RANT/FILM I’m all for the current bicycle renaissance in San Francisco. As the Indian summer heats up, you’ll notice the bike lanes will be nose to tail with bikers — like a line of baby elephants. This is a good thing. Maybe the notoriously free-form, Tijuana driving style of SF residents will ease up a notch and they’ll return to mowing down pedestrians exclusively. There’s safety in numbers.
Of course, every revolution has its drawbacks. There’s always going to be that crew that wants to convince the world they’re that much more revolutionary, devoted, and pure than everyone else. And as the rubber hits the roads in San Francisco, a clan of tight-trousered, mullet-headed, vintage-T-shirt-clad Robespierres has coalesced around the fixed-gear bicycle, or as it’s called in its proponents’ cutesy parlance, the “fixie.”
What’s a fixed-gear? Imagine yourself cruising down the street on your bike. You get tired and so you stop pedaling and coast. The freewheel mechanism in your hub disengages the drive train and lets the back wheel continue to spin while the cranks and pedals are still. On a fixed-gear the rear cog is bolted directly to the hub. There is no freewheel or cassette mechanism, so if the hub is moving, the cog is moving. Which means if the chain is moving, the pedals are moving, and if the bike is moving, you’re pedaling. There is no coasting.
Sounds like a pain in the ass. If you’re like me, the first question that comes to mind is “why?” Well, the modern SF two-wheeled steel, aluminum, and rubber hipster fashion accessory has its roots in racing, like other wheeled vehicles that don’t really translate to street usage. They were — and still are — used on banked, velodrome-style tracks during races that employ all manner of strategies, including slowing down to a stop or near stop and doing a “track stand” — balancing at a standstill without putting your feet down — so your opponent can pass you and you can ride in the draft.
Since you’re not likely to be drafting anyone on city streets, a track bike is a highly impractical choice of wheels. What’s more impractical is that fixed-gears often appear to lack brakes. The bike’s speed is controlled by the rider’s pedaling cadence — slow the pedaling, you slow the bike. Stop pedaling, stop the bike. This effect can be augmented by adding a front caliper brake, but that’s frowned upon by fixie fashionistas who do things like cut their handlebars down to a foot and don’t run bar tape or grips. The problem with using pedal cadence as a braking mechanism is that stopping is dependent on rider skill.
Now there’s the rub. Like trucker hats and PBR, what started as a bike messenger thing has become a fashion statement and status symbol. You’ve got kids in the Mission with the left leg of their jeans rolled up, a little biker hat on crooked, slip-on Vans, and a brand-new fixed-gear Bianchi; and they don’t know their ass from a light socket. Cadence? You may as well be talking astrophysics. They just know that it looks cool. It looks less cool, however, when one of these lemmings comes screaming down the Haight Street hill unable to keep up with the speed of the pedals and wrecks in the middle of Divisadero. A friend was riding down Stanyan with a box in his hand when some goon on a fixed-gear, unable to slow down, ran into his back wheel and crashed him in the middle of the street. He didn’t even stop to see if my friend was OK.
So what was the original draw that caused the person I’ll call “Biker Zero” — to crib epidemiological lingo — to ride a track bike on the street? The people I know who ride them talk about being at one with the bike, feeling part of it, in the bike instead of on the bike. I’ll go with that. But this human-bike-cyborg crap has reached the level of “I like the East Coast because I like to see the seasons change” tripe. Respect to the old-school heads who’ve been riding them since way back, but as someone who’s done way gnarlier things on wheels, it’s just not all that impressive. The Bicycle Film Festival had scheduled a screening of M.A.S.H., an unfinished fixed-gear documentary by Mike Martin and Gabe Morford, until it got pulled at the last minute. It was shot here in San Francisco and showcased the “skills and beauty of these riders.” Beauty, no doubt — as in perfect hair. So you can ride down a hill and lift up your back wheel and do little skids to slow down. So what?
Riding a fixed-gear is like handicapping yourself. The bikes are so awkward to ride that not looking like an idiot while riding one is an accomplishment. It’s like riding a three-legged horse in the Kentucky Derby. To do that well, you’d have to be an excellent jockey. At the same time, why not be in it to win it and ride a horse with four legs? To me, it takes the choices — and therefore some creativity — out of riding. I don’t ride a fixed-gear for the same reason I won’t drive an automatic: no car is telling me when to shift, and no bike is going to tell me when I can pedal. If you’ve got bike skills, why not take them to a higher level? Go home and search for “Steven Hamilton” or “World Cup Downhill” on YouTube and see what can really be done on a bike that has the capabilities to be pushed. (There is a whole European tradition of flatland tricks on fixed-gears that takes serious skills, but it doesn’t seem to be a part of the current SF scenester fixie explosion.)
Not everyone is riding a bike to push limits. Still, the fixie cabal sticks in my craw, and it’s not because I’m unimpressed with the virtuosity. It’s not the misuse of a track-racing bike on city streets that bugs me. BMX bikes came about through the misuse of Schwinn Stingrays in dirt lots, and mountain bikes were the result of chopped-up road bikes on dirt. Misuse can mean progress. What kills me is the sinking feeling I get when I ride down Valencia and think, “Does anyone in this town ever do anything original?”
Now there’s even fixed-gear graffiti, Krylon line art of single-speed bikes with bullhorn handlebars, and the dubious slogan of “gears are for queers.” The fact of the matter is, the popularity of these bikes has nothing to do with the bikes themselves or the few people who actually have the chops to ride them with style. The fixed-gear is to 2006 what the Razor scooter was to 1996: a wheeled freak show for wannabes. Test it: send the right guy with the right clothes and the right haircut out around town on one of those old-timey bikes with the enormous front wheel with the cranks mounted directly to it like a tricycle. You know, the ones you need a ladder to get on and off of. Just see how many giant-wheeled ladder bikes are locked up in front of Ritual Coffee Roasters next week.
Do what makes you happy, but also do some soul-searching, champ: does riding a fixed-gear make you happy or does fitting in make you happy? Ask yourself, what bike was I riding last year? Was I riding one at all?
BICYCLE FILM FESTIVAL
2961 16th St., SF