The bike is brown. It’s light in my hands; I can lift it over my head, which I do, just to try it, and it’s easy. Walking it out of the back door of its home at the Velo Culture bike shop, I expend no effort. The thing is like a feather.
Out on the sandy gravel, I grip the handlebars, which are surprisingly short. I feel the squishy rubber against the pads of my palms. The seat is just the right height, even without adjustment, and I balance myself, going over what Sky Boyer, the owner of Velo Culture, has told me.
“Don’t stop pedaling,” he’d said, handing over the beautiful, brand-new cycle. “Don’t stop pedaling and you’ll be fine.”
When I ride under normal circumstances, I tend to go for speed, loving the feel of the wind against my body. Not today. Today I’m riding a $750 fixed-gear bicycle, and I have to be careful because, unlike Boyer and his staff and the other few thousand people who ride fixies in San Diego, I’ve no idea what I’m doing.
“There’s a connection between you, the bike, and the ground that you don’t get when you have a freewheel or when your bike is coasting,” Boyer tells me, as we talk, pre-ride. “Most people sit on a [fixed-gear] bike for the very first time, and they’ll feel that connection, because your body controls the stopping, the forward motion, the turning, the everything. It’s all connected to you. It’s something you don’t get on any [other] kind of bike.”
We sit at the back of his shop, tucked away in his office area, behind a row of exquisite vintage road bikes. The office is made up of a desk, two chairs, and a Mac desktop; the rest of the room is bikes. It’s warming up outside, but the store is refreshingly cool.
Velo Culture, a two-room storefront in Bird Rock, started as Boyer’s eBay business and soon evolved into a retail endeavor. Boyer and his staff sell only steel, mostly vintage, and collector’s-item cycles and frames, mainly fixed gears and road cycles with the occasional townie commuter thrown in. They’ll build you a bike from scratch or, for those on a budget or with a need for instant gratification, a factory-complete. The store has just reached its second year of business at the time of this writing and has not yet moved to its new South Park location. After the move, the shop name will be changed to “Velo Cult.”
Boyer is soft-spoken, clad in a black T-shirt bearing the words “E. Vill Doers” (more on that later) in neon yellow, and sports an impressive handlebar mustache. He’s been biking for nearly his whole life, hitting the track at the age of 9 in Los Angeles, racing in junior events as a member of the younger set. An injury he sustained at 15 curbed his track-racing career, and shortly thereafter, he turned to street riding and mountain biking. Overall, he says, he’s been racing all types of bikes for 17 years.
The differences between a fixed gear and a “regular” bike, construction-wise, are subtle, save for one major component: A fixed gear doesn’t have a “freewheeling” back wheel, as Boyer mentioned, meaning the back wheel does not spin independently of the crankset — crank arm, chain ring, and pedals — the way it normally would. When one moves, so does the other, which makes my job as the rider a bit more complicated: I cannot, as with a standard ten-speed, stop pedaling. The chain runs from a single cog on the back wheel to the chain ring on the crankset; this makes all the mechanical parts on the bike one solid, moving unit. As long as the cranks turn, so will I.
As soon as I take off and begin the initial pedal, I can feel it, the connection Boyer spoke of. The bike pushes forward with an easy grace, my legs and the bike’s mechanics a combined driving force that propels us on our path.
The gravel spits under my tires, and I’m off, heading for the road.
Everything is peachy until I, concentrating on the odd sensation of feeling almost connected to my back wheel, attempt to coast, forgetting Boyer’s cardinal rule of “keep pedaling.” My legs flop, propelled by the ever-pumping crankset, and I zigzag dangerously before recovering.
This, I think, as the road stops wobbling in my vision, is hard.
Despite what my flailing efforts may suggest, many have mastered the art and have taken to the street.
It all started — this fixed-gear business, that is — around ten years ago, as Richie Ditta, custom bike-builder and mechanic, tells me. We’re standing around the corner from the Adams Avenue bike shop where Ditta works part-time, relaxing in the partial shade from a nearby building. Ten years ago is when bicycle messengers began picking up velodrome track bikes at yard sales and using them to make their runs. Velodromes, I learn, are banked tracks on which cyclists race in timed events.
“Basically,” he says, “some of the old-school messengers that were track racers would start riding them on the street for training as well as because it was a bike that they had access to that was cheap. [Riding a fixed gear] was hard to do, not everybody was doing it, and it was a challenge, riding in traffic in New York.”
Ditta, a cycle-brand cap covering his red hair, squints into the sunlight that has temporarily invaded our corner. A former messenger himself, he used to do deliveries on the streets of both New York and San Francisco, before moving to San Diego with his wife, young son, and custom-bicycle-building business, Ditta Cycles.
“The better you get at [riding], the faster you can do deliveries, and you just fly, you sprint all day, sprint, sprint, sprint,” he continues, shaking his arm for emphasis. “Fixed gears slowly started creeping up and creeping up and creeping up, and from there, it went to the Messenger World Championships.”