Rush hour on the Barley Highway

I’ve been meaning to write about my new bike, a fixed-gear, for months. Now I’m in Paris and I’m enjoying the Parisians’ more relaxed attitude to cycling, and wondering why London cycling is so frantic.

Like the majority of casual British cyclists I used to ride a mountain bike (shown below). I gradually realised how unnecessary this was — I’d barely even seen a hill, never mind cycled up a mountain, in years — and wondered why we all do it. I guess it is, or was, fashion. I assume mountain bikes were the height of fashion at some point in the 1980s, when the only options for people who had grown out of BMX bikes was a drop-handlebar “racer” or a boring “sit-up-and-beg”. Then they became so ubiquitous that mountain bikes were beyond fashion and were simply just the standard choice. You want a bike? Here’s a mountain bike.

Cannondale F400
My old Cannondale F400 mountain bike.

But I was irritated by my otherwise lovely Cannondale’s chunky wheels and the eighteen gears more than the three I ever used. Early last year I looked around, in the real world and online, and realised that bike messengers were mostly riding fixed-gear or single-speed road bikes, which have no gears. Single-speed bikes allow you to freewheel — stop pedalling — as you would on any normal bike while the pedals on fixed-gear bikes are always moving, whether your feet are on the pedals or not.

By the time I’d heard of these plenty of normal cyclists were buying such bikes and I thought I’d give it a go. I’ll let you decide wither this is me mindlessly following the fashions of early adopters or making a rational decision based on the innovative behaviour of lead users. Watching videos like that below may well lead you toward the former — I bet it’s not much different to the flavour of footage that persuaded people to start buying mountain bikes twenty years ago:

I first bought a very nice single-speed bike which I managed to have stolen within 24 hours. A few months later I tried again with a fixed-gear which is still with me.

I was a bit nervous about the whole idea — a bike without gears, without even the ability to freewheel — but now, with the certainty that only spending £500 on something can give me, I can see the benefits.

On-one Il Pompino
A bike the same as my new one but with flat handlebars instead of dropped.

First, the gears: I found that one is all I need. Living in London, and rarely venturing into the hilly wilds of north and south London, the only slope I have to climb is out of the underground car park. It’s slightly more difficult to get the bike moving than with extra low gear, but once you’re in motion there’s no problem. There have been a few occasions — zooming down long, straight, gentle inclines like High Holborn — when a higher gear wouldn’t go amiss but I charitably count this lack of very high speeds as a safety feature. Also, never thinking about changing gears makes cycling a much simpler and more enjoyable experience.

The fixed-gear thing takes more getting used to. I was very careful the first few times out, after reading tales of inexperienced riders coming off their “fixies”. You unconsciously want to stop pedalling at certain points but if your legs try and do this while the pedals keep going, you’re heading for trouble. After a while though, my legs got used to the idea and now it seems strangely unnatural to ride a bike that allows freewheeling. There’s also the danger of catching a pedal on the kerb when squeezing past traffic, or having one catch the ground when zipping round a sharp corner, both of which I’ve largely managed to avoid. The other danger is when going fast downhill — your pedals will go very, very fast and your legs will need to keep up, which can be a little scary.

There’s one aspect of the fixed-gear experience I haven’t even tried: it’s possible to stop the rear wheel turning by applying pressure backwards on the pedals. This takes some practice and pretty much requires your feet to be strapped to the pedals or for you to be wearing clip-in cycling shoes. The ability to do this officially counts as a brake, so you can legally ditch the normal rear brake which only adds to the ability to create beautiful and very minimal bikes like the one below. Being a cautious and sensible chap I’m sticking with the standard brakes.

Super pink fixie
Photo by timmycorkery

Although I’m used to the fixed-gear now, I’m still not entirely sold, unlike the single-speed aspect. With no desire to do the rear-wheel braking thing I’m missing out on part of the point, and with my tendency to stop at red lights (and my current inability to track stand) I interrupt the “flow” that fixed-gear enthusiasts talk of.

Fixed-gear isn’t a bad thing but, for me, I’m not feeling any benefit. There is something in the feeling of being more “at one” with the bike — your legs always move when the bike’s moving — and with no free-wheeling ratchet the bike is always beautifully silent and smooth. But what’s wrong with free-wheeling? Coasting along is the joyous pay-off for having to cycle up a gradient or built up some speed.

The single-speed side of things works for me though. The bike is simpler, cycling is simpler, and I very rarely miss having extra gears. The rest of the bike is a pleasant change from the mountain bike too. Much lighter, even with my sensible load of mudguards and rear luggage rack, and with thin wheels it certainly feels like less work. The downside of thin wheels and their tires is more punctures, one thing jwz got right. I’ve mostly, thankfully, eliminated these by getting better tires but cycling through Shoreditch, where the gutters are artfully decorated with broken glass, is still a gamble.

