Muddy Water Fixed

I blame it all on the man with the Golden Voice.

Winnipeg is about 100 miles north of the United States, and just about smack dab in the middle of Canada (east to west). The prevailing winds come from the west. The nearest wind break is over 1,000 prairie kilometers distant. Portage and Main is reputedly the windiest intersection in Canada. At 5:00am one Wednesday morning in January, it was the coldest spot on the planet.

I have been working in Winnipeg (Cree for “Muddy Water") for some time now. This has had a number of implications, like Mary buying me a parka built like an igloo. I try to keep in shape, but the good weather takes its toll. I miss my daily cycling commute, and domestic responsibilities chew into the time available on the weekends (hence relatively few blog entries).

After last summer I decided I will not spend another season away from my bicycle.

It was April when Mary visited for a Leonard Cohen concert. That was Friday night (he played for four hours). Snow was still on the ground. Saturday morning we went bike shopping. This was a good news-bad news situation. The bad news was that a bike was going to cost more than I wanted to spend. The good news was that my price expectations were sharply adjusted.

Last week I started monitoring ads for used bikes. On Monday I bought one. It is a bike I had never ridden (flat tyres), from a person I hadn’t met (his mother was home), in a city I don’t live in. And it didn’t have brakes. It is fixed gear.

A local bike shop fitted a brake, barely (the bolt stem has less than 3mm clearance) and raised the handlebars (the fellow who sold it must have had arms like a chimp).

Fixed gear is a new experience for me. How to start? Tentatively, it turns out. Once the bike starts rolling, the feet have to move. I had to straddle the crossbar rather than swinging my leg over the seat. The first few pedal strokes were a wobble.

Stopping was equally tentative. Push down with the calves, push down with the calves, watch the last pedal stroke (is it going to take me into traffic?), be thankful for the brake. Starting again: lift the rear wheel off the pavement and rotate the pedal. Straddle. Position. Start with a wobble. Try to flip the other pedal to engage the toe cage. No wonder bicycle couriers never stop.

I poked my way down some side streets and found more than one dead end. I learned how to maneuver a tight U-turn, how to slow down well before an intersection. I worked my way to one of the roads that run parallel to the Assiniboine River and gradually picked up speed. The momentum of the rear wheel was driving my legs. It felt like I was spending more time trying to slow down than speed up.

“Are there any roads I should avoid?” I had asked at the bike shop. “Ones with potholes,” was the reply. Easier said than done.

I made it home in one piece. And out again the next morning. And the next evening. I could get to like this. A lot.

3 comments on “Muddy Water Fixed”

  1. Hilary wrote:

    You're a brave man Kern! There seems to be quite a steep learning curve in riding fixed so I'll be interested to hear how you progress. I love the looks of fixies but its just too hilly round here, I'd either break my neck going downhill or wreck my knees going up!
    I know a couple of guys who ride fixed regularly – they're fit as hell!

  2. Chris wrote:

    A 'fixie' is one of the bikes missing from my little collection. That and a full suspension MTB and a cyclocross bike. They are finally becoming more popular around these parts – one of our 'brisk' riders had his nicked recently from his garden shed. It's generally flat after all, and it appears that for some they make some sort of 'statement'. I think.

    I like the simplicity and the clean lines of the single speed bike, but I'm not sure I would buy something that is so limited. Plus I'm not strong enough to use one as a winter bike when the terrain is a bit lumpy. Plus, er, I'm not allowed 🙁

  3. Patrick wrote:

    Great idea Kern! I have only ridden fixed gear on the Velodrome in Manchester. It's quite easy on a track – intuitive, sort of. There were a few at school (a long time ago) which were called 'fixed wheel' then – not sure why. Fixed wheel was cool, and probably still is, although I imagine everything depends on the terrain (no use round here unfortunately).

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