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One Gear, No Brakes

Forget Lance and the new generation of bicycling technomarvels. The hottest ride in L.A. and other cities is a nonstop, quad-burning, single-gear dinosaur.

October 02, 2005|John Balzar | Times Staff Writer.

It's like riding a bicycle, once you learn you never forget . . .

As with other handy adages, this one will get you from here to there for a good long while. Then one day you come across something new that also happens to be something quite old. And you find yourself starting over again.

Riding a bicycle is one thing; riding a "fixed-gear" bicycle like your great-great-grandfather's is something else again--and while the two machines may look much the same at first glance, it's worth remembering that a pack horse and a wild mustang appear alike, too.

Fixed-gear riding is a zesty trend in road bicycling just now, particularly on urban streets in the U.S. and Europe. As improbable as it is exuberant, fixed-gear cycling makes hardly any sense, except to those for whom the old-fashioned fun of riding the hard way makes all the sense in the world.

First, a few words about fashions in the realm of serious road bikes, then we'll get to the question of why some people are learning to ride a bicycle a second time.

By far, most of the energy in road bikes follows in the slipstream of Lance Armstrong and the pro peloton of the Tour de France: increasingly exotic aerospace materials, evermore refined technological components, super-subtle aerodynamics, rising costs. The most advanced of these 16-pound asphalt bazookas now command prices up to $10,000, and they are destined to be obsolete in a year or two. Ounce for ounce, these machines can cost five times the price of silver bullion.

Exotica of this sort has naturally stirred its own backlash. Retro is back, for one thing. Steel-lugged, 1980s-style road bikes are gaining ground among those who ride rather than race and don't care to pretend otherwise. These bikes weigh a couple of pounds more, but so do most of their riders. Then too, the once-clunky "comfort" bike is, finally, evolving in the European style toward functional, but still lively, urban transportation.

Lastly, in a realm apart, in a world unto themselves, wearing unshakable grins of true believers, happy as anyone can be with their pant legs rolled up and their faces covered in sweat, are the most boisterous contrarians of all: The zealots who ride fixed-gear. Call them maniacs, and chances are they will swell with pride. Call them crazy, and only a few might object. Tell them that you just don't understand what the devil they're doing, and they'll talk your helmet right off.

I can attest to these facts, having caught the bug myself awhile back. In these gray-haired years of my life, I ride a fixed-gear bike whenever the chance arises--although, to be perfectly straight about it, I do not ride a fixed-gear with nearly the flair that the technique demands.

Which brings us back, roundabout, to the one essential flaw in that old cliche about hopping on a bicycle. Balancing on two wheels, as we all were taught, involves pedaling and coasting. On a fixed-gear bicycle, you cannot coast.

The rear sprocket is screwed onto the hub of the rear wheel. There is only one gear ratio--no clutter of shifters or derailleurs on these bikes. The chain provides direct drive with the forward sprocket. Your pedals rotate with the turning of the back wheel. They stop rotating only when your wheel does.

Think about it. You approach a stop sign. An old synapse fires a signal to your feet that it's time to ease up on the pedals. Habit takes over from there ... you never forget. Your feet relax into coasting mode, just as they have for all these years. Your pedals, though, have no such inclination. They continue to spin with all the power of your forward momentum, say 180 pounds' worth traveling at 12 miles an hour. The pedals whirl around and kick your unwary feet with the force of an angry mule.

In a millisecond, you panic and stiffen. The pedals then become a launch platform. Your confused brain finds itself flying over the handlebars while schoolchildren at the curb scream. You are now a fixed-gear bicyclist stripped of some portion of your skin and the entirety of your pride.

That's only starters. The real artists of the game--the strongest and most demented among them--jabber away merrily about "simplicity" and "getting down to the basics" and "connecting directly to the ride." Before long, they start stripping the brakes off their bikes, too.

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