This is my attempt at trying to understand the deep-rooted psychological reasoning to why people choose to ride fixed gear bikes brakeless in settings other than the velodrome.
Since the addition of a track bike to my actively growing colony of bikes, I have spent more hours on that bike commuting. Whether it’s to and from work, grocery stores, or to concert venues in LA with the help of the Metro Red Line, this is my “go-to” bike for quick, non-scellant trips around the neighborhood. Just like owning a new car, one begins to notice how many other people are on the roads riding the same thing you happen to be riding. In my case, the fixed geared bicycle.
If you were to so much as google the words, “fixed gear” (without having done so myself) I wouldn’t be surprised if there was a testimonial tied to each search result to justify what makes owning a fixed gear bike so great. The general consensus seems to be that these owners like the simplicity of a bike without brakes or derailleurs, or the fact that it only has a single gear. Less worries about potential bike hazards and more focus on the roads ahead. I get this way of thinking. It is part of the reason I decided to purchase another track bike after having my first one stolen.
Just the other day on my ride to work I had a serious close call. I had forgotten to increase my chain tension from having come back from the track and upon hitting a few bumps trying to draft a bus (which is a lot more challenging when you’re pushing eighty-one gear inches), I threw my chain. Normally on a road bike if a chain gets thrown, you would just switch chainrings and the problem usually solves itself. Things are different and more terrifying when riding a bike with only one gear. I ended up swerving to the right of the bus (bad move on my part) in an effort to make my way to the curb when I realized I was in between a bus (on my left) and a parked car (on my right.) To add to the panic, the bus was approaching one of it’s stops and was planning on merging right after it passed the parked car to my right. Not only did I not have a bike I could physically pedal to slow down, but I was going to be sandwiched in between to vehicles, what a way to go. To my luck the bus driver saw me and yielded, allowing me to come to a complete stop and have a mild heart attack. I put a gash in a chainstay but that was about it (mostly cosmetic) but everything else on the bike functioned fine.
This close call was an example that had answered a question I find myself asking time and time again. Just what is it that makes these damn bikes so trendy and cool? Why is it that when people watch others on track bikes ride in the street, there is a sense of awe and admiration when a completely different (and IMHO more apathetic) response to those on road bikes. What’s so cool about riding a bike without brakes? Why do fixed geared riders take so much pride in riding? There is a level of seriousness in urban fixed gear riding that is hard to comprehend and for a while I couldn’t figure it out until recently.
It’s the riders decision making skills. By choosing to ride this type of bike, the rider is flaunting their ability to make the right choices when faced with a hazard. The solutions to hazards that may come about are more limited and considered by the population as less safe. So by actively choosing to take these risks, the riders are seen as courageous and focused.
This is the fairy-tale narrative that most fixed gear riders believe in. They (myself included) feel that their decision making skills are so fine tuned, that they can throw more caution to the wind than the rest of us mortals. As history and statistics in the news have shown, this is not the case for everyone who hops on a bike. People will crash, people will get hurt, people will get sandwiched in between to vehicles.
However people still cling to the invincibility complex and the adrenaline rush that comes with riding brakeless in the city. It’s not so much the way the bike looks and the way it functions. The stronger underlying idea behind why this type of riding is seen as brave (or stupid, you take your pick) has to come from a more ideological analysis of the grand scheme of things. It comes from a combination of the bike (the pretty colors, the fancy wheels, the color scheme and aesthetics) and the rider on the bike (the person who is able to stay focused, scan ahead for traffic hazards and make split second decisions when those circumstances arise due to the type of bike their on.)
When seeing things from this perspective, it makes a lot of sense why there is so much street cred that comes from riding in congested areas on track bikes without brakes. That’s my story and I’m sticking with it.