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The Rise of Suicide Bikes

There’s a new trend cruising around the Colorado State campus. Literally.

Look around and you can’t miss the brightly decorated bicycles complete with Brooks’ saddles, embellished wheel sets, and top tube pads.

A fixed-gear bike, called a fixie or “suicide bike” for short, is a single-speed bike without a freewheel. Meaning, whenever the bike is in motion, the pedals spin in conjunction with the wheels. This also means that coasting is impossible.

My blue Visp fixie sitting outside of my house.

I was introduced to fixed-gear bicycles through my boyfriend. I thought I was getting a single-speed bicycle for my birthday, something I had specified through various hints in the weeks leading up to the big day. But when I started cruising around on my new ocean-blue Visp frame and matching wheel set, I quickly learned that my pedals will continue to spin whether or not I am pushing on them.

As I was laying on the concrete cleaning up various cuts and bruises from my discomforting fall and holding back the fury toward my boyfriend, I decided to get back on the horse. I’m not sure whether it was my curious nature or competitive disposition, but I realized I needed to master this machine.

The Fixie History

I’m certainly not alone in attempting “fixing” as a way to commute. This trend has actually been around for many years now– in fact, it goes back as far as the beginning of the bicycle — but Fort Collins has recently been invaded by this movement.

Cyclists on the Tour de France had been using fixed-gears for racing years before geared bikes were used. The Tour began in 1903, and Roger Lapebie, who won the Tour in 1937, was the first to win it on a geared bike. That’s 34 years of fixie bliss.

Henri Desgrange, the first organizer of the Tour, once declared, “I still feel that variable gears are only for people over forty-five. Isn’t it better to triumph by the strength of your muscles than by the artifice of a derailleur? We are getting soft…as for me, give me a fixed gear!”

The idea of a fixie stemmed from the cog being “fixed” onto the wheel. Basically, the harder you pedal, the faster you go.

Shawn Brooks, manager of The Cycologist bike shop in Old Town doesn’t understand why people are only now starting to jump on the fixie bandwagon.

“These bikes are not a new idea. I mean, people have been using them for years,” Shawn said.

Brooks explained that the fixie trend mostly began with the bike messengers in big cities. Even though couriers had been using fixies for some time, the 1986 movie “Quicksilver,” starring Kevin Bacon as a New York bike courier, introduced the layman to the stylish fixie bicycle.

Messengers would ride these “suicide bikes” because they were simple to build, low maintenance and easy to maneuver around traffic.

But recently, riders have strayed from their original use. “Most of my customers looking for fixed-gears are bike junkies, not racers or messengers,” Brooks said.

Messengers originally would try and make their bike look extremely bland, discouraging thieves from taking it. However, recently, riders have been decorating bikes to look flashy and unique.

This year, Urban Outfitters started selling fixed-gear bikes online. The bohemian-chic clothing store teamed up with Republic Bike to allow customers the chance to build their own one-of-a-kind fixie.

Urban Outfitters making this bikes readily available to the public has changed fixies from a “way of life” to a “way of fashion.”

Why Become a “Fixer”

Cyclists have various reasons for riding fixies. Many fixie-fiends swear that riding a fixie connects the rider to his or her bike.

Cory Palencia, 21, a junior journalism student at CSU, believes that riding his fixie has created a unique bond between him and his sleek bike. “You feel every turn, stop, acceleration, and bump. There are no brakes or gears, and this simplicity tends to reinforce this union of man and bike.”

Cory has been riding his Mercer frame for only a year, but he thinks it will be difficult to go back to the mundane ways of geared and braked bikes.

Also, there’s no doubt that riding a fixie will catch the eye of anyone riding near you. I have received various notes left on my Brooks’ saddle, all uttering the same compliments “really great bike; ride with me sometime?”

I never intended to make a flashy bike, but the fixie street cred certainly isn’t hurting my ego.

“Fort Collins riders are definitely going for a look thing,” Brooks said. “People come in looking for cool wheels trying to embellish their bike.”

But despite having a glitzy frame and metallic wheels, some riders are actually using their fixies to find a quick way to get around town. Bryce Dongog, 22, a senior construction management student, uses his fixie to get to campus.

