A Gen Xer’s guide to riding a fixed-gear bicycle

By pounding over the hills of San Francisco in a 1968 Ford Mustang GT, a scowling Steve McQueen, in the unfortunately spelled action movie Bullitt, managed to define coolness for a generation of baby boomers, in spite of the corduroy blazer.

But those days are long gone. These days, driving a muscle car in that manner is more likely to get you shunned by hordes of millennials waiting in line for the Google bus. For them, what’s more likely to impress, if a vehicle chase scene in a movie are what defines the outlook of a generation, is this one.

That’s Joseph Gordon-Levitt in Premium Rush, a chase scene masquerading as a B-list action movie that attempts to cash in on the generation-defining outsider esthetic of the bike messenger, and, more specifically, the bike: The fixie. Or, as the movie rather clumsily puts it: “Fixed gear. No brakes. Can’t stop. Don’t want to, either.”

You see fixies everywhere you see millennials these days, and not just the organic kale kombucha market: They are all over cities, typically with ostentatiously coloured rims and narrow handlebars, delivering their bare-headed passengers to their destinations via spanking new bike lanes.

For those of a more, well, experienced generation, however, the appeal of the fixie can be a little elusive. One gear that you can never stop pedalling? No brakes? Kids these days, sigh.

As somebody claiming a place, in outlook if not chronology, as a bridge between those generations, I decided to do my part to close that generation gap with my latest Shifter challenge. The ultimate millennial bicycle chore, albeit a simple one: Riding a fixie to the local craft brewery to pick up a six pack.

I’ve only dabbled with fixies in the past, so I’m not exaggerating the role of a fixie n00b. I convinced my cousin to lend my his well-trod machine, resplendent with bright orange rims, bullish pursuit handlebars and, thankfully, two sets of rim brakes (yeah, yeah: true authenticity would call for no brakes at all, but the learning curve of using pedals to stop is steeper than my tolerance for the risk of dropping a six pack).

The absence of sagging cables and dangling derailleurs gave the fixie some handsome and clean lines, so I knew had to match. I pulled on my skinniest jeans, wrapped a messenger bag around my shoulders, installed Snapchat on my phone, and I was off.

Hearing JGL say “the pedals never stop turning” is one thing. Actually pushing off on a bike when the wheels never stop turning is another. Your intellect may be ready for it, but your feet are not. The pedals of the fixie felt like a sentient being. They revolved independent of me, as I if they were driving and I was just a passenger. They felt like Google Car, for bikes, especially as I fumbled to get my Blundstone into the toe clips. (A side note: Pedal clips? Really? Sure, they worked for Stephen Roche in the 1987 Tour de France, but really?).

Still, once I got a rhythm down, I rode with few problems. For a while. It’s funny how a fixie makes you realize how often you coast on a bike. Like when you approach a curb and attempt to pull your front wheel over it. Try that sometime without stopping your spinning. It’s hard. And weird. I wouldn’t say it was dangerous, but wasn’t not dangerous.

I steered toward one of those steep and narrow foot bridges over a busy thoroughfare that Europeans point to as proof of our hatred of pedestrians, wishing only occasionally that I could shift gears on the way up. I rolled down the other side with my feet held wide and the pedals spinning furiously and independently. I was getting into a groove now.

Until I reached the brewery and encountered my next problem: for all its clean lines, there was nowhere on the bike to pack my beer. No rack. No basket. Not even one of those hipster leather beer carriers that I usually mock. I guess millennials are more practical than they are given credit for.

I emptied my six pack into my messenger bag and gingerly pedalled for home, hoping that my lurching cadence wouldn’t result in broken bottles. The rest of the way home was uneventful, but left me wondering why or if I would ever choose to ride a bike like this.

To recap: Compared to a plain old freewheel bike that you might see a Gen Xer ride (if most Gen Xers weren’t always driving expensive crossover SUVs two blocks to their kids’ school drop off because they are afraid little Johnny might get hit by someone else’s expensive crossover SUV who is also driving because of fear of other vehicles), the fixie has a few challenges: As a newbie, it was tough to get started. Difficult to stop. Challenging while climbing hills. Frightening to descend hills. Awkward to mount small curbs. And this model was definitely lacking in cargo space.

On the positive side: Well, the bike looks good. Fixie adherents often tout the control the fixed-gear provides, but lacking experience meant I felt the opposite. I did enjoy the responsiveness of the bike while rolling at speed, and with with time I may end up being able to do those rather awesome slide/stop things you see in alley cat videos, but until then, sorry millennials, but I’ll be hauling my beer in the ugly rack on the back of my plain old three-speed.


Originally published at Shifter.

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