Single-Speeds Are Helping to Broaden the Appeal of Transportation Cycling

Michael Anderson, Iban Mendez and Joey Lopez outside Wheel of Time Bikes. Photo: John Greenfield

[This article also ran in Checkerboard City, John’s column in Newcity magazine, which hits the streets on Thursdays.]

The amount of biking in the U.S. more than doubled during the aughts, from 1.7 billion trips in 2001 to four billion in 2009, according to the League of American Bicyclists, a national advocacy group. One of the great things about this boom is that it has created a wider demographic of people who ride.

In a report published last year, the League found that cycling saw the fastest growth over the last decade among Latinos, African Americans and Asian Americans, from sixteen percent of all bike trips in 2001 to twenty-three percent in 2009. The study also found that eighty-nine percent of people aged eighteen to twenty-nine have a positive view of cyclists, and seventy-five percent of them feel that improved conditions for biking would make their community a better place to live.

The recent trend towards single-speed bicycles, with freewheels and/or fixed gears, has helped fuel the growing popularity of transportation cycling among urban youth in Chicago and other big cities. These sleek, minimalist rides are affordable, fast and easy to customize, which makes them an appealing gateway to biking for young people who, a decade ago, might have been more interested in buying four wheels than two.

Single-speeds have helped change the face of Chicago’s Critical Mass, which meets on the last Friday of every month in Daley Plaza. For most of the years since it launched in the nineties, the huge ride has drawn relatively few teens and people of color. Recently, the Mass has become more diverse in general, but nowhere is that more apparen than in back of the plaza’s giant Picasso sculpture, where dozens of youth, of all races, hang out and do tricks on their “fixies” before the ride gets rolling.

Nowadays, young single-speed riders, many of them black and Latino, are also a fixture at Logan Square’s eagle-topped Illinois Centennial Monument. The bikes have become so popular in Chicago that there are now at least two shops that sell almost nothing but fixies. One of these is Phixx 606 Cycles, located at 4075 North Elston in the Irving Park neighborhood (, 773-969-1148).

The other is Wheel of Time Bikes, 1518 West 18th in Pilsen (, 312-226-2453). I dropped by recently to find out more about why single-speeds resonate so much with Chicago youth.

Owned by artist Vianey Valdez and her mechanic husband Angel, this shop in a largely Mexican-American community features imagery that honors indigenous cultures. The name refers to the Aztec calendar wheel, which makes up the front wheel of the fixie in the logo, and the other wheel is a Lakota dreamcatcher and sacred hoop. Valdez also painted a phrase in Nahuatl, the Aztec language, across a wall of the store.

A disco ball and dozens of silver CDs stuck to the recessed ceiling of the shop are leftovers from its previous life as a record store. Bike frames, rims, tires, chains and other parts and accessories in a galaxy of colors hang from the walls. The shop only stocks one bike brand: Los Angeles-based Pure Fix Cycles.

Tony Patlan at Wheel of Time Bikes. Photo: John Greenfield

Manager Tony Patlan says the shop’s clientele is about fifty percent Latino, reflecting the demographics of the neighborhood, and largely youth. “We get a lot of teenagers coming in with their parents,” he says. “Instead of wanting to buy a car, like when I was a kid, they’re interested in buying a bike as their first vehicle so they can go hang out with their friends.”

Patlan, forty-two, says young people dig single-speeds because they’re simpler to operate than a bike with derailleurs and multiple gears. Since it’s possible to stop a fixed-gear by slowing your pedal stroke or skidding to a stop, some fixies don’t even have hand brakes. Fewer components on a bike makes it lighter and easier to maintain.

Wheel of Time specializes in custom builds, and many people choose unique color combos. “It can look like a rainbow if you want, and people really like that,” Patlan said. Customers are encouraged to name their steeds, and the shop posts photos of each new creation on its Facebook page. Recent additions include “Earth and Sky,” a green-and-blue model, “El Che,” with a red-and-black color scheme, and “The Hulk”—a grey frame with neon green parts.

Three guys hanging around outside the shop tell me they roll with a fixie crew called the Chicago Task Force, which sounds badass, and also would make a good name for an urban planning think tank. Joey Lopez, twenty, works at a grocery store in the South Loop. He tells me he got interested in single-speeds after a friend bought a nice ride. “It sounded a lot better and faster than the CTA,” he says. “Nowadays, I don’t even walk no more.”

