Playing Through

Fixed-gear bikes are all the rage with Austin's hipsterati

Playing Through
Illustration by Dean Hsieh

Look, I feel the impulse myself. I won't try to deny it. Ever since my sweet Cannondale was stolen last summer, I've been positively covetous of these supersleek fixed-gear bicycles you're suddenly seeing all over Austin.

Coming from New York City, I've long admired these minimalist bikes and the derring-do of the messengers who ride them. But I also recognized that I had no earthly business riding one myself. For one thing, I wasn't a messenger. For another, I wasn't completely out of my mind. For example: I believe in braking, if necessary.

I suppose that makes me a wuss – but a wuss who, if nothing else, doesn't presume to be something he isn't.

Lately, I've seen a lot of Austinites who don't share my qualms. Messenger bikes – or "fixies," as they're called, since they have only one fixed gear instead of the usual 15 that come with most road bikes – have become quite the fetish item for the Austin hipster. These are bikes reduced to their barest bones: no deraileur, no brakes, no reflectors, not even a kickstand! Except for the spoke cards tucked pretentiously in the wheels (the cards used to indicate that you participated in a dangerous, vaguely illegal alley-cat race through the hairiest city traffic, but not anymore), there's not one part on these bikes that isn't absolutely necessary.

But there's more to the fixie fetish than mere minimalism. To put it in Marxist language, they have an appeal that exceeds their use value.

No doubt, a bike is an eminently useful thing. But the hipster doesn't plunk down $2,000 for simply an efficient mode of transportation. He's purchasing something far more valuable to him: a claim to superior virtue. To buy a Bianchi or Masi bike or, better yet, to get one custom-made, is to make a definite statement about yourself. You're rad, a bit of a renegade. You're not some superficial materialist, caught up in a culture of conspicuous consumption. You've got the $2,000 bike to prove it.

The irony may be lost on you, but it's not on anyone else. You went out and bought a luxury item to advertise perhaps not wealth but cool. Lance Armstrong got it wrong: In an image culture, it is about the bike.

I can hear the fixie aficionados protesting as I type. No way, man – that ain't me; I'm totally against all that. I'm all about keeping it real. But let's be honest: you're buying and displaying your hipster authenticity. The only people you may be fooling are yourselves. The dudes who work in the bike shops are happy to foster your fetish and take your money, but they see it. "No one is really sure what the deal is," said Ryan Tomeny, a mechanic at Austin Tri-Cyclist. "It's just an easy way of saying you're alternative. And have you noticed? They all dress the same, too."

"Me, I stopped riding them when I started seeing poseurs riding them," adds Matt McChesney, a mechanic at Mellow Johnny's Bike Shop. "But I still think they're the shit."

So do I, I'm afraid. You may see me riding one yet.

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Cannondale, fixed-gear bikes, Bianchi, Ryan Tomeny, Masi, Austin Tri-Cyclist, Matt McChesney, Mellow Johnny's

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