London. Big place with lots of people in it, some of them even from England. I live here but am not from here. Sometimes I even belong.
Hipster. These days it’s a market segment filled with people with arty tatts or lumbersexual beards who might be a lawyer or user experience designer as much as a wood turner or brewer. Hipster is a look where it used to be a way of looking at the world. Such is the way of all alternative cultures, they become categories and labels in order to be marketed to, inevitably by people with arty tatts or lumbersexual beards - the kind of people who get called ‘Creatives’ when they are anything but.
Ten years ago, even five, having that big bushy beard and an out of fashion flannel shirt meant something. Around that time a whole generation, in debt from Uni and confronting austerity, realised that the capitalist dream of home ownership was effectively beyond them. What do you do when you can’t play the game? You rewrite their rules. They shunned that kind of aspirational, debt-levered ‘success’ as their guiding light and came to look at the value of things as things, not as objects with exploitable brand value. They went beyond brand loyalty and looked for the authentic - in things and in themselves.
I am all for younger generations rewriting the rules, specially as their grandparents - the boomers - have not so much rewritten the rules as burnt the book after they had their free education and then rinsed the surplus value out of their own real estate. And now they are busy passing the bill for it down the chain with a broken housing market, over-priced education and a failing NHS while still being the only recipients of state assistance to escape means-testing. Thanks Grandad.
My gen, gen X, aka the middle aged, have not done a great job either. As I have found out, reading Less than Zero and being deeply cynical about institutions and not participating in them doesn’t make them go away. My gen has turned its radical ideas, born on the end of the era of critical theory and apparent sophistication, into an inertia closely resembling acquiescence. We have become relativists with plenty to say but not able to do anything because we can’t settle on a position. We play Fear of a Black Planet on vinyl as if that was a form of political action and decry gentrification while reaping the upside in property value. Thanks Dad.
So what did ‘generation rent’ do with this? Having looked at the ‘macro’ and found it wanting they reinvented the ‘micro’. They looked at the ethics of industrialisation that I was torturing myself with in the last episode and, instead of buying another bike to make themselves feel better like I did, they took an old steel bike and restored it. A key tenet of true hipsterism is to ignore mainstream trends in order to value the thing in itself rather than its ‘cultural signaling value’. In cycling terms that meant turning their backs on expensive carbon bikes, lycra and the commericalised world of racing.
And chapeau! Having ridden the girls bike and the green bike and a few other bikes purely for transport and utility I get that. But for me those bikes for me were a necessary evil, a way to a better bike sometime in the future, not an end in themselves. I was always a middle class kid aspiring for the best.
Instead the early hipsters took to bikes that no one wanted, steel bikes, and old steel bikes too. At the time it was difficult to buy a new steel bike, most bikes at the turn of the century were aluminium, so hipsters started buying up cheap old racing bikes and riding them around. Well old racing bikes are lovely things to look at, so why not?
And then they realised that track bikes, with their one gear, were perfect for around town. And, bonus, they looked cool too.
That’s when the full collision took place; hipster melded with bike courier chic and, magnified by proclivities of the East End ‘it’ crowd in London and their analogs elsewhere, then multipled by instrgram, and you end up with a cycling scene that looks like this:
So the hipsterfied city-cum-track bike became a sub-cult for a few years. People bought these great looking old steel frames that were meant for riding on butt-cheek smooth tracks with razor-blade handling and had no concessions to comfort and started riding them on the road. There must have been some spectacular late-night crashes as smashed hipsters tried to pedal a straight line on the bike path through London Fields…
And it was right in the middle of that revival that I bought a fixed gear bike.
I wasn’t even looking for a bike at the time. I saw it in a pawn shop in the shitty bit of Holloway Road. Bored at lunchtime I was looking through the tatty old stuff for no particular reason, looking for a story maybe. Between a tired drum kit, some unfeasibly large speakers and a strimmer I spotted a bike. It was covered in old tyre tubes and black gaffer tape and it took a bit of digging with a fingernail to expose the bike underneath - a battered but fundamentally sound Lemond fixie. It called out to me much as a rescue dog would. Please save me from a life as a drug mule it seemed to be saying. I haggled the price down from £160 to £90 and rode it home.
Fixie. Fixed-wheel. No freewheel - when the back wheel turns the crank turns.
Fixies only have one gear, which means you end of in one of three pedaling states:
- Gear too hard - going uphill, or into a wind, or when feeling tired
- Gear perfect - feeling great!
- Gear too easy - going downhill or in a tailwind, pedaling like a lunatic
There is a steep learning curve to riding fixed; If you forget that you can’t freewheel and stop pedaling then they have a tendency to buck you off - forward, over the bars. Another classic fixie injury is caused by pedaling around a corner and hitting the inside pedal on the footpath as it comes down…. then there is clipping your front tyre with your foot as you make a slow turn.
