Maybe it's a stage of life, but when my head turns these days it is usually to look at a bicycle. More often than not, it is a fixed-gear bike, or "fixie." Popularized by bike couriers as a fast, simple way to charge around town, the fixie has become the ride of choice for young downtown cyclists - a personal statement and urban art form in one.
Some come with stubby, shortened handlebars to make it easier to squeeze between cars. Some have swooping ram's-horn bars of gleaming chrome, stripped of all handlebar tape. Others have wheel rims made of bright anodized aluminum in pink or gold. Still others have snappy whitewall tires. The latest thing is to have a coloured bicycle chain to match the bike's colour scheme. A leather seat by Brooks, the storied English saddle maker, often tops things off.
Fixies strip cycling to its basics. They have no gears, only a single chain ring in front and a single sprocket at the hub of the rear wheel, connected by a chain. Some don't even have brakes. You stop the bike by slowing or stopping the rotation of your legs. Skilled fixie riders throw their back wheel into a little sideways skid to slow their momentum.
With a true fixie, you can't stop pedalling and coast. The chain, connected to the rear sprocket, keeps your pedal cranks turning at all times. That's why you will notice the cranks turning when a fixie rider pushes his bike along the sidewalk. It makes the bike trickier to ride, but it also gives the rider the feeling of being more connected to the bike and, through it, the road.
Navid Taslimi, who uses a fixie to play bike polo, says "the most intimate experience you can have on a bike is riding a fixie for the first time. You're locked to your bike. When the bike moves, your legs move." Cycling advocate Yvonne Bambrick calls it "a blending of human and machine. It's just you and your bike."
Racers have used fixed-gear bikes on indoor tracks for decades. Outdoor road racers used them to train in the off-season. Bike couriers adopted them because there were fewer moving parts that could break down or be stripped by bike thieves.
New York hipsters thought the couriers were cool and started using fixies themselves. It became "a whole fashion statement and a lifestyle," says San Francisco bicycle-shop owner Bradley Woehl, in a compelling new documentary film on the fixie phenomenon, Fixation. "So many people were attracted by the simplicity of it all. It is really like the purest, truest form of cycling that you can experience."
Admittedly, fixie riders can seem a little precious, with their right pant leg rolled up just so and the orange U-lock hanging out of their back pocket. One blogger called them "pretentious wannabes" and listed "13 reasons why the fixies fad should end now!" Fixie guys - and most are still young guys, though more women are buying fixes - can also be the most obnoxious cyclists on the road, dodging through lights and weaving in and out of traffic.
Still, the rise of the fixie is a healthy sign of a maturing bike culture in the city. Like high-school kids, urban cyclists are dividing into tribes. The nerds are the guys with panniers and reflecting vests; the jocks are the road-bike riders in spandex; the artsies ride vintage women's bikes with flowers in the basket; the fixie riders, of course, are the cool kids.
They are all part of a growing cycling community that sees the bike not just as great way to get from A to B, but often as an expression of mobility, freedom and individuality. The fixie expresses the spirit of cycling with style and verve. Greyhound sleek, tricked out in ever-more inventive ways, it is a gorgeous addition to the Toronto streetscape. May the fad live on.