02 May 2007
Over the last year I have been researching and writing a fair bit about the subversive use of the urban environment as a playground. From Situationism to Graffiti to Parkour to Skateboarding, there is an apparent primeval urge to break through the concrete in order to get a taste of uninhibited play. Perhaps, our ever-increasing isolation from nature denies us the chance to be 'wild.' A desire that we has human beings just might need to remain sane. Of course, sport and exercise has replaced some of our inbred instinct to hunt but oftentimes there are too many rules, restrictions and limitations for sport to really satisfy this urge to get wild.
Most recently I have been exploring the city by bike. Aside from a brief stint as a BMX kid and messing around on mountain bikes, I've only really used bikes for transport then I caught wind of the Track bike/ Fixed-gear sensation. At first I put it down to hipster posturing but as soon as I started to have a bash on friends' bikes, I knew I had to get one.
A lot has been written about the 'fixed-gear' trend and cyclists and non-cyclists alike are quite polarized over the matter. Many will argue that brakes, gears and free-wheels were invented for good reasons and there is nothing to gain from riding a bike with one gear, no brakes and no coasting capabilities except fashion points. Yet, for a Luddite like myself, such a simple machine is very attractive, not only in appearance and for ease of maintenance but for application. Riding fixed is obviously more challenging but you also have more control of a bike, like you have more control over a car with a manual stick shift as opposed to automatic transmission, because your legs are always engaged with the bicycle's drive-train. It is an addictive sensation, having to pedal, to not only speed up, but also slow down.
A fixed-gear also forces you to 'read' the city and plan a block or two ahead in terms of how you are going to manipulate your way through traffic. British writer Will Self wrote an interesting column for the Independent newspaper last year about just this. In the column, Self posits that more technology is a hindrance not an enhancement of the human experience and that technology can often make life too easy for us. Self concludes that manipulating your way through the city in a car with a GPS unit is the antithesis of riding a fixed gear bike in that the car driver is isolated from his/her environment on every level while the bike rider, is physically, mentally and spiritually fit and perfectly in tune with his/ her surroundings.
We are tug boats gone crazy, with no idea even if we are in a safe harbour, or churning up the soil! We are dragging the rusting hulks of the past into the shiny future! We are speedboats that have quit the water to describe loop-the-loops in a dark sky near to the end of history! The seagulls - those fixed-wheel cyclists of the sky - are ripped away from their thermals by our crazy jigging, and stare at us, at once terrified and contemptuous. -Will Self
Guy Debord once said,
We must replace travel as an adjunct to work with travel as a pleasure.
Monday's New York Times featured a fairly decent article on the history of track bikes, the fixed-gear craze and the bike scene in the NYC, written by skate-journo Jocko Weyland.
Also, this summer a new documentary, called Mash SF, about brakeless, fixed-gear riders in San Francisco is scheduled to be released. I'm hoping to get a review copy for Wend Magazine but until then check out a preview of these riders going nowhere, fast.
Pimp my ride on the Wend Blog.