle lanes are crap because they are too narrow and put the rider in the “door zone”, and then it’s less possible to ride further out because the painted line reinforces the impression for motorists that bikes should NOT be outside of it, hence more harassment. Lose lose for everyone.

timboy
14 years ago

I can understand your frustration with Connex Helen, that’s why I started riding my bike instead!

I’m frequently amazed by the people who design cycling infrastructure- in some case they manage to make roads and paths less safe for cyclists.

In terms of bikepaths in Melbourne there’s the Merri Creek trail, the beach road trail and the main yarra trail and not a lot else.

I mostly ride on the roads, which I know is less than ideal for many commuters, especially those just starting out.

My philosophy on bike paths is a bit bleak, I’d rather get hit while on the road than have a collision on a bike path with a pedestrian.

I’m glad that a lot of the bikelanes in the inner North of Melbourne appear to be getting wider, and hopefully a bit safer.

David Rubie
David Rubie
14 years ago

Helen,

All of what you say is true for cycle lanes to a certain extent, but I much prefer to share the road. I’m comfortable doing this fairly aggressively as I now live in a small town where the “door zone” is relatively small, traffic fairly light and drivers generally pretty dozy. The only real worry for me is roundabouts, where the clueless motorists (that’s everybody, including me when I’m driving) just don’t look for tall, thinnish, brightly coloured objects unless you are RIGHT IN THEIR BLOODY FACES i.e. take the lane. There a website somewhere that details effective lane-taking but I generally only use it at roundabouts or where there are lots of active looking parked cars (schools, churches, shopping centres).

Warning: some young, aggressive P-Platers generally do not like seeing a 40 something lycra covered lardarse taking up their precious space on the road. Use middle digit or snarky smile where appropriate.

I hate dedicated cycle paths: too much debris, broken glass, wandering pedestrians and never-ever maintenance. I think the road is safer providing you can bear getting honked at.

Liam
Liam
14 years ago

no one cares about being on time or arriving at work sweaty and smelly – uuuaargh

Whooo yes, FXH.
A lesson I learned when I was 15 and riding up a hill on a main road to high school: don’t slipstream behind garbage trucks. The enduring smell of rotten kitchen scraps, garden cuttings and assorted human waste will *not* make you more popular with your classmates.

Tom Noonan
Tom Noonan
14 years ago

With a fixed wheel bike and no brakes, you don’t stop in a hurry, especially if you are racing, and the bike is heavy and you are light – e.g. a child; and if the town you live in is hilly that goes double. Because if you try to back pedel you are just lifted into the air.

If you live in a small flat town you might survive because everyone knows you are an idiot and watch out for you.

The myth of fixed wheel bikes has been around for a long time, and a long time ago like during the great depression, when road traffic was pretty sparce, old guys riding slowly may have got away with it. Idiot couriers doing idiotic things are living in an alternative world.