Friday, July 07, 2006

Wall Street Journal and Fixies

Here I go copying from the Wall Street Journal again. They have an article in today's paper talking about the increased popularity of fixed-gear bicycles. I personally think this is a bit of a fad and that a lot of fixed-gear bikes will end up as braked singlespeeds with freewheels, and that after a while, the wisdom of maybe matching a low-output rider to varying loads and terrain will once again reveal the wisdom of gearing, but that's just me. Here's what you're missing in the WSJ:

'Look Ma, No Brakes'

Older Riders Try 'Fixie' Bikes
With One Gear, Many Risks;

A Surgeon Goes Over the Top
By HANNAH KARP
July 7, 2006; Page W1

Forget about 28-speed mountain bikes [What? Is that a Rohloff hub with 2 chainrings?], cruisers with huge seats or $3,500 bicycles that shift gears automatically. Cyclists seeking an adrenaline boost on their commute are increasingly climbing onto a model straight out of the 19th century: a bike that has just one gear, can't coast and often lacks a feature prized by most cyclists and law-enforcement officials -- brakes.

Taking a cue from velodrome racers and city bike messengers, a growing number of riders are buying so-called fixed-gear bikes. Unlike standard 18- or 21-speeds, fixed-gear models have pedals chained directly to the rear wheel so that whenever the wheel spins, so do the pedals. To stop, the rider has to slow down well in advance, or stand on the pedals with enough force to skid to a stop. Removing brakes and gears makes the bikes lighter and cheaper than feature-packed versions, and purists say they like these models -- also known as "fixies" -- for their simplicity and direct connection to the pavement.


"Fixie" bikes are becoming more popular.
While many riders used to build their own stripped-down models -- and some boutique makers have long sold them for track racing -- now major bike manufacturers are circling the market. Giant introduced its first fixed-gear model for the streets, the $500 Bowery, earlier this year. Last year, Trek introduced its T-1 track bike, a $1,100 model that comes without brakes, while Raleigh rolled out its $600 Rush Hour, its first fixed-gear model since 1980. And Specialized last year sold 5,000 of its fixed-gear Langsters, up from 600 when it introduced the line in 2001. Next year, Specialized plans to bring out a new version of its single-speed bike that transforms into a fixie by simply adding a cog.

But for all of their hipster appeal, the bikes can be difficult to operate, if not outright dangerous. Because coasting isn't an option, stopping takes strength and concentration. A common mistake for novices who forget they're on a fixed-gear model is to stop pumping -- and go flying over the handlebars as the pedals keep spinning, a Specialized representative says. For men, the bikes present another challenge: Because riders can't stand up in the saddle to coast, long rides can result in reduced blood flow to the reproductive organs, which studies suggest may lead to impotence.

Chris Dawson noticed fixed-gear bikes all over the street, and after checking a few pro-fixie Web sites, the 39-year-old lawyer in Sacramento, Calif., bought one earlier this year. "There's a perception that fixed-gear riders are these crazy guys," he says. "But here I am in my button-down shirt and tie." Now, the father of two rides it to work each day -- his is equipped with brakes, and he wears a helmet -- and says he loves showing off his new skills. That made it all the more embarrassing when he lost his balance recently in front of a line of cars at an intersection and toppled over.

The danger doesn't stop when the bike does. Fixed-gear owners can injure themselves when the bike is elevated on a repair stand. In contrast with standard models, with chains that stop spinning if something is caught in them, the chains and pedals on fixies keep moving as long as the wheel is turning, even if something gets stuck in the works. Sites including fixedgeargallery.com, cyclelicio.us and Sheldonbrown.com contain tales of stuck digits, even pictures of severed fingers.

Fans say they're unfazed. Riders say the bikes provide a killer workout because one can set the gear at a low level for added resistance. Macho types, meanwhile, revel at riding a bike they can stop only with their own brute strength. And experienced riders say plenty of rewards come with mastering the bikes -- with bragging rights conferred upon those who can execute moves like the "skip stop," in which a rider shifts his weight forward to unweight the rear wheel, locks his legs to hold the pedals in a horizontal position and skids to a stop.

Another move is the "track stand," a technique pioneered on tracks and passed down to bike messengers, in which the rider balances in one spot by standing on the pedals. Tyler Cannon says he did his first track stand to make way for a biker approaching the other way on a narrow road. "It really made me feel like the man," says the 23-year-old from Lake Forest, Calif. His thrill was short-lived. "I crashed about 10 feet later when I smacked a pedal on a rock," he says. "Luckily, the other person didn't see."

Newer devotees represent a milieu far from the bike-world fringes -- including doctors, teachers and Wall Street traders. This summer, hundreds of fanatics will descend on Traverse City, Mich., for the second annual Fixed Gear Symposium, organized by a 60-year-old real-estate broker. Bailey Fidler, a sales associate at Boston's Wheelworks bike store, says it used to be unusual to see anyone over age 40 shopping for a fixed-gear bike; now, he says, about half the bikes go to those in that age range. One popular pick: new models such as Cannondale's '07 Capo, which can be quickly converted to a single-speed bike that can coast and has brakes.

High Margins

While the U.S. bike business is booming overall -- it hit $6 billion last year, up more than 10% since 2003 -- these bikes remain a tiny niche. Of the three million specialty bikes sold this year, roughly 15,000 will be fixed-gear models, estimates bike-industry analyst Jay Townley of Wisconsin's Jay Townley & Associates LLC. While these basic bikes are typically cheaper than loaded-down bikes, they're still profitable. Margins on most fixed-gear bikes are about five percentage points higher than the 25% to 30% margins on a typical bike, says Mr. Townley.

