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.”
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.”
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.
“This last Critical Mass, I was saying, ‘Thank you for waiting!’ ” he says. “I was just shouting at the top of my lungs and waving at people, because if I’m going to be somewhat of an ambassador [who says], ‘Hey, look, we’re on the street, we’re riding our bikes,’ that’s part of the community for me. I’m going to be a representative of the cycling community; I’m going to wave, say, ‘Thank you.’ What I want to do now for the cycling community is for everybody to start tightening up. If this is a group ride, let’s ride as a group.”
Another hub of bicycle activity is the Velodrome in Balboa Park. Every Tuesday night from six in the evening until nine-something — free to the public — the Velodrome hosts different types of races — usually time trials, keirins (a Japanese-style race), chariot races, and match sprints.
I pick a cool day to go, one that suggests summer is coming to a close. The sun has fallen below the trees, and the stadium lights bathe the track in yellow-orange. Competitors clad in spandex suits that bear the names of companies and schools congregate in the infield, a section of grass in the middle of the track, stretching and talking. Sleek, colorful bikes hang on what look like tall metal chin-up bars, swaying gently.
In the bleachers, a mixed crowd has arrived. Families set up coolers alongside bearded kids drinking 40-ounce beers. Some, obviously cyclists themselves, have come with their bikes to watch, while others drive in to catch the races. Beyond the chain-link fence that lines the Velodrome, spectators sit in groups and observe the action from their bikes.
“You’ll see the spectrum right there,” says Ditta, when we discuss the Velodrome scene. “You’ve got the racers, the guys on the track doing what track bikes do, what they’re supposed to do, and then you’ve got the subculture on the outside, usually hanging out and doing their thing and socializing. And then there are the spectators, who are kind of in the middle, who can be on either side of the track. I’ve raced on the track, and I’ve hung out on the other side of the track, so I’ve been on both sides of it.”
The racers queue up for their time trials, leaning against the rail that lines the track before beginning to pedal off. They ride as a pack, each competitor breaking away for a rapid-fire lap around the track, one by one. The only female rider in the group, a ponytailed woman riding a bubble-gum-pink bike, is first. The starting bell dings and she pulls away, hunkering down like a jockey as she pedals like mad, impossibly fast.
The true excitement starts when everyone begins to race each other. They’re put in groups of two based on their times from their solo lap, starting from the rails once more. This is when the rides get close, competitors nose and nose, rising out of their saddles as they try to pull forward. In the final seconds, the lagging rider can jet forward in a sudden burst of speed, something that prompts cheers and groans from the crowd. It’s a strategy, one I only partially understand. By remaining behind and “drafting” — that is, riding in the disturbed air behind the leaders — one can actually gain ground and push ahead. Two riders jockeying for position, neither wanting to be in front, can halt a race in a “track stand,” where both competitors stop their bikes and balance them, both feet on the pedals, for minutes at a time.
The competition goes on for hours until, finally, the night concludes with a group “chariot” race. Buddies hold racers’ bikes up by the seat until the starting gun — a real starting gun — goes off and everybody charges ahead. It’s nearing ten when it’s all over and families and groups of friends reconvene, racers walking off with their bikes over their shoulders.
Outside the fence, the cyclists gathered prepare to disperse. A police truck sits parked on the dirt path, its driver a racer himself, visiting in a purely off-duty capacity to catch up on the action. He chats with the other cyclists from the driver’s seat, watching as they pedal off into the darkness. I follow on foot, heading home.
As I near the corner of Park Boulevard and University, I notice that the candles at the site where Atip Ouypron was killed are still lit, glowing against the backdrop of flowers there. Ouypron was on his way home from work on July 18, riding his fixed gear, when he was struck by an SUV and suffered head trauma. He died the following day. I remember when it happened. I remember driving past his “ghost bike,” the unused cycle painted white that mourners chain at the location where a rider has been killed, a few nights after he died. I’d heard about it late but can’t remember from whom, only that it reminded me of how, back home in Brooklyn, a local rider was struck in a similar manner. Out in the street on that hot New York morning, I saw the police cars and telltale blue tarp in the middle of the street, blood already pooling, and I felt a chill.
The night of Ouypron’s death, cyclists crowded his ghost bike, leaning their bikes against the wall of the adjacent condo complex, surrounding the site with its adorned bouquets and artwork glowing in candlelight. Moved, I slowed my car and watched the crouched figures as they shared their grief.
Tan, who was a friend of Ouypron’s, attended the funeral, a Buddhist ceremony, and the fundraiser at the San Diego Sports Club that was organized by members of the cycling community. She was also at the hospital when Ouypron was taken off life support.
