Meticulous reduction takes us back to the basics, back to the core, gist and nature of an object or endeavour. It is all about the body and vehicle; no extra cables, breaks or technical frills. A radical purism that intrigues – and forms the fascination that is 21st century fixie culture
A mere twenty-four millimetres separate a bicycle courier from the tarmac when he weaves his way through the packed queues of stationary motor vehicles. Balanced on a slender frame, these urban athletes and their cargo navigate the tight corridors of our city’s traffic networks at breathtaking speed.
A bicycle can be a drug with blissfully addictive potential. And it is this rush that drives fans in boutique bike studios to cultivate ultimate mechanical precision and minimalist beauty according to their own, uncompromising specs. Other scenes have spawned a thriving subculture of unauthorised street races like the annual Global Gutz, which takes place in several cities around the world on the same day. The when and where is spread by word of mouth: There are no fixed routes, just several checkpoints like park benches, bars or clubs on the way to be checked off the list by the best and most adventurous, racing through flowing traffic on their hand-assembled bikes. These so-called alley cats are the risky spin-offs of regular bike races, combining a guaranteed adrenaline overdose with a heady cocktail of endorphins and elusive messenger culture street cred.
It takes just the right mix of strength, reflex and strategy as well as mechanical bike precision to make it through such a race intact. The intransparent, urban traffic flow, peppered with millimetre-close near misses, trains riders to transform their body and machine into a powerful, painstakingly precise unit. After all, riding fixed (i.e. with a fixed gear and no idling speed) is considered the purest form of biking. When the pedals invariably move with the wheels and you are intimately connected to the road, you automatically start to cycle strategically, read traffic patterns and go with the flow. But why all this without any brakes?
“During winter, the back brake often freezes. What are you going to do then?” comments a Global Gutz rider dryly. On ice and wet streets, fixie enthusiasts control the back wheel’s traction via sheer leg muscle strength. While this might sound suicidal, most riders have a family and kids, are seasoned bikers and take a slightly different view of it all. “I love traffic. It's like an evil river,” states former courier and current day filmmaker Lucas Brunelle. Tucked away behind the scenes, removed from all the hype, the fixed gear scene thrives in tiny bike shops – and has plenty of charming and mesmerising stories to tell that promise to kindle our love of cycling.
A Fixed Desire
An old track bicycle frame is all it takes to build your own individual dream bike. Purists will go one step further and ask a welder to construct their frame to spec, adding all other components bit by bit until they have created their personal idea of bike perfection.
To find out more about this intriguing sport and obsession, we talked to Thomas Callahan, a self-avowed fixie fan who builds made-to-measure bikes in his Brooklyn studio while his “shop dog”, a tiny cat, roams the cluttered realm between steel pipes and oil cans (see image gallery). Check out the cosy New York warehouse interior – and the story behind the store – in this video.
Picture the scene: It is a hot Saturday afternoon on Rutledge Street.
When did you start to build your own bikes?
After graduating from art college, I moved to New York. I had 1,000 dollars to spend on a bicycle, but instead I decided to buy the tools and build my own bike from scratch. That’s how it all started.
All of your bikes are custom-made. What’s your guideline and inspiration when building a bicycle for someone else?
Most of the time, I ask people to come by with their own bikes and then I go for a test ride to figure out what they don’t like about them. I find it very important to get to know both the person and his or her anatomy.
Sounds like a lot of effort. Do you think that people appreciate just how much you put into it all?
Every bike that leaves my studio has its own unique geometry. Believe me – a rider feels that this is HIS bike he is riding. That’s what I work and focus on every single day. Sometimes, I will also leave my fingerprint or a file mark in the steel. But to be honest, only very few of my customers know just how many hours of work I pour into their bicycles.
If we didn’t know any better, we might get the impression that you were living in your own workshop. What is the first thing you do in the morning before you get to work?
I walk over to my coffee maker and brew a fresh cup of espresso, sit down and give my cat fifteen minutes of love.
You call it your shop dog?
Yes, I sometimes drop my work for it, take pictures of it or give it a cuddle. Usually, it is just the two of us in the workshop. And it’s good to have a buddy at your side.
Let’s move on to the riding experience. What is the thing you love most about cycling?
Nothing compares to a sunset in Manhattan when you are surrounded by the glowing, strong colours of the street and there is nothing but you and your bicycle, surrounded by cars. It is exciting and dangerous in equal measures. Suddenly, you realise that you are right at the epicentre of the whole wide world.
On the other side of the planet, in sunny Italy, a young couple breathes new life into old bikes with plenty of passion and mechanical savvy. We decided to take a closer look and met up with Biascagne Cicli in Treviso to find out what makes them tick.
“You really want a bike? Are you sure?“ is the initial and slightly disconcerting email reply by these idiosyncratic Italians. Part of the velo avant-garde, Valentina and Andrea are reticent or, in their own words, schivo (Ital: shy). Their blog’s photography presents peaceful still lifes of lovingly fashioned unique bicycles, designed and manufactured in their so-called batcave, the strictly off-limits workshop we were privileged to visit (as the first outsiders ever!). Our interview starts in the kitchen, however, with prosecco and pasta with tomatoes, ricotta and grated lemon zest, perched next to a book by designer (and self-confessed bike enthusiast) Sir Paul Smith and an old Batman comic.
Biascagne is not a shop per se; you only work on commission. What drives you to built bicycles for others?
Bicycles are for everyone. They are simple – and beautiful in their simplicity. There is dignity in every bicycle. We like to elevate them with our passion. But we refuse to be restricted in our composition. If someone decided to meddle and have their say, we would rather not build a bike at all.
Sounds rather uncompromising. So, if I wanted to get a new bike, I would commission you to build one without knowing what I might get in the end?
And why should you? (smiles) When someone likes our bikes, he will need to trust us to build a perfect, and perfectly unique, result. We can only keep our love for it all alive as long as we retain complete freedom.
Has the bicycle become THE accessory for modern urbanites?
Definitely. It is simple, functional and affordable. And it becomes part of your style and personality.
Style in the sense of fashion, too?
Take these kids, for examples, who skate in abandoned swimming pools. They are all about style: the beauty of movement when you master the curves of the basin with finesse and precision. Call it devotion, aesthetics or poetry in motion, if you like. It is all an expression of your individuality.
We just spotted a new bike in your batcave. Was this a commission, too?
In part. I spent most of the time getting the colour composition just right, while Andrea took care of the technical specs. We fitted it with a break of our own making that operates both front and rear wheel at the same time. The customer thought it was cool, although it isn’t strictly legal (grins).
The liaison between bike and rider is inseparable. After all, when a bicycle becomes part of your own (hi-)story, it also defines your personality and your very own, unadulterated style.
Thomas Callahan’s studio in Brooklyn, NYC: www.horsecycles.com
Blog of the Italian bicycle workshop: www.biascagne-cicli.it
Author and photographer of the book Cycle Style: www.horstfriedrichs.com