- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 15, 2008


John “2Tone” Woodroof rides his bike the way an intrepid sea captain rides a storm: always moving, eyes fixed on the horizon. Zipping around Atlanta’s mean streets, Mr. Woodroof is the epitome of two-wheeled bravura.

He and his comrades match a punk-rock aesthetic with a bike-courier twist — their essential fashion statement being scuffed Vans sneakers and leg-hugging jeans, practical chain-avoiding attire that gives them the profile of asphalt-sailing buccaneers.

The most impressive piece of Mr. Woodroof’s outfit is his bicycle: a stripped-down race bike with no brakes and a single-speed, fixed-gear rear hub that, in effect, turns man into a cog of the machine. This is biking at its most primal — no stopping, no coasting with the pedals stationary, no helmets. It’s a ride built on adrenaline and danger, like walking across a lava flow in flip-flops.

“All you need is air in the tires and a chain that works,” says Mr. Woodroof, who co-owns No Brakes, one of the few bike shops in the Southeast devoted solely to so-called “fixie” bikes. “It’s about simplicity.”

In some of the toughest traffic in the country — New York, Atlanta, Chicago, Los Angeles and the District — recreational bikers are stripping down their Schwinns and Cannondales and going back to the original setup that can be seen in pictures from the first Tour de France. Put another way, they’re riding bikes torn from the velodrome and plunked down in the urban jungle.

The fixed-gear movement is, in fact, influenced by track racing, especially a Japanese version called keirin. It also is rooted in a rebellion against the overaccessorized culture of spandex and 21-speed bikes of normal cycling. Its popularity can be seen in the number of clubs springing up, new shops catering to riders and manufacturers starting to build bikes long thought to be anachronisms.

Yet, as with any edgy movement, a backlash is brewing. Some motorists question the sanity — and legality — of no-brake biking, while even a few professional riders, though impressed with the devotees’ courage, worry about their astuteness.

Zane Freebairn of Salt Lake City has become a fixie fanatic. He has given up his car, and all he does now is ride his one-speed bike.

“It’s the most basic form of cycling you can ever do,” he says. “You can wear your tennis shoes and your walking clothes. There’s one gear, no brakes, no cables, not many moving parts, and nothing to break.”

Fixie riders are often sly and clubby, the very definition of cliquish. Most are young to middle-aged white men. Many are as leery of authority as the punk-rock tunes they pump through their iPods.

“It’s been referred to as an old boys’ club, primarily by women,” says Jay Townley, a bike-industry analyst in Lyndon Station, Wis.

The movement is being driven by growing numbers of young people who are moving into downtown areas and searching for outlets for adventure. In the no-brake bikes, they find it. Enthusiasts wear bumps and bruises like badges of honor, and organized events often feature awards for “best crash.” They also may be changing the politics of biking. Fixie riders bring an energy and excitement to mainstream biking that could help open up roadways to more than just Saabs and sport utility vehicles.

“What I love about fixed gears is the culture — it has brought so much pride to bicycling,” says Sue Knaup, executive director of One Street, a bicycle advocacy group in Prescott, Ariz. The movement “embodies the quintessential goal of bicycle advocacy: to create streets where the most vulnerable users can flow out into them and not be run down.”

Chicago recently took steps to bolster the rights of cyclists — a move not spawned by no-brake enthusiasts, but one from which they’ll benefit. The city is increasing fines for motorists who cut off bikers.

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