One ring to rule them all

Published

Rosie Davies takes to the hills to investigate the latest toast of cycling’s thrill-seekers

The railings at Blytheswood Square, one of Glasgow’s highest points, are covered in bikes. Beneath the streetlamp’s orange glare is the glint of metal upon metal. It’s beautiful.

But tonight, on a balmy bank holiday Saturday evening, it’s not just bike couriers gathering at the square.

Members of the Glasgow Fixed Gear and Single Speed (GFGSS) forum are preparing for the third event of the Fixed Gear Easter Weekender: the Alleycat. The boys must hit all 15 subway stations, noting down a symbol displayed at each, before returning to the Square; the first one back wins.

Already today, most of the competitors have taken part in a ridiculously difficult Hill Climb Challenge, taking in hills such as Gardner Street in the West End. Last night, it was an intensive sprints race at the “velodrome” in Bellahouston Park. Muscles are aching, but the unmistakable tang of competitive adrenaline is high.

Along with competition, though, is a sense of community. The Weekender ended with a sun-drenched cycle to Loch Lomond, which saw couriers and regular fixed gear riders take over the cycle path, heading for a BBQ and beers on the beach, joint in their common purpose: fixed gear cycling.

For those not familiar with the phenomenon, fixed gears, or ‘fixies’, are assembled with the rear wheel attached to the cog. In layman’s terms, when the rear wheel turns, the pedals turn, making coasting impossible. Many choose not to have brakes , with the rider resisting the rotation of the pedals to slow down, or perfecting skid stop by also shifting their weight forwards.

Despite fixed wheels being the standard bike before the 1950s — used for everything from time trials, track racing and hill climb competitions as well as everyday cycling — the arrival of the multi-geared derailleur in the 1960s meant the number of fixed gear users declined. In the past ten years, however, there has been a revival, and it’s growing daily.

The huge cult presence in urban North America, which emerged in 2000, spread to Britain a few years later, and is usually attributed to bicycle messengers. Anyone who has walked through Blytheswood Square will have seen them in huddles, perched on the railings like birds, ready for flight.

Functional, low maintenance, and the most practical bike for short distance urban cycling, the bikes also have an aesthetic draw. Forget bicycle manufacturers’ drive towards more gears, more suspension and ultra-lightweight carbon-fibre everything; fixed gears take cycling back to basics. They are lighter, pedalling is more powerful and efficient, there’s no fussing with gears and brakes to interrupt the flow.

When I ask 22-year-old Dan, from the Manchester forum, what converted him, he says immediately: “It’s something you just have to experience. Once you’ve tried it, you never want to go back.

“You can feel every movement so much more than on a regular bike. You get feedback from the road, so going round corners and changing speed is a lot more intuitive. You’re in total control.”

It seems the same cyclist’s obsessions are at the heart of the new trend: control, speed, technique. At their weekly social meet up ,two weeks before the events, chewing over steak and Tennents, the same topics keep emerging: weight, speed, hills. But, undeniably, an element of fashion lurked beneath. Shaun had just fitted a pair of Nitto B123 steel handlebars — big news in the fixed gear world. The question is, is the classic look worth the extra weight? “I’m not sure”, says Andy, who founded the forum a year ago. “I’ve never been one to sacrifice speed for style, but those handlebars…”

‘Fakengers’ is a term ‘awarded’ by couriers to riders dressed in messenger gear: courier bags, rolled up jeans, and U-locks in belt loops. But, in every trend there are fakengers, albeit known through a different name — wannabes, scenesters, trendies. Andy certainly isn’t worried: “I’m happy that more and more people are getting in on the act.  More riders means more cycle awareness in car drivers, more local bike shop support and more people to ride with.

“There are always a few who get into it for the fashion side of it and they will eventually get bored. The up side to that is that their components will soon flood eBay and the rest of us will be able to buy it all up.”

As Shaun adds, the reason most fixie riders copy the messengers’ accessories is because they are the most practical. Joe Allan, owner of bike shop Gear, agrees. “There was a big fuss recently when Topman in Oxford Street had a whole fashion display in the window, including bikes, with the models wearing the bike caps, checked shirts, and of course the rolled up jeans. It’s ridiculous.”

Allan, 42, who has been riding his fixed gear for over 20 years — “a 1954 Flying Scot” — said: “A lot of people are cycling around the city, going to work, on mountain bikes with 27 gears. They are suddenly realising that they aren’t using the most efficient bike for this type of use.”

One courier blog, House Of Pistard, praised the GFGSS forum for taking the intiative and creating events when the courier circle in Glasgow is not. Did Andy envisage this when he started the forum?

“I wanted to bring together the fixed-gear riders in Glasgow. Before it there were many people riding fixed-gear around Glasgow but with very little sense of camaraderie outside of the cycle couriers.

“Since then the Glasgow fixed gear scene has exploded.  I’m happy with the growth of the forum so far and I’m looking forward to new members joining over the summer. Hopefully by August we’ll have 30 people out to Fixed Beer on a Tuesday night. That’s my target anyway.”

Fashion aside, this style of cycling is about a balance between grace, beauty and power. Scott Larkin, a fixie blogger from New York, describes the moment he converted.

“Walking in down town San Francisco several years ago, before I’d ever even ridden a fixed gear bike, I remember seeing a messenger riding through slow traffic, weaving in and out, looking like a needle stitching all the cars together. I was struck by the utter grace of it. The subtle adjustments he made in his speed and direction were like the subtle adjustments a bird makes in flight.”

It’s time to leave, and as they chat about the possibility of bike polo next week — Scout has come equipped with polo mallets, emerging from his rucksack like antennae — they start to cycle away, slowly, wheel to wheel.

Under the orange streetlamp is the glint of metal. It’s beautiful.