Dongog lives a radical seven miles from CSU, in a house off of Timberline and Horsetooth. Rather than driving in morning rush hour traffic, he cruises on the Spring Creek Trail to campus. “I can get to campus probably in 15 minutes on my bike, and it might take me at least 25 minutes when I drive down College,” he said.

Bryce also owns road and mountain bikes, but prefers his smooth fixie for long commutes. “I have so much momentum on my fixie that I don’t worry about getting tired.”

Whether it’s for style or speed, riding a fixed-gear undoubtedly looks like Fort Collins’ bike of choice.

Danger Behind the Wheel

One standard The Cycologist recommends for all fixies is a front brake, which most riders tend to forgo.

“One customer recently came in who works in the emergency room at Poudre Valley and said more bicyclists are coming in with injuries due to not putting a brake on their bike,” Shawn said. “I always tell my customers to add a brake if the manufacturer wants to leave one off.”

However, many riders are still ignoring Shawn’s advice and leaving the front brake off of the bike, whether it’s for looks or control.

Chase Yager, 20, a junior health and exercise sciences major, never added a brake to his black Schwinn fixie. “[No brake] makes the ride much more fun and it is a more free type of riding,” Yager said.

A biker skidding on his fixie. Image courtesey of InfoBarrel.com

Chase was introduced to this style of riding after he found a cheap frame on Craigslist. He quickly mastered the fixie skid, which involves leaning forward and locking one leg to start a rear-wheel skid, and the track stand, which involves balancing your body on the pedals to stand at a halt.

“No, it doesn’t bother me that some people refer to these bikes as dangerous,” Yager said. “Once you get a feel for this type of bike it is actually quite safe, and it’s all about knowing your ability and having confidence in making the right decision when you approach a tricky spot.”

Caitlyn McCullough is an employee of a local bicycle shop, Brave New Wheel, who supports the fixed-gear trend. McCullough believes that the lack of brake actually provides more control in braking, especially in slicker conditions.

“I mean, if you know what you’re doing, then you can have more control that just a single-speed,” Caitlyn said.

Currently, several cities all over the world, including Austin and Berlin, have banned fixed gears that do not have a brake on it.

Shawn Brooks thinks it could be a good idea to force riders to use a front brake, but it would be hard to enforce in Fort Collins.

“It is one thing to demand brakes, and another thing to enforce it,” Brooks said. “But riders need to remember that when you are on a bike, the person you are most endangering is yourself.”

Ignoring the Stereotypes

If you type in “fixies” on a search engine, you are bombarded with images of the hipster male: sporting skinny jeans, faux-messenger bag, and flat-billed cycling cap, all amidst a plethora of tattoos.

For Caitlyn, this image has certainly given “fixers” a negative connotation.

“People look at the façade of [fixie riders], they judge these people as hipsters and this stereotype gives them a negative effect,” Caitlyn said. “But as long as riders are operating by the same transportation laws then I don’t see the issue.”

When Urban Outfitters started making fixies available to the masses, many “fixers” started critiquing that the “coolness” factor will be strained from this style of bike. However, this also proves that fixies aren’t just for messengers, hipsters and track racers anymore. And they certainly aren’t just for men either.

Caitlyn McCullough has noticed that more girls are starting to commute with fixed-gears. “They are simple and low maintenance, and girls can deck them out anyway they want to!”

When I asked McCullough if her store disapproved of fixie riders, like me, who don’t understand the full history and significance of the fixed-gear bike, she laughed.

“It doesn’t matter to me, I just hope more people start riding more bikes in general,” said McCullough. “It’s just preference whether you get on a fixie or another style.”

2 Comments leave one →
  1. December 17, 2010 12:01 pm

    Very cool Blog! great reading! I like it!

  2. ben maass permalink
    January 31, 2017 6:56 pm

    its not the fixies that are the problem its the students that dont look when crossing the bike path and just expect you to stop for them. A fixie has every right to the bike path and unless there is a pedestrian yield sign or a crosswalk, the bikes have the right of way. As a fixie rider ive hit pedestrians and every single time it was due to their error and not mine.

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