Activities: If the bike is fixed, it ain’t broken

By By Eric Williams

By Eric Williams

SALT LAKE CITY — During the last three years, cycling in downtown Salt Lake City has been getting a little simpler.

Fixed-gear bikes, also called track bikes or “fixies,” have been growing in popularity due to their simple, low-maintenance design. More urban riders are ditching their heavy, full-suspension mountain bikes and high-tech, high-cost road bikes for these cheaper, easier models.

Single-speed biking simplifies any road or mountain bike down to a one-gear, derailleur-free, manpowered mode of transportation. Single-speed bikers enjoy riding without the hassle of constantly changing gears, or the added weight of suspension components.

These bikes might look like something you had when you were 10 years old, but if you are going to ride one any further than little league practice, you’d better have some experience.

Because fixed-gear bikes only have one gear, they demand a disciplined rider, but reward with a more intense workout — especially when it comes to hills. Bikers have no choice but to get stronger when facing hills; with only one mid-speed gear, the rider either muscles the bike uphill or walks. The bike also forces the rider to constantly pedal, giving him or her a great cardiovascular workout.

Fixed-gear bikers take the minimalist approach even further by eliminating the rear free wheel, locking the cog to the hub. Once in motion, the bike’s crank continues to rotate whether the rider is applying pressure to the pedals or not. This means a rider can’t just stop pedaling and coast — if the wheels are moving, so are the cyclist’s legs.

Fixed-gear bikes were designed for sprinting and are used by cyclists to train and race on indoor velodromes. The bikes were first used in an urban setting by San Francisco bike messengers as a means to quickly do their jobs on a simplified machine. Messengers adopted the fixed-gear bike because of its fast, sleek geometry and low-maintenance design.

There is no braking on a “fixie” because most fixed-gear bikes literally have no brakes. Hand brakes can be installed, but most riders prefer the “one with the bike” feeling of the brakeless setup. The only way to quickly stop a brakeless “fixie” is what is called a skid stop. To skid stop, riders courageously throw all of their weight forward while locking their legs down on the pedals. Skid stops can be difficult to get the hang of — not even a seasoned “fixie” rider can stop on a dime. Most fixed-gear riders have more than a few stories of run-ins with unobservant motorists and scars to back them up. Within this added element of potential danger lies the allure.

“I’ve had a couple close calls with cars and people,” said U senior Eric Lippincott, a public relations major. “People don’t realize that a ‘fixie’ is not like the bike you had when you were a kid and you could just slam your pedal back and stop.”

While “fixies” are used for their ability to quickly build and maintain speed, when riding in the city it’s best to take it slow and avoid hills like the plague.

“You have to be watching two blocks ahead instead of 10 feet,” said Nick Anderson, Guthrie Bicycle employee and fixed-gear biker. For a more stress-free ride, sticking to back roads to avoid traffic is a common practice among this new breed of bicyclist.

Most people get into fixed-gear biking by expanding their experience with mountain bikes or traditional road bikes.

“It’s a fun, more challenging way to bike,” said Aaron Sanchez, who started riding a “fixie” this summer. “Riding without brakes was a new thrill for me.”

Many fixed-gear bikers build their bikes themselves, using frames from old road bikes. Sanchez used the frame from a 1974 Austro-Daimler 10-speed and spent $475 on parts to convert his old bike into a new “fixie.”

Fixed-gear biking isn’t just a quick way to get around town, either; it’s also growing on the social scene all over the urban United States, and Salt Lake City is no exception. Salt Lake City’s fixed-gear riding community has been quick to welcome bikers such as Sanchez into the fold.

“I used to see guys riding around on ‘fixies’ — they were always cool,” he said. “Now I have something to talk to them about and people to ride with.”

Salt Lake City’s “fixie” scene can also be found on MySpace. The “BFC,” a group of Salt Lake bikers, maintains a MySpace profile featuring pictures of urban track biking and group member profiles.

“It’s getting fashionable now,” said Mikey Sjodin, a salesman at Guthrie Bicycle. “I say let (fixed-gear biking) keep growing — we’ll sell some bikes.”

The fixed-gear gurus at Guthrie Bicycle always keep a few in stock and have some valuable advice for fixed-gear rookies.

“Watch out for hills,” Sjodin said. “You gotta man up if you’re going to ride a ‘fixie’ to the U.”

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Public relations major Eric Lippincott exhibits a fixed gear bike in downtown Salt Lake City.