Fixie Culture in San Francisco

Fixed-gear bicycles, or “Fixies” as they’ve been nicknamed, are all the rage right now in the United States. They’ve become a kind of brand or symbol of a certain hip youth counter-culture, and in no place can you find this fixie culture more prevalent than in San Francisco. To understand why the fixie is doing well, even in hilly San Fran, you first have to know a bit about the fixed-gear bicycle. 

Undefeated 2015 edition on the streets of San Francisco

 Bike culture has been steadily increasing in popularity in the United States cities due to increasing gas prices and a younger population with an environmental bend. This bike culture boom has been great for many cities - more bike lanes are built, traffic becomes less congested (with the exception of the Critical Mass events!), and people can, literally, breathe easier as the car exhaust is decreased. People also get desperately needed exercise out of the commuting or recreational activity. But, while many young professionals are biking to work on a variety of commuter bikes and electric cycles, why are fixed-gears getting so much attention?

/Featured bike: Undefeated 2015 by State Bicycle Co./

Part of the reason lies in the simplicity of the fixie. There are two basic reasons the fixie stands out among other bike types, the first is that the fixed-gear bicycle can be good for training because it limits your ability to coast. As long as the bike is moving, your legs are moving, and for athletes doing certain training regimens, this constant movement regardless of the ups and downs of the terrain can be beneficial. The other reason, and the one that is most relevant to the counter-culture adoption of the fixie, is the simplicity inherent in the nature of the bicycle. When you get rid of all the gears on the bikes, they become lighter, cheaper to build and maintain, and simpler to repair. In fact, besides greasing up the chain and replacing the brake pads every now and then, you might never have to repair your fixed-gear bike. I wouldn’t say the same is true of a traditional geared or free-wheeled bike, as with more moving parts there is more opportunity for things to go wrong.

Undefeated by the Golden Gate Bridge

Fixies become significantly lighter with the subtraction of derailleurs, shifters, cables, cable carriers, multiple chain rings, freewheel hubs, and other parts required for geared bikes. Some bikers consider the brakes to be unnecessary as well, and opt to ride without them. Personally, I can’t in good faith encourage this practice; no matter how hip riding without breaks may make you, it is extremely dangerous in urban areas, and nothing is less hip than a stiff. In some areas it has been made illegal to ride without brakes, just as helmetles riding is illegal in many places. Anyway, always ride with breaks, no matter what kind of bike you choose!

I won’t bore you with the science, and you can easily Google it if you’re interested, but due to the nature of the direct transfer of energy between the rider and the bike, fixed-gear bikes are more efficient and manoeuvrable than a geared equivalent (except going quickly around corners, where your pedal can strike the ground). In other words, in flat areas it is actually easier to ride fixies opposed to a bulked up geared bike.

 Undefeated on the hills of SF

That said, it still might seem strange that San Francisco would have a fixie culture, considering how notoriously hilly it is. Most people have to bike uphill both ways to work, according to my grandfather, and boy do those lower gears really help climb those hills. Going downhill is also a lot easier when you can coast - on a freewheel bike you don’t have to worry about spinning your legs 140 rpm when you’re flying downhill!

Well, many people that ride fixies in San Fransisco actually consider the difficulty in riding a fixie in the Hilly City part of the charm. Sure, while you can look cool by growing a badass moustache or making your own ice, there’s a lot more commitment involved when you ride to work uphill on a fixie. It’s a conscious choice to give up some comfort to be part of a culture you believe in or care about. Also, the exercise you get by doing something that might be a bit harder than it needs to be can be a reward in itself. Hey, moving around pieces of iron in a gym is needlessly hard as well, but millions of people do it every day for the health benefits.

Tell us what you think! Is it worth it to ride a fixed-gear bicycle to be hip in a city where many people are switching over to the easier electric bikes? Do you ride a fixie, and if so, why do you do it? Let us know in the comments!

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