For Stan-O Guerrero, fixed-gear riding is mostly about speed and agility. He started riding a fixed gear at the same point Ditta did, making the transition from a broken, non-shifting road bike. Now he rides a jet-black Leader LD, a nice, thick-framed cycle he chains to a nearby signpost.
“The switch [to a fixed gear] was fun,” he says, over a plate of rolled tacos at Rancho’s restaurant in North Park.
It’s warm and the sun is out, cutting through the potted plants that line the restaurant’s patio.
“It was different, more exciting, more exhilarating,” Guerrero elaborates. “[Riding] a fixed gear, riding with no brakes, the whole being one with the bike…it’s a lot better, you’re more in tune with what’s going on.”
Guerrero wears cutoffs that reveal a tattoo of a bicycle and the words “share the road” on his calf. In addition to riding a fixed gear on the street, he tells me he has also raced mountain bikes for the United States national team, winning the World Cup in 1993 for junior downhill. The following year, he took the title of Continental Champion for North, South, and Central America in the same event.
For now, though, Guerrero says he puts most of his competitive energy into the alley-cat races, contests riders put on all over town. For an alley cat, participants convene at a predetermined time and location and, at the start of the race, receive a list of checkpoints they must hit in order to qualify to win. Sometimes they have to answer questions, usually about the characteristics of each spot, the color of a door, the number of windows on a building, etc. First one to make it back with all the checkpoints hit and questions answered correctly takes the prize.
Group rides take place all over town. Cyclists get together and ride to various locations, looping the city en masse, just for the love and fun of it. There are a bunch of bike crews in the city, the Cretins, Nutterbuckets, and Cutters, to name a few, who organize the rides. I went to one, the Bike Prom, before my bicycle — a cheapo ten-speed, nothing fancy — was stolen, riding down Park Boulevard to meet my compatriots at the fountain in Balboa Park. Tons of cyclists turned out on that chilly night, some in costumes — dresses, suits, ripped-up gowns, and vintage zoots — others in plain clothes, circling the fountain until the lead riders spilled out into the street, into the night. There was something electrifying about it, about riding in a large group of people, everyone hopped up on adrenaline, pumped just to ride. In the blinking glow of safety lights, I saw riders grin at each other. They whooped and cheered as onlookers waved at our parade. The mass of moving bikes made a whirring noise like ceaseless crickets.
There are also a few rides that are fixed gear only. I don’t attempt any of these, as they’re often fast and on the longer side for a novice like me, ranging from 5 to 25 miles.
Boyer hosts the Velo Cult ride, which starts from his shop.
“We just gather, have a fixed-gear ride, come back to the shop, and have a party,” Boyer says. “It’s about the bike, it’s about riding more than anything else.”
There is also the E. Vill Doers ride, which is put on by a group of boutique owners from the East Village who, in addition to having common business interests, love to ride fixed gears. Originally formed by the men’s clothing shops Unsteady, Five and a Dime, and Blends, others from both inside and outside the East Village have since joined the group.
Aside from E. Vill Doers and his own, Boyer himself doesn’t do many group rides; he works too much, he says.
“My employees will do pretty much all of the non-spandex rides,” he says with a laugh. “You know what I mean, the Saturday-morning racer types, they’ll get in a big group wearing spandex and go for a ride for 100 miles. It’s mostly the nighttime, fun, social rides that we do.”
John Beals says he used to host a group ride as well but quit after it got to be, as he says, “too much of a fashion show.”
“When I first started doing it, it was fun, we’d do long, fast rides,” he says. “Then, over time, it turned into ‘Let’s just hang out in the parking lot and do skids and wheelies and barspins,’ all that fun stuff. I like doing wheelies, but I’d rather just ride and go somewhere and get there.”
Clifford prefers to ride on his own or with a small group of friends.
“I just like riding around flatland, cruising around, having a good time,” he says. “I guess if that makes me chicken, that’s fine, I’m okay with that. But I’m not into the hills as much as the other guys are, which also is another factor that deters me from going on some of these group rides. A lot of the time, they want to bomb Sixth [Avenue] or do something fun like that, which is totally cool, but I don’t feel right in the group because I can’t do those hills.”
The biggest of the group rides is Critical Mass, a monthly worldwide event with the goal of creating awareness of cyclists on the road — in addition simply to have a good time riding.
“Everybody’s there,” Guerrero says, “showing that people on bikes can get together and accomplish something, the movement that is Critical Mass.”
He tells me he plans to take his two-year-old daughter with him for the next one, saying she’s old enough now to appreciate it.
“It gets to a certain point when you can stop traffic [and] make the point that we are traffic as well,” he says.
Ditta rode his first San Diego Critical Mass in July; he’s not a religious Critical Mass rider but will, he says, participate here. He’s ridden in 20 Critical Masses all over the world.