Michael Anderson, seventeen, goes to school at nearby Juarez High and works at a Middle Eastern restaurant. He says he likes fixies for their simplicity. “I don’t have to mess with a derailleur, so I can repair my bike myself.”

Anderson’s coworker Iban Mendez, twenty-one, agrees. “You can’t change the transmission of a car overnight,” he says. “But you can change the gear ratio of your bike quickly, if you want more comfort or speed.”

They turn their attention to Mendez’s Pure Fix, which features a yellow frame, a green front wheel, an orange back wheel, and blue handlebars, plus parts in a few other hues. “What colors do you want to put on here?” Lopez asks. “I don’t know what other colors I can put on here,” Mendez replies.

  • Fred

    I just don’t get the appeal of a fixie. Harder to start, limited top speed, no help on non-flat pavement. How is this better?

    Also, bikes without brakes are illegal by Chicago Municipal Code 9-52-080(b): Every bicycle shall be equipped with a brake that will enable the operator to make the braked wheel skid on dry, level, clean pavement.

  • ohsweetnothing

    “Harder to start” all depends on your ratio set-up, who cares about top speed in 85% of City biking situations, Chicago is almost completely flat. Also, stopping a fixed-gear in wet conditions is more reliable than your “standard” entry level bike setup.
    Fixies are also cheaper and easier to maintain/fix than most bikes…as in I don’t have to drag them into bike shops for labor/parts estimates and the like. And they look sleek/cool.

    This isn’t to say I’m a fan of them, I’m not (anymore). But I get the appeal. Fixies and single-speeds are great “gateway drug” bikes. My block is majority latino and I love seeing the kids/teenagers messing around on them! I even offered to sell parts of my old fixie/single speed to em.

    EDIT: Does that Muni Code definition mean bikes with coaster brakes are illegal?

  • They’re definitely not for everybody although, oddly, people ride them in hilly San Francisco.

    That ordinance is kind of depends on how you define a brake. If you ride a brakeless fixie, you learn how to make the wheel skid on dry, level, clean pavement pretty fast, or else you give up and install a hand brake.

  • Dan Staggs

    I personally wouldn’t ride a fix, but single speed freewheels can be a delight. Different strokes for different folks.

  • Fred

    I’m not against the existence of fixies, other than in my observation fixie riders tend to have a higher rate of not stopping at signs/lights making all cyclists look bad, but I just don’t personally get the appeal and wouldn’t ride one.

    I would imagine that a coaster brake meets the “equipped with a brake” standard. “My legs are my brake equipment” is a much harder sell.

  • ohsweetnothing

    Haha, yeah true. Although my personal experience has shown me that a single-speed with one brake can be much dicier to stop than a fixie with no brake. Especially when it’s wet or that one brake hasn’t been tightened or is worn.

  • I don’t see the appeal either, but if there is any city for a fixie, it is Chicago.

  • BlueFairlane

    It never occurred to me, but the article’s discussion of the popularity of customizable fixies among the city’s Latino population could be seen as analogous to the popularity among driving Latinos of customized low-rider cars. This is a culture that likes customizing transportation in ways that don’t appeal to me.

    I’ve never gotten the appeal of the fixie or the free-wheel, either. I tend to only use one speed in Chicago, anyway, but I like having the option. Also, I have very strong hopes that I’ll someday live someplace with hills. From what I’ve observed, the single-speed riders put a lot more thought into riding to avoid hitting the brake than I prefer, and they often wind up taking up a lot of space with track stands or random circles and that sort of thing. But to each his/her own, I guess.

    My biggest issue is what the fixie trend has done to the used bike market in Chicago. I’m never going to buy a new bike. I’ve occasionally gotten into internet arguments with bike people who say I’m stupid, but I’m just not going to spend that kind of money. The fixie trend has meant that every good used bike in Chicago gets turned into a fixie. A non-modified used road bike is really hard to find in this town, and when you do find one you pay a premium.

  • Yep, if you’re riding a freewheel bike, you should have both a front and a rear brake to avoid going over the handlebars if you jam on the the front brake alone, or fishtailing if you only hit the rear brake.

    Of course, the fishtailing issue is an argument for having a front brake on a fixie, as is the question of how you stop if your chain falls off or breaks. In that case, your last resort is to pull a Fred Flintstone, dragging your feet on the ground.

