Sober cycling

Being a drunk on Saturday night can be great fun, everyone’s good looking, everything is funny. On Monday morning, when your money, your health and your loved-ones are gone, things may seem less rosy. Riding a bike is like being an alcoholic. It expands the range of experience.

“A fixed wheel is a sprocket fixed solidly to the rear hub, so that pedalling is always rigidly coupled to the drive through the chain. The merits of which is best, the fixed or the free, is hardly worth discussing now that it is so simple to have a reversible hub with a fixed sprocket on one side and a free wheel on the other.”

Cycling Manual & Year Book

17th Edition

1939-40

 

Being a drunk on Saturday night can be great fun, everyone’s good looking, everything is funny. On Monday morning, when your money, your health and your loved-ones are gone, things may seem less rosy. Riding a bike is like being an alcoholic. It expands the range of experience.

Coasting down a good road, at thirty kilometres an hour, silent and sweat-free, you’re a God. An unforeseen mechanical failure, rising headwind or long hot climb can quickly change that status to ‘grovelling beast’.

On a fixed-gear you lose the best parts of riding a bike, relaxing on a downhill, freewheeling in a massive tailwind. In exchange many of the worst problems are also missing. You don’t have to turn the pedals. The mechanics are simple. There’s nothing tricky to go wrong.

It’s strange that – for a brief period early in the Twenty-first Century – single-fixed carried a radical, outlaw image. Strange because riding without a freewheel is cycling at it’s most sober.

There was a man on the January edition of Critical Mass, on a single-speed bike whose frame – branded ‘Tokyo Fixed’ – was equipped with a freewheel. No harm in that – he had hand-operated rim brakes front and rear, a mellow specification – even better if he’d fitted mudguards – but his sensible personal choice indicates that the fixed-gear boom is over.

In olden days a craze would mature slowly, creeping through the land at the speed of an invasive plant; already old-hat in the big city, when people in the provinces were just catching on. In the 21st Century global-village you can read Fixed Gear Gallery just as easily in Llanelli, as Shoreditch and those candy coloured rims will look as passé in Cumbria as they do in Clapton.

Hard-court bike polo boomed in parallel with the global infatuation for 1897 specification. (The automatic freewheel, the last element of the modern bicycle, hit the streets in 1898.) Fixed gear bikes are used in old-school bike polo played on grass fields. Hard court polo has evolved rapidly and everyone now competes on freewheel bikes.

hardcourt polo: free at last

That’s what happens with bike crazes, they attract a mixed cohort at the beginning, reach a peak then dissolve into sub-sub-cultures which are absorbed back into the many roomed mansion of bicycle madness.

Bike crazes are great, they bring new blood which has a ratchet effect on cycling. Some ‘fixie’ aficionados will have moved on to long-board skating, or bee-keeping, or whatever’s getting the kids going these days, others are out training on road bikes, saving up for leather luggage to hang on their roadsters or just riding to work.

Those who came to cycling via ‘track’ bikes have two advantages over those washed in on previous waves. They’re much more likely to have some minimal, mechanical literacy. If your bike has one gear – two if you count walking – then you really need, and are likely to develop, an idea of what a ‘gear’ actually is. Neophytes on mountain bikes just tweaked the thumb-levers until the bike felt OK and stooged off to the supermarket, the cinema or the dance studio, anywhere except the mountains. Fixie victims steered clear of banked tracks in timber or concrete but needed to know how far each turn of the cranks was going to take them.

Even more important is inoculation against dogma. People fear freedom and a common response to all the mysterious, untested potential of this pioneer era of bicycle travel, is retreat into dogma and sectarianism.

If you like riding fixed, if you came to cycling via an enthusiasm for 1897 bikes, then you probably know that the day before yesterday the thing you like best was theoretically extinct – anywhere except a velodrome or a circus tent – and bound for the museum along with the Woods valve and the cotter-pin.

It’s useful to consider the opinions of others, but bicycling is much too fresh to have developed any kind of classical form. Study the principles but don’t be afraid to experiment. And don’t knock it till you’ve tried it.

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