Cycling Fixation

Published

Gerry McKeever takes a look at fixed-gear biking – the newest sporting sensation to hit the streets

I have a special relationship with bikes. The house I was born and raised in was home to a  blacksmith called Kirkpatrick Macmillan, famous for (arguably) inventing the first pedal bicycle in the 19th Century. The achievement of this Scottish smithy is debatably proved by a report which tells of how a “gentleman from Dumfries-shire… bestride a velocipede… of ingenious design” was involved in an altercation with a Glasgow pedestrian.

Nearly 200 years later and cycling is not only a massive cornerstone of society but has also managed to remain cool. Now seen as a representation of the struggle to save our planet, cycling is as iconic as it is common.

Through the BMX scene of the 80s, bikes have also become an integral part of urban culture, one of the fundamental poser accessories. However a new scene is on the rise, a movement that seeks to get back to the origins of cycling, worshipping simplicity and efficiency. Welcome to the world of fixed-gear bikes!

The basic difference between a fixed-gear bike and any other is it has only one gear and does not have the option to freewheel, so the pedals have to move whenever the wheels do. Considering this results in having to do a lot more work, especially downhill, why on earth would anyone choose it?

According to cycling enthusiast Giles Heffer – “The main thing is that you feel every inch of the road, you can gauge just how fast you’re going by how quickly your legs are turning.  You’re more in touch with whatever gradient you’re going over, and the crucial element of slowing the bike down with your legs is just so so different from anything else.” This is pretty much the general consensus on riding fixed, with most people enjoying the feeling of being so in touch with, and in control of, their bike. It’s not the most natural thing at first though, as it’s automatic to try to freewheel, so do be careful the first time you ride a fixie.

It’s becoming more and more common for people to build their own fixies from old bikes, as this is relatively easy to do.  Having just completed a project of my own, I can understand why this is so popular. Building your own bike from scratch results in a very personal attachment to it, and the combination of creativity and industry is really satisfying. Bikes can come in an incredible variety of shapes and sizes so there is almost no limit to the possibilities with building your own, fixed or otherwise.

However, the simplicity of a fixie, with no need for complex gear-changing bits, can result in some really cool designs. Even brakes are optional, as once you get used to riding fixed you can stop with just the pedals. This leaves the door open for all kinds of variations on an unembellished basic design, and experimenting with colours and styles is common. Having built numerous fixies, local artist and scenester Alistair Wylie agrees that “the individuality involved in just  throwing something together and making it work is really rewarding, and the simplicity of the aesthetic means you can do anything you want with it.” Check out www.fixedgeargallery.com for some really nice shots of bikes from around the world.

After the massive Scottish success in the Olympic Velodrome this year, thanks to a certain Chris Hoy, more people are becoming interested in fixies, as they’re close relatives to track-style bikes, however, fixies have been used for years by the mysterious group among us known as the ‘couriers’. Who are these people and what do they do? Basically, they are bicycle-riding messengers who take parcels and packages around the city far quicker than a car ever could. They’re associated with fixed-gear riding and the surrounding culture, and even courier-style bags are becoming dead trendy. How to spot a courier? Generally they look like they’ve crawled out of a swamp, a fusion of dreadlocks and camouflage materials, all seen as a blur due to their superhuman speed.

Branching from the courier-riding and ‘alleycat-racing’ scene (underground races held mainly in the US), increasingly fixed-gear riding is emerging as a new urban sport to rival skateboarding, BMXing and Rollerblading. Due to the fact that the rider is able to cycle backwards and has greater overall control of the bike, loads of interesting tricks are possible. On the cutting edge of this scene is a crew from San Francisco who have released an amazing video called “Mash”.  This is definitely worth checking out as these guys are really at the forefront of the movement.

As glasgow is a relatively bicycle-friendly city, with a fair number of cycle-paths and parks, not to mention some lovely rides not too far out (Loch Lomond is a beauty of a cycle) there’s really no excuse to not own a bike. Whether you’re intrigued enough to try a fixed-gear, or just fancy getting a ‘normal’ bike, there’s never been a better time to get fit and save money. For information on building your own fixie, check out www.sheldonbrown.com which is an absolute goldmine of useful pointers.

Some people will argue that the current popularity of fixies is just another fad, and will soon be resigned to the pop-culture graveyard, but whether this is true or not at least people are getting excited about cycling, getting fit and leading greener lives. Cars are so uncool anyway.