Tuesday, January 8, 2008

The Future Laboratory: Fixing Up

Bad ass cycling without brakes, by Keith Laidlaw.

Fixed-wheel bikes originally designed for use on velodrome-style tracks have become a defining fashion accessory for a new tribe of young urbanites on the streets of US cities such as New York, Chicago, Portland and San Francisco.

Also known as fixed-gear bikes, or simply "fixies", these are bicycles stripped down to their barest essentials. They have no sprockets or derailleur gears, and can't freewheel, so the pedals are always turning whenever the bike is in motion. Traditional drop handlebars are often replaced with an ultra-narrow straight grip; even the brakes are removed. "It's acceptable to have a front brake, but it's totally unacceptable to have a back one," explains London-based art director and fixed-wheel rider Ben Brannan. Riders use the pedals to slow the back wheel instead, something which San Francisco scenester Gary Bishop calls the "tough factor" of thinking, "I don't have any brakes on my bike, I'm bad-ass."

Fixed-gear bikes first became popular with bike couriers attracted by their low weight and minimal maintenance needs. Now that cycling has become a mode of transport for a generation which is fed up with costly trains, doesn't want to own a car and can't afford a scooter, the fixie has become the must-have accompaniment to the arty kid's city lifestyle.

Three-quarter-length skinny-fit jeans are obligatory, but helmets are rejected in favour of retro Campagnolo cycling caps. U-Locks are carried in the back pocket; attaching a bracket to the frame is totally verboten. "It's like a stylized aspect of cycling," says Laurie X, who works in a a popular Portland bike shop. "The bikes are a little like show ponies with a whole culture that ties into other youth sub-cultures, like graffiti and punk rock."

The bikes may be fiercely minimalist in build, but not necessarily in looks. Riders match or mismatch DayGlo paint jobs with lurid rims, spokes and handlebar tape. And they have a retro appeal, as most riders opt for old-fashioned pencil-thin steel frames.

The trend is spreading. Brick Lane Bikes, opened last year in London's Shoreditch by lawyer-turned-bike-courier Jan Milewski, specialises in fixed-wheel bikes built around vintage Italian frames. Fixie fans from around the word congregate online at sites such as fixedgeargallery.com and can be found hanging out at bike polo events in London or New York.

Published by The Future Laboratory in 'The' magazine, issue 2, 08:01:2008