“At the end of it, I kind of felt like, wow, that was a lot,” she says. “Because they did memorials and fundraisers, and being at the hospital and all this stuff for, like, three weeks. But I can understand, everyone wanted to do something.”
“[There are a] lot of bad rumors going on about [Ouypron’s death],” Boyer, who reports that Ouypron was one of his customers, says. “That he crashed because he had a fixed gear, crashed because he had no brakes, crashed because he was drunk, which were all false. All false.”
A lot of assumptions about fixed-gear riders — and the community itself — are false, I learn. As fixed-gear riding gains popularity, so do the stereotypes associated with it. Clifford has noticed that many people think that fixed-gear riders are “all assholes” who blatantly disregard traffic laws, something he says is just not true.
“There’s a lot of guys out there that don’t obey all the rules of the road, but that is not the majority of the people [who ride],” he says. “When we go on these group rides, everybody makes sure to be safe, so everybody tries to obey the rules. It would really be foolish to blame fixed-gear riders for all the problems on the road, just because there’s so many more cars that are causing problems on a daily basis that disrespect the rules that bicycle riders have.”
The term “fixed gear” has become, as Tan tells me, somewhat “synonymous with the word ‘hipster.’ ”
“[That they] smoke cigarettes, wear tight pants, [have] no respect for the laws of the road I would say [are the stereotypes],” Guerrero says, laughing. “And [that they] drink a lot of beer. Lots of alcohol. An urban rebel that’s out there to show you their style, to be different, [to] have their own personality.”
Jenny Stanley, who I met a few months ago while I was trying to get my horrid old road bike fixed, tells me she feels like fixed-gear riding has gotten “really trendy.”
Stanley says she learned to work on cycles while living in Olympia, Washington, where she hung out at a community shop that was part of the Emma Goldman Youth and Homeless Outreach Program, an organization that focuses on helping street-bound teenagers. After moving to San Diego, Stanley started the Bike Kitchen — now known as Bikes Del Pueblo: A Bike Kitchen — a volunteer-based bicycle cooperative that builds and repairs all types of bikes from donated parts for anyone who is interested.
“There are people that are really into bikes and love bikes and work on bikes and want to support and create a bike culture that is cognizant of bike safety and that want to see more bikes on the road,” she says. “And then there’s a whole other bracket of [the] community of fixed-gear bike riders who aren’t active in the community, that don’t commute with their bike[s] but go on bike rides with a fixed-gear bike [but], outside of that, aren’t riding their bike[s].”
Ditta calls these people “fashionistas” and explains how some treat their fixed gears merely as flashy accessories for a “hip” image, rather than as modes of transportation.
“They’re part of the community, but not in the same way as somebody who works at a bike shop or somebody who commutes to work every day or commutes to school,” he says. “There are people who just want the bike because of the name or because of the color or because of what kind of association it has with a part or a place. It becomes, like, ‘Oh well, check out my label.’ They’re just doing it because it’s kind of trendy [or] maybe because it’s a status thing.”
But, truth is, part of the fun of having a fixed gear is being able to trick it out, I’m told, put bright rims on it and ride in style. “I’m guilty of being a color-coordinating bike dork,” Ditta admits with a smile.
Clifford, too, has given his bike some flair, outfitting it with yellow-rimmed wheels and handlebar tape. “It’s also kind of an artistic expression thing too,” he says. “A lot of guys do old-school, BMX-inspired things with bright neon colors and all that, which are really cool. A lot of the old-school track bikes, classic track bike frames from the ’70s, [are] just straight black with straight black wheels [and] are really classy too. As long as you do it right, it looks good.”
“If you’ve got the bling, that’s cool,” concludes Ditta. “But if you’ve got the riding skills to back the bling up, that’s a lot cooler.”
Speaking of riding skills, I’m still struggling on the brown bike. I skitter into a hairy turn, trying to remember to keep pedaling, keep pedaling. Thankfully, the bike I’m riding is outfitted with brakes, and I use them, slowly, slowly coming to a stop.
As I pedal back to the shop, I begin to get it. Something clicks in my head and my legs and I’m riding, no longer thinking about what to do. Smiling, I weave back and forth, experimenting with the feel of it, that ever-present connection. I glide, sailing onto the gravel path of Velo Culture’s back entrance, braking, slowing, and dismounting.
I wheel the bike into the shop, smelling the comforting rubber-and-grease odor I’ve always loved, and hand it back to Boyer, who asks how it went.
“Great,” I report. “That was pretty awesome.”