By Jeremy Spitz
City News Editor
Taylor Holmes pedals wildly as he charges downhill from the UC Santa Cruz campus, his skin-tight black jeans quickly spinning into blurs as he struggles to keep pace with his back wheel.
Passersby may ask themselves: Why doesn’t he simply stop pedaling and let gravity do all the hard work?
His bike won’t let him.
Holmes is riding a fixed-gear bicycle, or “fixie,” as they are sometimes called. He is part of a craze that has swept the world in recent years and has taken Santa Cruz by storm.
Fixed-gear bikes are minimalist in every sense. There is only one gear, and the rear cog is bolted directly to the back wheel — which means no coasting. There are no levers or toggles, and, often, no brakes or just a front brake.
Because there is no freewheel (the mechanism that lets most bikes coast), the pedals spin whenever the wheel is spinning. Riders regulate their speed by using their legs and resisting the forward momentum to slow the bike. There is no back-pedal assisted coaster brake like the ones found on a beach cruiser. In order to stop quickly, riders must shift their weight off the back wheel and lock their legs, causing the back tire to skid.
On hills, fixed-gear riders can be seen traversing back and forth, their skidding tires carving into the pavement like a snowboard cutting across a mountain.
But why would anyone want to give up coasting and gears? For Holmes, it intensifies the relationship between himself and his bicycle.
“You’re basically attached to your bicycle,” said Holmes, a fourth-year student who has been riding a fixed-gear for about six months. “It makes you feel much more connected.”
Proponents like Josh Muir, co-founder of the Bike Church in downtown Santa Cruz, said that riding a fixed-gear makes you a better rider. Fixed-gear bicycles have long been used as an off-season training bike for competitive riders.
“I think you can learn a lot about how you ride and refine your riding techniques on a fixed-gear, just because it makes you pedal all the time,” Muir said.
Fixed-gears are nothing new. The first modern bicycle was a fixed-gear, the heir to the famous “high wheel” bicycle in the late 19th century. They fell out of favor for general use with the invention of freewheels, handbrakes and derailleurs.
The bikes continued to thrive in track racing, where their lightness and speed were ideal for the indoor competitions. As a result of this utilization, fixed-gears are often referred to as track bikes. However, while track bikes do have fixed gears, not all fixed-gears are track bikes. As the scene gained popularity, riders began converting their old road bike frames into fixies.
Muir said that the ease of converting the bikes is one of the reasons the trend has proliferated so extensively.
“People get into it as something that they can learn about,” Muir said. “They learn some mechanic skills.”
Working on fixed-gears has become a natural hobby for people who are already passionate about bikes.
One such person is Derek Gregson, a Santa Cruz local and student at Cabrillo College. His bike’s jet-black frame and clean lines clashed with the grit and chaos of the Bike Church, where he was intently fine-tuning his ride.
“It was something fun to do and then it turned into something to spend my paycheck on,” he said.
No one can say for certain exactly when the fixie renaissance was sparked. It seemed the fad arrived from nowhere, like the yo-yo or Ugg boots.
There is a general consensus, however, that the revival started within the bike messenger scene in New York City. The lack of parts to repair or be stolen appealed to the urban warriors.
Rick Graves has been a professional bike messenger for 14 years. He returned to his native Santa Cruz to start his own messenger company after six years on the mean streets of Manhattan.
Graves has never ridden a fixie for work, but said that many of his friends in New York picked up on the trend.
“I think it was making a lot more sense to people there,” he said. “There’s a certain beauty to a fixed-gear at a high speed on a flat terrain where you don’t use the brakes and you just move back and forth between the lanes, avoiding the cars, or going faster than cars.”
Somewhere in the mid- to late ’90s, the message was communicated through the appropriate channels and West Coast bike messengers began to test their mettle on the steep hills of San Francisco. The San Francisco riders started to push the limits of their machines and began to shift the focus from utility to style.
“It became somewhat of a sport,” Graves said, remarking that the San Francisco messengers “took it to a whole other level of riding.”
These daring riders began to use their bikes for tricks. Stunts like track-stands, bar-spins and skidding the bike while lighting a cigarette were all conquered in addition to the requisite bombing of hills and riding at great speed through seemingly impenetrable gaps in cars.
And like any good subculture in the age of YouTube, participants posted their exploits online for all to see and emulate.
It took off from there. In many respects, fixies have become what the skateboard was in the ’90s: an extreme-sport subculture that quickly made the leap toward the mainstream. Riding a fixie has become the definition of hip. Add some tight jeans — preferably black — a messenger bag and a vintage cycling cap, and you’ve reached the apex of cool.
“I think people picked up on how it looks,” Graves said. “The bike and the bag is just another accessory.”
Muir, too, noted a change in the nature of the bike from utilitarian messenger workhorses to urban art pieces.
“It used to be — potentially — this stripped-down bike that was kind of a beater and wasn’t necessarily going to get stolen,” he said. Now, Muir describes fixies as the new “bar bike,” explaining how people show off their flashy new fixed-gears in front of bars like a Ferrari in front of a nightclub.
“It’s their cool bike and it’s fashionable,” he said.
According to Chris Phillips, who manages the Bicycle Shop Santa Cruz on Mission Street, the explosion hit Santa Cruz within the last few months.
“Over the winter, it just sort of blew up,” he said. “Now it’s just everywhere.”
Bike Shop Santa Cruz started selling fixed-gear components in October. In December, they completely overhauled the shop, and now they cater principally to the fixed-gear market, billing themselves as “Santa Cruz’s premier track, single-speed and fixed-gear superstore.”