So riding fixed is dangerous, difficult, somewhat anachronistic and, in 2011, try-hard fashionable - why would you bother?
Lets start with the obvious; they are cheap as chips to run. No gears means no shifters, no derailleurs and a straight, strong chain. Changing a chain and cog every so often costs about £25. I had the Lemond for 7 years and changed the chain and sprockets twice.
The second, and much more important, thing is the feel of riding fixed. Because the momentum of the bike carries your foot over the top of the pedal stroke and through the dead spot, pedaling a fixed feels absolutely brilliant. On a geared bike you tend to push the pedals in a kind of pulse. But on a fixed you glide through the complete pedal stroke. And you have fine control over the speed of the bike - sometimes you can ride for hours and not use the brakes. Finally there are no clicks and whirrs from the drivetrain, they are as silent as a bike can be.
It’s a little difficult to sum up how delicious riding fixed feels. There is no better feeling on a bike than hitting the sweet spot on a fixie on the road. When you have it all mastered - which takes a while - then you feel like the class A drug user of the cycling world.
If you takeyour bike to a wooden track then it’s like flying. The London Olympic velodrome is just a couple of miles down the road and for £35 you can go for a ride on it. If a good road on a nice road bike feels like cotton sheets then a fixie on a wooden track feels like Egyptian cotton sheets. It is so smooth that you feel like you are floating just off the ground. It is a perfect riding experience.
Aside from the brilliant feeling of riding a fixie I very quickly got to love this bike for other reasons. I never had to worry too much about it getting stolen. One because any casual thief would fall off it twenty yards up the road and two because it wasn’t worth much. And somewhat accidentally I had bought a bike that was exactly the same size and angles as my Salsa, to the millimeter, with much of the same positive feelings.
I got on so well with it that, after failing to ride Paris-Brest-Paris on my Tripster, I decided I would do the next years Audax rides on my fixie. I put mudguards on it and dynamo lights and generally turned it into a fixie that you could ride a very long way on rather than a fixie you ride to a secret cinema gig on, or rode to your sourdough bread making class.
On my first long ride on it I set my personal best time for a 200. Hmmmm…. there was something in this. I went on to do another 200, then a 300 and a 400 with varying degrees of success, learning a lot as I went.
One thing I learned was not to bother too much trying to keep up with geared riders when things got bumpy. The rhythm is totally different - up the hills you are going faster, because you just have to, and down the other side you are maxing out around 35kph with legs that look like egg beaters, a comical, riotous blur of flesh as other riders lazily freewheel after you.
But then, at the finish, you know you’ve really ridden those miles. So I can tell you that for my longest fixed ride of 600km my legs went full circle 106531 times. There is no hiding on a fixie. As well as doing my best ever 200km time I also had a couple of miserable rides where I over extended early and, not really having the option to back off, blew up spectacularly and crawled, one painful turn of the cranks at a time, towards the end.
And when you read about early long distance road races, they were all done on fixed gear bikes. The Tour de France was ridden on fixed gear bicycles for its first editions and then (somewhat against the will of the riders it must be said) on single-speed freewheels into the 1930s, many years after the invention of gearing in the early 1900s.
Here is the written statement of the first winner, Garin, issued on completion of La Grand Boucle, ridden fixed-wheel:
‘The 2,500km that I’ve just ridden seem a long line, grey and monotonous, where nothing stood out from anything else. But I suffered on the road; I was hungry, I was thirsty, I was sleepy, I suffered, I cried between Lyon and Marseille, I had the pride of winning other stages, and at the controls I saw the fine figure of my friend Delattre, who had prepared my sustenance, but I repeat, nothing strikes me particularly.
But wait! I’m completely wrong when I say that nothing strikes me, I’m confusing things. I must say that one single thing struck me, that a single thing sticks in my memory: I see myself, from the start of the Tour de France, like a bull pierced by banderillas, who pulls the banderillas with him, never able to rid himself of them.’
A charming image of cycling and suffering.
Once the fixie got a hold in Hipster culture the brands went after it. Redbull and Rockstar games have taken up the cause of the fixie and invented a whole raft of new formats - punchy, crowd pleasers that involve a great deal of crashing; from the figure of 8 minidrome to the street fixed Red Hook criteriums right through to fixed gear fox hunting - yes, #fixundfoxi. All of these are very much in the tradition of early racing - half circus, half race, all entertainment. And a million miles from my style of fixie riding.
There is one guy who is recreating an early infamous stage on that 1903 Tour de France, again Redbull sponsored, who is incredibly bike-hip but who is not so far from the spirit of fixed for me…
Perhaps that is part of the thrill - there is nothing on my fixie that is not merely a refinement of kit available in the 1890s. My fixie is something of the time machine then: roller-chain (1880), wheels with wire spokes (1808), the ‘safety’ bicycle format (1885) , pneumatic tyres (1845). Ok, the aluminium rim wasn’t really standard until the 1980s, but all the design principles were there well before the 20th century arrived.
