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A Cultural Documentation/ Celebration
on December 31, 2009
There's no denying that bicycle riding is a staple in ever-advancing American culture. For most the unique skill set required to master balancing and propelling one's self on two wheels happens in youth; for many in fact only a few years after having learned how to walk. From there it isn't uncommon for the bicycle to become a mode of transportation, a companion, a hobby right up into teen hood and despite its years of loyalty, it will likely end up suspended from a rafter-hook in the back of the garage once driving age comes about.
However, for some, being granted the privilege to operate a four-wheeled motorized vehicle on public asphalt is hardly justification for abandoning the simple machine that represented a milestone achievement so many years before. It is these individuals who will most relish in the words and images collected in Fixed.
The inherent tragedy in works like Fixed is that rarely do even fans of the piece truly appreciate the sheer undertaking involved in the creation process. In this case the immense research and photography responsibilities are shared between two individuals, Andrew Edwards and Max Leonard. In all and especially to those who care little for the details, the book succeeds in every one of its intentions.
Before taking a look at the hard facts of the book itself, let us first define the very concept of a fixed wheel bicycle. Technically the fixed-wheel bicycle was the second revolution of bicycle propulsion, the first of course being direct drive, where the pedals attach directly to the wheel (explaining the ridiculous size of early bicycle's front wheel- the only conceivable method of increasing the bike's top speed).
The fixed wheel may conjure up images of that first bicycle you likely learned to ride on whereby a chain connects a front sprocket directly to the rear, which is affixed directly to the hub of the rear wheel. No freewheel to let the pedals stay motionless while the wheels continue to spin, no gear selecting for when the slope of the terrain changes, and unlike the bike you likely first learned to ride on, no coaster brake that engaged by weighing the pedals rearward. No sir, the true fixed-wheel bike goes forward with forward rotations of the cranks and backward via the same logic. Should you find yourself sailing down a steep hill, try to keep up with the wildly spinning pedals below your feet. And here's where it really gets interesting, most true fixed-wheel devotes refuse to run brakes of any kind.
The book itself is hardcover-large but with flexible covers, fits nicely onto most bookshelves. Better still is that it really looks at home upon coffee tables and tends to inspire a browse and conversation by nearly anyone who happens upon it. Within its 144 pages there are 378 color illustrations and nary a single page therein without some interesting stat or fact.
The authors break down the editorial content quite logically, literally beginning with the bicycle's earliest documented history, then progressing to racing history and origins, from there to the evolution from track bike to street use (including the scenes today in many cities around the globe), then finally to recent bicycles that were built strictly as mechanical art forms; sculptures on wheels if you will.
Of course since this book deals strictly with the fixed wheel bicycle, the history lessons are a bit dogmatic in terms of scope. I found myself yearning to discover a bit more on the bicycle's evolution to include such innovations as multi-gear transmissions, disc brakes, and suspension but alas such tangents are better suited to a complete history of the bicycle (something this particular book never makes claims of being).
Such gripes notwithstanding, the material within is truly quite informative without ever crossing that delicate line into being boring, dry, or relevant only to participants. In fact, I could go as far as to say that the book's greatest strength is its ability to take the wealth of information contained within and to pace it out evenly and intelligently so that the reader is carried effortlessly along.
A self-admitted neophyte in the realm of early bicycle racing, I found myself truly amazed with some of the long-standing records and achievements set by highly motivated individuals (such as reaching speeds of 72mph on a fixie). Additionally the rules and regulations that different nations of the world implemented to keep things honest throughout the ages was equally fascinating.
The middle sections that take a look at the fixed-wheel bike scene as it stands today in several influential cities around the world is sharp in contrast to the earlier chapters but equally appealing in painting a picture of the lifestyle of those involved. A technology-junkie by nature, I have to admit that even I came away with newfound admiration for the motivation of those individuals (the messengers especially) who choose to conquer the cityscape with perhaps the simplest machine ever invented. The book's authors definitely managed to capture the sense of rebellion, of the underground nature of the movement in these pages.
Finally, I found myself quite impressed with the final section devoted to the bicycle as an art form despite unfounded initial misgivings. The simplicity of the bicycle's design and purity of form and function truly offer a magnificent canvas for the visionary artist. Some may believe that metallurgy, welding techniques, and lugs represent the opposite end of the creative-beauty spectrum but Fixed reminds us all that there is exquisiteness to be found nearly everywhere in the works of inspired individuals.
Complaints are few and far between and could probably be categorized into two groups. The first, as mentioned above, is that the material here could very well cause a bit of reader frustration in its penchant for omitting nearly every bicycle development that veers from the fixed-wheel history. I suppose in the book's defense, there are dozens of categories and further tangents it would have had to venture into had it decided to make mention of such things (multi-geared road bikes, single speeds, BMX, mountain bikes and so on). Truly the bicycle scene is an ever-specialized one and again, this book never makes claims of providing a complete history.
My second complaint, which is equally minor, is that the authors reveal their British heritage nearly constantly through the dialect differences between the English language and "American". No fault here in and of itself, but I have to confess as an American that it does take a little getting used to. Color = colour, constructor = constructeur, tire = tyre, etc.
In all though, very minimal complaints to report even from this, a mountain bike magazine editor. The material is interesting and just packed with intriguing facts, stats and tidbits. The photos are crisp and quite appropriate to the words and the information is broken down and presented intuitively. The mark of a good book in my opinion is one that leaves its reader reflecting upon it days after completion. Fixed made the grade.