New York Times, April 29, 2007
By Jocko Weyland
When is a bicycle not like other bicycles? To begin with, when it has
no brakes, or at least no visible brakes, or possibly just a front
brake. That means you can’t ride this bike very well on your first try,
and certainly not very gracefully, easily or safely.
The rear cog is bolted directly to the hub, so that whenever the
vehicle is in motion, the pedals go around, making coasting impossible.
This bike doesn’t have a shift lever or extra sprockets, and the chain
is shorter and wider than on traditional bikes.
There are no fenders, and the rear wheels are probably bolted onto the
frame to deter theft. You slow down by reversing the pedals, or
skidding, or doing a skip stop. And that’s just the beginning of the
differences between your run-of-the-mill 10-speed and a track bike, or
fixed-gear bike — fixie for short — as it is also known.
Many fixed-gear adherents contend that their bikes are the ultimate and
all others are pretenders. And these fixed-gear zealots are a growing
presence on the streets of New York. Perceived by some as nuisances, or
as troublesome, anarchist Dumpster-diving punks who happen to ride
bikes, they are occasionally reviled, but they are also the subject of
curiosity and interest. Just as die-hard skateboarders 15 years ago
stood on the cusp of providing a new lifestyle, so the fixed-gear bike
culture could be the tip of something that nobody can accurately
predict but something that is huge.
Riders of fixed-gear bikes are as diverse as bike riders in general.
Messengers are big fixie aficionados, but more and more fixed-gear
bikes are being ridden by nonmessengers, most conspicuously the kind of
younger people to whom the term “hipster” applies and who emanate from
certain neighborhoods in Brooklyn. You see these riders weaving in and
out of traffic without stopping, balancing on the pedals at a stoplight
and in the process infuriating pedestrians and drivers alike.
In Williamsburg and points south of Grand Street, these bikes are
legion. But they are fast gaining popularity, not just in those
bastions of trend followers, and not just among 22-year-olds.
Fixed-gear bikes are being ridden all over New York, by messengers,
racers, lawyers, accountants and college professors — a diverse and not
necessarily youthful cross section of the city’s population. They’re
being ridden by people who work in sandwich shops and don’t know or
care about gear ratios and bike history, and by people who have been
racing these bikes for years in places like the Kissena Velodrome in
Flushing, Queens, with its banked, elliptical track. They’re ridden by
militant vegans who are virtual encyclopedias of arcane bicycle
history, by thrill-seeking members of renegade bike gangs like Black
Label, by shopgirls, street racers, Critical Mass riders, your aunt.
There’s also the phenomenon of city riders returning to fixed-gear
biking’s roots and getting back to the track, entering races like the
Cyclehawk Velo City Tour, to be held at the Kissena Velodrome on May 6.
These disparate riders represent a rainbow coalition, a movement that’s
about bikes as part of a way of life, as an identity. Although
fixed-gear bikes can be seen as a trendy accessory, they also allow a
mild form of rebellion against what many of these bike riders see as a
wasteful and insipid way of life. Fixed-gear riders embrace the
contrary notion of taking a different route.
“We own the streets,” the spray-painted stencil reads. Not really, but
fixed-gear riders are, in a benign way, promoting an alternative to
Anarchy in Motion
So what’s the big deal? It’s just a bike, right? On some level, yes.
Two wheels, a chain, a cog, a seat and handlebars. But in the way that
one of Marcel Breuer’s vintage Wassily chairs is just a chair that
costs $10,000, the top fixed-gear bikes are just custom-made bikes that
cost 10 times as much as a regular factory-made bicycle. The pinnacle
of two-wheeled transport, they are beautiful objects with simple,
clean, stripped-down lines that make them look fast even when they’re
“They’re the prettiest bikes out there,” said Gina Scardino, owner of
King Kog, a store on Hope Street in Williamsburg that sells only
fixed-gear bikes. Indeed they are, with a modernist blending of form
and function and a look that matches what they’re made for, which is
going really fast on a banked velodrome track.
But the question arises: Especially in this city, isn’t it insane to
ride a bike that you can’t easily stop? By riding a bike that’s meant
to be raced around a special track on the chaotic streets of New York,
aren’t you risking life and limb?
It doesn’t make sense. But that may be the appeal, and has been ever
since the bikes appeared on the scene more than a century ago.
Fixed-gear bikes have a rich past. Before the invention of the
derailleur, the device that made multiple gears a reality, fixed-gears
were the racing bike. The original Madison Square Garden, built in 1879
at 26th Street and Madison Avenue, was built for a velodrome. Races
testing speed and endurance drew huge crowds, with the top riders among
the sports stars of their day.
