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Stripped of gears

phillyBurbs.com, August 17, 2004

By Barbara Ortutay

Forget about coasting. The brakes are gone, as are the gears. What's left is pure bike.

"It's insanely maneuverable," said Matt Fitzpatrick, 22, a former bike messenger who now works for a Philadelphia ad agency. It's also far less likely to get stolen, since a would-be thief would be hard-pressed to ride a fixed-gear bike more than half a block before crashing - or at least growing frustrated at the prospect of no coasting or switching into another gear.

But there is more.

Sheldon Brown, who at 60 is somewhat of a nationwide authority figure on biking off the beaten path, could barely put it in words for someone who hasn't ridden one for at least a few weeks.

"There's something really addictive about it," said Brown, who owns a neighborhood bike shop in a Massachusetts suburb but has a strong online following among bike lovers. "There's something about it that's more fun."

Fixed-gear nuts can come off as a crazed cult to the casual observer, and, like many so-called crazed cults, there is a tiny bit of truth in this label. A group of current and former messengers can sit around for hours talking about the finer points of brakes (yes or no), coasting (no) and the bicycle's sex appeal (yes, and lots of it).

"Nobody is really lukewarm about it," Brown said.

The bikes, all straight lines and angles, look much sleeker than regular mountain or road models. This is part of their lure. In the age of 24-gear contraptions, they are also a return to simpler times - about 100 years ago, before gears were invented. Those who ride them for a while without fail mention feeling "at one" with the bike, like it's an extension of their bodies. Trying to ride one for the first time, however, feels more like a beginner's attempt at ice skating, where advice such as "you just stop pedaling" did not help explain how to come to a halt without falling off. Thankfully, aid came in the form of a garbage can mounted firmly to the ground. It takes a few weeks to get used to.

Of course, there are some things better left for regular bikes. Going up and down lots of steep hills or cruising down a long and winding road would be an arduous task on a fixed-gear bike. And then there's the brake debate. While Brown recommends a front brake (back brakes become unnecessary since the wheels stop turning once you stop pedaling), many riders shun them as the stuff for amateurs.

"A lot of people ask what you do if you have to stop suddenly," said Ian Gallagher, 18, of Philadelphia.

The key, however, is to get out of situations when this would become an issue.

"You become more aware of everything. It's not about stopping," he said. "It's never come up where I had a problem I couldn't avoid."

Blonde with a wolverine-like haircut, Gallagher rides a track bike custom made for Marty Nothstein, an Olympic athlete who is competing in Athens this year.

He's ridden it around the Leigh Valley Velodrome in Trexlertown, and described the experience as one of the scariest ones of his life. The track's banked curves and controlled environment make for an exhilarating ride that would be impossible on crowded city streets.

"When you are going really fast, it pushes you around the turn," said Jacob Burns, marketing director of the Velodrome, adding that anyone can learn to ride on the track in a matter of minutes.

A type of fixed-gear bicycle, the track bike has especially gained popularity among bike messengers and, more recently, run-of-the-mill bikers of all kinds. Originally designed for velodrome racing, they have no free wheel and thus don't allow coasting. Athletes use them for off-season training for this reason: not being able to switch gears while going uphill, or coast while cruising downhill, really does increase the suppleness of one's leg muscles, as several bikers put it.

Without breaks or gears to malfunction, the bikes are cheaper and easier to maintain than their equipment-heavy cousins. For someone well-versed in the art of bike mechanics, it's not too difficult to convert a run-of-the-mill roadbike, or even a mountain bike, into a fixie. To do this, all gears must be removed except one (though it takes some trial and error to pick the best gear ratio).

The wheel hub, which is the center of the wheel where the spokes connect, has to be replaced with one made for a fixed gear bike instead of one with a freewheel.

"I built mine on a Saturday and rode it for five hours," said John Hughes, 29, a Langhorne native who now works for a Philadelphia messenger service, zigzagging in and out of traffic on a bike with no brakes.

Like messenger bags, what began as a utilitarian trend quickly blossomed into a cult following, then an urban fashion statement. Now, it's hard to walk around Philadelphia's Center City, or Brooklyn's hipster-saturated Williamsburg neighborhood, without spotting a fixie cruising down the street.

"It feels like I'm walking," Gallagher said.

"I'm actually better at biking than walking," Fitzpatrick chimed, as the three sat in Philadelphia's Rittenhouse Square on a recent Saturday, bikes in tow.

They are three friends and fixie-lovers who like to embark on adventures such as riding to the airport to watch supersonic jets land ("it was like an invisible force coming through," Gallagher remembered), or riding to New Hope and back. In September, the three will take part in the Multiple Sclerosis Ride in New Jersey, biking 175 miles as part of a fundraiser for the MS Foundation. Their team name, "Crank Addicts," refers to the part of the bike the pedals are attached to.

Hughes, who grew up in Bucks County, said the fixed-gear trend has not yet reached the suburbs, nor does he expect it to any time soon.

"You're only exposed to what corporations wand you to ride," he said of the suburbs. At Cycle-Fit in Levittown, manager Mike Czerwonka has not sold one fixie in the year and a half he's been there. By contrast, bike shops in downtown Philadelphia must keep up with a growing demand.

"It's still a subculture," Hughes said. "It's spreading fast, but it's still not for mass consumption."

Still, he said, he wants to ride around Langhorne sometime.

"The streets are so wide, sleepy. You could ride for days."


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