Last week while riding to work from my South Philly hovel, my trouser leg wound itself around my bike’s chain ring, tearing my pants and pitching me over the handlebars onto what must be the dirtiest, rockiest part of Washington Avenue. I was wearing a helmet, so I walked away fine, but the incident left my khakis with an unsightly tear that went to the knee. Once I got to the shining Philadelphia magazine offices, I taped up my haggard wears together and went about my day having learned my lesson: Always roll up your pant leg before riding.
Yes, I admit it, I’m a fixie rider—commuter, actually, making the three-mile ride to Center City every day in rush hour traffic (home, too). I roll my pant leg up, wear an aerodynamic helmet, carry a Chrome messenger bag and bind my house keys to myself with a locking carabiner. I must just be another one of those hipsters eschewing practicality and comfort for aesthetic and cool, right? Not quite: I don’t like PBR or have stretched earlobes (used to, though—you can dock me on that).
I’m honestly just trying to get to work, much like the other 10,500 regular bike commuters in Philadelphia as of 2010 (more than 730,000 nationally). But despite numbers like those, bicyclists are still frequently mocked and maligned by non-pedestrian travelers for being on the road—fixie riders doubly so. They’re seen as trendy, dangerous, anti-establishment, an outward extension of an inward lack of self-preservation—the ultimate incarnation of a man-powered, two-wheeled wannabe James Dean.
Far as I can tell, it’s just a bike, and a bike in its most functional form at that. And as the number of bike commuters continues to rise (which it will), so too will the number of fixies. Even now, the trendiness of fixed-gear bikes is on life support, threatening to go full-blown integrated as Walmart pumps out cheapo versions and twentysomethings abandon their cars. Once again, Portlandia had it right: Fixies simply aren’t cool anymore.
But it’s not about cool for commuters; it’s about functionality and utility. The first bicycles in history were fixed gear, starting with production around 1880 or so, and it’s no coincidence that they’re still around today. Bike messengers picked them up from track riders in the late 20th century in order to shorten their delivery times, and with good reason. No other form of cycle provides the rider with the responsiveness, feel and experience that a fixed-gear bike can provide. The lack of extraneous equipment—derailleurs, unnecessary gearing cogs, shifters, etcetera—results in a stripped-down, low-maintenance ride that still manages to get you comfortably and quickly from A to B.
And what a ride it is. From the moment you slip your leading foot into a fixie’s toestraps and start pedaling, the bike demands your full attention—you can’t just coast your second foot in, so you have to catch the second pedal on the fly and continue pedaling until you’ve reached your destination. The machine will not let you forget that it is under you and requires your input to navigate, unlike the gas-guzzling SUVs, sedans and hatchbacks that dominate today’s roadways.
All that results in a rather unexplainable oneness with the bike, often mocked as the “zen thing” that fixie riders frequently cite as a reason for riding. After a certain point in the ride, you begin to acutely feel the connection between the bike’s back tire and the road, giving you detailed information on the force and breaking power that you can apply without sliding and looping the back tire out from under yourself. The lack of gears results in lower amounts of mental energy expended on figuring out gearing ratios for hills, allowing the rider to simply ride. No dead spot in your crank rotation leads to more efficient, rounder pedaling that makes the ride smoother than Tyrone Gilliams’ scamming abilities.
The ancillary benefits to going fixed are legion: deftly weaving around traffic and cutting time off your commute, good exercise, increased awareness (and therefore safety) during riding, not offering much for thieves to steal—the list goes on. After months of riding this way, I can’t imagine doing anything else.
As one the best cities for hipsters and the 10th most bicycle-friendly city in the U.S., according to data compiled by the League of American Bicyclists, it should come as no surprise that fixies are everywhere in Philadelphia. This city hates pretense and is critical of sizzle and flash, constantly writing off the newest and hottest in favor of the tried and true. Fixed-gear bikes are that attitude, a unique blend of functionality and confident swagger, personified into wonky-yet-sleek two-wheeled transportation units. They steer clear of the fluff of cycling in favor of its very essence, developing an intimate connection between rider and machine while providing a kind of mobility that far surpasses that of other modes of transportation along the way.
So let the trend die, I say. I don’t want to be cool, I just want to get to work on time. The rest of you can sit in traffic if you want.