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Wednesday, June 17,2009

A shift in gears

One-speed, ’fixie’ riders look to keep cycling simple

by Adam Molner

In the tradition of the Orange Julius and rap music, one-speed and fixed-gear bicycles are the latest trend to seep into the Midwestern consciousness from the coast.

By talking with bike shop employees or just taking a closer look at commuter bikes on the road, it’s obvious these bikes are growing in popularity. Pro-cycle, a bike shop in Holt, specifically mentions its selection of fixed-gear bicycles in its television commercial, a selling point the shop admits wouldn’t have been in a com mercial made several years ago.


The one-speed bike is self-explanatory: It’s a bike that does not allow you to shift gears (because there is only one). If you are going up hill, you simply need to peddle harder.

The fixed gear bike, or “fixie” as it is referred to colloquially, requires slightly more explanation. The back tire of most bikes uses a freewheel hub, which allows the wheel to continue spinning while the pedals remain stationary. The back tire of a fixed-gear bike uses a stationary gear with a lock ring. If the wheel is turning on a fixed-gear bike, the pedals are moving. Basically, the bike will not coast.


One of the dangers of a fixie is that if you are riding down a hill, you can be thrown from the bike if you stop pedaling.

Despite this, some people prefer to ride fixed-gear bikes. One of them is Mike Weigand, 27, an employee at Michigan State University’s Bikes Service Center. Like
most cyclists, Weigand has been riding bikes since he was a kid. It
wasn’t until four years ago that he got serious about it. About a year
ago, Weigand made the transition to fixed gear. “I had some friends who
had them, and I was really looking for a good, stripped-down, reliable
commuting bike to ride around,” Weigand said.


Simplicity is a common
reason given for riders switching to fixed-gear bikes. With a
multi-gear, you have a vast system of cables and chains, all of which
creates a greater potential for malfunction. Proponents of one-speed
bikes say one gear means fewer problems. Also, riders say they are less
focused on what gear they are using and more focused on what is going
on around them. For instance, traffic.

Weigand has one front
brake on his bike, which is typical amongst fixed gear riders. While
there is a brake, it is seldom used. The main mode of stopping a fixie
is to apply backpressure to the pedals, which stops the wheel from
turning. The other method (which is difficult to master) is the skid
stop. The rider leans forward on the bike, applying weight to the front
tire. She can then kick back and pull up, which locks the back wheel
and causes the bike to skid to a stop. The front brake is only used for
emergencies, and many fixedgear purists ride without brakes.

While
local shops aren’t reporting an increase in sales of one-speed or
fixedgear bikes, they are reporting that many people are coming into
their shop wanting to convert their multi-speed bike to a fixed gear or
one speed. Nearly every rider I spoke with had taken the do-it-yourself
approach to converting his or her bike.


Today’s fixed-gear phenomenon
appears to have been started by bicycle messengers who began riding
them for their light weight
and control. Tim Potter, marketing and sales coordinator at MSU Bikes
Services Center, said these bikes have been popular in coastal cities,
like New York, Portland and Seattle, for quite some time, but it was
only recently that he began seeing this trend crop up in Lansing.

He
attributes this to magazines, such as Urban Velo and Cog, which
primarily cater to single-speed and fixed-gear riders, as well as a
preponderance of Internet sites, including that of Sheldon Brown, the
late cycling messiah. Potter also credits the annual Bicycle Film
Festival for helping to spread the gospel.

The trend would not
be complete without the one-speed/fixed-gear companion, the alleycat
race. These are informal races started by bike messengers in Toronto in
the late 1980s. Since then, these races have been appearing in larger
cities, such as New York, and even Detroit and Ann Arbor.

That’s
where Scott Myers first noticed them. He and his group of friends have
been organizing and participating in the races since the summer of
2007. Myers said last year they held five races. While you can use any
kind of bike, a vast majority of participants ride fixed gear.


One-speed and fixed-gear bikes may be the hot new thing at the moment,
but not everyone is smitten. Barney Adams, an employee at Riverfront
Cycles in Lansing, doesn’t see what all the hype is about. “I don’t
care for it,” he said. “I don’t think it has any safe usage on the
road.”


Adams recommends that riders add a proper braking system, as
simply applying backpressure to the pedals is not an effective way of
stopping.

“The fixed-gear phenomenon that we have now, I
think, is at it’s peak,” he said. “It is safe to say that when a fad
reaches Lansing, it has already peaked.”

Then again, Orange
Julius and hip hop are still going strong.


Adams recalled having seen
the popularity of fixed gear come and go once in the ‘70s, then again
in the ‘80s.


So, in the end, it appears today’s fixed gear fad is
really just part of a larger cycle.  (No pun intended.)

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