warning Hi, we've moved to USCANNENBERGMEDIA.COM. Visit us there!

Neon Tommy - Annenberg digital news

The Walmart Fixed-Gear Bike: End Of A Trend?

Hillel Aron |
May 5, 2010 | 11:20 a.m. PDT

Senior Editor

A few thoughts on Walmart from bike shop owner T.J. Flexer and Yosi Sergant

Gawker's headline wasn't very funny. It was more like stating the obvious: "Fixed Gear Bicycles Arrive at Walmart, Are No Longer Cool."
Commenters pointed out that the Mongoose wasn't a true fixie. It was a single speed.
It's a moot point now. The Genesis Track One, a true fixed-gear bicycle, arrived at stores a few weeks ago. (It has what's called a filp-flop back wheel, which means that you can turn it to one side and it's a fixed-gear bike, and the other side is a single-speed.) The price: $150, shockingly low considering that the cheapest fixie in a bike shop usually goes for about $500. 
I asked T.J. Flexer, the owner of the bike shop Orange 20, what he thought of Walmart's new product.
"It's just like Walmart-ing anything," he said. "It's the race to the bottom. They're gonna be coming out with an absolutely inferior quality product."
Melissa Obrien, a Walmart spokesman, sent me this typically corporate statement in an e-mail:

Noticing an emerging trend for this particular type of bike, we contacted suppliers to work with us on how we could create a same high quality product but at a much more affordable price.  Right now it is being introduced at select stores across the U.S. They are truly the first fixed sprocket bikes sold that are more affordable and built with same great quality and options within, so we are optimistic about the growing interest from customers.

It was interesting that she used the word trend. Because we're about to find out if the fixed-gear bike really is just a trend, or actually a better way of getting around.

A short history of the fixie: from Edison to Kevin Bacon

In the beginning, all bicycles were fixed-gear. Which meant that if the pedals moved, the wheels moved. And vice-versa. No coasting. If you pedaled backwards, the wheels went backwards. 
Eventually, gears were invented, making it possible to coast downhill and to downshift, making it easier to get uphill. But the fixie lived on in track racing, that odd, futuristic-looking sport where cyclists pedal around in circles on a velodrome. Sometime in the early 1980s, bike messengers in New York adopted them. They were perfect for biking along flat city streets with lots of traffic.
Fixed-gears are often derided for being less functional, but they have their benefits. Because the peddles are locked to the wheels, it's easier to moderate your speed, and more advanced riders can do "track stands" waiting for traffic lights. People often compare it to driving a car with a stick shift, in that it's a more engaging experience. You can hit bumps and jump off of curbs and not worry about your chain coming off, and if something does break it's easier to fix with a few simple tools. Power-wise, it's a more efficient system, although it's more physically exerting and perhaps damaging to your knees.
"There's a very machismo aspect to riding a fixed-gear bike," said Benjamin Kuby, a volunteer at the Bicycle Kitchen across the street from Orange 20. "Because you're like stronger, tougher, faster somehow."
But their most notable trait is their stark minimalism, which gives the fixed-gear bike its own aesthetic, an aesthetic that lead to their popularity among non-bike messengers.
My friend Dylan Haley, a graphic designer, built his first fixed-gear bike seven years ago, before they were sold in stores.
"I bought a road bike on Craigslist," he said. "We took the cog off the back wheel and we took a fixed-gear cog and we glued it on with J-B Weld. That was the only thing holding it on, was this glue."
The early subculture revolved around building your bike yourself, fixing it, customizing it, painting it. It was political too.
"Most of the people in that first wave were opting out of using a car," said Yosi Sergant, a publicist (and another friend of mine who I've written about previously) and early fixed-gear adopter.
The minimalism of fixed-gear bikes had anti-capitalist overtones. Dylan laughs when he recalls some of things people used to say back then.
"Capitalism wants you to have shocks and gears and lycra pants."
Then came the second wave of users, and with them the first manufactured fixed-gear bicycles being sold in stores. The majority of this second wave were less interested in building the bikes themselves, and less interested in biking as a way of life. The aesthetics of the bike became paramount, all bright frame frames and matching handlebars and customized wheels. 
"They might as well be a rolex," said Yosi. "It's just another expression of status and of posture."
The fixed-gear bicycle became  one of the more noticeable characteristics of the hipster, that distinct urban species known for tight pants and emotional distance (of which I would probably have to include myself in).
 "It's like anything," said Dylan, with regards to the bike's new popularity. "It gets really popular and you see a bunch of people that you feel you can't relate to on these bikes."
"On the other hand," he added, "any reason that anyone rides bikes is good."
Even Yosi, hardly a fan of Walmart ("I really don't like Walmart," he said) can see the benefits of the Track One, and not just for the cash-strapped.
"The more people that are on bicycles," he said, "the more the city pays attention, ensuring paved roads, and bike lanes. And more people are out of cars."

Dylan Haley reviews the new Walmart fixed-gear bike*

I wanted to see just how bad the Track One really was. Not knowing much about bikes, I took Dylan down to the Walmart in Norwalk with me.
I'd never been inside of a Walmart before, and I was a little disappointed. It wasn't as big or as antiseptic as I was expecting. It looked like a Target without the cool logo. 
A dutiful Walmart employee watched as we examined the bike. It lacked most of the fixed-gear calling cards. Its colors were dull, its handlebars were wrapped in black tape.
After a few minutes of poking and prodding, Dylan had rendered his judgment.
"It's cheap," he said, "and this bike will fall apart a lot quicker."
On the other hand, there was a lot to like too. He liked that it was made of steel, and he liked the tires, slightly thicker than many road bikes. But most of all he liked it more than every other Walmart bike.
"Look at what's happening on this bike," he said, pointing to a powder blue mountain bike selling for $100. "There's shocks here and shocks here. There's probably 100 gears on this thing."
Mountain bikes are horrible for city biking. Their shocks absorb much of the energy you put into the bike while peddling. Almost every bike sold at Walmart is a mountain bike, made up of hundreds of little parts, all made cheaply and all poised to break at any moment. 
The simplicity of the Track One is its greatest virtue. Fewer parts means fewer things to go wrong. 
"If I was gonna buy a bike at Walmart I'd buy this one. For sure."
You get what you pay for, goes the phrase.
But not all cheap things are created equal.
A $150 bike is, of course, made from parts that are of worse quality than a $500 bike. But not everyone can afford a $500 bike. And if you have to buy a bike for $150, you're exponentially better off buying a simply made bike. It will last longer, and at least on city streets, it'll ride better. 
It's almost as if the fixed-gear bicycle was never meant to be a fad at all. It was meant to be a cheap bike. It was born to be sold at Walmart. 
*Note: This original cut of this video had Dylan mistakenly saying that the hub of the Track One had no bearings. That part has been excised from the video. 



Craig Gillespie directed this true story about "the most daring rescue mission in the history of the U.S. Coast Guard.”

Watch USC Annenberg Media's live State of the Union recap and analysis here.