The drop handlebars I’m not sure about. I bought the bike with Midge bars which flare out more than standard drop bars, too much for cyling through tight traffic in my experience. Maybe it’s my stiff shoulders but it’s not a comfortable ride, although this is little different to how I felt on my mountain bike’s flat bars. Aside from this, it’s a thumbs up for the simplicity of single-speed bikes from me.

Over the past couple of years I’m far from the only one who’s given this a go. Rush hour on the Barley Highway (the route from east London along Hackney Road through Old Street into the city centre) is now full of beautiful, minimal, slimline bikes jostling for position among the overladen mountain bikes and the London Fixed-gear and Single-speed forum has ballooned. For me, part of the appeal is the simplicity. It’s like shaving with an old fashioned razor or a photographer restricting themselves to a single type of lens, feeling like one is eschewing modern complications for something that just works.


Having barely left London in way too long, getting out just as far as Paris has reminded me of one reason why people travel: to get some perspective. I’d forgotten that when it comes to bikes not everywhere is like London (or, maybe, New York or San Francisco). Here in Paris everyone is riding boring old-fashioned upright bikes. I’ve seen thousands of these now and not just the hugely popular rentable Velib. By contrast I’ve only seen a few mountain bikes or racing/road bikes, and maybe half a dozen fixed/single-speed bikes. Also, even fewer people are wearing helmets or any kind of fluorescent garment, never mind fancy lycra clothing or clicky-clacky shoes.

I remembered, of course, that cycle path rich countries like the Netherlands are full of sensible normal bikes but if the population of the host of the Tour de France prefers comfortable, upright, slow cycling over the alternatives… why do the British insist on riding mountain or racing bikes, never mind this fashionable single-speed nonsense? Looking around at Parisians and tourists coasting through the traffic (not many cycle paths here) I can’t work out why the two cycling cultures are so different.

Azor Toronto Gents
A sensible Dutch bike from Velorution

Is it just the pace of life? Do Londoners feel the need for the extra speed it’s hard to achieve when pedalling along with comfortably curved handlebars and a sprung saddle? But if you go to more relaxed places in the UK I bet mountain bikes still outnumber “old fashioned” bikes. Maybe we’re just suckers for fashion in Britain? Maybe we always want the new thing, something that must be better than whatever had served us fine for years?

I can’t fully work this out. But I do love how relaxed Parisian cyclists look and I’m wondering whether I made the right choice after all. Or maybe I need to start a new trend for the best of both worlds: a fixed-gear bike coupled with high, curved handlebars and a comfortable saddle.

Comments

  • I think it’s bound up with bike culture. In Britain and especially the US, there’s a tacit belief that you grow out of bikes, and that if you’re going to continue cycling as an adult, you need to buy into ‘bike culture’ to some extent, which means going to shops run for bike fanatics by bike fanatics, and embracing mountain bikes and fixies and titanium-frame racers. There’s not the same base presence — or road stock — of clattering three-gear Dutch bikes to establish that kind of cycling as normative.

    It’s easier to see this with motorbikes: riders are pretty much enthusiasts everywhere, because it’s a niche interest. But I was having this discussion with Americans about how cyclists get tarred as crasy — frankly, if you’re living somewhere where it’s crazy to cycle, then the base constituency of cyclists will tend towards the crazy.

  • I guess so. If Boris does introduce Velib-style bike rental in London, it’ll be interesting to see if that changes the image of cycling at all — more casual, less hardcore.

  • I’m willing to be convinced by Velib-style rental, though I’m unsure that it makes a big enough dent on the existing stock, and by extension, the perception.

    I’d guess that Oxford is the biggest city in the UK with a big bike presence, and the bike stock there (at least ten years ago) was a mixture of sit-up-and-begs, cheap mountain bikes and heavy steel-frame ‘racers’. The majority of riders don’t have a big budget, and theft is a constant risk, so it’s considered a good thing if your bike looks cheap and a bit knackered. Truth is, clanking three-speeders are a niche market for Monocle readers, in part because they’re imported. The steel-frame 5/10-speed (the bog-standard Raleigh, Peugeot, etc.) is more ‘native’ to Britain, and while you can ride one like a racer, you can stick a sprung saddle and panniers on one too.

  • This is a huge debate in urban planning circles in Britain, US and Australia, where the desire to introduce a more ‘Copenhagen-style’ cycling culture is immense - at least amongst those trying to make sustainable cities. Most major cities are now actively trying to encourage cycling for the first time ever, realistically - it’s only been a niche pursuit until the last few years, outside of continental Europe, China etc. - for the reasons Nick suggests - in theory, you grow out of it, and buy a car, essentially (remember what Thatcher said about getting the bus; imagine what she’d say about cycling). So car-driven planning in Britain, US and Australia meant the infrastructure ensured that cycling could only ever be a marginal activity (and performance-based in its culture, too.)

