How I can never again live without a fixed in my life
Riding through the city traffic like a car thief evading cops in hot pursuit, cycle messengers have become an increasingly visible sub-culture of cycling. Characterised by their distinctive clothing styles, a loaded courier bag slung over their shoulders and a crackling radio receiver hanging loosely off their belt, messengers have made a huge impact on the culture of road cycling. And it’s mostly through their choice of bikes.
Now, I love old bikes, but I’m firmly of the opinion that their modern counterparts are generally much better. Messengers have taken to bringing old track bikes, once destined for the skip, back into use or converting classic steel road frames into fixed wheel configurations. Gone are modern contraptions such as derailleurs, shifters, cassettes and cables, leaving a lone, solitary cog on the rear hub.
Often, only one brake will be relied upon, as a fixed wheel bike allows braking by backwards pressure on the pedals. Occasionally you’ll spot a rider on a cycle with no brakes at all, but they’re plainly mad. Forget modern accoutrements; the ethos is about recycling and building a bike without the expense of a modern equivalent, and also removing the appeal that has thieves removing a bike from its lockup quicker than stripping an orange of its peel. Affectionally, they’re often referred to as ‘fixies’.
As with most subcultures, 70s Punk Rock for instance, which spread around the world and were based on shunning the excesses of the mainstream with a do-it-yourself attitude, fixed has been unable to avoid becoming mainstream. The bikes and fashion of cycle messengers have caused an explosion of popularity with people desperate to imitate the look. This blossoming hasn’t been missed by sharp-nosed niche and mainstream bike brands, with a flood of cheap and off-the-shelf fixed wheel bikes making it easy to go fixed.
But just as I’ve never seen the attraction of punk music, no doubt aided by my being born a decade after it hit the UK music scene [ you would never guess – ed.], the appeal of messengers and their grungy attire and tatty old bikes, often sporting more rust than paint and a general helping of stickers and slogan-ed cards slotted between the wheel spokes, has never appealed. Perhaps it’s my all-too-practical nature, which sees my adoption of a bike with gears and brakes in the belief that it makes for a speedier blast across town. And I’d much rather ride a nice bike to boot.
With the growing influx of fixed bikes, it’s been hard to ignore their rising popularity so, keen to discover whether my reliance on derailleurs and cassettes is causing me to miss out on something, I’ve taken to a fixed wheel bike recently. And would you know it, I think I’ve been missing out all this time.
I should state now that, as a regular track racer, I’m not foreign to the oddity of riding sans-brakes and with one gear, relying on my legs for braking. Fixed riders often wax lyrical about the purity of riding a fixed wheel, and it’s hard not to join in. There’s a divine pleasure to be had from riding a fixed, no coasting allowed and your legs constantly in rotation. There’s also the benefit of the loss of many mechanical parts to go wrong. Keeping such a bike washed on a regular basis is simple. In fact, the dirtier and grimier the bike, the better, and all the more for detracting attention from bike thief’s too.
My recent, and perhaps too late in life, conversion towards fixed wheel bikes has brought me to the gentle conclusion that there will always be space in my bike shed for a fixed bike. The simplicity of fixed wheel is so well suited to my particular commute that I don’t think I’ll face entering another winter without one.
But, and while I climb upon my modern day carbon (not to mention a smattering of Campagnolo Record components and an exotic mix of titanium and carbon components) race bike, I leave you with one parting thought. Whilst I can’t knock the courier for his or her respectful trade, and the enjoyment from riding a fixed wheel, I certainly can knock the fixed rider who despite all efforts to get the messenger look down to a tee, has alas never delivered a parcel in his life. If there’s one thing worse than a messenger it’s someone that so desperately wants to be a messenger.