Fix up, look sharp: Moscow’s single-speed obsession

Fix up, look sharp: Moscow’s single-speed obsession

Fixed-gear cycling in Moscow has gone from niche subculture to mainstream scene in a few years. An early convert explains how it sped ahead

6 October 2014
Text Pavel Groznyy
Image Fixed Gear Moscow

The first time I saw a fixed-gear bike on the streets of Moscow was about six years ago in the spring of 2008. Before then I didn’t even know they existed. Sitting on that first bike was Roman Stefantsov, a buyer at KixBox, an online street fashion store that introduced Muscovites to brands like Stüssy and Penfield. Stefantsov had noticed the hype around fixed-gear on his favourite blogs and so he and a friend, Vladimir Veselov, who worked in marketing at Nike, put together similar rigs and started riding them. A year-and-a-half later, when they were helping to open a Nike pop-up store at Winzavod, an art centre in an old factory in central Moscow, Stefantsov showed the crowd that had gathered there MASH, a film by San Francisco fixie specialists Mash Transit.

The impact was incredible: no one had any idea that this whole movement existed among San Francisco’s cycle couriers. I was just as impressed as everyone else and asked Stefantsov to burn me a copy of the film. That winter, whenever my friends came over to mine for a drink before going out, we would put MASH on. None of us had ever seen, or will probably ever see, such a powerful and exciting extreme sport film. Inspired by it, a couple of my friends began putting their own fixed gear bikes together, often using old racing frames from the Kharkov Cycle Factory, which used to supply bikes to the whole of the Soviet Union.

It turned out we weren’t the only people getting into fixies that winter: a couple dozen people attended a series of races organised by Stefantsov and Veselov in Spring 2009. We raced on a small concrete rollerdrome in a park by the Moscow river, doing a version of head-to-head track sprints. That was when Moscow’s first fixie enthusiasts began to get to know each other. About half of those there were really into the streetwear scene while the rest were hardcore bike fans. At the event Stefantsov and I discussed the future of fixed-gear cycling in Moscow. I was convinced that the number of riders would explode over the summer, but he reckoned it would take longer. He was right. It wasn’t until 2011 that the scene really took off.

Competitions have become a regular occurrence in Moscow, not at the old Soviet rollerdrome any more, but on the streets with events like alleycat races (informal bicycle races that have a certain number of checkpoints en route), bike polo and goldsprints (races on a stationary bike that is tracked by a computer programme). For a long time the driving force behind the Moscow fixed-gear movement was one man, known to us as Mikly and to the world as Misha.

Although he works in IT analysis at a bank, Mikly’s tattoos and his strict vegetarianism are a reminder that he remains committed to the principles of Moscow’s hardcore punk community. A natural-born organiser, he endeavoured to inject some life into the Moscow fixed-gear scene. He’s organised races, snuck past security guards and police in mid-winter to cycle on the oval roof of the Olympic swimming pool, and helped found Fixed Gear Moscow, a community of fixie fans.

Given the insane number of cars in Moscow and the somewhat Neapolitan temperament of drivers, cycling is no easy feat. In traffic jams, it’s not unheard of for drivers to get out of their cars, have a bit of a ruckus, and then get behind the wheel again while waiting for the traffic to clear. Infrastructure for cyclists has only just begun to appear but drivers still treat cyclists as if they don’t exist. As a result, many rank-and-file cyclists prefer to cycle on the pavements. In their fight for cycle lanes, the members of Fixed Gear Moscow refuse to cycle anywhere else apart from on the road.

Even though most members of Fixed Gear Moscow communicate online via a forum, there’s a real sense of camaraderie. In 2011, a guy from the St Petersburg fixed-gear scene was badly injured in a bad accident and in need of more than $3,000 for an operation. In no time at all the community had rallied together and collected this amount and more.

So what kind of person joins the Moscow fixed-gear community? At the beginning, most were interested in either bikes or street fashion. Sometimes people get caught up in the hype but once they start putting their bikes together, they get obsessed with the detail — the frame, the wheels, the assembly process — and become fixated on improving their steed. Living in Russia makes this all the more of a challenge. There are barely any shops that sell fixies and those that do are prohibitively expensive. Plus, the fact that cycling in Moscow is more akin to an extreme sport, most fashionable young things wouldn’t dare touch a fixie: it’s way too dangerous for them.

Back then, the fixed-gear community was somewhere between several hundred and a thousand people. We all knew each other. But now, most of the pioneers of the local fixed-gear movement are no longer riding these bikes. Some have moved on to professional road cycling while others have capitalised on their knowledge of the scene and opened shops selling exquisite bikes. There are also some fixed-gear enthusiasts who have switched to doing triathlons or even motorbikes. Back in the day if you saw someone riding a fixie on the street, you’d almost definitely be able to track them down; today, there are too many to count. What once was an exotic youth subculture has become an important part of urban life — just as in many other European and Asian capitals.

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