The rise & fall of the trendy bicycle

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The genesis of this column was a report of fixed-gear bikes—fixies—becoming the favored accessory of hip urbanites in Paris. “The bikes are as much activity as social marker,” wrote a New York Times reporter in September. Intrigued, I began to wonder if the same were true in Salt Lake City, a place where bicycling increased by 27 percent between 2010 and 2011, where the mayor rides a bike to work and where the University of Utah has a bicycle master plan.

As the months passed, I took note of the number of sleek fixies cruising the bike lanes near the university. My interest in them eventually led me to Beehive Bicycles, a recent arrival in the 15th and 15th district, where I found Greg Steele working on a bike one spring morning. I introduced myself as a scribbler intent on writing a column on “the fixie aesthetic,” as I had come to call it. He asked what I would write and what the column would be about. “I’m not sure,” I replied. It was an honest answer. A column like this is often an exploration. It begins with an idea and gradually develops an expectation of the course it will take, but I am often surprised by how willful the final paragraphs are as they elbow their way into place. At the outset, then, this is a piece about cool Utahns advancing their social standing with cool bikes.

Steele acknowledged that fixies are “popular with the hipster crowd here,” but he explained that the actual attraction of the fixed-gear bike is its practicality. Fixies are simple, single-speed machines. (In other words, when the wheels are rotating so are the pedals.) Most people buy a fixie because it is inexpensive and easy to maintain, Steele said. I told him about the Paris phenomenon. He had a ready explanation—inspired by the well-documented panache of New York City’s bike messengers—and then he assured me that messengers ride fixies because they are less likely to be stolen not because they are intrinsically cool.

By the time I left Beehive Bicycles, my idealized fixie aesthetic had been grounded in practicality. I felt the need to validate Steele’s opinions with the hipster crowd, to talk with an honest-to-goodness, fixie-riding hipster. To find one, I went to the Salt Lake City Bike Collective on West Temple. The place was bustling. I sat on a couch near the front desk with Jonathan Morrison, an owner of a fixed-gear bike, but by his own admission, not a cool dude. “My fixie is really fun,” he said. “It spices up my cycling life.” But, Morrison said, the age of the fixie-riding hipster has come and gone in Salt Lake City. What remains is a niche for fixies as “gateway bikes for high-schoolers.”

We were soon joined by Anthony Woo, a twenty-something man whom Morrison judged to be as cool as anybody I might find on a Tuesday night. He looked hip to me: pierced, lobe-plugged, big Woody Allen eyeglasses. As we talked, Woo proved to be a thoughtful guy with a self-deprecating wit. “Yeah, I ride a silly, impractical bike,” Woo confessed with a laugh. I pressed him for details of the cool crowd in the valley. Yes, he said, there is a pretty vibrant hipster community in Salt Lake City. They buy clothes at Urban Outfitters, and “the cool kids hang out at the Twilite Lounge.” They favor PBR, he said, “and the main activity is cycling.”

Woo talked about his own experience with bikes. “There is a whole feeling of connection to the fixie because of the increased level of effort,” he said. Then, after a reflective pause, he added: “I went from liking the ride to a fashion statement.” Thereupon I was introduced to the concept of bike chic and the fact that the clean lines of a fixie can be rendered in tropical colors. On the Urban Outfitters website, “a personalized experience in bike design … with more than 100,000 component and color combinations.” A lime-green frame, yellow seat and red chain are a mouse click away. That you can individualize a bike appeals to the hip, Morrison said. Woo readily agreed. What else is individualized? I asked. Woo pulled his phone from his pocket. Pasted on the casing was a kitschy collage of Jersey Shore flesh. We all laughed.

And so the exploration of the fixie aesthetic runs its course. I conclude that fixies are more practical than chic, but at the Twilite Lounge on Saturday night, you will find the obverse.

However, if Morrison is right and fixies are losing their avant-garde appeal, no one should be surprised. “Cool” is ephemeral: What is cool today is passé tomorrow. When I was in high school, British sports cars were “bitchin’,” the lexical equivalent of today’s “totally awesome.” British Racing Green was the coolest color for the trendy MG and Triumph two-seaters. Today, the color, cars and adjective are post-cool relics keeping company with berets, Earth Shoes and Rubik’s Cubes. Fixies will probably become irrelevant, too, but bicycles will not. They offer too many advantages to city dwellers. The University of Utah plans for a not-too-distant future when 9,000 bicyclists are commuting to the campus. Salt Lake City has already invested in 50 miles of bike lanes. Although we’re a long way from Davis, Calif., where there are more bikes than cars, Chad Mullins, chairman of the Salt Lake County Bicycle Advisory Committee, said, “You can feel the momentum building across the state.”

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