By John Greenfield
The amount of biking in the U.S. more than doubled during the Oughts, 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 broader demographic of people who ride bikes because they want to, not just because they have to.
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. The study also found that 89 percent of people aged 18 to 29 have a positive view of cyclists, and 75 percent of them feel that better conditions for biking would make their community a nicer place to live.
The recent trend towards fixed-gear bicycles and single-speed bikes with freewheels has also helped fuel the growth of cycling among 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 cycling for young people who, a decade ago, might have been more interested in buying four wheels than two.
Fixies have helped change the face of Chicago’s Critical Mass bike parade. 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 obvious than in back of the Picasso, where dozens of youth, of all races, hang out and do tricks on their single-speeds 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 (Phixx606Cycles.com, 773-969-1148.)
The other is Wheel of Time Bikes, 1518 West 18th in Pilsen (Facebook.com/WheelOfTimeBikes, 312-246-2453.) I dropped by last week to find out more about why fixies resonate so much with Chicago youth.
Owned by artist Vianey Valdez and her mechanic husband Angel, this shop in a largely Mexican-American community has a bit of an Aztec theme. The name refers to the Aztec calendar wheel, which makes up the front wheel of the fixie in the logo – the other one is a Native American dreamcatcher. 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.
Manager Tony Patlan says the shop’s clientele is about 50 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 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, who’s middle aged like me, says young people dig single-speeds because they’re simpler to operate than a bike with derailleurs and multiple gears. Since its 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, 20, works at a grocery store in the South Loop. He tells me he got interested in riding into riding 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, 17, 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 fix repair my bike myself.”
Anderson’s coworker Iban Mendez, 21, 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.