by Tom Finkel
Bikes with no gears (and sometimes no brakes) are all the rage among college students and post-college hipsters. If you've seen them, you might have thought at first that someone ripped all the cabling off an old Schwinn ten-speed. Nope. These are "fixies."
Fixed-gear bikes lack the freewheel mechanism that allows a rider to coast. Instead, they have a single rear gear fixed to the hub. The chain drives directly to the large front gear and pedals. Like the bikes many of us learned on as kids, rear wheel and pedals move together, so if the bike is rolling, you'd better be ready to move your legs.
Why, you ask, would one want to ride to and fro on such a primitive vehicle? Enthusiasts rattle off a list of benefits. First, it's great training. All that pedaling (especially uphill) strengthens the legs. Second, you can take a fixed-gear bike out into the winter slop and not worry about rusting out expensive gear mechanisms. Third, these stripped-down bikes look cool. (Remember the Kevin Bacon bike-messenger flick Quicksilver?) They go well with messenger bags, touring caps, long sideburns, studded belts and/or mohawks. (I have spotted each of the aforementioned fashion choices astride a fixed-gear bike in the past month.)
Before fixies became the cool way to commute, cyclists raced them around steeply banked tracks called velodromes. And they still do.
St. Louis is lucky enough to have a velodrome of its own, one of only twenty-one publicly owned bike tracks in the nation.
But although it hosted the 1962 National Championship, the Penrose Park Velodrome has nothing on first-class tracks such as the Major Taylor Velodrome in Indianapolis. The pavement in one of the far corners is bumpy, and thorns from the surrounding grass and vegetation tend to make their way onto the track, where they puncture tires.
The layout is a little odd by modern standards. The track is one-fifth of a mile in circumference, and the curves are banked at a relatively shallow angle. Local track-racing veteran Tony Benoist says the track's designer, Olympic cyclist and Schwinn bicycle designer Frank Burlando, designed the track so anyone could ride it.
This past Sunday the Penrose Park Velodrome, which is tucked into a corner of the north St. Louis park at Kingshighway and Interstate 70, was the scene of the 2007 Missouri State Track Championships, hosted by the Missouri Bicycle Racing Association. Sixteen riders with a wide range of abilities signed up for a series of races under a blazing sun. It was budding high school cyclist Zack Stein's first track outing. He won the three-kilometer race in four minutes, twenty-two seconds.
Stein is now hooked on track racing. "I can't wait to get on Indy and do Nationals," he says. But he wouldn't have tried if it weren't for the urging of his coach, Joe Walsh. "My dad was, like, 'Fixed gears and no brakes? No way in hell,'" Stein recounts. "My coach talked him into it."
Benoist, who still has the steel Schwinn track bike that Burlando designed for him in 1963, says he has noticed fixed-gear bikes making their way onto the roads. "That's the way it should be," he says. "It gives you a better spin." Once you adapt, he adds, "Actually, you have better control of your bike."
Jason Bernth came out to watch the races. He says he's enthralled by fixed-gear bikes but has yet to try one: "They scare me, actually."