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June 28, 2016 1 comment

Let's Hear It For Fixed Gear Bikes

Correspondence Friends Events Sports Cycling Bicycles
By Juliet Elliott
Let's Hear It For Fixed Gear Bikes

As someone who came to cycling via the ‘gateway drug’ of riding fixed gear bikes I’m more than aware of how some cyclists (and non-cyclists) choose to view us single speed aficionados.

We’re hipsters, we’re don’t know how to ride our bikes properly, we don’t understand mechanics, we’re not real cyclists, we’re not fit, we solely care about what we look like…. Blah, blah, yawn…

It’s a pretty narrow minded view but one that doesn’t seem to be disappearing anytime soon, and that’s a pity, firstly, because being massively condescending makes you a bit of an idiot, but also because fixed gear bikes have done something really rather good for the cycling industry.

When fixed gear bikes exploded onto the market back in about 2008 a whole new generation of cyclists were introduced to the wonderful world of cycling. Of course track bikes had been around for yonks with messengers riding them since forever but this ‘new wave’ of fixed gear cycling made a massive impact. When fun, simple, appealing single speed bikes began appearing all over London (and all over the world) it was frequently people relatively new to cycling that were riding them, and that made their impact quite unique.

These riders became were excited about bikes and their love of cycling helped to bring it back into the limelight. Suddenly everyone was writing about this ‘new kind’ of cyclist and running articles about cycling’s ‘tribes.’ It all neatly coincided with Team GB’s heroic efforts on the track, Bradley Wiggins winning the hearts of the nation and Vitoria Pendleton’s unique combination of power and fragility. There’s no doubt in my mind that this combination of events helped make cycling cool and increased its mainstream appeal. And more people on bikes = good.

With little history of cycling and therefore none of the preconceived ideas that come with the territory, the new fixed gear riders injected life into what could have been called a slightly stale industry. New businesses sprang up to cater for them and companies began to reexamine the staid old norms they’d never questioned before. New clothing brands brought fresh ideas into the world of bike attire and suddenly colour and every conceivable style imaginable was available to us; whether it was refined, boisterous, hip or casual, you name it, you could get it. I’m pretty sure that the sight of riders cruising on their fixed gears in regular clothes rather than lycra helped inspire other people to jump on a bike – it normalized cycling somewhat.

Riding fixed gear ignited my passion for cycling, one that’s only growing and I’m not in an unusual position. After commuting on my fixed gear bike I began pulling wheelies and doing tricks, testing out what the bike (and I) were capable of. I loved jumping around on it but realised that the fixed wheel was hindering rather than helping me get air, so I got hold of a BMX and began riding dirt jumps and skateparks.

I tested myself and my fixed gear bike on the road, riding out into Essex and Surrey and when I moved to Devon I rode my fixed gear bike all around Torbay, up Dartmoor and down through South Hams. Eventually, I wondered what it would feel like to freewheel down Devon’s hills so a road bike was next on the list. A cross-country bike, a jump bike and a full-susser swiftly followed.

Fast-forward a few years and my fixed gear bike has led me to cyclocross, Downhill and Enduro mountain bike racing, road and track racing. I’m a member of my local cycling club and British Cycling and I spend all my time either cycling, or reading and writing about bikes. Many of the people I spent hours messing around on fixed gear bikes with are also now racing bikes, working in the industry or have turned into full on roadies devoting all their free time to getting in the miles. Of course, tot everyone wooed by fixed gear bicycles stuck with it but huge numbers did, often making the jump from one of those cheap, flimsy entry-level single speeds to something more durable for the commute.

So where are we now? Well, you might not see such huge numbers of fixed gear riders on the streets as you used to, but the single speed is still busy shaking up the industry. From his base in Brooklyn, David Trimble has been building up one of the most exciting series of bike races in the world, the Red Hook Crit, marrying the youthful excitement of riding fixed gear bikes with the serious, ultra competitive world of road racing.

Ridden on (brakeless) track bikes, the series of four closed circuit bike races, or criteriums, are massively popular, prestigious events that draw in crowds of thousands and riders from around 50 countries. The inaugural London race on Greenwich Peninsular last year helped stir many UK riders such as myself into action, and there’s now a small but growing gang of UK racers travelling to crit races around the world. But what’s really interesting is that we’re now seeing road cyclists, including professional, full time athletes crossing over from the free-wheeled world and entering the Red Hook Crit.

They’re enticed by the unique atmosphere at Red Hook Crit races - wildly supportive and enthusiastic crowds love to cheer and drum on barriers as the races unfolds under cover of darkness. It’s quite unlike the wall of silence you’ll find at some road crits, reminding me more of mountain bike races where, as serious as the racing is, the crowd and the riders are having fun.

Like with mountain biking, followers of the Red Hook Crit are intrigued by the racer’s personalities with riders building large numbers of committed fans eager to know more about their character/ training regimes/ favourite food. It’s an ideal opportunity for brands looking to showcase the unique appeal of their athletes and directly connecting with their audience, something some big brands are very much aware of judging by the travel budgets, sponsorship payments and win bonuses I’ve been told of.

But unfortunately, snobbery and elitism still exists in the cycling world, and fixed gear racing is misunderstood by many outside of it. I try to avoid read comments on websites, but after a crash at the most recent race (not due to a cyclist’s error) some chump on one of the more grumbly websites wrote something along the lines of ‘those hipsters need to learn to ride properly.’ Nice.

Crashes happen in the road races on road bikes, on the track, in road crits, in the Tour de France; it’s a rather unfortunate part of all cycling, yet whenever I’m interviewed about racing the Red Hook Crit series the danger is really sensationalised. And despite the fact my friends and I are entering these crits alongside ex Giro d’Italia riders, the Italian and US National Cyclocross champions and half of the Spanish National Women’s Road Team, according to an acquaintance who loudly proclaims to be a cycling advocate, “those fixie crits aren’t real races.” Aren’t real how? Forty-five minutes of technical racing at around 30 miles per hour isn’t real?

Being utterly dismissive of fixed gear bikes doesn’t make you cool, it just makes you a bit of a jerk. Don’t subscribe to that ridiculous us v. them mentality!

We’re all cyclists and at the end of the day, we have more similarities with eachother than differences.

Fixed gear bikes have actually brought something to the bike industry, namely people, passion and investment. But the main thing they’re responsible for - smiles on people’s faces. Surely there’s no need to begrudge anyone that?

I love the single speed track bike, but prefer the freewheel version with brakes because of how much fun the downhill cruise can be. I ride around Pasadena , CA on a bright orange Swobo Sanchez frame built up with decent parts and I've inspired at least a dozen people to buy a bike and ride it.
Peter Mead July 9, 2016 at 4:12 AM