What is this animus I bear against fixed-gear riders, I hear you ask? Why won’t BAC build fixed gear bikes, in defiance of a trend that encompasses and insinuates itself throughout the cycling community at the moment? Is it just that Mark is turning into a bitter old man? Is he a natural contrarian? That is a point I may concede, but it goes A Lot Deeper than that. It goes right to the heart of what I love about cycling, about the qualities it has to improve almost anyone’s life and free them a little from the constraints that our over-elaborate and etoilated culture places on us.
I suppose I could call this post the “Anti-Pose”, because that is what raises my ire the most. This is not to say that poseurs do not exist in other cycling subcultures (a warm hello to all you chubby middle-managers squeezed into Assos ensembles astride Colnago EPSs ) and all of us pose a little bit, some of the time. I may be unrighteously casting the first stone, but I believe I have a valid point – that of utility. I have been a techie or a tradie most of my working life , and what annoys me the most is a designed artefact that is taken out of context and fetished, as tho’ designing a cargo cult (Rapha.cc my arse, they’re not a cycling ‘club’ (.cc) and never will be – what a pernicious mercenary lie) around Eddie Merckx, 1974-model Campagnolo Super Record, Reynolds 531 or Brooks saddles is a healthy expression of a general good regard for the activity you purport to love. “Form follows function” indicates that design comes first in order to make the form perform the task for which it is intended, not to conform to some twitchy ‘aesthetic’ that someone (a vapid and whimsically-inclined design and marketing exec, usually) who does not truly understand the activity (yet reflexively checks their new cycling ‘look’ in the shop window or mirror every time they walk or ride past) seeks to foist on the rest of us, for the spurious reason that it looks ‘cool’, according to them, and not even because they really believe in what they have designed, but because they think it will sell. Change of look, to something more ‘authentic’, more ‘real’ – that’s got to be a good thing, hasn’t it? We better go ‘cool hunting’ then, they say. So a ‘look’ is adopted, unconsciously, without most of the newish adherents really understanding what they have adopted – the fashion formula. Let me unpack it for you a little, in the hope that these scenester vultures will flap off to shit their digested pickings of the actual thing onto some other pursuit, and put it in the way of ruinative, mercenary self-absorption.
The most glaring problem I see with fixed gear bikes is that they are fashionable, not because they are a simple expression of the pursuit, and a genuine attempt to get away from the oft-bruited needless marketing-driven model-upgrade complexity (however genuine this ends up being). I am anti-fashion, on the aforementioned basis that following someone elses’s lead means that you have not thought for yourself. We have a backyard full of bikes that were marketed on the basis of their fashionableness, and now they sit there: unloved, unlovely, gathering rust and spiders. Most of them are no use in their current form. People who buy such bikes bought them because they were what everyone else was buying at the time, and not because of the freedom and simplicity that is the core of cycling. Marketing replaces savoir-faire, and a square object is mashed into a round hole of need.
Another problem is their lack of functionality, outside of a narrow range of uses. Track bikes are made the way they are for a reason – they are designed to travel in approximately concentric circles around a banked track at constant or accelerating speeds, and to only decelerate slowly. This is directly opposite to what goes on on the road, even within a road race. There are sudden and large changes in speed and direction you have to make, both up and down. To use the wrong tool for such a job is to make you appear an idiot – lack of ability to assess and analyse appropriate equipment for you own needs, from the total of that available to you.
Again on functionality: chopped bars. I was riding home from shopping on my town bike (to be smug; an old 1940s single-speed road frame, 71 degree seat angle, 3-speed Sturmey Archer hub gear, flat bars, modern long reach dual-pivot brakes) and a guy passed me pulling away from traffic lights on a tall road bike (he would have been 190+cm tall) with riser bars chopped down to about 350mm wide. They did have funky coloured keirin grips on though, so at least he had some hand contact with the bars (Grips! For a reason!). I had a sterling opportunity to watch his riding style from behind, and he looked like he was trying to squeeze through a very narrow doorway as he rode – uncomfortable, awkward and inefficient as all get-out. Of course, that’s Melbourne’s contribution to fixie scenesterism – the old courier practice of “splitting trams” – riding down the middle of two old W-class trams as they pass one another, extra points if one or both of them are moving (You get bored doing courier work – I know). You need narrow bars to do this – again, an adopted mark of the “hard man”. So we’ve got an aggregation of signature marks of ‘done it all, seen it all’: the track bike (copied from failed, and broke, trackies who got jobs as couriers because that’s all they were good at, after they retired); associated NJS bling from keirin racing, double toestraps, very thin grips (if any) on track racing bars; the fixed gear (contrary to accepted wisdom, you can put a freewheel clutch onto a a singlespeed wheel, and even better if it is a flip-flop hub, as many of them were, back in the day), or borrowing from the myth of the ‘hard man’ who trained on the road with one (usually a track rider who didn’t understand gears); veneration of old Italian road frames and ‘vintage Campy’ components (you don’t abbreviate Campagnolo into ‘Campy’ if you are Australian, it’s ‘Campag’ – get it right! Just like they are ‘singles’, not ‘tubs’ – preserve our cycling heritage!) and venal attempts to cash in on some ‘golden age’ of cycling by recycling old stuff (or facsimilies of the same, including staging stylish retro-themed events) back to impressionable wannabes who really need to know better. Hence the ‘.cc’ appellated clothing company. There’d be no-one around here who pandered to this market, would there? Would there?
I really like old high-quality road (and even nice old light chrome-molybdenum steel MTB) frames, because they were designed as well as the technology available at the time could make them. Good ones in good condition ride really well, and are still a good choice for tootling around town or gentle touring. I get sad when people try to bolt a fixed wheel into one, unless it was designed for it. If they don’t know how to do it, they stress the welds on the rear triangle to a point where fatigue starts, or the bike tracks sideways. I like my old 1940s road frame, the 3-speed hub fits it really well, because the two were designed to work together, back then. Or you could set up a single-speed wheel for it. It’s not a modern track bike, nor is it a Klein with 75 degree seat angles. It rides well. It may one day crack due to internal rusting, but at the mo we’re happy. My point is, if you want to ride something, make sure it works, and is not just what is popular at any one time. Some old stuff is great, but some other old stuff is crap. Singles? Very limited application nowadays. Old Campag? Clunky, compared to modern stuff – it’s not used for racing any more, is it? The reason to race is to find out what works, at the outer limits of performance. The reason for durable stuff is to get you to and fro with the least hassle. The reason for light stuff is to get up hills quickly. Pick a point in the middle somewhere, and forget style. The end. Oh, and if you’ve got all the hallmarks of a scenester (I’ll prepare a checklist shortly) and roll up at BAC Bikes, don’t, after all this explaining, expect me to take the blindest bit of notice of you until you prove that you actually want to find out how bikes work, how to make them work, and not how to make them look pretty and conform to some perverted halcyon ideal, except as a secondary pursuit.