In regulatory terms, the bikes fall in a gray area. The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission says track bicycles are "designed and intended for use in a competition." They are exempt from federal requirements for standard bicycles, which call for bikes to have brakes at least in the rear. Fixed-gear sidewalk bikes -- the commission's term for one with a seat height of no more than 25 inches adjusted to its highest position, and no free wheel -- aren't required to have brakes if they bear a permanent label visible from 10 feet displaying the words "No Brakes." The same label must be displayed prominently on promotional display material and shipping cartons.

The bikes have long been used by racers.

They're illegal in many places. Laws in most states where fixed-gear riding is popular -- including New York, California, Maryland and Oregon -- require that bicycles be equipped with a brake that enables the operator to make the braked wheels skid on clean, dry pavement. Still, fixed-gear cyclists and lawyers in those states argue, often successfully, that the rider should count as the "brake" if he or she is able to achieve the same effect.

To be on the safer side, bike shops generally advise customers to add hand brakes to models that come without them, and many riders do. Giant, for one, sells its fixed-gear model with brakes in the front and back. And in any case, makers say they don't recommend the bikes for novice riders, with many marketing their fixed-gear models as track bikes. "We think the people buying these bikes are savvy enough to know they're meant for one thing and one thing only. If a customer seems like they don't understand that, it's up to the shop to say, 'Don't go ride it in traffic.' That would be suicidal," says Andy Jacques-Maynes, road-bike product manager at Specialized.

Ken Heike has a brake on his fixed-gear bike, though he tries to avoid using it. He was considering taking the brake off, he says, until a recent spill changed his mind. The 53-year-old hand surgeon in Oklahoma City, who started riding it to train for a triathlon, says he was "booking" through a parking lot recently when a car lurched backward. He says he froze, locked his legs -- and "went over the top" of the car. He broke his wrist and couldn't operate for two weeks, he says. "All my friends said, 'I told you it was dangerous.' I do wonder if it would have been a different situation on another bike," he says. As for the hand brake, he adds: "I think I'm going to keep it."

Bike Spills

There are no statistics on how many bike accidents involve fixed-gear cycles, and typically bike spills of all kinds go underreported. But overall, bike-accident fatalities are on the rise, especially in urban areas. In 2004, 725 cyclists were killed in traffic crashes, according to the latest data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, up from 629 the previous year. Anecdotally, dealers say they see a higher proportion of fixed-gear bikes come back to the shop banged up.

The bikes are providing extra work for lawyers. Mark Ginsberg, who has represented eight fixed-gear riders this year and serves as chairman of the bicycle-advisory committee of Portland, Ore., says he's seen the number of traffic citations soar recently, though he has yet to see the court hold up a single one. "A fixed-gear is a braked bike under the law," he says. "You just must be able to skid the wheel on dry, level, clean pavement."

But David White-Lief, a personal-injury lawyer in Boston who specializes in bike accidents, says he's relieved that one of his current clients had brakes on his fixie -- even though that probably didn't help when a car took a left turn and knocked him down while he was riding on the side of the road. "It's just harder for a lawyer to explain to a jury or insurance company why someone didn't have brakes," Mr. White-Lief says.

No brakes? No problem, says Daniel Gonzales. The 29-year-old bike messenger in New York, who's fighting his second ticket for riding brakeless, says he got the first in November when an officer stepped suddenly into the bike lane, raised his arms and ordered him to stop. "I thought I had demonstrated the fixed-gear stopped quite well," says Mr. Gonzales, who locked his wheel and skidded to a halt in front of the officer. "I didn't run into him."

3 Comments:

Anonymous Grey said...

That's a pretty good article. I was always under the impression that "fixie" is an abrevriation of "fixed gear" which is in contrast to the "free wheel" that a "normal" bike has. But what do I know, having only ridden one for over a decade? Fixed to the pavement? Right. In San Francisco fixies, usually without brakes are now a fashion statement more than anything. The bike I ride around town which is a converted mid-80's Colnago race frame with road bars and a front brake (yes, the fashionistas insist on steel nitto track bars and the like) is pretty much not even cool. In general I'm all for people riding bikes (maybe getting a track bike to be cool actually gets some folks to ride who wouldn't otherwise) but it does bother me to see people who obviously don't have a lot of skill riding through our busy (and very hilly) streets. Having a brake really allows a lot more freedom of movement with the bike considering that you can ride faster, not worrying constantly about the distance you need to stop or looking all around for bail out options, but it's a waste of time to point out practicalities to people who choose a bike for fashion reasons. And in some cases I think the fixie kids could really cause themselves and others some serious damage. A friend of mine belongs to a listserve for an SF fixed group through which they schedule meetings, parties, rides, etc. I went on one group ride with three other guys (I hear that the parties get a much higher turnout than rides of any substance), my friend and I both had brakes, the other guys had none, and only one wore a helmet. We rode over the Golden Gate Bridge for a brief visit to Marin county, and having been on hundreds of group rides through the years, road, mountain, cross, whatever, what I saw on that ride was by far the most dangerous riding I've been around. That's the last group fixed ride I'm going on with that group mostly because I don't want to witness what inevitably is going to happen which is someone wrecking him or herself and others. It's the rare case where I feel like some car driver could easily be the victim of an irresponsible cyclist.

July 16, 2006 2:57 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I have been riding a fixed gear bike for over 13 years. I do 150+ mile rides on the thing.

I love my fixed.

May 22, 2007 12:59 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

My boyfriend just started riding his fixed bike today. He has one year experience riding bicycles. He constantly complains about the "dumb" people who almost run into him on a daily basis. Now that he has no brakes, I am excited for the day I get to change his diapers and sop up his drool.

June 17, 2007 5:17 PM  

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