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Pedal to the Mettle

Down from the dizzying heights of titanium rides comes the newest must-have item: the fixed-gear bike. Like it ever left.

By Gabe Meline

On the Fourth of July, I hopped on my bike with some friends for a ride out to the western reaches of Sonoma County. We'd planned it for a couple days, and I was ready for the challenge of riding with more experienced cyclists for whom a 35-mile ride is no sweat at all.

The plan was to stop by a Santa Rosa coffee shop on the way out of town and pick up a friend. The sun was starting to heat up, and it was going to be a sweltering day. The cafe was bustling and we found our friend in his spandex riding outfit, sipping coffee with an amiable fellow in corduroys and a long-sleeve sweatshirt.

"Hey, mind if I join you?" the guy asked us.

Joining up for a long ride at a moment's notice in hot clothes seemed pretty bold, but I thought, what the hell, if he wants to suffer in cords and a sweatshirt, that's his deal. He hopped on his bike and we pedaled westward. A swift 25 minutes later, we had already reached Sebastopol. I'd started to sweat when we stopped at an Occidental Road gas station, so I got an iced tea and offered some to the dude in corduroys.

"No thanks," he told me. "I'll be fine."

I looked down and harrumphed to myself. He was riding one of those bikes.

 

There's a back-to-basics method of transportation on the road, and its name is the fixed-gear bicycle. With as few moving parts as possible, it offers its riders utmost simplicity with no frills--a return to cycling's roots in an age of spiraling technological advances.

A surging young demographic has curiously latched on to fixed-gear bikes in the last few years. Out in the garage, instead of souping up a hot rod for maximum power, kids fresh out of high school are minimizing by ripping apart Dad's old 10-speed and removing all but the most necessary moving parts. Give me that old-time manpower, the defiant de-creationist says, it's good enough for me.

To understand what's going on here, some explanation is in order: a fixed-gear bike has only one speed and no freewheel. Essentially, this means two things: you cannot change gears and you can never stop pedaling. The chain is linked directly around a single rear-wheel cog, tight and immovable, so that when the bike is in motion, the pedals are in motion and your legs are in motion.

What to do with all this motion when you suddenly need to come to a stop? Remember the opening segment of The Flintstones where Fred and Barney stop their cars with their feet? It's pretty much the same thing with a fixed-gear bike. A large number of fixed-gear riders remove all the brakes from their bikes, relying solely on their own legs to slow down and quickly pedaling backward in order to skid to a stop.

It doesn't make any sense, I know. Yet considering that expensive mountain bikes with lavish accessories and all sorts of fancy extras now account for the majority of bicycle sales, the fixed-gear craze isn't really all that bizarre. Culturally, it is an equal and opposite reaction by a group of passionate individuals to what they consider an illogical obsession with complexity.

Fixed-gear bicycles, after all, used to be the only bikes you could buy. In the early days of the Tour de France, the race was ridden entirely on fixed-gear bikes, and contestants would have to manually change gears for the mountains by removing their rear wheel and replacing the back gear. The freewheel offered riders the ability to coast in the 1930s; years later, shifters and derailers came along and changed the fixed gear forever. Disappearing from the mainstream entirely, the out-of-date design was useful mostly for diehards in winter training and for velodrome, or track, racing.

Some 70 years later, bicycle messengers in San Francisco and Manhattan started riding fixed-gear bikes for deliveries, and in no time at all, a fixed gear became not only de rigueur for messengers coast to coast, but an instant accessory to the modern lifestyle. Like making graffiti art or getting tattooed, riding a fixed gear succeeds to confuse most normal people, and thus achieves hipster status.

Obsessively distrustful of trends, I began cursing every fixed-gear bike I saw. Useless, I said. Inefficient. Unsafe. And the worst crime of all: increasingly popular. I couldn't ride my bike anywhere, it seemed, without someone offering to turn it into a fixed gear. Even friends of mine who had also railed against them, who I had thought were on my side, turned up at my door one by one, riding loathsome two-wheelers of capitulation.

Of course, I hated fixed gears, but had I ridden ever one? Hell no.

