FT article on riding fixed in London

Financial Times had this to say today, no mention of the coolest thing to do in London on a bike though 😉

Given £1,000 ($2,000) to spend on a bicycle, most sensible people would select one with 30 smooth gears, lightweight suspension for the bumps, and disc brakes that stop on a sixpence. Yet a rapidly growing number of urban riders are rejecting a century of innovation and spending large sums of money on bikes without gears, without suspension, with only one brake and not even a freewheel.

The choice of buying a fixed-wheel bike or “track bike” for city use appears to defy common sense, convenience and considerations of personal safety. Non-initiates to the so-called “fixie” consider their owners to have a few screws loose as well as missing a few gears. The disadvantages of fixed-wheel bikes are obvious – you can’t freewheel down hills, you can’t change gear going uphill, you have to time stopping to perfection otherwise you land on your rear and, without mudguards, you get soaked every time it rains.

Full story after the jump.

Yet fans of the fixie swear that nothing can beat it for urban riding. Indeed, the majority of Britain’s urban cycling professionals, the couriers who ride for a living all day, choose to ride fixies. What’s more, the latest bicycle fashion is spreading from couriers to health enthusiasts to commuters.

At Condor Cycles, the central-London shop, fixed-wheel bikes are a top seller – accounting for half the sales of the Condor brand. Greg Needham of Condor’s says they expect to sell more than 700 of the fixed Pista model: “Sales of fixies are so strong that we’ve brought out two new models to satisfy demand.” It’s the same story at Roberts Cycles, where bikes are tailor-made for the cognoscenti. Owner Chas Roberts says he’s built more track bikes in the past two years than in the previous five. Cycle producers are jumping on the bandwagon as well.

Specialized, one of the world’s largest cycle makers, has just launched a UK-specific version of its popular Langster fixie, complete with Union Jack transfers. Bike-shop owners say recent wholesale deliveries of fixies from large manufacturers LeMond and Trek were nabbed in a day.

As converts discover, it may take a week or two to get over the initial fear of vaulting over the handlebars when you try to stop but thereafter, fixie riding becomes a curious pleasure. “A fixed wheel gives me more control,” says fixie-cyclist Charlotte Barnes from west London. “I feel in closer contact with the bike.” Johnny Wilkinson, a cyclist from Hackney, in east London, and owner of two fixies, says: “I love the simplicity, and it teaches you to keep an eye on the road ahead.” And fixies are not just the ultimate in cycle fashion but also for speed – weighing about 8kg, track bikes are half the weight of a mountain bike. With no gears, they are also easily repaired. Then there’s the theft deterrent – fewer parts to steal and harder for a thief to ride away. Finally, fixies offer the promise of increased fitness as you keep pedalling and also use your muscles to slow the bike.

For newcomers to fixies, there is the option of using a single-speed freewheel at first: most shop-bought fixies have a freewheel on one side of the rear hub and a fixed cog on the other.

Fixed-wheel bikes are not new. Boneshakers and Penny Farthings had fixed wheels and the earliest Tour de France races, 100 years ago, were contested by fixed-wheel bikes. The founder of the Tour de France, Henri Desgrange, lamented the switch to bikes with gears: “Isn’t it better to triumph by the strength of your muscles than by the artifice of a derailleur?”

In spite of Desgrange’s misgivings, fixies became limited to velodromes or tracks – hence the name “track bike”. At velodromes such as those in Manchester and Herne Hill in south London, the bikes even differ from street-fixies in having no brakes at all and special glued-on tyres called tubs.

The return to urban streets was first initiated by New York bike messengers who turned fixies into a cult, complete with upturned, sawn-off racing handlebars and old inner tubes wrapped round the frame to protect the paintwork. London couriers and commuters followed the US trend but with a European twist: retro design and a penchant for classic steel frames.

Retro-fixie fashion is all about style and individuality. Traditional steel frames are slimmer, sleeker and more decorative than aluminium. Vintage steel frames are now so popular that there’s a shop, Brick Lane Cycles, in London’s East End, that specialises in this type of bike. The shop’s owner Jan Milewski, a former Polish lawyer turned London bike courier, says his customers like to personalise their fixies and he can barely keep up with demand. “Most of our classic frames are sold before they arrive,” he says.

These days, most independent bike shops carry a few fixie models, and British custom-bike builders can make you a frame that is as traditional or decorative as you wish. You are advised to take it easy at first, perhaps using a single-speed freewheel to begin with and then trying the fixed cog on minor roads. One option is to first sample the pleasures and pitfalls of fixed wheel at a velodrome taster session. But beware: you could get fixated on fixed.

Source: Tom Bogdanowicz November 16 2007 16:19


1 Response to “FT article on riding fixed in London”

  1. 1 Vintage-bicycle Mike July 4, 2008 at 3:00 pm

    Well, I am unable to understand the point of going back to the “stone age” of bicycle design… but I must admit I haven’t tested one one those… (and neither would I like to).
    Vintage bicycles look best on decorative posters, IMHO.

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