When I was a teenage boy growing up in Manhattan, I was one of those crazy cyclists who held on to the edge of the Madison and Lexington Avenue bus, going to and from school by hitching a ride for easy acceleration, then letting go for an exhilarating rush of speed. My velocity was tempered by traffic, specifically by the need to sneak by parked cars (always looking for doors about to open in my path), predict the path of erratic taxicabs, and, of course, avoid crashing into peripatetic New Yorkers, who are born with scorn for traffic lights.
Those traffic lights themselves were a challenge, because the bicycle I rode back then, constructed from hand-lugged, double-butted (thicker at the ends than in the middle for a combination of strength and low weight) Italian steel tubing by a company called Windsor, was a track model without brakes. That's right. No brakes. The machine was designed for velodrome use (indoor racing on high-banked, steep, wooden walls) and, since there was no traffic in the 'drome other than competitive riders, and no hills to descend either, stopping was not part of the equation. More, the pedals and the machine's rear cog were intimately associated by a chain that could not stop unless your legs did because there was no freewheel. In non-cyclist terms, this means you can't coast. When the rear wheel moves, the cog moves. When the cog moves, the chain moves. When the chain moves, the front cranks turn, and when they do, they take your feet and legs with them.
Are you getting the picture? Once you start moving, you keep moving. In fact, without brakes, the only way to cease moving is to perform what's called a "stoppie," which requires aggressively shifting your weight onto the front wheel by leaning forward, thereby lifting the rear wheel off the ground. Once the rear wheel is off the ground, the rider locks his knees, absorbing the momentum of the wheel now dangling in mid-air, thereby inhibiting its rotation. Then, sitting back down on the stopped wheel, he skitters and skids to a halt in chaotic, but somewhat controlled fashion. The bike can then be held in place without putting down a foot (in the old days the feet were held to the pedals by "toeclips"; today they are most often cleated in) by performing what's known as a "track stand." This entails jockeying the machine back and forth (pedaling backward is possible) whilst balancing on the saddle and waiting for the traffic light to change.
Part of the attraction of the fixed gear bike is the discipline, commitment, and manic, banzai focus riding one requires. Another characteristic is the intimate connection between rider and machine -- the way the bike stops, goes, and turns in absolutely direct and immediate response to rider input. Additionally, this kind of riding allows no rest, so the physical demands are high, as are the payoffs in weight loss, muscle building, reflex sharpening, and aerobic condition. It's an extreme form of two-wheeled fun and not for the faint of heart, but it's also addictive to some riders, who wouldn't have their cycling served up any other way.
There is one more reason why such riding appeals to some, and that is the simplicity of the bike itself. Free of gears and other parts, the bikes are not only responsive, they are light, straightforward vehicles, though not well-suited to hilly locales. They remain quite popular among bicycle messengers, a particularly hardy, if short-lived lot who use them to ply their trade of bringing all important hard copies of contracts, legal, and banking documents to clients and customers around town. They find favor as well with fitness devotees, and those who enjoy simple solutions to their exercise and transportation needs.
In deference to the health of knees and wanting to live to ride another day, most riders these days do fit at least a rear brake to their machine, along with a freewheel that allows them to stop pedaling and coast just like any other machine. Thus diluted, the track bike becomes known as the "single-speed" machine. Many such bikes feature what is called a "flip-flop" rear hub, meaning that the wheel can be turned over so that either a fixed cog or a freewheeling cog can be connected to the chain.
Single-speed and fixed-gear bikes are experiencing a renaissance these days, and most large manufacturers now offer at least one model for urban riding, commuting, or fitness. More, there are a variety of smaller shops and custom bike builders who have, of late, responded to the craze by manufacturing machines dedicated to these specifications and this kind of riding. Mass-produced fixed gear bikes (gear heads call them "fixies") range from $300 to $1,500, while custom machinery can range well up from there, depending upon how light and beautiful you want the components to be, and how much you are commanded by a bike's snoot appeal.
I came to single-speed riding out of a taste for simple elegance in machinery, and out of a desire to have a stealthy, lightweight, responsive ride. As cross training for my tai chi practice, I find that the circling motion of my hips helps me open those big, resistant joints, and mimics some of the art's lower body movements as well. While riding a single-speed bike isn't exactly a mind/body practice, it's great cross training for other sports, and, particularly at this time of year, serves up the outdoors in particularly accessible fashion.
For more by Arthur Rosenfeld, click here.
For more on health and fitness, click here.