 

Our Fourth of July entourage rode along Occidental Road, up through the rolling hills of Mill Station Road and stopped at an intersection on Graton Road. "We can head back through Graton," it was announced, "or turn left and hit the Harrison Grade."

I wasn't about to blow my chance. I had heard of this Harrison Grade, lauded in the same way as, say, a dangerous secret swimming hole is. All I knew was that it was very long, very winding and very downhill. It sounded like a total scream. We turned left.

Little did I know that in order to get to the Harrison Grade, we'd have to climb a lengthy hill. I settled into my lowest gear possible, but every time I looked ahead, there was nothing but more hill. At one point someone had spray-painted "no bikes" across the asphalt. I wondered if this was a threat from an annoyed local or a compassionate message of warning to turn back.

I finally reached the others at the top and we chatted about the different low gears on our bikes while squirting water into our dry throats. Some riders had used a "granny gear," an especially low gear that I immediately coveted.

Meanwhile, the guy in corduroys said that he needed a cigarette. His bike didn't have a low gear or, I noticed, any brakes. The Harrison Grade was right around the corner.

The others plunged down the hill ahead of me like rockets, and I soon lost sight of them. Just to be on the safe side, I kept my hands on the brakes, negotiating the plentiful sharp turns and keeping my increasing speed in check. Halfway down the hill, I released the brakes completely, and my bike accelerated to breakneck velocity. It was kind of scary, and about 20 seconds later I wrapped my white knuckles around the brake levers again.

Careening down the Harrison Grade is a thrill that I'm glad I saved for so long. It's a lot like jumping off a high dive or slow-dancing with a girl for the first time. There's a certain electricity to it that makes you feel young and eternal.

I caught up to my friends at the bottom of the hill, all of us flushed and excited. The guy in corduroys was beaming. He had just survived one and a half miles of steep downhill, sharp turns and all, with no freewheel, no gears, no helmet and no brakes.

Come to think of it, flirting with death is a young, eternal thrill, too.

 

The crazy guy in corduroys is 19-year-old Buck Olen. Sitting in his bike-filled garage a few weeks later, he's very serious about one thing: he did not make a habit of watching the television show My So-Called Life. But his younger sister did, and Olen has a vague recollection of an important awakening.

"What was the curly-haired guy's name, who was, like, a friend and wanted to be her boyfriend or whatever?" he asks. "He was a bike messenger and he rode a fixed-gear bike." Surrounded by the fixed-gear bikes that he now builds, rides and sells for a living, Olen is understandably embarrassed that he first heard about them from a lame TV show.

Olen shares a suburban Bennett Valley house with a web designer, a Food Not Bombs activist and an artist who sometimes stays up until 7am. Here in the garage, with its token sagging couch and pile of laundry in the corner, is where Olen works. If you're looking for a custom fixed-gear bike but don't know where to find an old frame or how to convert it, he is your man.

"There's actually a lot of fixed-gear riders around who don't think what I'm doing is necessarily the right thing," Olen explains. "For them it's like a club, and they definitely think that the number of fixed-gear riders should be limited."

When Olen finished Coast Guard duty earlier this year, he hadn't so much as touched a bike in two years. All of the old friends that he used to ride BMX bikes with were suddenly riding fixed-gear bikes instead, and his fascination grew into obsession. He quickly bought his first fixed gear, got a bicycle delivery job for a sandwich shop downtown and hasn't looked back since.

"There's a lot of different things that appeal to me," he explains. "Simplicity is a big one." To make things even simpler, Olen also usually rides without brakes, "mostly for the challenge," he says. "I like having it be up to me how I stop the bike. Fixed gears are so maneuverable and efficient that I haven't had a problem riding brakeless so far."

I mention the Harrison Grade and his ride down it without brakes. "It was great," he recalls. "I haven't felt fear while riding in a long time, and I definitely did that day." He chastises himself for cutting a couple of corners too tightly and riding into the oncoming lane, "but basically," he says, "I was constantly accelerating."