  • Anne A

    When I was in college and my knees weren’t nearly as damaged as they are now, I was perfectly happy with a single speed coaster brake bike. I appreciated it for its mechanical simplicity and the fact that I could make most repairs myself – important on a college student budget.

  • ohsweetnothing

    …or on the back wheel :)

  • ohsweetnothing

    Sounds like the market is telling you to buy a new road bike, haha.

  • BlueFairlane

    The market is telling me to buy a used road bike where my parents live in Kentucky.

  • skyrefuge

    If there is in fact a positive correlation between one-speed bikes and running stop lights/signs, I argue that the one-speed is the *causative* factor. In other words, it’s not that lawless people are attracted to one-speeds, it’s the one-speed that *makes* them lawless. The simple fact that starting from a stop on a one-speed has a much greater physical cost than on a multi-geared bike means that people riding a one-speed bike will be less willing to stop. Randomly divide any group of people and give half of them one-speeds and half multi-geared bikes, and I’d bet a lot of money that those you gave the one-speeds to end up blowing intersections more frequently. That’s one reason why one-speed bikes are dumb, even in a flat city.

  • skyrefuge

    ha, I knew there was a brake law, but I didn’t know it was actually based on skidding the wheel. That seems like a pretty crazy standard. “sure, my brakes are complete shit, but luckily so are my tires, so I’m still in compliance!”

  • Fred

    I fully agree with you.

  • Matt F

    As a rider with a brakeless fixie i have to say i prefer it to my road bike for commuting. Yes it does have “brakes” (my feet) and no, it’s not for everyone.

    Why do I prefer it? It’s quicker (not faster), more nimble, and easier to repair/maintain. Now bring on the fixie hate…

  • ohsweetnothing

    Point, BlueFairlane.

  • BlueFairlane

    In my experience, I see little support for the first two points, and actually find the opposite to be true. Your third point I think is the big selling point on these things.

  • Matt F

    in my experience, I don’t like spicy foods.

  • R.A. Stewart

    Ha! I would hate to say you’re more devious than a Chicago alderman, but that did give me a chuckle.

  • R.A. Stewart

    My feet hurt just thinking about this. :-)

  • Karen Kaz

    I have two bikes: a fixed gear and a geared touring bike. I don’t get all the “it’s harder to start/stop on a fixie” comments. I have a brake on my fixed gear bike. I can stop just fine. And because my bike is small and light, I find it quite easy to start from a stop. Honestly, do you think your average city bike rider on a mountain bike or ten-speed is downshifting as they approach a stop for easier starts? Hah. When I ride my geared bike (it’s my daily commuter and bad weather bike), I rarely shift.

  • skyrefuge

    Yes, I agree that a significant percentage of people with multi-geared bikes are, due to ignorance or bad maintenance, effectively riding one-speed bikes. So unless gear-shifting education was included as part of my hypothetical experiment, the intersection-blowing difference between groups wouldn’t be overwhelming, but it would still be visible (due to people who figured out shifting on their own). But a bigger difference is that it’s trivial to convert a non-shifter to a shifter if they own a multi-geared bike, and impossible if they don’t. I think a little bit of “how to downshift at intersections” should be part of any “how to ride a bike in the city” guide (such as CDOT’s Safe Cycling guide).

    While I’m sure your fixed gear is “easy” to start (and to stop; I’m only talking about starting), it would be easier if you could downshift. You presumably don’t shift on your geared bike because you aren’t in the habit and don’t realize how much more awesome it is, or because you’re choosing to work harder, or because it’s a pain to shift. For bikes that require you to change hand positions to shift (like many touring bikes with bar-end shifters do), I can understand that the cost of the hand-move is greater than the benefit of the downshift and subsequent upshifts. But for anyone riding a flat-bar bike, or a drop-bar bike with brifters, the negligible cost of shifting is easily outweighed by the benefit.

  • “For bikes that require you to change hand positions to shift (like many touring bikes with bar-end shifters do), I can understand that the cost of the hand-move is greater than the benefit of the downshift and subsequent upshifts. ”

    I have not found this to be an issue.

  • oooBooo

    Vehicular bicycling (which many decades ago was taught to children) is just too ‘hard core’ for attracting novices and others to transportation bicycling but single gear brakeless bikes aren’t?

