Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Response to "Look Ma, No Brakes!"

I am quite disappointed with your Style feature "Look Ma, No Brakes!" (September 28, 2008) While I do appreciate the attention that cycling has received in the Post recently ("Two-Tire Industry Goes Flat", Sept. 15, 2009), I'm embarrassed that you would publish such a non-factual fluff piece that only extends stereotypes and exacerbates the general public's confusion and disdain for urban bicycle culture. This type of article belongs on some guy's blog, not in the Style section of the Washington Post.

First, lets clear a few things up. A fixed-gear bike, “fixie”, is not necessarily a road bike. There is no such thing as a “classic fixie”. Velodromes, contrary to the definition in the article, are more often outdoor arenas than indoor. The fixed geared bikes in Quicksilver are actually trick bikes with 1:1 gear ratio – not very practical for street riding. Many fixed gear riders are not “cropped, unadorned [and] skinny.” The term used for stopping is “skidding” not “skip-stop”. If the chain falls off, a rider better have skills to take control rather than being a “helpless, speeding missile.” And perhaps most importantly, the # 1 reason a cyclist should give for riding a brakeless track bike is because it is MORE practical than anything with gears and brakes.

“Fixie” can be the term for any bike with a fixed gear, yes, but not all fixies are road bikes. A track bike is definitely not a road bike but does fit under the umbrella of a fixie. There are at least two very significant differences between fixies built with a track frame and those converted to fixed gear with a road, or other, frame. If you look at the rear drop-outs on a road frame versus the rear fork ends on a track frame, you will notice that a road bike has a vertical drop-out, and usually a derailleur hanger, with the opening for the axle underneath the frame while a track frame has a rear fork end which opens at the back of the frame. Road bikes converted to fixies are somewhat dangerous and should only be attempted if the drop-out is more horizontal than vertical. This is necessary in order to gain the proper chain tension needed to keep the chain from falling off. Track frames have a shorter wheel base and higher bottom bracket allowing for sharper twists and turns. Road bikes are designed to go straight and make long, gradual turns. So depending on personal preferences, one may choose the frame that suits their needs.

There is no such thing as a “classic fixie”. The term “fixie” in itself has no historic or “classic” connotation. Perhaps you are referring to a classic track bike as seen in velodrome racing? Track racing on velodromes has been in existence since late 19th century when bicycle touring and racing was all the rage. However, contrary to what the article says, “the obscure but mighty gods of the velodrome,” are more likely to be riding on outdoor velodromes. In fact, of the 26 active cycle tracks in the United States, only 2 of them are indoor.1 And though velodrome racing is not as popular as it was in its heyday in the United States, it is far from obscure in 87 other countries especially Japan, France, Australia and Argentina.

I agree that fixies, for some, are impractical. However, fixies serve one very specific purpose, especially to bike messengers. Bike couriers ride 40-50 hours per week all year round, through snow, rain, salted roads, exhaust and other debris. These elements tear up and wear out brake pads, cables, derailleurs and levers requiring constant maintenance. The fixed gear bike is an economical and time-saving solution to a courier who feels he or she is working just to maintain their work horse. So while I do agree that there is an aesthetic beauty to track bikes, I and many others will attest that there are other, more practical reasons for riding fixed. Track bikes are opted for over road bikes, or even road frames converted to fixies, in part because of the significant geometric differences in a track frame versus a road frame. The “mighty gods” of the city's streets, who weave in and out of traffic all day long, are more than likely enjoy the agility that comes from a more compact, agile track frame. I know I do.

But I am not your stereo-typical “cropped, unadorned, skinny” fixie rider. I am a sprinter with short, strong, fast-twitch muscles. I love to go fast but I can also stop or change direction as needed. I'm a balls-to-the-walls, brakeless vintage track rider though I don't recommend for others to follow suit. Seriously, unless you've put as many hours in the saddle as the average bike messenger, you should use a brake. If your chain falls off, you better have an out. If you don't have a hand brake, you better have the skills to stop your bike some other way. Riding a bike that is too advanced for you is not only dumb but dangerous for yourself and everyone around you. If you're blowing out your knees because your gear ratio is too tough for you to skid (not “skip-stop”), then back it down a bit. Spinning through traffic in a high gear can be a lot more fun anyway.

We just need to trust that each individual rider does what is best for him or her and not what looks the coolest. There many benefits to riding fixed over free wheel but the important factor to highlight is individual riding style. If you ride because of the way you look, then you may look better as a hood ornament. If you ride many hours in city traffic through all seasons, then a track bike might very well be the most practical bike for you.

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