Houston’s fixed gear bike scene brings together two subjects often stigmatized by people who don’t know any better.
First, you have the outsider’s perspective of Houston: any movement or remarkable occurrence that happens in this city is immediately qualified as being novel simply because it’s coming from Houston. In other words, something notable in Houston is notable simply because it’s happening in Houston. The Bayou City has long since outgrown its reputation as a second-class city, but many outsiders have yet to notice. Never mind the fact that it’s the fourth largest city in the US, never mind that it led the nation in job creation, never mind that it boasts the most diverse population and one of the best food scenes in the country.
Second, you have the fixed gear bike scene, a movement that often conjures the damning stigma of “hipster” culture, whatever that means. Fixed gear bikes—merely bikes without a freewheeling mechanism—cannot escape the lazily applied hipster stereotype no matter how poorly it fits the people who ride them. People would sooner associate fixies with Urban Outfitters, beards, and gingham shirts than they would to an actual person (though I can’t resist mentioning that Urban Outfitters offers their own line of fixed gear bikes). The truth is—and what I hope to convey to the doubting pedestrian or skeptical road biker—is that fixies are not only fun and challenging, but they also offer a doorway to a dynamic and interesting community.
In short, Houston and fixied gear bikes have their fair share of haters, but the two make for a harmonious and dynamic pair.
But let’s talk a little bit about the bikes themselves before we go into the fixie scene in Houston.
Like I said before, a fixed gear bike is defined by its lack of a freewheel—the rear cog is literally fixed onto the rear wheel of the bike. Why exactly does that matter? Well, fixed gear bikes are powered directly by your movement—your legs move the pedals that move the chain that then turns the cog affixed to the wheel. This means that you can’t coast on a fixie bike—if your wheels are moving, then your pedals are moving too; you’re directly in control of how fast or slow your bike goes. They lack a derailleur, the mechanism with multiple cogs that allows for varying the gear ratio during a ride. So if you ascend a hill on a fixed gear bike, you can’t shift into lower gear to make it easier. Your bike only move as far and as fast as your legs allow. Remember, there’s only one cog and its fixed to the wheel!
Because it only takes a simple modification to turn a bike into a fixie, any bike can be made into one, though you’ll typically see road bikes and track bikes as the most popular choices. It’s a common misconception that fixies don’t have brakes—they can, but many riders prefer to brake using their legs to reverse pedal (skidding). Skidding is easy enough when youre biking at a leisurely pace on an even back road, but trying to skid when you’re speeding down a hill picking takes herculean effort and strength.
So why choose a bike that’s arguably harder to operate than a ten-speed mountain bike that’s built to accommodate a rider of any skill level for any terrain? That’s the real question, and one that will get you different answers depending on who you talk to. The challenge of riding a fixed gear, the clean aesthetic, the inexplicably exhilarating union of machine and man are all popular explanations for a cyclist’s draw to the style. Most fixies are bikes in their most simplistic form.
Not too long ago, the only people you’d find riding a fixed gear bike were bike messengers, professional track cyclists, and bike aficionados. Fixed gears were once considered a niche interest and regional to spots like Brooklyn and LA only a few years ago, now you can spot them in any city with a healthy biking scene. Now fixed gears are a prominent part of cycling culture. You’re just as likely to spot a group of cyclists on fixies as you are marathon cyclists training for a ride. In other words, “biking” is no longer a sport only distinguished by track professionals and BMX trick bikers; the fixie is changing the way people view biking altogether.
Fixed gear bikes have become so pervasive in American culture that they even have a summer blockbuster. Consider the newly released action film Premium Rush starring Joseph Gordon Levitt which tells the story of a fixie-riding bike messenger who traverses the busy streets of New York City. If a critically acclaimed movie that combines a Die Hard-like action plot with gratuitous scenes of extreme biking doesn’t convince you of the fixie’s rise to fame, I don’t know what will.
Given the fixie’s surge in popularity, it’s no wonder that the phenomenon has taken root here in Houston. But the truth is that fixed gears have long been a part of the local biking culture. Houston boasts a number of outstanding bike shops dedicated to expanding and refining the city’s bike scene. For instance, the popular spot Blue Line Bike Lab has been promoting fixed gear bikes, organizing group rides, and supporting the area biking scene since 2005. And this bike shop is no small operation; it boasts nearly 1,000 followers on Facebook and the owners organize huge rides on a weekly basis for cyclists of all skill levels.
I spoke with Rosi Ruiz, the former owner of another thriving Houston fixie spot, the aptly named Houston Fixed Gear, for insight about the scene from a small business perspective. Ruiz, an entrepreneurial cyclist, said that the desire to open up her own fixed gear shop grew out of frustration over finding adequate parts to modify her bikes.
“We were trying to build up some bikes that we had bought from Craigslist, and we probably visited every bike shop we could think of trying to look for parts and we couldn’t find what we wanted or needed,” she said. “So, that’s when we started talking about opening up our own shop.”
Ruiz spent time researching bike shops and the fixed gear bike scene in Los Angeles before she started looking for a space in Houston to set up shop. She wanted to open a space exclusively for cyclists interested in fixed gear bikes. Once she had secured a space, Ruiz began promoting for the shop and found immediate support from Houston’s growing fixed gear community. Most surprising of all was the diversity of her clientele.
“We had a diverse group of locals supporting us” Ruiz said, “cyclists in their 20s, 30s, and 40s came by the shop regularly.”
I spoke with Brian Menegaz, an avid Houston biker and fixie owner, about the Houston bike scene. He explained that the biking scene—even within the realm of fixies—is much more nuanced than you might expect.
“I think the Houston biking scene is coming into its own pretty rapidly,” Menegaz says. “Bike advocacy groups like Bike Houston do a lot to improve awareness and help get more people on bikes.”
Menegaz says that Houstonians new to cycling will have no shortage of rides to choose from, either in skill level or biking style. There are rides for fitness enthusiasts, track biking, pub-crawls, and of course for fixie riders. “You can find a group ride to go on just about any day of the week and there’s a lot of overlap between styles and skill levels. The best places to start would probably be group rides out of bike shops and Houston bike social groups on Facebook.”
One of the most popular group rides in Houston is the monthly biking event Critical Mass. Members of the local biking community organize Critical Mass on the last Friday of every month for a ride which brings together dozens (and often hundreds) of riders of all types—fixie enthusiasts among them—to ride en mass from the downtown area to various parts of the city. Critical Mass is a biking tradition started in San Francisco, created to build solidarity among fellow cyclists and to push for cyclists’ rights on the road. Few other cities could benefit as much from spreading biking awareness to motorists than in Houston, a city renowned for its car-centric transportation system.
But the Houston Critical Mass ride has grown so much that their pro-biking message and share-the-road mentality has been eclipsed by a perceived mob mentality. The hundreds of cyclists that traverse through Houston streets on a Friday cause more disturbances for motorists than they do spread biking awareness. The Houston Chronicle touched on this very subject in a recent op-ed, where a contributor vented about the increasingly antagonistic nature of some cyclists in Critical Mass. The rivalry between motorists and cyclists is nothing new, but the fact that Houstonians are even having a conversation about bike traffic is a testament to the growing biking scene there.