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Always in Gear: The GR Fixie Scene

A bike is a bike, right?

Maybe not. Depending on whom you ask these bikes are misused, misunderstood, or the two-wheel messiah. They can be sleek, thin-tubed and tricked out. Chopped, beat and cobbled together. Brand new or snatched off the curb. $1,200 or $12. They are fixed-gear bikes and they are quietly taking over Grand Rapids.

Fixed-gear bikes, or fixies, as they are commonly called, are bicycles with one speed and no freewheel. This means they can’t coast. Often built without handbrakes, fixies are gradually slowed to a stop by resisting the movement of the pedals, or instantly with a sudden shifting of weight known as a skid stop. This forces fixie riders to be more aware of their surroundings: You will either be a more focused cyclist or one that runs into things.

Prized by bike messengers, competitive cyclists and hip urbanites, fixies are fast and fun, easy to maintain, stylish and maybe a bit impractical. They are as diverse as the tastes and resources of their owners. And there is no better place to see them than Wednesday nights in downtown Grand Rapids—the hub of the region’s urban cycling scene.

Last summer, 10 near strangers showed up hungry for the chance to meet other riders in a fixie-only midnight race around Reed’s Lake. This initial group later formed Push/Pull, a local apparel company and cycling scene promoter that sparked the now highly popular Wednesday cycling trend.

“Push/Pull was born out of this scene,” says Geoff Holstad, co-founder of Push/Pull. “It’s different (from other cities), we all know each other. When I see someone riding a fixed-gear who I don’t know I chase them down and give them a flyer.”

“We had a guy who rode from Muskegon, raced at midnight and then rode back home every Wednesday last summer,” adds Neil Hubert, another Push/Pull partner.

Two years ago, Holstad bought a 2007 Schwinn Madison from Alger Schwinn in Grand Rapids. “I used to put everything into skateboarding,” he says, “but when I realized I was getting older and sick of always getting hurt I took all that energy and focused it on fixed-gears.”

Hubert saw plenty of fixies when he lived in San Francisco, but to him they seemed more suicidal than sweet: “Heck, no! No brakes?” But Holstad convinced Hubert to give them another look, and after a few months of research he was riding an IRO Mark V.

“In other cities there can be a lot of mean mugging. We want to make (the GR scene) really positive,” explains Hubert, citing the Push/Pull web address, positivecycling.com. Riding at midnight allows people to participate who can’t ride with people during the day, like Hubert. “I rode on my own quite a bit, but I missed the community.” A critical mass of people in Grand Rapids was looking for the same thing. By the end of the summer two-dozen riders were showing up at midnight on Wednesdays. It was the beginning of a scene.

Old bikes create new subculture
While fixies may seem a recent phenomenon, a century ago virtually all bikes were fixed-gear. This was the golden age of American competitive cycling. Fixed-geared bikes dashed along city streets and around velodromes—banked, elliptical tracks designed for bicycle racing. Grand Rapids hosted races through the city and around a wooden velodrome near Reed’s Lake.

By mid-century bikes with derailleurs and free wheels became the norm. Fixed-gear bikes were still used for training and track racing, but it was decades before another type of rider brought them back to the streets.

Bike messengers in the West Indies are credited with resurrecting fixed-gears for urban use. They realized that fixies are easy to maintain, have few parts to break and are really, really fast. When these couriers began moving to New York City, their American messenger counterparts took notice. Soon these scruffy, aggressive and fast-as-hell bike couriers were transfixing urban youth in the Big Apple and elsewhere. They began imitating the messengers, shifting messenger bags and fixed-gear bikes from subculture to mainstream.

Messengers and non-messengers alike began to meet for fixie-only races and gatherings, like thealleycat, where riders zoom around city streets hitting checkpoints on their way to the finish. Today, fixies have become the bike of choice for young urbanites in New York, Portland, San Francisco, Seattle, Chicago and now, Grand Rapids.

Richard Hackler of local indie/anarchist media library The Bloom Collective rides a fixed-gear bike he put together himself. His fixie is his sole mode of transportation, so it needs to work well. He loves that he can keep it in great shape with a little work. “I can strip and degrease everything and it runs like brand new.” he says. On a fixie without handbrakes the tires and chain are the only parts that require regular maintenance and can be fixed with a little practice and the right tools.

