Today is the second anniversary of the death of Sheldon Brown.
It seems strange that a bicycle mechanic from Boston would gain international attention to the point that “Sheldon Brown” would become a verb in internet lingo. Its meaning is simple: look it up on Sheldon Brown’s website, because he has the complete information and concise instructions.
What length bottom bracket spindle do I need? Sheldon Brown it. I want to build my first wheel – how? Sheldon Brown. How do I measure chainline or BCD? Sheldon Brown. Always.
His popularity grew in part because of his article Fixed Gear Bicycles For The Road, which was a portal into fixed-gear cycling for many novices. His article had it all: explanations of fixed gears from soup to nuts that managed to be both basic and thorough. No better portal to cycling could be found: the combination of a knowledgeable wrench with a flair for archival and arcane memory, skilled at clear communication; and the fixed gear bicycle, which in its simplicity and unique, unusual ride experience got countless people back into the saddle after long absences, reigniting passion for the bike the world over. Forget rants about hipsters. When I started riding one, I knew that riding a fixed gear was fun and unusual and it was the start of an ongoing love affair with cycling. The gateway to much more.
For that, I have Mr. Brown to thank.
I’ve always tried to approach death and grieving in combination with thanksgiving, and while Mr Brown died before we met (though after several email exchanges, during which he was friendly, open to persistent questions, and informative), I regretted never meeting him and appraising his eccentricity in person. But I’m thankful that when my curiousity was roused and I googled “fixed gear” lo these many years ago, his website was there to greet me and to provide both enthusiasm and a rich volume of information.
What an introduction to the cycling world.
Thank you, Sheldon Brown.
Warning: this post required that I lead with a picture that I found bu Google Image Searching “hipster fixed gear.” So I did. You’re forewarned.
Philadelphia is, apparently, seeking to fine people riding brakeless fixed gears. This article reads like a list of things I hate about journalists writing about fixed gears. It writes and perpetuates just about every fixed gear stereotype available to somebody who logged on to bikeforums.net for the first time. Are there riders who are not good at riding or stopping their bike? Yes. Are all of them fixed gear riders? No.
Furthermore, this notion that out-of-control fixed-gear riders are a public menace is absurd considering the number of pedestrians and cyclists killed every year by automobiles and their drivers. In New York City, killing somebody with your car is the best way to get away with murder – it’s assumed to be the cyclist’s or pedestrian’s fault. Despite the law, cars have the right of way.
I’m not going to step up and defend fixed gears or the riders thereof. I just don’t care that much, despite the fact that one of my main rides is a track bike. Mostly, I hate the lazy, simple categorization (a shining example of expedient stupidity), demonstrated perfectly by author of the piece linked above. I hate the seasoned idiots who shake their heads at a broad class of newbies. And I hate the focus on it. I’m willing to step away from anticar rant to acknowledge that there are myriad bad bikers out there, and if anybody wants to correlate poor cycling with use of a brakeless fixed gear, well then, let me see some data, not anecdotal crap, backing it up.
And, for any driver that’s reading this and thinking I knew those cyclists were all bad bikers, please remember a few things: you speed, on streets and on highways. You know that light wasn’t still yellow. You know you cut off that person. You know you don’t use your blinker every time. Few people have a high horse in this argument, myself included. I consider myself a safe cyclist albeit one who runs red lights and does other scofflaw behavior. I will say this, though: the bike infrastructure improvements in New York City have made me a much, much more law-abiding cyclist. Go figure.
A far more level-headed approach to the whole debate/debacle was written in the Guardian’s Bike Blog a few weeks ago. It offers a perspective shift just in the title: “Antisocial Cycling Is Annoying, But Not Harmful.”
Annoying, not harmful.
Something to keep in mind, Philadelphia.
For the first time in years, I have more geared bikes than fixed gear bikes. The ratio swung quite recently from 1:3 to 4:3, not because I acquired three geared bikes, but rather, I acquired one, sold a fixed gear, and mothballed another (giving it “half a bike status”), giving me two geared bikes and one and a half track bikes – which, yes, are track bikes according to my terminological standards.