    This is the funniest thing I’ve read today.

  • oooBooo

    You’ve never seen a low-rider bicycle?

    Quality new bikes are worth it if you find a dealer that well deals and keep it for a long time. Otherwise find that guy who bought a high end bike and practically never used it and is selling it (sure it’s a 9 year old bike, but it’s like new) or that hard core rider who needs to have the newest thing every year.

    If you’re looking low on the scale of bike brands or will settle for something ancient* find the neighborhood guy who essentially runs a bike shop out of his garage. The neighborhood children will know where. Used to be something fairly common in the Chicago area but maybe not anymore. Guy who was doing it when I was kid where I grew up was still doing it a few years ago when I last passed by his house during “business” hours.

    *or just look in dumpsters. I scored a pristine (except for tire dry rot) 1982 Fuji 12spd that way.

  • oooBooo

    As an 11 year old on a very tight budget of birthday money I learned how to tune derailers. :) Seriously, it’s a bit tedious but not difficult and shouldn’t intimidate anyone.

    Modern bikes don’t need it done nearly as often and it’s not is as tedious either. Nothing like the old suntours… or the ancient shimano eagles. My ‘modern’ bike is 12 years old now so I can only imagine it’s gotten easier and less frequent since if anything.

  • Eli N

    Of course the chain problem is also an issue with coaster-brake bikes.

    It’s interesting to wonder if I’m less likely to stop because my city bike is a single speed. Maybe, maybe not. It’s not that onerous to start from a complete stop, except maybe at the bottom of a hill, but of course those are rare-to-nonexistent in the city. I do notice that, starting from a complete stop at an intersection, I usually get through the intersection faster than the geared riders who have downshifted, which feels slightly safer to me (since drivers seem very impatient with slow starts in these situations).

  • Eli N

    In city riding it’s extremely rare that my gearing is what limits my speed; usually prudence and intersections kick in long before I reach top speed.

  • Matt F

    when you learn how to navigate SF like a local you can avoid most hills. I am not at that level yet.

  • Wewilliewinkleman

    So what happens if the bike rider without brakes cannot stop?

  • Karen Kaz

    Sigh. I don’t downshift on my geared bike (unless my bum knee is acting up and the extra torque bothers me) because it’s just not worth it to me. My commute is not a race where getting off the line as fast as possible is necessary. I also ride in on a very active bike route so many times other riders are in front of me – so again, being able to jump fast off the line when the light turns red isn’t helpful if doing so would make me rear-end a fellow cyclist or have to dangerously swerve into traffic to pass him/her.

    Oh, and I have brifters so your assumption about bar-end shifters is wrong too. For me, the difference in the effort required to start pedaling when I downshift vs. when I don’t is pretty small compared to the overall effort of having to come to a complete stop, hop off the saddle, put my foot down, etc. There’s a difference but it’s actually very minor. So on the occasions when I don’t come to a complete stop at a stop sign, it’s not because my brain is making those kinds of minute calculations. It’s more that stopping is a pain *whether or not I’ve downshifted*, and if I have a clear view of the intersection, and the intersection is clear of all cars, bikes, and pedestrians so I feel it is safe to proceed, I will sometimes slow down but not stop.

    I think it would be helpful for you to realize that your experience doesn’t necessarily translate to the experiences of other people. There isn’t one right answer about how to ride a bike, and to claim that people who make different choices than you do are “ignorant” is just plain arrogant.

    And to address the “single speed bikers blow more lights” argument that several here have agreed with, I have to say that this is not my observation at ALL on my daily commute. I am often the only cyclist (among dozens) that actually stops at the red light on Milwaukee at the intersection with Hubbard, or on Kinzie at Canal. Cyclists of all kinds blow those lights, and as a 9-5 commuter I’m talking mostly other commuter types on geared bikes with racks, or casual cyclists on mountain bikes, or worker bees on Divvys or whatever. Very few, if any, are single speeds and certainly not the brightly-colored no brake “fixies” that come to mind when people use that term. I really think it’s a confirmation bias thing, as well as dependent on where and when you do the majority of your riding.

  • Joe

    I just love Fixed Gear Bike I personally love the 6KU Brand

  • Most of the fixie riders are engaging in vehicular cycling.

    They’re just doing it on a bike that costs a fraction of a new ten-speed.



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