    Still, I don’t accept that cultures are frozen in aspc, and so while the native bike for Britain might be the 10-speed racer for now, I’m interested in what can be done to introduce the more civilised modes you observed in Paris, which are prevalent elsewhere. In Copenhagen, as people like Jan Gehl never tire of telling us) you see 80-year old grannies out cycling. And the mode is sedate, relaxed, civilised etc. All things we need to encourage in UK, US and Aus.

    Velib-like schemes are no-brainers, as are genuine cycle paths criss-crossing the whole city, as are Tokyo/Amsterdam style bike garages, facilities at work etc. - which means standing up to the cars and highways lobby (no mean feat in US and Aus.) That requires a huge political and financial investment over time - but that needs to be happen. Also changing the imagery around cycling - even Govt.-led schemes will tend to feature a bit too much lycra, and people wearing helmets.

    The more sophisticated debate in genuine cycling cultures is over whether to wear helmets or not, which is fascinating.

  • I was a bit surprised to see an article in the FT Magazine about Bobbin’s imported Dutch bikes. It perhaps bears out nick_s’s point in that it mentions not wearing sporty clothes or lycra, but instead goes off into talk about fashion (I doubt many other bicycle reviews refer to corsage). The author also eschews a helmet; I suspect that’s common amongst Velib users also.

    Dan Hill: “standing up to the cars and highways lobby (no mean feat in US and Aus.)” Sadly, it’s not exactly a small problem in the UK either: there’s been a lot of campaigning about road fuel duty, and the change to emission-based road fund (“car”) tax, in the Mail, Express and Telegraph over the last couple of months. Still, despite all that, London seems to be (slowly) moving in the right direction, although we’ll have to see how Boris’s reign pans out.

  • The helmet thing is very strange, having got used to London where most people, aside from messengers, seem to take it as read that helmets must be worn. I’ve had to reorgnise my thinking after reading very reasoned debate online about why there’s no need for helmets, and then coming to Paris and seeing almost everyone, Velib-riding or not, bare-headed.

    And aside from the type of bike and the outfit, the attitude and speed of cyclists is so different too. In London, especially on the main drags during rush hour, there’s a constant jostling for position and aggressiveness among many cyclists (probably including myself unfortunately): speed and a fast getaway from the lights is all. Occasionally I see someone gliding along, upright on a Pashley or similar, and I wonder why they’re the exception to the rule.

    I guess that cities with many bike messengers (I haven’t noticed many in Paris, but it could be because it’s August and so much stops here) have an additional inertia if they want to change cycling culture. Messengers will always be the outsiders who ride fast and dangerous and their image of cycling will always be pulling in the opposite direction to a friendly, slower, easier image.

  • Great stuff!

  • I’m inclined towards the no-helmet side, though it’s one of those arguments that is far easier to make in theory — a bit like Labour MPs who celebrate the local comprehensive until it’s time for their kids to go there. I definitely think this opinion piece is on the mark:

    helmet use symbolically puts the burden of safety on the shoulders, or rather the head, of the cyclist. While this fits right in with the American ethos of individual responsibility, it’s not realistic: It’s primarily the conduct of others, particularly the drivers of automobiles and trucks, that ultimately determines a bicyclist’s safety.

    ( http://www.walkablestreets.com/helmet.htm )

    Consider the half-shell helmet that’s beloved of Harley riders in the US, and prohibited in the UK. If Harley owners had to wear full helmets in the US, would the whole laid-back hog-riding image be as entrenched?

    Anyway, this is probably Dan Hill’s territory, but my sense is that a marginalised culture self-defensively defines itself in ways that elevate and celebrate the marginal, which is something akin to the niche-ism of bike culture in London and big American cities. In fact, the very existence of a distinctive urban ‘bike culture’, rather than an urban culture that cycles, is a testimony to that marginality.

    (Dan: I don’t see why having a cycle stock based upon the Raleigh 10-speed is necessarily a bad thing. There was a piece last week in the Washington Post, admittedly tending towards the lifestyle mode, about people digging out old three-speeders from the back of their garages:

    The bike industry’s fresh supply of new-old bikes is being supplemented by the tectonic forces of Craigslist and eBay unearthing vast midden heaps of old-old Schwinns, Raleighs, Huffys, Peugeots, Sears Roebuck Free Spirits and so on. They have the advantage of being cheap and retro-hip

    http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2008/08/01/AR2008080103246_pf.html

    I could do without the ‘retro-hip’, but the basic point stands: don’t abandon the bike stock you’ve got. It’s not as if most people ever rode their racers with the saddle higher than the handlebars in the first place.)