If you’ve ever spent a minute on Sheldon Brown‘s website, which provides an ABCs in bicycle education and is part of many neophyte fixed gear riders’ education, you may have come across the quote, “Isn’t it better to triumph by the strength of your muscles than by the artifice of a derailleur?”
That was spoken by Henri Desgrange, the nerd pictured above. The full quote is, “I applaud this test, but I still feel that variable gears are only for people over 45. Isn’t it better to triumph by the strength of your muscles than by the artifice of a derailleur? We are getting soft. Come on fellows. Let’s say that the test was a fine demonstration – for our grandparents! As for me, give me a fixed gear!” and Desgrange was responding to a “test” off derailleur bicycles, which pitted a rider on a fixed gear versus a rider on a three-speed derailleur-equipped bicycle, which the latter won.
Is Desgrange calling me a weenie? An old fart? Desgrange is just a jerk who, as the founder and manager of the Tour de France, just told other people what to do. Well, Henri, all I’ve got to say i, I’m not the guy with a mustache that looks like I toss around a medicine ball with some guy named Finneaus.
In the interest of linguistic precision, I support a slightly anal retentive delineation between fixed gears and track bikes. It’s a squares-and-rectangles situation: all track bikes are fixed gears, but not all fixed gears are track bikes. However, I liberally salt the earth of this fertile metaphor with the point that some track bikes are not track bikes, but fixed gears.
Fixed gears have a long and glorious history that has little to do with velodromes – Dave Moulton writes about the days of British time trialling, with riders using fixed gears. And of course, an old European racer’s winter training routine was simple: ride 2000 kilometers in a fixed gear, geared between 60 and 70 inches.
What all of this means is that it’s okay to refer to your fixed gear commuter, your every day bike, as a fixed gear, not as a track bike. More importantly, it’s okay to build fixed gear bikes that are not track bikes. It’s okay to forego steep angles, tight tire clearances, brakelessness, and high gears in favor of road geometry, provisions for fenders, road handlebars with one or two brakes, and a sense that yes, fixed gears can be exciting and cool without pretending to be track bikes.
A few years ago, when riser bars became de rigeur, the fixed gear trend took another step away from track bike purism – a mistake if ever there was one – and inched toward practicality. That said, I’ve sold my every day fixed gear, basemented my track racing bike, and the only fixed gear that I’ve got is currently one of these track bike bastards, my lovely Pogliaghi, equipped with clips and straps for around-town riding.
In the past several years, amid the fixed gear boom, companies have rushed to market consumer or budget-end fixed gear bicycles, occasionally completely confusing themselves about whom they think will ride them – track races? Stylish types? Commuters? People who like to purchase uniqueness in the form of pre-customized bikes?
Snideness aside, I think that a lot of bike companies are scrambling to meet new demands, but frequently wind up trying to put too much into one bike. What all too often starts out as a basic road fixed gear turns into a mish-mash when a company hopes that it will look both classic and modern, be simple, sleek and be utilitarian, be customizable and already match its bar tape to its rims. A lot of these bells and whistles conflict with each other – track drops, brake levers, brake callipers, annodized and unmachined rims – and the resulting bikes are a mess.
With the hopes that this post avoids Bike Snob mimicry, here’s my take on some of the winners and losers from Interbike, with thanks to Hipster Nascar for having attended Interbike and taken and posted so many photos.
Fuji: a smart lineup of bikes; maybe a few models on the budget end are stepping on each others toes, but for the most part they are distributed nicely along price and performance points.
Rock Racing, which for some reason is making bikes – or at least, has made a few bikes.
Do name your performance track bike after the local track – a nice nod to the local roots.
Don’t equip all-purpose fixies with seatmasts.
Don’t take a storied name in Cycling and do… this.
Velocity, HPlusSon, EighthInch, and other companies: don’t continue the “deepest V” competition.
Don’t do what Bianchi did: call a bike “classic” despite being outfitted with a threadless stem and a straight-blade fork; and then put aerospokes on the competition-worthy Super Pista.
My faithful everyday bike, which hasn’t really seen a whole lot of use in the past year, is going to a new home.