The bike races at Madison Square Garden were all the rage around the
turn of the last century. A velodrome circuit flourished around the
country, with the best racers earning $100,000 to $150,000 a year at a
time when carpenters were lucky to make $5,000. And all this was
happening on the forerunners of the bikes being ridden today.
Johnny Coast’s Coast Cycles sits at the end of a desolate cul-de-sac in
the heart of Bushwick, Brooklyn, near the Myrtle Avenue stop on the J,
M and Z lines. Mr. Coast, a 31-year-old with dreadlocks down to the
small of his back, is a former squatter and current member of Black
Coast Cycles is not your typical bike store stocked with rows of
three-speeds and road bikes, along with locks, water bottles and other
doodads. It is an old-fashioned, one-person workshop where chickens
wander in from the yard. Here, Mr. Coast builds two or three
custom-framed bicycles a month, most of them fixed-gears, “tailored to
suit a body’s dimensions, to an individual’s geometry and affording the
maximum of comfort, design and style,” as he put it in an e-mail
Mr. Coast, who works surrounded by Bridgeport lathes, jigs and
blueprints, is a believer in fixies as a metaphorical extension of a
squatters’ lifestyle that connotes, as he puts it, “living a certain
way, subsisting on recycling, not wasting, finding liberation, freedom
as a revolutionary act, like in a Hakim Bey sense, primitivist,
He laughs at the absurdity of a brand like Mountain Dew approaching
Black Label with an offer of sponsorship, as he says happened last
year, and is wary of exploitation of the fixed-gear bike culture by
corporations that have little to do with biking. “I saw what happened
to skateboarding and surfing and punk,” Mr. Coast said grimly.
Look, Ma, No Brakes
The dangers of a small world getting bigger were vividly illustrated a
few months ago when a hipster wearing square-frame glasses wandered
into King Kog. The store, which sells fixed-gear bikes starting around
$800 and going up to the thousands, also carries Jason Chaste’s
Fortynine Sixteen clothing line, named for a gear ratio, and high-end
parts like Sugino cranks, Izumi chains, and Dura-Ace and Ciocc frames.
“Um, I’m looking for a track bike,” the visitor said.
“What’s your price range?” Ms. Scardino asked.
“Three hundred dollars,” the visitor replied.
“Hmmm, you might want to try Craigslist or eBay,” she suggested gently.
When Ms. Scardino asked the visitor how he planned to use the bike, he
answered, “I’m just going to be cruising around.”
You got the sense that this wasn’t the place for him, but also that he
might come back one day. As he put it when he left: “I like your shop.
At Bike Kill, an annual racing event sponsored by Black Label and held
in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, nobody seemed worried about the issue
of fixed-gear biking becoming too popular; everybody was having too
Vehicles used in the event, held on a blustery autumn day near the
Samuel C. Barnes Elementary School, included tall bikes (two frames on
top of each other with a seat about six feet off the ground), bikes
with metal rollers as front wheels, tiny bikes and BMX bikes (little
single-gear bikes used for tricks) and, of course, fixed-gear bikes.
Stopping on a Prayer
Mr. Coast was there, along with members of Black Label’s Minneapolis
and Reno, Nev., chapters and members of other biker groups like
C.H.U.N.K. 666, which has footholds in Brooklyn and Portland, Ore.; the
Rat Patrol, from Chicago; Dead Baby, from Seattle; and the Skidmarxxx,
from Austin, Tex. A lot of unwashed dreads, denim, leather and facial
tattoos were in evidence, along with a carnivalesque assortment of
voodoo top hats, orange jumpsuits, bunny ears, Mexican wrestling masks
and a Pee-wee Herman doppelgänger waving from his Schwinn cruiser.
There were copious drinking, including a contest to see who could ride
around in a circle while drinking a six-pack fastest, and the “Blind
Skull” event, in which riders wearing big foam skulls over their heads
pedaled until they fell over or ran into somebody.
Toward 8 p.m. the drunken tall-bike jousting began, with knights of
both sexes armed with padded plastic “spears.” The only dissonant note
occurred when a cassock-wearing interloper on Rollerblades with a motor
attached was expelled by a Black Label member. “Get your motor out of
here!” the biker yelled.
That’s the cardinal rule. No motors. For environmental reasons. Or
practical ones, recalling the West Indian messengers who pioneered
urban fixed-gear riding in the 1980s, bringing their ingenuity to New
York from the islands, where bikes that didn’t have much of anything on
them to steal were a decided advantage.