Today in the garage, there are 10 assembled bikes, with five more in various states of repair throughout the room. His work counter is absolutely overrun with sockets, Q-tips, cables, washers, spokes and hundreds of other tiny things in no discernable order. Olen fishes a derailer out of the pile and offers it to me for a bike that I'm working on for a friend. It's no big deal, he says. When you take 10-speeds and turn them into fixed gears, you wind up with a lot of extra 10-speed parts.

Lately, more and more people are asking Olen for fixed-gear bikes; he has a waiting list of six customers on his schedule at the moment. As for the elitist attitude that many young fixed-gear riders have, Olen instead respects the level of experience required to achieve truly chipped shoulders. "There's just as many old guys out there," he says, "who are maybe even a little more pretentious about it because they have been riding fixed-gear bikes their whole lives."

Olen advises first-time fixed-gear riders to use brakes and start with a low gear for ease in climbing hills. If you ride brakeless, expect to replace your rear tire every two months or so as a result of skid-stopping. The shock of not being able to coast takes some getting used to, and be sure to keep your chain well-maintained. Oh, and another thing, he says. Be prepared to be insulted out on the bike trail, particularly by those known as the spandex-wearers.

"There are some riders out there who really get kind of grumpy about it for no apparent reason," he warns.

 

Freewheels are good!" says Jason Silverek, mildly irritated at having to state the obvious. "They were invented for a reason!"

The 33-year-old cyclist has had just about enough of all this fixed-gear nonsense, especially because of his job at Santa Rosa's Bike Peddler, where he has to deal with it every day. "It's good that these kids are into bicycles," he acknowledges, "but it's kind of directly related to hanging out at the coffee shop and being one of the 'fixed-gear kids.'"

Silverek points out that such amenities as freewheels, different gears and brakes make riding a bike easier in every way, whether it be hopping up a curb or even turning a sharp corner without scraping the pedals on the ground. Fixed gears can make crashes worse, he says, "because once you panic, the bike can really throw you. It's all your weight moving the bike forward. The pedals aren't gonna stop moving, no matter what."

Silverek, like many a serious cyclist, actually owns a bike with a fixed-gear option and rides it from time to time. But he can't understand why someone would want to ride a fixed gear as a primary bicycle, especially around town. "Maybe fashion, cycling and high gas prices finally mixed," he offers, "and spawned another fixed-gear surge."

The Bike Peddler sells mostly mountain bikes these days, and the store's front counter displays some of the accessories designed for the ultimate riding experience. Silverek predicts that most fixed-gear riders will eventually discover mountain biking. In his three years at the shop, he says, "you can see them go through the progression pretty quickly."

While we're talking, a middle-aged woman test-riding a bike takes a spill out in the parking lot, and Silverek quickly rushes to her aid. She's fine, but he returns with a cautionary observation. "It's a good thing she wasn't riding a fixed gear."

 

Up the street from the Bike Peddler is NorCal Bike Sport, where there's almost always a quiet-spoken technician working in the back named Bill Schum. Schum has worked at local bike shops for over 20 years and has a veteran's expertise with virtually everything bike-related.

"It's amazing what these kids can do," he says, impressed by the special tricks that a fixed gear allows. (For example, only on a fixed-gear bike is it possible to actually ride backward.) "But I wish that they would wear helmets and use brakes. I mean, it just makes sense."

Moving to Sonoma County in 1971, Schum himself used to ride fixed gears almost exclusively for years with a pack of likeminded friends. They'd go riding every day before and after work, discovering as much out-of-the-way countryside as possible.

Riding conditions have changed in the last 30 years, and so has Schum. He, too, has been into mountain biking lately, though he still sometimes rides a fixed gear and counsels the new breed of enthusiasts. He knows their secret communion, their defensive sense of pride. "We always felt like anybody could ride a bicycle," he smiles, "but fixed gears were for the special people."

 

The hands-on experience of actually riding a fixed gear is what has most riders hooked, and many of them dust off the old saying that if you try it once, you'll never go back. Being on a fixed gear is touted as providing a mystic connection to the bike and the road, a communion of man and machine. With legs in constant motion at an unwavering rate, it is as if you and the bike are one.

