Fixed-gear not for the faint of heart
PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) – Mike Murray’s first encounter with a fixed-gear bike ended in pain.
He was a 19-year-old college student in Michigan. The bike belonged to a friend. Murray hopped on and began to sprint to the end of the street. He stopped pedaling, forgetting that on a fixed-gear bike when the rear wheel moves so do the pedals, and thus, your feet and legs.
Murray said he lost control and “I landed on my private parts on the top tube.”
“I thought, why the hell would anyone want one of these,” he said.
Three decades later, Murray is a passionate advocate of fixed-gear bikes; he has four of them. And in this city that has a love affair with bikes of all kinds, Murray is far from alone.
Road cyclists are riding fixed-gear bikes up and down the Cascade foothills at Portland’s doorstep. A growing number of commuters ride fixed-gear bikes as well.
“What’s unique now is that casual bike riders are riding a fixed gear,” said Murray, including “50-year-old bald guys like me.”
“Fixies,” as they are called here, are sort of the Platonic ideal of bicycles: stripped of all but the most vital components, and with just a single speed. Pure form.
“I like to think of it as really getting close to the purest realization of the wheel,” says 55-year-old David Auker, who rides a fixed-gear bike about 200 miles a week.
With their skinny tires and sleek frames, fixed-gear bikes look like multi-speed road bikes. But the similarities end there.
The rear hubs of fixed-gear bikes are built in a way that keep you from coasting, a configuration that can throw you off balance until you get the hang of it. Fixed-gear bikes even require you to change the way you get on – you can’t lift up or lower a pedal, place your foot on it and take off.
Fixies have just one speed. If you ride one out in the countryside, you have to pedal madly to gain momentum to make it to the top of a hill because of the single speed, and pedal madly again going downhill because of the fixed-gear hub.
Some fixed-gear bikes have no brakes. To stop them you have to use back pressure against the pedals – the faster you’re going, the stronger your leg muscles need to be.
There is no city in the United States with a greater passion for bicycles than Portland – which was anointed the nation’s best city for cycling by Bicycling magazine in 2001.
Portland is teeming with cyclists – from owners of beater bikes who use them for errands to owners of expensive road bikes who put more miles on their two-wheelers each year than many motorists put on their cars. Portland also has a number of current and former national-caliber bike racers.
There always has been a contingent of fixed-gear bike riders in Portland – mainly bike messengers, and racers who compete at the Alpenrose velodrome. Over the past couple of years, fixies have been discovered by a wider range of bike riders.
Portland’s infamous rainy winters are one reason.
Pacific Northwest cyclists tend to be hard core – many of them keep riding during the winter. But the price they pay is constant maintenance because of muck that builds up on bike parts.
Fixed-gear bikes are less vulnerable to winter road gunk because they have fewer components than their multi-geared cousins.
Many of the fixed-gear bikes ridden on the road during winter have been built from used or junked road bikes. That means less worry about the toll winter riding can take on an expensive multi-geared road bike.
The obsession of Portland cyclists can be calculated by the number of bikes they have in their garage: an expensive road bike for good-weather riding, a rain bike, perhaps a mountain bike or a cyclocross bike, and maybe a tandem in the case of a cycling couple.
So why not a fixed-gear bike as well, especially if you can pick one up for $200 or less?
Greg Morris, a 23-year-old garage mechanic, has been riding a fixed-gear bike to work for the past several months.
“I wanted to know what all the mystery was all about,” says Morris, who wears a nose ring.
Morris built his fixed-gear bike for about $150 – from a used frame someone gave him, plus buying whatever parts he needed.
At the Bike Central shop in downtown Portland, a substantial number of the customers are people who are buying fixed-gear bikes, buying fixed-gear parts, having their fixed-gear bikes repaired or coming in for some other fixed-gear-related business, co-owner Dean Reed said.
Reed said he thinks some fixed-gear riders are “doing it strictly for the look.”
But there also are riders who genuinely love it. They include Reed, who commutes on a fixed-gear bike to work.
Also among the true believers is Auker, one of the state’s best-known racing cyclists.
“Other bikes feel kind of dead by comparison,” he says.
To some riders of fixed-gear bicycles, they’re coolest without brakes. But Auker and Murray say that’s asking for trouble, unless you’re on a racetrack.
“It’s stupid to ride a bike on the road without at least a front brake,” says Murray, who is manager of the Alpenrose velodrome. “Things jump out in front of you.”
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