But pinning down what constitutes the fixed-gear movement gets
complicated. After all, what does the insanity of Bike Kill have to do
with someone like “Fast” Eddie Williams, who runs the bicycle-themed
Nayako Gallery in Bedford-Stuyvesant, has published a book of
photographs of messengers and competes in Alley Cat and Monster Track
Mr. Williams’s scene is the messenger scene, in which he has been a
participant since the early 1980s, when he first encountered the West
Indian messengers hanging out at Washington Square Park. “I saw them
riding,” he said. “I liked how they maneuvered, stopped at a red light
and didn’t step down. And I thought, ‘How do they do that?’ ”
Mr. Williams got a Matsuri, a fast fixed-gear bike, and started working
as a messenger. Twenty-five years later, he’s still at it, looking
incredibly fit and younger than his 43 years. “Track bikes are not made
for street,” he conceded, “and sometimes I need a hope and a prayer to
stop short.” But he rhapsodized about their charms. “It’s like playing
chess,” he said. “You think out your moves from a block away.”
John Campo, the salty-tongued director of the racing program at the
Kissena Velodrome, is another fixie aficionado. As with Mr. Williams,
the fixed-gear lifestyle seems to be a healthy one; Mr. Campo looks at
least 15 years younger than his 60. Biking isn’t his profession — he’s
a jazz musician who has played with Miles Davis, among others — but it
is undeniably his passion.
Mr. Campo missed out on the glory days of the Kissena Velodrome, but he
tells tales about the father of Vinny Vella, the actor who plays Jimmy
Petrille on “The Sopranos,” racing at Madison Square Garden to win
enough money to buy a scale for the pushcart he sold fish from, then
earning enough to open a fish store on Elizabeth Street. Mr. Campo
remembers all the Polish, German and Italian bike clubs, and he
remembers Lou Maltese, a member of the Century Road Club who held many
cycling records, including the 100-mile national record in a race from
Union City, N.J., to Philadelphia.
‘A Zen Thing’
Far from worrying about fixed-gear bikes getting too popular, Mr. Campo
yearns for them to return to the their prominence of a century ago, and
he welcomes street riders to Kissena. “These kids are lovely,” he said.
“They come; they win, lose or draw; they have a great time. This is an
American spirit thing, to be free, to do what you want to do and
express yourself in your own medium, like surfing or skating.”
Surfing and skating are mentioned a lot in relation to fixed-gear
bikes. Something about these activities prefigures much of what is
going on today in the bike community. Surfing 50 years ago and skating
25 years ago were small, below-the-radar pursuits with their own
rituals and secret codes and vernacular. Now they’re billion-dollar
industries, popular the world over. And in the opinion of many
aficionados, a little bit of soul was lost along the way.
Bicycling is obviously different; there are more bikes than cars in the
world, and bikes have a longer popular history, not to mention the fact
that fixed-gear bikes predate “regular” bikes. But something about the
trajectories of surfing and skating from unexamined, semi-underground
secret societies to blown-out cheesy “sports” could forecast the future
of the fixed-gear bike.
Surfing and skating retained some of their rebelliousness, in part
because of the varied, unpredictable demographic of who is involved:
5-year-olds and 80-year-olds of both sexes, doctors and garbage
collectors, law-abiding citizens and criminals. That makes the skating
or surfing “movement” hard to locate exactly, just like the amorphous
Johnny Coast. Gina Scardino. Fast Eddie. John Campo. The menagerie at
Bike Kill. It’s a broad swath. The group also includes people like Toni
Germanotta, a 42-year-old owner of an art studio that serves the
apparel industry. “When you’re on a fixed gear,” said Ms. Germanotta,
who works in the garment district, “it gives you a higher skill level.
You have to be constantly aware, always watching the road. You don’t
just ride, and it feels a little crazy.”
And it includes Kyle Fay, a designer for Urban Outfitters who is a
relatively new convert. “You take the blame if you get hit,” he said.
“It’s self-reliance, being responsible for yourself. It might sound
kind of corny, but it’s a Zen thing, being one with the bike.”
And it includes Alex Escamilla, a 23-year-old book artist from Fort
“I had a couple of friends who made fun of me for riding one because it
was trendy,” Ms. Escamilla said. “But the problem with looking at bike
riding as a trend is that you lose sight of everything that is positive
about bikes. You know, the renewable energy source, exercise,
convenience, saving money, saving time, community, seeing the city in a
whole new way, blah blah blah.”
Besides, she added: “Track bikes are fun. And they’re beautiful.”
Jocko Weyland is the author of “The Answer Is Never: A Skateboarder’s
History of the World.”