A new face for cycling

This article was published in 2013, in Newsletter 108.

Let’s say: every vehicle has its own habitat. Then the motorway would be the default for a car burning fossil fuel. And the bicycle, our normal bicycle, would be optimal for the downhill slope. Down and down you go, the wind in your hair, no thoughts of the hills that you may have to climb later. The joy of coasting downhill is the outcome of a nifty engineering solution from 1869 called the freewheel. It allows your pedals to remain still while the bicycle is in motion.

Back then, bicycle experts were united in their opposition to this new-fangled invention. Freewheeling was rejected because it corrupted the technical simplicity of their cycling machines. But it is a testament to the success of the freewheel mechanism that today cycling and freewheeling, preferably downhill, belong together. Many of us have probably never ridden a bicycle which will pedal back at you when your feet would like to take a break. Of course, in competitive cycling and time trials fixed-gear machines always had a place.

Fixed-gear bicycle (Image from the Wikimedia Commons.)
Image as described adjacent

A century of freewheeling domination came to an end a few years ago when London Calling entered the scene, one of the many bike videos which celebrate a lawless, male, speed-crazed messenger cyclist culture on bikes without gears and without freewheeling. These stripped-down machines were not available in any bike shop. You had to ‘build’ them yourself. The path to wild and fast pedalcraft led through the bicycle workshop. Proper ‘wrenching’ was required to ‘build’ your bike from scratch so that it would become a personal statement, perhaps even a work of art. Not one of those typical Cambridge bikes which suffer habitual neglect, is left dirty and uncared-for in order to deter thieves. The kids who watched bike messengers from London and New York on YouTube got off the sofa and suddenly found black grease under their fingernails. Now they are in the process of building a new face for cycling for their generation.

Cambridge Fixed Gear came into being when a few kids from the local schools started to hang out at the Bicycle Ambulance. The workshop, hidden in the basement of a multistorey car park, was able to attract this audience because it operated in an open, accessible space, without doors and walls. The passion and expertise of the staff proved contagious. Today the colourful shop has become the preferred place of service and worship for the cult of anti-freewheeling. Cambridge Fixed Gear hold occasional ‘alley cats’ – group ride events which involve challenges and prizes. For their logo they made some minor modifications to the arms of the local university and replaced the four lions passant gardant with the same number of bicycle cogs. When Oli and Joe visited my bookshop to explain what Cambridge Fixed Gear is about, it became clear that they really cared for their bikes. For all three of them. Each carefully created or selected. With an awareness that the right bike is a crucial part of the personality projected on the road. No, they would not dress to match the colour of the bike, but of course once you have paid some attention to your own bike, you register exactly what other cyclists are bringing to the common table which is the road. Oli and Joe are aristocrats of fixed who stay clear of any commercial shortcut. They would never buy a fixed-gear in striking neon colours, ready-made and, or, even worse: ‘Off the Peg’. OTP is really out. The path to hipster cycling involves getting your hands dirty and finding the right combination of vintage parts, recycled into a personal statement, customised to become fully yours. If you think you have never seen one, just start looking a bit more closely for bikes without derailleur or Sturmey Archer gears.

They love their bikes and care about them a great deal. They know all the terms and all the brands. They have been to Sheldon Brown’s bike encyclopaedia, they dig lugwork on steel frames and have mastered the fine art of paying compliments to your bike. For them the bicycle has become an crucial part of the ‘presentation of self in everyday life’. For us granddaddy advocates, this is great news indeed. Having grown up amidst a surfeit of car advertising, transport, style and ‘personality’ have become thoroughly intermingled. Now these kids teach us a lesson about cycling and style which may sound Greek to the utilitarian cyclists who for many years have suffered a strange blindness about their own bikes. Our utilitarian cyclists could tell your the colour of their machine, but the brand of the headset and the nature of the rear dropout is a different matter altogether. Bikes finding their way into style and cool, via the dirty bike messenger of yore, is a revolution which will support the ongoing cultural shift away from driving and towards cycling. Being part of the style envelope it might also keep cycling attractive for girls who as teenagers are sometimes tempted to abandon their bikes, as told in The Beauty and the Bike [www.bikebeauty.org]

Of course, Joe and Oli would be the first to object to this emphasis on fashion. They are not interested in fashion. Fun they call it, speed, and a bit of courting danger and anarchy. They do enjoy the hysterical shriek ‘cycling without brakes!’ but know all about the benefits of a hand-operated brake. Observing a fixed-gear cyclist on the road you will see someone who is much more alert than their dreaming, freewheeling counterpart. On their fixies the kids are assertive, fast, never hiding in the gutter, taking their safe and rightful place on the road. ‘It makes people more engaged in cycling’, says Oli, enjoying the double pun on mechanical and psychological engagement.

The lockring which connects pedal and wheel puts paid to any mental idling on the bike. Constantly and precisely adjusting your speed with your pedals, traffic foresight fully engaged, with this kind of intense attention to the road in front and behind, there are very few surprises or unforeseens. Just keep this trouser-leg clear of the chain! Once your eye has been trained for it, you will start to see the difference between single-speed and fixed-gear bikes, understand the decelerating stroke of the fixie and recognise the continuous pedalling as the bike goes into a curve. And start smiling at those two-wheeled acrobats who keep their feet on the pedals when waiting at a red light.

The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan came out in 1963. Fifty years ago, freewheeling was clearly a positive and youthful marker. The times they are a-changin’. The same generation now gets their kicks from pedals that won’t stop moving. The local kids are picking up the new melody. Joe and Oli have counted about 20 fixed or single-speed bikes at their school. At Hills Road I have counted about two dozen. These are still small numbers, but they mark the beginning of a trend.

These bright bikes are great news, but not yet well understood and acknowledged. A future phenomenology of fixed-gear cycling would have to offer an accurate description of the constant control of acceleration and deceleration, and explain how this can approach the experience of flying. The silence of its pure speed, without the constant ticking of the freewheel, is also an important part of the fixie ride, adds Andy from the Bicycle Ambulance.

For all the intensity of the fixed-gear experience, these bright bikes also involve some sadness. Imagine a deserted industrial landscape, a large heap of metal parts, each not much bigger than a fist. Thousands of abandoned derailleurs: Shimano, Sachs-Huret, Campagnolo, Suntour, precious devices in their time, engineering masterworks, which gave much elation to their riders, now discarded, stripped from vintage bikes, which have been modified to suit a new and passionate interest in cycling.

Please send contributions to our fixed-gear poetry competition to contact@camcycle.org.uk for publication in a future newsletter.

Michael Cahn