The Messenger World Championships began in Berlin in 1993, around the same time Ditta started taking his fixed gear to the streets. The championships take place on a closed course, are hosted at a different location each year, and consist of several different events designed to “test a rider’s physical and mental limits,” according to the official 2008 website. While the championships are not limited to fixed-gear riders, fixie riders have historically been heavily involved, according to Ditta, who earned himself a second-place title in the 1999 Skid Competition.
“Some were just beginners, some had been riding for a couple of years,” he says of the people who participated in the early years. “Half the riders in the Messenger World Championships [have been] riding fixed gears since then. That was part of the catalyst as far as getting the subculture into the mainstream.”
“It just turned out to be that [riding fixies] was a lot of fun,” Boyer told me, during our talk at Velo Culture. “The trend just spread across the whole world. It’s in every major city in the world now.”
Ditta and Boyer are right, I’ve realized; fixed gears are everywhere now. Sit outside a café long enough, and you’re bound to see a stream of them pass by, or walk around town with half an eye out. There they’ll be, colorful and gleaming, locked to signs and lampposts outside coffee shops, restaurants, and bars.
They’re not cheap, these fixed gears. At the Adams Avenue bike shop, complete bikes fresh off the factory line start at $550 for a KHS Flight 100 and go up to $900 for a Specialized Langster. Bikes made “à la carte” (put together piece by piece) range from $800 all the way up to $3500 for a custom job with a Colnago Pista frame and fork set.
Still, they’re all over the street, riders streaking past at astonishing speeds, messenger bags slung over their shoulders, spoke cards flashing. Enthusiasts are crazy about them.
For Travis Clifford, it took one ride on his friend’s older brother’s bike to get him hooked.
“We all started [asking], ‘Dude, what is that?’ ” he says. “The first time I got on it I said, ‘I’m not so sure about this,’ because it’s got no brakes [and it’s] kind of scary. So I rode it around and almost crashed after, like, two minutes of riding, but as soon as I got on it I [thought], ‘This is awesome. You’re in total control of the bike.’ After riding it around for a few minutes I said, ‘I have to get one.’ ”
We meet at the Starbucks in Ocean Beach, sitting inside, behind a clot of map-toting Asian tourists. Clifford has wheeled his bike in. He leans it against the wall, looking over at it every now and again. It’s a 2008 Bianchi Pista, a factory bike Clifford has customized.
He bought it at the beginning of last October, he says, and has ridden it around Ocean Beach ever since he moved in May. An Oakland transplant, he works as a chef in both Point Loma and downtown.
“I’ve wanted to be the top chef since I was, like, ten years old, so I don’t really take breaks in life,” he says. “I’m driven toward being the best at what I do, and I really don’t have much time to coast, so it kind of matches my personality, the fixed gear. It doesn’t allow me to coast. I have to keep pushing, and I’m in complete control of where I go.”
Vicki Tan started riding after hitting the San Diego Velodrome for a track-racing class. The Velodrome, located in the Balboa Park Recreation Area on Morley Field Drive, is 333.3 meters in oval circumference. Tan, an avid road biker, signed up and got the bug.
She sits outside the Cream café near her University Heights home.
“It was really scary,” she says. She smiles at the memory, shaking back her shaggy black hair. “I’m used to riding a road bike, which has gears and brakes, and track bikes have no gears and no brakes. The thing with riding on the track is you’re riding really close to everyone and faster than on the road. So it was exciting, but it was kind of scary.”
The class prompted Tan to purchase her own fixed gear, which she is in the process of doing, part by part. She has the frame, a purple-and-white 3Rensho, and will have her mechanically inclined friends help her install components she’s ordered from Velo Culture. Tan rides her road bike everywhere except to her job in Chula Vista, where she works as a clinical researcher.
I ask what it’s like being a female on a fixed gear, because it seems they’re less common around San Diego than male riders.
“[Women are] definitely well received, because I know that every single guy that rides fixed wants — say they have an existing girlfriend — they want [her] to ride fixed too,” Tan explains. “So in terms of the community, they’re totally nice and…just me building up my track bike right now, they’re being really helpful about parts advice and helping me build it up. So it’s good. There are girls out there, and they all try to talk to each other and stuff.”
There are, I learn, people in San Diego who ride for work, not just for play. Until I am introduced to John Beals, I was not aware that San Diego has an active force of bicycle messengers. He quickly sets the record straight.
Beals meets me outside Cream, still wearing his brown uniform shirt. He arrives on his bicycle, a red custom-made Australian model he bought from a friend in San Francisco; the bike, he was told, was used by a gold medalist from the Australian national team.
“I get paid to ride my bike all day,” he tells me, grinning his wide grin. “I don’t know if life could be better. I’m pretty stoked on the job. It’s a hard one to get right now, since it’s so popular to do. That’s the only thing that’s keeping me in San Diego, is that I like the messenger job. It’s just so hard to get. Any city you go to, it’s almost impossible.”