Not broken, but fixed

Unusual Friday night ride caters to 'fixies'

From left, Mitch Pounds, Andrew Wacker, Malakai Edison, Sam Schlageck and Robert Kerley prepare for their weekly fixed-gear bike ride. They were among the riders participating in the Friday Night Fixie Rides, a thrice-a-month event featuring mainly fixed-gear bicycles.

Friday Night Fixie Riders gather at the Campanile on the Kansas University campus. The rides commence at 6 p.m. the first, second and third Fridays of the month.

The Friday Night Fixie Rides aren’t like most organized bike rides.

There isn’t a shred of spandex, no garish team jerseys. Instead, the riders sport bike-messenger chic: think, cuffed pant legs and messenger bags.

There isn’t a superlight, carbon-fiber-and-titanium 20- or 30-speed race bike in the bunch. At the Friday Night Fixie Rides, the bulk of the bikes are simple and utilitarian, many stripped of all their identifying decals and boasting exactly one gear.

And then there’s the ride itself. Unlike many group rides, where participants are shooting for a specific heart rate or distance covered, the Friday Night Fixie Riders don’t decide where they’re headed until just before they head out. And even then the route is subject to change.

Welcome to the Friday Night Fixie Rides, which head out the first three Fridays of every month from the Campanile on the Kansas University campus.

“I wanted this ride to be something extremely casual and also supportive of people who ride bicycles, not just for spandex-clad recreation, but for other commuting and lifestyle-based reasons,” said Sam Owen, a KU junior who works at Cycle Works and who started the Fixie Rides this summer. “Strict structure doesn’t really fit into that.”

About the only structure to the ride is its start time.

The ride used to commence at 7 p.m. from the Campanile, but the early onset of darkness moved the ride up to 6 p.m. the first, second and third Fridays of every month. (The fourth Friday is left open so riders can participate in Critical Mass rides, monthly take-back-the-street events that feature riders en masse asserting their right to the road).

Owen estimated 20-25 regulars – from college freshmen to “grown professionals” – rotate through the rides, with close to a dozen participating at a time.

“Hopefully,” Owen said, “more people will start coming now that the group is establishing a more clear ‘purpose.'”

And that purpose is?

“I started the ride this summer after moving here from Albuquerque, N.M., and finding that there was a small but growing fixie crowd of riders here, but no way for them to organize,” Owen said. “The objective was just mainly to have fun and a method to organize ‘official’ races, alleycats and swap meets.”

What’s a fixie?

A fixie – a fixed-gear bike – has just one gear. Most modern adult bikes also sport a freewheel, allowing the cyclist to coast. Fixies lack a freewheel, so if the wheels are turning, so are the pedals.

Cyclists, thus, can brake with their legs, and some fixie operators ride without hand brakes.

Years ago, riders used fixed-gear bikes in training to smooth out their spin. Recently, fixies became popular among bike messengers, in part because of their simplicity.

Now, fixies have entered the mainstream – or, at least, whatever mainstream there is in cycling; it’s more of a subset of a niche – and many major manufacturers make off-the-shelf fixies.

Owen discovered fixie fun back in 2005, when he commuted around Lawrence by bike. He moved to New Mexico and worked in a bike shop and delivered food by bike – fixed.

“When I moved back to Lawrence, I was shocked to see how unpopular it was here compared to seemingly everywhere else in the country right now,” he said. “But it is definitely starting to pick up here, as is evidenced even just from the high number of people coming into Cycle Works asking me about the bikes.”

That’s where the Friday Night Fixie Rides come in.

Though riders with an infernal freewheel won’t be turned away – “We don’t playa hate!” Owen says – fixies dominate.

“There is a uniqueness about fixed-gear riding and riders that makes getting a group of them together fun,” Owen said, “but we do get people on all types of bikes coming, citing a common interest usually though in at least getting into fixie riding.”

The Friday rides

What is a Friday Night Fixie Ride like?

Depends on the night.

“The ride rarely has a set destination until about 10 minutes after we all meet up,” Owen said. “I do like to say that we typically ride to events as well as just locations, and it’s neat to think that the ride has in a way supported local arts and causes by having the bunch of us pedal pushers show up in attendance in openings, etc.”

A recent Friday ride was delayed by a flat tire, necessitating a stop at a gas station for air. After more discussion, a half-dozen riders – five riding fixed, one a freewheel-equipped single speed – meandered at a leisurely pace through town.

They breezed by Lawrence Memorial Hospital, then turned a few laps at a vacant parking lot – the velodrome, so named because it resembled in function if not form the banked tracks on which fixed-gear track bikes compete.

The action moved to the infield of the velodrome, where riders showed off skid stops, one-legged skid stops, one-legged-one-leg-over-the-han-dlebar skid stops, track stands (balancing on the pedals) and other tricks.

Then it was off to the northwest, by the Berry Plastics and Westar energy plants, headlights blazing and red tail lights blinking into the night as lightning from a distant front crackled in the distance.

Then it was back toward downtown, where the riders split up, two to a party, two more to a downtown bar – a frequent end-of-ride destination.

It lasted maybe a hour and half and covered 10 miles, with frequent stops to gather and talk about bikes, bike parts, close calls with cars and the like.

“The ride is all about fun,” Owen said. “Otherwise, none of us would do it.”