SOME OF OUR readers must be wondering what on Earth a blog series about bicycles is doing on this site. Well, Doctor Feelgood is a health and wellness website, and fitness is a huge part of the overall wellness equation. I’ve got an ongoing Bikram Yoga blog running here, and funnily enough, it’s the yoga that led to my current interest (obsession perhaps?) with fixed gear bikes, or fixies as they’re known.
What’s a fixie? Well if you’ve seen a hipster riding a bike, skinny jeans affixed, Fairtrade coffee in hand and flat cap on head, then you’ve probably seen a fixie. Where most bikes have gears, the fixie is a singlespeed bike, and where almost all bikes have the ability to coast, the fixie’s cog is bolted to the back wheel, which means that the pedals are always turning as long as the bike is moving – try to stop pedaling and the bike will let you know without a shade of doubt that you need to pedal or else.
They’re fashion statements as much as anything, a showcase of all things retro and non-mainstream, but ironically, where fixies were once quite rare, they’ve become about as mainstream as tattoos. Still, when it comes to simplicity and purity of intent, it’s hard to beat a fixie. The inability to coast or to change gear has a remarkable ability to focus body and mind, particularly when hills are in the picture.
I’ve been riding bicycles for as long as I can remember, since I was a wee little kid actually, and throughout my school years, I was mad about BMX and then I was crazy about road cycling. I also used to be quite into running because there’s nothing better for generating endorphins, but as the hours spent at the gym led to me putting on a fair amount of muscle, my body began to mutter and moan under the impact of running. Eventually, it began to voice its objection to running in no uncertain terms – ankle and knee injuries, shin splints and general discomfort became a fact of life as I headed over 90kg, and once I got closer to 100kg, that was all she wrote.
So running was unfortunately off the agenda but much to my deep dismay, so was cycling. A back injury at gym coupled with a slightly dodgy spinal formation meant that the hunched over position that a road bike required was impossible for me to maintain for more than a few minutes. Even more upright bikes sometimes proved troublesome, so cycling went on the back burner in favour of more gym workouts, and the crosstrainer became my preferred cardiovascular training outlet.
In 2010, I got a bee in my bonnet and decided that I had to get back on a bike, so I bought a GT mountain bike (MTB). For months, every ride was followed by a painful recovery session as my back complained. Slowly but surely however, my back seemed to adapt, and as long as I didn’t spend too much time on the bike in one day, and assuming I didn’t try to hunch over too much to avoid headwinds, the GT became a regular companion.
The hassle was that I spent most of my time on the road around Auckland, almost never taking the bike off road where it actually belonged. And as anyone who’s ridden an MTB with fat tyres on the road will attest, the things are pretty slow. That’s great for getting fit but it’s pants for getting around in a hurry or for covering longer distances.
There’s also the “overtaken by all” factor to consider. At times, it seemed that everyone from septuagenarians to little kids would come whooshing past me while I was either grinding away in a big gear, or spinning away like a hamster in a little gear. Switching to thinner tyres would have made sense but I liked the ability to avoid Auckland’s notoriously bad drivers by barreling up onto the pavement when I needed to.
But a road bike was still off the menu – hunching over was a problem, so I resigned myself to being slow and fit. Until I started my 30-Day Bikram Yoga challenge (as detailed here). After a month of daily hot yoga classes, my back was feeling good, as in really good. And when I kept on going after the 30 days, it felt better still.
I still wasn’t really considering a change of bikes. It was the middle of winter, and with unpredictable weather a continual thorn in my side, I just wasn’t riding as much. Then one Sunday night, I was looking for a movie to watch, and I chose Premium Rush, a movie about bike messengers set in New York City. It didn’t review all that well but my reasoning was that I like bikes and I like NYC, so how bad could it be?
As it turned out, the movie was a lot of fun, but it provoked a strange kind of existential angst. After moving to Tauranga earlier this year to concentrate on my writing, I’d been feeling a touch bored, and the endless NYC cityscapes made me realise just how much I missed certain aspects of big city life. On top of that, out of the blue, the cycling scenes (with the hero riding a fixed gear bike) made me very aware of just how badly I wanted to get back onto a road bike. Considering that I’d never, ever wanted to ride a fixie, I was somewhat amazed by how much more the simplicity of the fixie appealed to me over the lycra wearing, gear changing, carbon fibre complexity of the road bike set.
Faced with another impending midlife crisis (I pretty much try to have one every few years to keep things fresh) covering two choices – move back to the big city or get a fixie, I elected to go for the least disruptive option and to just go with my gut and buy a basic bike to see if my newly rebuilt back could hack the road bike life.
Being a good Kiwi, my first point of call for shopping late on a Sunday night was TradeMe. The very next day, my new fixie was on the way.
…to be continued soon…