May 27, 2005

Visceral Aesthetics (fixed gear)

I've been riding fixed gear bicycles for a while now. Not long enough to be old school, but long enough to be asked why I do it far too many times. And I rarely have a satisfactory answer. The simplest way is to call it "zen", which explains the stripped down elegance of the fixed gear and then fills in the rest with a vague mysticism. Its a cop out answer, a non explanation, does the job but leaves me empty. I'd like to be able to explain it to myself you see.

Over the past couple years my main answer was something along the lines of "its an aesthetic", which is completely the wrong thing to say. Their is an aesthetic component to fixed gear, they are gorgeous machines. Stripped of the gears, the cables and extra brakes, a fixed gear bike looks far more graceful then your standard ride. You can't coast on a fixed, a trained eye can tell when someone is riding one by the way they pedal, the even pacing that takes years of practice to master on a standard bike emerges by design on a fixed. There are probably people who ride fixed gears because of the way they look. There are definitely those who ride without front brakes because they like they way it looks, some of them can actually do it safely. But thatís another matter.

What I finally came to realize is that fixed gears are an aesthetic, there is a reason I always used the word, but its not the traditional visual aesthetic that is operative. What explains fixed gear is a visceral aesthetic. Its an utterly distinct feeling to ride a fixed gear, either you like it or you don't, and usually you can tell within five minutes of riding whether fixed is for you or not. Feeling is another misleading word though, its not feeling as in tactile, touch, its feeling more in an internal sense, kinesthesia or proprioception are the technical terms that approach the right meaning. But these terms are not quite there yet, although they too need an aesthetic understanding. Kinesthesia referrers to the sense of the body in relation to itself, its key to feeling of peddling ones feet, but it doesn't explain the sense of motion through space.

The visceral aesthetics of fixed gear riding are a cyborg aesthetic. A rider is directly connected to the pedals (usually clipped in), the pedals are directly connected to the wheel via a chain, cog and other mechanics, and this in turn is connected to the ground producing motion through space. All this is roughly the same on a fixed gear or a standard bike with a freewheel (the mechanical device that allows coasting). What is radically different on a fixed gear, where the true cybernetics comes in, is that on a fixed gear this relation is symmetrical. The ground is connected back to the wheel, and then in a major shift, the wheel is then connected back to the pedals.

When you ride fixed you feel the ground directly, and more importantly you feel the energy of the wheel spinning fast over that ground. The operative fact is not that you can not coast, its possible to ride a freewheeled bike without coasting, but why you can not coast. Try and stop pedaling and your legs are thrust forward. The wheel/ground machine strikes back and pushes you forward, and pushes you hard. When I first rode a fixed I compared it a motorcycle, the amount of energy that moving 200 pounds of human, bike and gear at 20 miles an hour takes is immense, and you never experience it on a freewheeled bike unless you crash. Then again you rarely experience it on the fixed gear either, the motorcycle feeling is a difficult memory for me to recall, its so different from the visceral aesthetic of riding now that I know how to do it properly.

A fixed gear rider does not feel anything like full energy of the wheel spinning over the ground because they don't ride against the ground-wheel machine, they ride in sync with it. Only when braking hard does anything remotely like the full energy become apparent. Generally the rider rides with the forces, they spin their legs at right about the speed that the wheel turns the pedal. They'll go a touch faster to accelerate, a touch slower to slow down, but a the heart of it is one linked machine, legs, pedal, wheel, ground, working in both directions, locked together as one system. The person does not feel the full force of the machine, because the person is part of the machine.

Standard freewheel bicycles divorce the rider from the forces in quite a different manner. The freewheel breaks the symmetry between the pedal and wheel. The wheel can go forward while the pedal stays in place or even goes backwards. The rider and machine are striated into two parts. The rider is no longer part of the machine, but instead controls the machine. An asymmetrical relationship where the human becomes dominant. Or rather moves towards dominance, the machine is still capable of striking back, tires losing traction, going flat, wheels going out of true, veering unexpectedly. And of course the act of remaining in balance (and with it much steering) is very much a symmetrical one, the bike and human in total synthesis.

Compared with say a car, the bicycle of any sort is radically more cybernetic, and this only goes to show how radical the visceral aesthetic of the fixed gear is. A complete synchronization with the machine, in an age where automobiles are built like armored wombs, designed to disconnect from all elements of the machine. The visceral aesthetic of the SUV is comfortable control, of feeling above everyone, stronger yet plusher, sounds cut off, the engine little more then a purr, the feel of the road forgotten, the air well conditioned. The machine is not a partner, there certainly is no cybernetic cohesion and merge, instead the machine becomes a slave.

Me you'll find me part of a machine, feet-pedal-wheel-ground, moving as one, it's beautiful outside today.

Posted by Abe at May 27, 2005 12:25 PM


"it's beautiful outside today."

beautiful inside too, while reading this post.

Right on. I like fixed because it makes me slow down and look at stuff and think and be aware. On a geared bike my daily commute is like a 9 mile each way windsprint, and I don't see anything but just push myself with my head down. On the fixie, though, I hear the birds sing and I see rabbits and mice and I think about the trees.

Plus, fixies are great equalizers. My girlfriend is a slow rider, so the fixie helps us be less stressed-out when we're riding together. Anything that makes the lady happy is alright by me!

I ought to learn to write like you!

I agree with the guy above, a fixie will equalize me with my wife while riding together