I’ve been riding the fixed-gear for the last few days, the first time in a while I’ve been in one place long enough to do this (living in two places tends to complicate things like that). I used to ride it most of the time, but this year I’ve stuck a bigger rear sprocket on and I’ve been using it mainly as a recovery bike between training sessions – when I’ve been in the right place at the right time, that is. It’s great to be gliding through the traffic again on a bike that seems built for the purpose.
I’ve missed floating about on the Condor and it’s got me thinking that I really ought to write something on why riding a fixed-gear bike is so satisfying and enjoyable. This is rather a difficult task, though, because I’m too aware of the very fine article that persuaded me to buy the bike in the first place.
I got into cycling in more than a simply casual way four or five years ago, in the wake of a broken-down relationship. With plenty of dead time to fill, I started taking longer and longer rides into the Surrey Hills. Cycling was still “cool” for me then and I was besotted with the whole Rapha mythology of highly-styled saints of cycling suffering beautifully and heroically over sepia-tinted mountain passes. When Rapha started its own cycling magazine – for connoisseurs like me (cough) – I couldn’t wait to read it.
Even though it cost £9 a copy, I thought Rouleur was just the thing. I was blinded by its grainy atmosphere, its chiselled type, the heavy, high-quality paper. It felt solid and permanent and superior, more like a gallery brochure than a magazine. For a time, it didn’t seem to matter that many of the articles were poorly conceived and executed; that the editing was often slapdash; that its obsession with kit, (I’m talking 5,000 word features on Campagnolo derailleurs) was wearing even for equipment obsessives. Rouleur was, and may still be, pretentious, self-regarding and patchily-edited. That’s not just sour grapes from me either – I love a well-put-together magazine. This just wasn’t quite it.
I have no sour grapes for Rouleur, but I do have some for Matt Seaton, however. Matt Seaton is a cycling author and the editor of the Comment is free section of The Guardian. In the first issue of Rouleur, he wrote an excellent article about riding fixed-gear called Fixed idea. It was far and away the best thing in that issue and all subsequent issues that I read. It was such a good essay, in fact, that after reading it I went to Condor Cycles and forked out £750 for an elegant steel-framed white and purple Pista. I’ve not regretted it for a minute.
This is the problem. Matt Seaton is kind of a souped-up version of me, a shiny, well-maintained Mini Cooper to my despairing and delapidated Mini 1000. His very existence reminds me of my lifelong inability to turn aspiration into action. Matt Seaton clearly doesn’t have this problem: like me, he works in the media, but much more successfully. Like me, he’s a writer, but a better one and uses precise, memorable phrases like “grim tactical calculus” to describe the decisions made in racing. Like me, he’s a cyclist, but he actually races and he’s an elite rider, sponsored by Rapha Condor. He’s better looking than me, more intelligent, he’s probably funnier and may even be better in bed, too. I expect he also has a blog which attracts far more readers than mine. Obviously, I hate him.
After reading the article, I bought a copy of his highly-regarded book The Escape Artist, but I couldn’t bring myself to read it. In the end I just gave it away. I once almost met him at Hillingdon Cycle Circuit where he’d come second in a race he led more or less from start to finish. I wanted to say something but felt awful, sycophantic words forming in my mouth and I had to walk away. To have gone up to Matt Seaton, hand extended, and said, “I loved your essay about fixed-gear riding in Rouleur. It made me buy an expensive bike.” would, frankly, have emasculated me. I’m not going to give him the pleasure.
Anyway, Matt Seaton wrote a very fine essay about riding a fixed-gear bike that said everything I’d like to say about riding a fixed-gear bike, only more elegantly, more poetically and with a greater feel for the essence of cycling. I would suggest you read his article rather than mine, but you can’t – the first issue of Rouleur is out of print.
All I can find of Fixed idea is a fragment, buried deeply on the internet:
“Riding a fixed is a powerfully sensual experience. The effect of the fixed gear is that the pedals are forced to revolve whenever the bicycle is in motion, as much by the momentum of bike and rider as by any force applied by the cyclist to the pedals. Instead of the bike seeming merely an inanimate tool that the cyclist puts to work, the fixed-gear bicycle asserts itself as something like a partner. The fixed gives you constant, rich feedback about your speed, the gradient, your cadence, the wind, the state of the road, the condition of your legs. It demands dialogue; it forces its point of view on your attention. To ride a fixed is to find yourself in a deeper relationship with a bike than anything you have hitherto realised. It is as if it has a mind of its own. You must treat it with respect and tact. If you do, then it will reward you with the smoothest, most comfortable, most subtly satisfying miles you will ever ride. If you choose a sensible gear, then you will roll as if there were always a gentle tailwind at your back. The miraculous sensation, transmitted through the cranks, that the bike “wants” to keep moving forward, that it is willing to work with you, somehow plants the idea that this is a perpetual motion machine, devised just for you.”
It’s a beautiful piece of writing. It’s evocative, thoughtful and inspiring. It puts you right in the saddle and transforms all of your sensations and half-formed thoughts into clear and crafted phrases. I really, really wish I could write like this. It’s so good that it made me spend £750 on a bike. And I was right to do so. I love that bike.
But I have to loathe Matt Seaton. Not for anything he’s done to me or said, but because to admire him would be to give away the only thing I can hold onto that he can’t surpass. I can’t write or ride better than him, but I can sure as hell be more petty, small-minded and cynical – and there’s nothing he can do about it. Sussed you, Seaton.