Fixed-gear bicycle sales ride high among admirers

While such a machine might seem to have limited appeal, the popularity of fixed-gear bikes has expanded beyond the bigcity messenger subculture that spawned them somewhere during the past decade.

Published November 19, 2007 by NWANews.com 
BY DON MAYHEW MCCLATCHY

For a growing number of avid cyclists, the fixie is in.

“Fixies” are fixed-gear bicycles. One gear. No freewheel to allow coasting. You pedal, the bike moves. You stop, it stops. Some don’t even have brakes.

While such a machine might seem to have limited appeal, the popularity of fixed-gear bikes has expanded beyond the bigcity messenger subculture that spawned them somewhere during the past decade.

Although many bikes can be easily converted to a fixed-gear for about $ 100, sales of new ones are among the fastest-growing segments of the industry.

Jon Swanson of Specialized, a Northern California-based company that released a halfdozen styles of fixed-gear bikes this year, says sales of such bikes have tripled the past few years. “They’re going through the roof,” Swanson says.

Why ? Stephanie Gonzales of Fresno, Calif., who rides a fixie, points to simplicity.

“It’s more of an intuitive style of riding,” says Gonzales, 24, who’s been riding with a fixed gear for only a few weeks but loves it. “There’s more of a connection to your bike and to the ground. I like that aspect of it.”

The hipness of urban bike messengers, who deliver packages and letters in big cities, is another lure. For them, a fixedgear bike is a necessity, because they often have their hands full and stopping can be accomplished with only the legs (if they’re strong enough ).

Thomas Hinkle, a historian for the Bicycle Museum of America in Ohio, believes the popularity of spinning classes has fueled the trend. Those machines also require constant pedaling.

But there’s also something about a fixed-gear bike that’s ultimately traditional.

“Maybe it’s going back to our roots, before you got into all the new technology stuff we have today,” Hinkle says.

Or as Gonzales puts it, “When you’re a kid, most kid bikes, most tricycles and things like that, are fixed. It’s how you start out really.”

Ben Kloos, a mechanic at Trisport in Fresno, has commuted primarily on one of two fixed-gear bikes the past two years.

“The bicycle in general is the most efficient form of transportation,” he says. “If you can get that package in the least number of parts, it’s conceptually something that’s intriguing to me.”

There are other advantages. Because they have fewer parts, fixies weigh a few pounds less and require little maintenance. They’re durable. Less of the energy riders put into pedaling goes anywhere but to the rear wheel.

Jeff Macdonald, the operations manager of Shuttlebugz pedicab service of Fresno, has ridden a fixed-gear bike since April and says they’re easier to ride into a headwind.

“The sheer momentum forces you to continue pedaling,” he says. “When you ride through a light turning yellow, the getup-and-go on a fixed-gear bike is something else.”

Jordan Webster of Steven’s Bike Shop in Clovis, Calif., says the bikes are quieter, too: “You don’t have all the pulley noise. The chain’s tight, so it’s not banging around.”

Because they cannot coast on a fixed-gear bike, racers like them for training purposes. “You’re actually using leg muscles to slow yourself down, pick yourself up, and there are no breaks in between,” Webster, 25, says. “You don’t have weird hiccups in your pedal stroke. It’s constantly moving in a fluid motion.” Fixed-gear bikes also are cheaper. No bike on Specialized’s new line costs more than $ 1, 000. A similar grade of road bike could easily cost more than $ 5, 000. Converting a bike into a fixie is even less expensive. Gonzales, who rehabilitates old bikes with her husband, Jason, says it cost about $ 10 for them to give hers a fixed gear. Conversions typically cost more than that, between $ 100 and $ 200. Webster built the fixed-gear bike he uses to commute daily for about $ 150. “You don’t want a bike that’s going to get stolen,” he says. “You don’t want a bike that’s expensive.” He and his friends even joke about leaving their fixies unlocked in front of a liquor store. “We always hope someone jumps on it to steal it, because the first corner they come up to coast, they’re going to be launched off the bike,” he says.

NOT FOR NEWBIES Which means there are some things to consider before you go out and make or buy yourself a fixie. It usually takes more than a few miles before your legs understand what your brain is telling it: no coasting. Turns are tricky, because the pedals have to be positioned just so. Specialized’s Swanson says, “Everyone when they’re learning, they fall over at least once.” Webster says novices should avoid a fixie. “You need to be on your game the whole time you’re riding,” he says. “If a car pulls in front of you, you can’t just brake and coast. You have to keep pedaling when you’re moving. It makes those situations a little scarier.”

There are other drawbacks. Kloos says speed bumps, railroad tracks, potholes and curbs are obstacles that pose different challenges when you’re not on a regular bike.

“You know how it is when you ride over something bumpy, you lift your butt off the saddle,” he says. “You can’t do that.”

Macdonald of Shuttlebugz points out that you can’t stop at a traffic signal and backspin to reposition the pedals for a quick start. Many fixie riders instead come to a stop while still balanced on the pedals, which is called a track stand. Talented tricksters can stay that way for minutes, much like skilled unicyclists. Some can even ride backward.

But few people, if any, take fixed-gear bikes on rides of 25 miles or more. Kloos says hills pose tough pedaling situations for riders, both going up and down.

“Your legs would be flailing going down a hill,” he says. “That’s not to say that you couldn’t do it. I’m probably just not the man to do it.”

Few people, too, ride a fixedgear without hand brakes. Stopping using only your legs is fine most of the time, but traffic provides too many surprises for most people to go without at least one brake in case of an emergency.