Hubert changed his habits when he began to bike instead of drive. “I started riding everywhere. I stopped drinking as much and started eating better. I can’t think of many other subculture choices that make you healthier.”

Some local riders loved fixed-gears well before this new wave of interest. Twenty five years ago, Denny Kershner began using his fixed-gear bike to smoke riders in road races and train through Michigan winters. What does he think of the new scene? “It’s a social thing, I love anything that promotes cycling.” He also has some concerns. “Some of these younger riders act like nothing can happen to them. They haven’t been riding very long so they haven’t experienced the scar tissue, the broken bones, the road rash. They think they are Gumby.”

Economy of the scene

Grand Rapids manufacturer Velocity USA Inc. has been involved in the worldwide fixie scene for more than a decade. It makes the iconic Deep V wheel, cherished by messengers for its distinct look, aerodynamics and durability. “Deep V rims are so strong you just can’t break them,” says Velocity Sales Manager Matt Dennis. “That’s why messengers love them; they are just so durable.”

Other local businesses participating in the fixie boom include Alger Schwinn, Grand Rapids Bicycle Co., Ada Bike Shop and Freewheeler Bike Shop. All have seen fixie-related sales skyrocket this summer. “Two years ago fixies came and everyone wanted one,” says Curt Bryan, Freewheeler employee and son of shop owner Gordy Bryan. “We’ve probably sold 30 complete fixed-gears this summer.”

Freewheeler offers fixie options for all types of riders. Its “back yard” of old frames, cranks, cogs and other parts is the perfect place to “Frankenstein” a killer ride. The shop will even convert your multiple-gear bike to a fixie. The Bryans have sold nearly 40 conversions this summer.

A scene emerges
The Push/Pull events of 2007 congealed a scene from the region’s disparate fixed-gear riders. By the end of the summer there were 25 people showing up for events including a messenger-style alleycat, a sprint event and the “Ghettodrome” race around an old running track.

Towards the end of summer, Velocity held an alleycat that drew 40 fixed-gear racers from as far away as Chicago, Traverse City and Ann Arbor. In the fall, Velocity employees Ruiter and Ryan Olthouse started their Blind Stoker series of events, beginning with the Devil’s Night Poker Run on Halloween.

The summer of 2008 has seen even more events. Local messenger bag manufacturer Teamwork organized a launch party alleycat in July. The Blind Stoker races became a points series with events such as the “tractor” pull, a BMX fundraiser, a ride to Rockford, and a race up and down the Robert Morris asphalt X at Belknap Park. The season ends with a ride to Holland and the second annual Devil’s Night Poker Run.

Now featuring three separate rides, Wednesday nights remain the bread and butter of local fixie riders. There is the 6:30 p.m. PedalGR ride, the 9:30 p.m. “Wensday Evening Ride” and the midnight Push/Pull ride. All three are open to all bikes, with the after dark rides having a larger fixie presence than the PedalGR ride.

Bill Bereza co-organizes the 9:30 p.m. ride that meets in a parking lot across from Martha’s Vineyard on Union Street in Heritage Hill. This casual ride is the best attended of the three. Almost 60 people gathered for the last ride, a trip around Reed’s Lake and back. In the crowd were many of the fixed-gear riders who have attended the midnight ride since the beginning. “It started as the same group initially,” says Bereza. “We wanted people to be able to ride at nine and then at midnight if they wanted to.”

At the lot, it’s 9 p.m. when the bikes start arriving. Some are coming from the pre-ride barbeque at Bereza’s home. There are a number of fixies among the circling bikes. Riders talk about their bikes with each other, giving compliments and advice. There is camaraderie among fixie riders which, in Grand Rapids anyway, is not exclusive. They love their bikes and feed off each other’s enthusiasm.

The plan and route are discussed, and by 9:30 the group heads toward the lake. It’s a casual ride focused on friends and bikes and loving the summer. Later they end up at Founders Brewing, where beer flows, and so do stories and laughter. For a dozen riders this is just a break: They soon mount up for the midnight ride, loving their Grand Rapids scene.


Matt Poole is a freelance writer who lives in Midtown. He also works in the deli at Marie Catrib's under his alter-ego Local DJ Matt P.

Photographs by Brian Kelly - All Rights Reserved
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