If you don't understand the feeling, the fixed-gear riders say, then you never will. It's just something that you have to do firsthand, which is why I took my grumbling to the road. Since fixed-gear riders speak mystically of "pushing themselves," of "setting their mind to it" and similar high-minded goals, I decided to ride one to the beach.

Is there anything more immediately liberating than riding a bike on a beautiful summer day? It's all there, wrapped up in one simple act: freedom from walking, freedom of movement, the joy of discovery, the thrill of one's own ability and the excitement of velocity.

Except today it's overcast and my feet are strapped to the pedals, to whose constant motion they are slaves. It's jarring at first, threatening to eliminate all freedom, joy, thrill or excitement. Luckily, there aren't too many others out on the Joe Rodota Trail, so it looks like I don't have to worry about losing control and clobbering a small child. Thankfully, the fixed-gear bike I've borrowed for the day has a front hand brake--what some hardcore fixed-gear riders sneer at as a "cheater."

I stop by a bike shop in Sebastopol and check out a map to decide which route I should take. I have never ridden a bike to the beach before, so I'm clueless. I stare at the map until, like pulling a name out of a hat, I settle on what sounds like a good enough route: Coleman Valley Road.

I've gotten used to the basic mechanics of the bike by now, but along Occidental Road the limitations of the fixed gear really kick in. There are a few uphill sections that are excruciating without a lower gear, but I slow down and pace myself, stopping sometimes to drink water or fix a clip that comes loose from a pedal. Finally my legs dance up and down during the welcome, mile-long descent into the town of Occidental.

After a brief taqueria stop, I find Coleman Valley Road. One glitch: it's brutally uphill to start, and it's not long before I have to hop off the bike, hang my head and begin the walk of shame. My wobbly legs, having been in constant motion all day, are hot and burning. I've got an unaccountable, almost manic dedication, and as soon as it's flat enough, I'm back on the bike.

So it goes for the rest of the day, riding most of the time but hiking up the big hills. Some baffled sightseers along the way ask about my funny-looking bike. When I explain to them what it is, how far I've ridden and how wrecked I am, I get an understated response: "It's a good thing they invented different gears."

The absolute euphoria and overwhelming beauty of the view keep me going. At the height of Coleman Valley Road, there are golden, rolling California hills as far as the eye can see, with a small patch of ocean in the far distance. It's unbelievable that I've lived here my whole life without experiencing this length of asphalt, and the anticipation of further discovery keeps pushing me closer toward my goal.

After the long, winding stretch that terminates at Coleman Beach, I drop the bike to breathe in the salty sea air of success. I'm honestly amazed that I made it, and looking at my stripped-down bike, I reflect on what an amazingly simple invention it is. Wheels, pedals, a chain and a frame. Just add a strong dash of determination, and a few hours later you're shooting pinball at the Tides, the seals in the bay behind cheering you on.

 

If there's one thing I've learned, it's that, all social trappings aside, riding a fixed-gear bike is pretty much the same as riding a regular bike. I could have taken my 10-speed along the hills of Coleman Valley Road and it would have felt the same. I'd still feel triumphant, it would've still been beautiful and man-oh-man, I'd still be sore for days afterward.

All of my grumbling about fixed-gear bikes seems frivolous and unimportant now. Like complaining about current hairstyles or annoying celebrities, it's a lot like spitting back at rain. It's also hard to justify giving a bad rap to something as self-affirming as riding a bike, no matter how ridiculous the bike may seem to be.

Still, I started wishing I had some options with me on my 43-mile beach ride, especially on the long way back home. Freewheels and gears give you the option to make your life easier, which is a valuable asset when your battered mind starts playing tricks on you. Six hours into my trip, pedaling deliriously past apple orchards and stray roadkill, I started mumbling to myself: just give me the illusion of ease, I'll take whatever I can get at this point.

So when I finally reached the easy, flat stretch of trail back into Santa Rosa, I was filled with goodwill. I wanted to go back in time and hug Joe Rodota, whoever he was. I wanted to help strangers. I vowed to never criticize what I couldn't understand, and I vowed to never curse at a fixed-gear bike ever again.

But would I ever ride one again?

Hell no.

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From the September 15-21, 2004 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.

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