Many of Taipei’s best-known cyclists gathered outside Ximen MRT Station (西門捷運站) on a recent Saturday night. Peng Wen-yan (彭文彥), better known as A-bao (阿寶), arrived with his team Skunk. Members of the Nabiis (www.nabiis.net), a pioneering fixed-gear bike group, looked agile in their professional outfits, while riders from BreakBrake 17 (breakbrake17.com) were in high spirits after winning the trick competition held outside Zhongshan Hall (中山堂) earlier that day.
Tension mounted as the designated time approached. “Ready, go!” a timekeeper shouted at 9pm sharp, beginning the third alleycat race organized by Beardude (貝哥哥, beardude.com), an online community for fixed-gear enthusiasts. More than 170 young cyclists wasted no time in blocking traffic on Zhonghua Road (中華路) and racing to the first station at the Bopiliao Historical Block (剝皮寮歷史街區) in Wanhua (萬華) District.
Twenty-seven minutes later, the first racer dashed to the fifth and final checkpoint at Huashan 1914 Creative Park (華山1914).
Fixed-gear bicycles, or fixies for short, are a back-to-basics mode of transportation with one gear, one sprocket and one brake (if any). The vehicle’s rear cog is attached to the wheel, which means the pedals are synched with the wheel’s motion. In other words, if the bike is in motion, so are the pedals and the rider’s legs. Cyclists slow down or stop on a fixed-gear bicycle by resisting the turning pedals with their legs. A front brake could help, but many cyclists choose to ride without.
With their streamlined design, fixies were ridden in the early days of the Tour de France and used for track racing on the velodrome. Then derailleurs and multiple gears came along and forced fixed-wheel cycling to the sidelines. Years later, fixies were adopted by bicycle messengers in New York City.
It is hard to pinpoint when and how urbanite fixed-gear biking achieved its current hipster status in countries like Japan and the US, but it is commonly agreed that the trend took off in the past decade, complete with a utility-based street chic that encompasses skinny jeans (to avoid getting caught in the bike chain), narrow sneakers (to fit into the pedals) and large single-strap messenger bags. The 2007 documentary film Mash SF is said to set the benchmark for the street culture of fixed-gear cycling by capturing the adventures of bike messengers weaving through traffic, doing tricks and whooshing down the steep hills of San Francisco.
When riders such as A-bao and the Nabiis cyclists started weaving in and out of traffic on the streets of Taipei more than four years ago, fixed-gear bicycles were virtually unknown here. “When we first became interested in this type of bike, we couldn’t find components and frames at local shops or online emporiums. Bike store owners thought we were crazy to want to ride a bicycle without brakes,” said 26-year-old Hsieh Chia-cheng (謝佳成), cofounder of Nabiis.
It didn’t take long before fixed-wheel fever took hold around the country. The population of fixie riders has swelled in the past couple years, and bike clubs and teams have proliferated in cities such as Taipei, Taichung, Tainan, Kaohsiung and Hualien.
“You can determine the rise in popularity from the volume of online shopping for fixed-gear bicycles. About three years ago, you couldn’t find any entry online. A couple of years ago there were about 20 to 30 pages of items to browse through, and the number jumped to 70 last year,” said Kenny Lai (賴昇鍵), owner of fixed-gear shop Calorie in the Ximen District (西門町).