I got this bike in 2005. Prior to that, I had a junky fixed gear conversion, and wanted something a bit more held-together. It was the first time I had bought myself something nice – other than my guitar amp. I used it to go on my first “long ride,” from NYC’s Chinatown to my parents’ house in Bergen County, NJ. Almost twenty miles, stopping every now and then on the West Side Bike Path to tug the toestraps tighter. That ride made me decide that I wanted to be a little bit healthier, to get better at riding this bike.
Then I took it with me to live in Bridgeport, Connecticut, where it was a valuable companion in that lonely city. I used it to explore the seaside, the factories, the quiet and ramshackle neighborhoods. When my time there was up, I took it to the Bronx and discovered the fun and odd world of urban cycling. I got hit by a livery cab making a capricious u-turn underneath the elevated 2/5 on Westchester Avenue, which led me to get chewed out by a rookie cop posing tough for his partner, and hugged by the tearful, fearful, and carelss driver who was so relieved I was okay (and I was relieved that the bike was fine). I rode the Tour de Bronx and hoped that I’d be introduced to the person riding the yellow KHS. I rode Critical Mass and met the rider of the KHS. She doesn’t have the KHS anymore, but a few other really nice bikes are filling up our bike room.
Soon I was swinging my leg over its handlebars for alleycat races. Some respectable finishes made me catch a racing bug that led me to get a track bike, a road bike, and a cyclocross bike – after racing the IRO on the Kissena Velodrome, taking it up and down 9W, and throwing some knobbies on it and racing it at StatenCX. Anywhere I went it took me there first.
It’s gone through saddle swaps, a myriad handlebar configurations, and more wheel swaps than I can count. I think I even had matching wheels on it for a month or two. Once, in a pinch, I attached a threadless stem to its seatpost, put some bullhorns in it, and taped a bunch of cargo to this impromptu rack. I slowly and haphazardly added stickers. Spending two winters working food delivery shifts helped transform it from the pretty (if simple) thing I adored to a rugged tool that got thrown against poles, covered in snow, and rattled senseless over cobblestones. Other bikes got babied – the Pogliaghi, the Felt, the Co-Motion. And then, they too went through a similar transformation. At Fawn Grove I winced as gravel bounced all over the race course, flying off tires, not because they were slamming into my shins (though they were), but because they were slamming into my road bike’s downtube. And halfway, as my body was well in the red, my head changed, and the bike had become what the IRO had become – a tool.
But with a new bike on the way, built for more specific uses, the IRO has got to go. A bike stable should keep sentimentality to a minimum, I think, and even when living space isn’t at the same premium at which it used to be, the inclination toward maximum-bike ought to be curbed.
It’s not the bike – it’s the memories.
I was going to write a post about track bike orthodoxy and why it’s silly, using my own bike as an example. This morning I put cyclocross tires on it. When I woke up around 6 AM it was snowing heavily and the street in front of my apartment barely had any tire tracks in it. Cyclocross tires, I thought, would be useful for a day of working in those conditions. At 10 AM, a few hours after mounting cyclocross tires on that trusty workhorse, I looked out the window again. Freezing rain. Slush as far as the eye could see, and not enough time to put slicks back on before I had to leave for work. Damn.
There is nothing worse than 33 degrees and raining, especially if it’s combined with thick slush all over the roads. Plastic bags over my socks kept my soggy shoes from freezing my toes off – barely. A reminder from your friendly local bicycle delivery person: tipping 10% is a good start. Increase with generosity for longer distances, worse weather, walk-ups, and any additional hassles, complications, or waiting. Four or five additional bucks means more to the bike delivery person than it does the person warm in their apartment.
Anyway, since the weather was miserable, upon coming home from work I rode rollers for a little over an hour. Speaking of rollers: last night’s roller races (a fundraiser for Recycle-A-Bicycle and featuring Bike Works’ fabulous Competition Rollers) saw my buddy and teammate Al defeat this guy, who has a couple of noteworthy palmares. A velodrome rematch will have to wait until Al upgrades (a few times).
Good job, Al!