“Honestly, I know that definitely a chunk of the appeal is just all the cool crap you can get for it,” Phillips said.
The shop also collects used road bikes and converts them to fixed-gears to meet custom specifications. Phillips believes that individual expression is an important part of the appeal.
“Everybody’s fixie is different,” he said. “All the conversions, people are going to have different wheels, different tires and different frames.”
Bill Hogan, a recent graduate who teaches the mechanical portion of the UC Santa Cruz bike course and works as a volunteer mechanic at the Bike Church, has also noticed a surge in interest.
“The scene is getting huge — it’s gotten really hip,” Hogan said.
He said that in the past year more and more people have come into the Bike Church looking to convert their bikes to fixed-gears.
Looking around at the overwhelming array of parts and frames that line the walls and ceiling of the Church, he noted a striking absence.
“There aren’t any road bike frames,” he said. “People just grab them as soon as they come in [to convert them.]”
Like any fad, the fixie trend has its fair share of critics. Perhaps the biggest controversy surrounding the trend is safety, especially in the case of riders who choose to forgo brakes.
Lucian Gregg, a Live Oak native and first-year at San Francisco State University, was killed Jan. 2 while riding his fixed-gear on East Cliff Drive. His tragic death sparked a debate about the safety of the bikes.
Since riders can slow the bike with their legs, brakes are not entirely necessary on a fixed-gear and many riders choose to ride without them because of a purist sentiment or a desire to seem riskier and perhaps cooler.
“They have this idea, through whatever story they’ve been told, that fixed-gears don’t have breaks and that’s the specific way you’re supposed to do it,” Muir said.
Under the California Vehicle Code, it is illegal to ride a bike “unless it is equipped with a brake which will enable the operator to make one braked wheel skid on dry, level, clean pavement.”
Riders often argue that since they can skid on a fixie with their legs, they should be exempt from this rule. Most riders in Santa Cruz, however, take a pragmatic approach.
“A brake isn’t necessarily something that you need to have, but until you know your limits you should run a brake,” Holmes said.
Phillips said that they encourage all of their customers to run a brake, but ultimately it is up to the rider to know their capabilities.
“The guys that are really good at it, those guys can stop on a dime,” Phillips said. “If you’re not very good [at] stopping on a fixie you shouldn’t be riding around in traffic.”
Hogan, who rides his fixed-gear with two brakes, said that they encourage to the point of insistence that people at the Bike Church include brakes in their conversions.
“Riding without brakes is not as safe as you could be,” he said. “But I think you can be safe without one.”
In light of these safety concerns, Graves worries that fixed-gear riders are stereotyped as reckless and disrespectful. He said that he is happy to see more people riding bikes, but he is worried the fad could give his profession a bad name.
“What’s come out of this is a culture that’s trying to emulate messengers — or what’s perceived as messengers — as sort of a risk taking, gung-ho, macho culture,” he said. “What it’s doing is adding to the perception in the public that bicycling is dangerous, that bicycles are dangerous.”
Graves believes that the culture can alienate and anger drivers, and professional messengers have to deal with the backlash.
“I just wish that people were a little more responsible and thinking about the consequences of their actions, because we all have to share the road,” Graves said.
Despite the association between fixed-gears and bike messenger culture, Graves prefers a traditional road bike: gears and all. To him, not riding a fixed-gear is a matter of practicality.
“I don’t think it makes sense in the terrain of Santa Cruz or for the work that I do,” Graves said.
He does, however, recognize the appeal of the bike.
“It’s a beauty to watch and it’s really inspiring to see what these kids can pull off on these fixed-gears,” Graves said. “But I seriously doubt that it helps them at all in the messenger game simply because it limits your options.”
Practicality is one of the most frequent questions Santa Cruz riders get about their fixie fixation. Who would want to give up gears with all of our hills? Most people won’t even ride a bike up Bay Street.
But there is a generally unified response to this query, and Adam Butler Ducote, a UCSC third-year transfer student, put it succinctly:
“A lot of people are wimps,” he said, smiling, his red Schwinn fixed-gear behind him. “You get stronger. Like anything in life if it’s harder, if it’s a challenge, you just get stronger.”
Muir granted that they might not be practical to earn a living on, but maintained that the challenge of fixed-gear bicycles is a large part of the appeal.
“Potentially, their application is viewed as very narrow,” he said, surrounded by half-built bicycles, squawking ducks and blossoming flowers in the garden outside his workshop. “[But] there are people that go out and push the limits of that applicability.”
Muir is one of them; he makes a strange sight on the Upper Campus trails where he often takes his hand-built yellow fixie. The skinny track wheels and sleek angles make the bike seem too elegant for mud.
“They’re practical for going out and having a good time,” Muir said.
It is impossible to estimate how many fixed-gears have popped up in Santa Cruz, but a glance at the railing outside of Caffé Pergolesi offers a good guess.
For most riders, a fixed-gear bicycle offers a new activity to enjoy and a chance to be a part of a group as enthused about shiny cogs and vintage frames.
“I think it’s fun just because it’s different. It’s something new to try out,” Ducote said. “I do enjoy the culture that comes with it. Any time you join a subgroup within a group you become tighter with those people. That was a super fun bonus.”
For Muir, the reason he rides a fixed-gear is simple:
“I like my fixed-gear a lot. I don’t know that it fills much of a utilitarian role, but it makes me happy. I enjoy riding it.”