So doing a Super Randonneur series (200,300, 400, 600km in one year) all on fixed seemed like not too crazy an idea. There are around fifteen people a year in the UK who manage this and the ‘Fixed Gear Challenge’ is often won by people amassing 20,000km or more in the year. Audax on fixed is a niche within a nice within a niche, and the more appealing for it.
And I made the 600 too, a long, wet and then headwindy ride to the Humber and back. It didn’t have many hills - the clue is in the event name - ‘The Flatlands’ - but nevertheless I did myself a bit of knee strain. After some recuperation I realised I should drop my saddle half an inch but (and mechanics reading this will wince) I hadn’t put enough grease in the seat tube the last time I put the saddle in and I could not for the life of me get the post to come out of the frame. I tried heating and cooling and yanking and pushing and twisting but after a few months of trying off and on realised I was not going to get anywhere.
But it’s steel, so it can be recycled. And really I given it a full six years of absolute thrashing, so it certainly didn’t own anyone anything.
So it ended up in the steel bin at the local recycling centre:
I still remember that bike very fondly. More fondly than bikes costing many many times more. Partly because of the beauty of fixed, partly because it fitted so well and partly because it was steel. Not even expensive or exotic steel, just basic bike steel, the kind that gets rolled out of steel mills by the mile everyday.
And I think this is where the hipster connection comes back in. It’s not that steel is any less industrial than carbon as a base material, but with a steel frame you can see the logic of the build in the frame itself. Carbon is all strips of stuff hidden under resin but steel is right there, on the surface. You can see the lugs and the brazing, you can tap a tube with your finger and hear it ring. You can imagine making one yourself and in certain beardy parts of Bristol and Brighton and London you can do a week-long course and come out the other end with a custom frame.
On binning it I needed a replacement as quickly as possible…. and ended up with a like for like replacement within a month.
So say hi to the Genesis Flyer. With sale pricing and the ride to work scheme and then selling off parts and swapping old Lemond parts on it I ended up with a ‘new’ bike that is about 40% Lemond and cost £250. It’s made from the same grade of tubing and the geometry is about the same, though I am a little sad it doesn’t have a classic flat top tube.
I look forward to riding the Flyer for the next decade or two, though I will have to get it repainted when that horrible white paint gets scruffy. Steel is good, fixed is good, white is never right for a bike but it’s what you get when you buy something on sale.
True cycling hipsters are way too cool to bother with the likes of me - and cyclists in London are appallingly reluctant to talk to each other at the best of times. I suspect my white, new, Flyer is too generic to rouse anything but disgust in the London fixie scene. Any bike that is bought new from the high-street retailer Evans is, by definition, not cool. I could have spent four times as much on a custom frame made out of the same grade of steel, or bought an over-priced retro from the Mecca of Brick Lane Bikes, but I went for the cheap mass-produced item from Taiwan. It wasn’t hand-made by a mustachioed frame builder in Bristol or South London and no craft beers were drunk during its creation. Sure, the Lemond and the Flyer were made in Taiwan, but they were welded by an actual someone. Steel has been made by people with names into double-diamond frames for bikes since the ‘safety’ was patented in 1876. In the age of throw-away electornics that is proper legacy.
Still, it looks like we have passed ‘peak beard’ in London and I suspect the hipster generation will be ditching the fixies for strollers. They will be trading the head-down-arse-up retro-fixie for a town bike, something with a few gears, something to take a baby seat. Lets just hope they can keep their idealism alive now that their style and mode of living has been relentlessly mined by every brand looking to be ‘authentically anti-brand’.
The ones that are left are part of the true fixie tribe. They might not acknowledge me but I am too old to care, I just like to look at their bikes and their attitude and keep my distance without ever being too far away. They think that I am aping them you see, but the truth is I was riding fixed 35 years ago, back when a racer would do a few weeks every season fixed to develop ‘souplese’ or liquid pedalling style.
And London and the fixie have been a pair long before hipsters joined the party. From the first ever six day individual track race run on a temporary track built for the event at what is now the Islington Business Centre in 1878 to the hey-day of the Herne Hill Velodrome and right through to the 2012 Olympics on the new Velodrome. The fixie might have neared extinction in the 80s, the flame being kept alive by the few riders who could tolerate riding on the concrete oval at Herne Hill and messengers, but it has survived and now it has thrived because it is really is an authentic riding experience, with hipsters there to recognise that or not.
I don’t count myself as a hipster, but I do count myself as fixie faithful, and I live in London - and two out of three is ok by me.
Next chapter: Magical Mystery Tripster