Fear the Fixie

In today’s New York Times an opinion piece entitled  Now Coveted — A Walkable, Convenient Place by Richard Leinburger discussed the increasing real estate prices in urban and semi-urban areas due to the rising interest of people to live in walkable and bikeable communities (along with access to other amenities). The author writes that “this trend is about both the revitalization of center cities and the urbanization of the suburbs.” This line of course caught my eye and immediately brought to mind David Harvey’s (1989) “urbanization of consciousness” and Lefebvre and the notion of the urban as being a cultural-conceptual experience, and not merely just a descriptor of physical space. It is an article that dovetails with an interest in bikes and bike culture that I have been thinking about lately.

Here in Madrid the increase in the number of cyclists that I see now compared a previous experience living here in 2004 is dramatic. And my first visit in 2001 need barely be mentioned since urban cycling in Madrid, much less in Granada was a whisper at that time, to say the least

Amongst the many type of cyclists and ‘cycles that catch my eye  is the hipster skateboard otherwise known as the fixie. (Disclosure: I like bikes and until unloading one prior to this previous move the personal count was at 4. )

A fixed-gear bike has no dérailleur and hence only one gear. The clean line of the chain running smoothly over the rear cog with no slack in the system to allow for the movement between gears has its mechanical and aesthetic advantages. It looks simple and tends to be simple to maintain. Oh, and it bears mentioning that these bikes have no freewheel either, so no coasting. To stop, proficient riders become adept at skidding by putting force onto the pedal nearest the rear wheel and often laying out the bike to achieve a ski-turn type arc to bleed speed and or stop. You can see an example here.

Originally descended from fixed-gear track bikes used for professional- and Olympic-level competition and brought (as I understand it) to the urban masses by bike messengers from San Francisco and New York, these bikes have become immensely popular with the urban-hipster crowd for their DIY aesthetic, a subdued and supposedly unpretentious sense of cool, and their green politics. Often these bikes–so the aesthetic suggests–were cobbled together by scavenging parts at the local bike co-op, the playing cards in the spokes earned while at local alley-cat races (competitions usually held at night in which competitors traverse the city on a scavenger hunt/race and end up at pleasant social event at the end), the bullhorn handlebars scavenged from drop handlebars and chopped and flipped. The bikes themselves are pastiche–a mixture of recycled parts, high-end rims, vintage frames. Often the bikes look simple and low-key but sport a set of color coordinated wheels that can run a couple hundred dollars a piece.Here is an ad for a brand of custom fixed gear bike (Bike Ad). The DIY aesthetic has fallen to the wayside for the retail fixie trend.

After meandering through these descriptions, readers may wonder, why spend time talking about a seemingly obscure bike fashion on a blog devoted to urban cultural studies?

Well, it is not obscure since it is not just in Williamsburg or Portland where this is taking place. The fixed-gear and its lowly cousin the non-fixed single-speed, have become symbols of urban progressive youth. There are, of course, other bikes out there that people ride, but it is the single cog aesthetic that one sees displayed in the window of the Vans store on the calle Montera next to Gran Vía up the hill from the Puerta de Sol. As is always the case, the counter-culture has gone mainstream (think snowboarding fifteen years ago) and the Pabst-Blue Ribbon aesthetic of “fixie” hipster cool has begun to be subsumed into the urban machine. The surest sign that gentrification is on its way is the proliferation of the single-cog ride. And though I like fixed gear bikes for a variety of reasons and would rather see bikes be fashionable than SUVs, I can’t deny my creeping suspicion that we must fear the fixie for when it comes the lofts are sure to follow.

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