    Finally, here’s a good presentation on ‘vehicular cycling’:

    http://www.sfu.ca/city/city_pgm_video020.htm

  • I moved from a mountain bike almost exactly two years ago (http://mike.teczno.com/notes/consumption-diary.html) and haven’t looked back. I bought the IRO bike with a flip-flop hub, and for the first few months rode it on the freewheel side with regular brakes, etc. Took me a while to learn how to get my feet into the toe cages while moving. When I switched to the fixed gear side a few months in, I also had the feeling of not quite getting it, and didn’t enjoy my first few rides all that much. It wasn’t until I learned to track stand - a slightly inclined dirt or grass surface helps immensely - that I really got to enjoy the feeling of riding fixed. It’s nice to have the option to flip it around, but once I figured out how to balance while standing still I haven’t gone back. For my second bike (http://mike.teczno.com/notes/univega.html) I chose a fixed-only hub.

    Definitely agreeing with Dan that the lycra image for cyclists needs to disappear, fast. There are two ascendant body images I see in SF and Oakland now: the no-nonsense commuter with pants clips, generally on a hybrid or dutch cruiser, and the lumberjack fixie hipster. Both of them promise that you don’t need a change and a shower at your destination, making cycling feel easier and more accessible as a medium of transport rather than exercise.

  • Hello.

    I often think I must be a rubbish cyclist. When someone asked on the friends’ mail list that Phil and I are both on if anyone used more than 1 gear, every cyclist on the list said no, or maybe 2, rarely.

    I am often found buzzing through all 7 on my top row, and if I’m having a particularly knackering day, I may shift down to the middle gear wheel / er, thing and similarly, go through all 7 on there instead. I like to keep no.7 ready for slopes to give me a little extra control. Just to know I’ve got something else in my arsenal should I need it. As I approach lights I always shift down 2 gears so my legs aren’t groaning to start and I’m not wobbling all over the road. And when I go up slopes, then it’s anyone’s guess where I’ll end up by the top.

    …and I’ve been cycling around London for 16 years, so it’s fairly engrained behavior.

    On the helmet front, I can quite see how hardline “you must” types can seem tedious beyond belief, but there again, I came off the bike the other week and got a right knock against the road with my head, but walked away. If I hadn’t been wearing a helmet, I’d be willing to bet hard cash I’d have been concussed, or at the very least have a fucking bad headache. In the days after the crash, several people told tales to me of hitting pavement edges, and ending up with “V” shapes hammered in to the polystyrene and similar. So whilst I can accept that actual deaths may not have risen, that statistic I tentatively suggest hides a multitude of ‘very nasty accidents not having happened because’ underneath it. Ultimately, and for the same reason I have now bought a pair of biking gloves with kevlar across the knucks, the reason I wore a helmet and will continue to remains the same: you never know when something’s useful until it is (and my grated knuckles would have definitely appreciated that kevlar, so that’s my tip for the day).

    Meanwhile, on another point, I’m sure I saw a thing last week for some new upright 3 gear job. I’ll dig it out and report back - but simpler bikes are definitely on the rise. Me, I’ve always cycled a hybrid rather than a Mountain, apart from once, when I got a gross bright yellow mountain that got nicked. My current bike was built by the bike shop and is thus unique. They love servicing it and it runs like a dream for me, a rubbish cyclist ;)

  • One thing that just occurred to me, re Nick’s points about all the old bikes that get recycled as second hand… Although there probably are many old racing bikes around (my old 1980s Raleigh Routier is out there somewhere), there are a huge amount of obviously old and knackered mountain bikes on the road; 10-20 years of mountain bikes having the lion’s share of the new bike market rather stacks the decks.

    At college, where there were lots of people in the country for a couple of years without much spare cash, most cyclists had second hand (or new, but very cheap) mountain bikes. I’m not sure if this is because they’re all that’s available or because people see them as safer and more comfortable than racers. Or both.

  • By the way, I’ve remembered a key point re: gears. Many eons ago, I did a “look after your bike” course at Brixton bikes, and they taught that the cadence of your pedalling should remain at a relatively constant speed: approximate seconds. Thus you should be able to say “One and two and” as you pedal. That necessitates shifting around the gears dependent on the incline.

    Whether or not this is true, I have no idea, but it must have brainwashed me thoroughly at the time, given that I still do it now.

  • By coincidence the Guardian ran an article yesterday about the differences between British and French attitudes to wearing helmets. Apparently, from the autumn Parisian cyclists will have to wear fluorescent jackets.

Photos taken 9 Aug 2008

9 Aug 2008 at Twitter

  • 10:38am: Already a bit tired of spammers deciding that sending private messages through Vox is the way forward.
  • 01:47pm: Off to meet @nickludlam for a late, sunny Parisian lunch.
  • 07:31pm: Just back from the cinema, seeing 'Surveillance', about which I knew nothing. http://tinyurl.com/5mqbu8 Brilliant. Still shaken. Briliant.

On this day I was reading