Japan’s ‘fix’ation with a risky ride

A single-gear rocket, usually with no brakes, overtakes the once ubiquitous mountain bike.

Published December 9, 2007 by The Japan Times 
By LEE BROWN

A single-gear rocket, usually with no brakes, overtakes the once ubiquitous mountain bike.

A group of young men huddle around a bicycle in a small shop named Carnival on the second story of a cream-brick building peering over the Yamanote Line in Shibuya.

A simple-looking red and white Faini racing bike, it has attracted a crowd because of a small sign hanging from its handlebars that says it once belonged to an Italian professional. The group aren't sporting Lycra shorts or showing off bulging calf muscles. Instead, one of the four is considering paying ¥300,000 for this purebred simply to ride it around the streets of Tokyo. The popularity of this type of race-proven bike, a stripped- down brakeless, one-geared machine known as a fixed-gear bicycle, has exploded in the past year.

American actor Jason Lee bought his Japanese Nishiki fixed-gear bike last year, and fashion designer Paul Smith sells the bicycles — hand-built in England to his specifications — in his shops (though at ¥661,500 you'd need to be a committed fashionista to buy one). Among Japanese celebrities, the man dubbed The King of Harajuku, DJ and pop producer Hiroshi Fujiwara, has more fixed-gear bikes than you can shake a bicycle pump at.

Fixed-gear bicycles, or "fixies," have been exhibited at London's Design Museum, and they've appeared in advertisements for Nike (its slogan in the ad: "No brakes, no problem") and Puma. In other words, fixed-gear bikes are the cutting edge of cool.

But why have these single-speed machines suddenly become more coveted than a mountain bike with 30 gears (which make riding uphill easier) and comfy suspension? To understand why "fixies" are a must-have item today, one needs to know their history. Even the Tour de France was ridden on fixed-gear bicycles until the invention of the freewheel in 1897. (Tour organizer Henri Desgrange lamented the switch to freewheel machines in 1902, saying: "We're getting soft . . . As for me, give me a fixed gear!") And fixed-gear bikes continue to be used for keirin (track racing) in Japan, where races are fought out on a steeply banked velodrome.

Since track riders cycle in the same direction, bikes do not require brakes. In the late 1970s, New York bike couriers began to use "fixies" on the road, and a group of like-minded fixed-gear riders emerged in the borough of Queens. Couriers ride them because they're fast, strong and virtually maintenance free — no gears and no brakes mean fewer things can go wrong, which is a good thing when your weekly pay check is based on how much you deliver.

As pro snowboarder-turned-bicycle clothing designer Karta Healy of China- based label TWO n FRO ( www.twonfro.com ) puts it: "Bicycles are one hp — one human power — and fixed-gear bikes are the most efficient way to transfer that power. They're also great fun — they make us grin and get us there faster."

But there's a downside — fixed-gear bikes don't allow you to freewheel: If the rear wheel turns, the pedals turn. This often results in a bit of unintended slap-stick humor when first-timers try to coast, only to find their legs flailing about in a way not seen since MC Hammer was in the music charts. And the braking method, which involves lifting the rear wheel and pressing backward on the pedals, can be tough to master — and catastrophic if you get it wrong. Still, once you get the hang of these bikes, they're addictive.

The fun doesn't stop at going faster for less effort. Because the bikes are very light and maneuverable, they're easy to do tricks on. Carnival even offers lessons on the first Saturday of every month.

"We teach people the techniques new riders need to know, such as how to stop without brakes, as well as some fun moves," says shop manager Mitsuru Ogawa, 33, who has been riding fixies for three years. "People who are mad about these bikes have created a culture similar to that which grew around skateboarding. You don't just ride one of these bikes; it's about the tricks, the skills and a community of riders."

And the one country the fixed-gear community is "fixated" on? Japan. Fixed-gear aficionados from around the world flock here because it's one of the few places still turning out handcrafted frames in traditional steel that last a lifetime. Riders speak in reverential tones about craftsmen such as Osaka-based Yoshiaki Nagasawa, who constructed the frames for 10-time world champion Koichi Nakano, or Masahiko Makino, who has made frames in his Chiba workshop for professionals all over the world. The waiting list for a bespoke frame from one of these men is around four months, and you won't see much change from ¥200,000.

But you don't need to spend a month's wages to own a fixed-gear bike. Most of the mainstream bicycle firms including Kona and Giant now offer them, with the well-specced "Track" model from Japanese firm Fuji retailing at ¥58,800, which means it's relatively easy to buy into the "fixie" scene. There's only one way to experience it, however — get on a fixed-gear bike and ride.

The Carnival store doesn't have a Web site, but check out sister store W-Base (a BMX shop on the floor below Carnival) at www.w-base.com. For fixed-gear bicycle events, check out the Bicycle Film festival (held in December) at bicyclefilmfestival.com/2007_site/tokyo/ .