Chas Christiansen’s Brief History of Track Bikes
By Chas Christiansen
“Fixed gear, no brakes, can’t stop, don’t want to either.” A road-weary veteran bike messenger… or an A-list Hollywood movie character once described riding a track bike as the ultimate form of freedom. Direct drivetrain, one gear, the inability to stop, somehow this highly specific race bicycle became the weapon of choice for couriers and street cyclists around the world. Track bikes were designed to race on a banked oval track called a Velodrome (or The Track), the races went in one direction on a closed course, so gears and brakes were eschewed in favor of simplicity and speed. Long the providence of professional racers, world record attempts and glamorized “Six Day Races,” at some point these bicycles made their way onto the streets.
Legend has it, it was Jamaican bike messengers in New York City who first started to ride track bikes on the streets. The simplicity of the fixed gear meant no brake pads to replace, no gears to keep lubed and running smooth, just a chain and some tires. The geometry of these bikes was (and still is) race bred, favoring lightning-quick handling, aggressive body positions, and lightweight materials over smoothness, safety, and predictability. Whoever was the first to ride track bikes on the streets will forever be debated, but it happened somewhere in NYC in the 1980s. And it wasn’t until the 1996 CMWC (Cycle Messenger World Championships) in San Francisco that track bikes hit the rest of the messenger community. Previously, messengers had ridden beach cruiser bikes, mountain bikes or even road-racing bicycles. But legendary New York City messengers like Kevin “Squid” Bolger and others brought their track bikes to San Francisco in 1996 and the rest of the courier world took notice.
The author on the course at Red Hook. Photo: Roman Siromakha.
Cycle messenger championships were annual race events that gathered bike messengers from around the world to compete for the title of “fastest messenger in the world.” Held in a different city every year, these events were week-long affairs full of drinking, debauchery, sanctioned racing, and street racing. The street races were called Alleycats: open course and unsanctioned (what some might call illegal). These free-for-all races tested not only a courier’s course-routing ability, but also their skill at dodging cars and running red lights. Many a Courier Champion would cut their teeth racing in the streets of their home city for years before traveling to race in a CMWC.
On a messenger’s salary no-one was riding brand new bikes; everything came second hand, usually passed off from a retiring racer or bought used at a local bike shop. So, these first track bikes ridden on the streets were made of lightweight steel tubing, usually hand built by craftsmen from Europe. Names like Colnago and Campagnolo dominated the dialect; Italy had long been a bastion of cycling culture and early track bikes were dripping in slightly battered Italian chrome. Soon couriers around the world were riding track bikes at work. Berlin, London, Tokyo, every year more and more couriers showed to championship events riding FIXED. In the early 2000s Japanese bike culture rose in popularity, specifically Keirin racing. Keirin racing is much like traditional velodrome racing, with the addition of horse-race-style gambling. With the high stakes came a governing body, NJS (Nihon Jitensha Shinkokai), that regulated all the bikes and equipment used in races. NJS bike frames and components quickly became the gold standard of fixed gear bikes on the streets.
A group of messengers pose at an event, circa 2003.
As the 2000s progressed, track bikes also evolved from the provenance of strictly working bike messengers to an underground explosion of culture. From street wear brands like SUPREME, to professional skateboarders like Keith Hufnagel, to world-famous graffiti writers, everyone who was anyone rode a track bike. Hand-built Japanese NJS frames battled with chromed-out Italian steeds for dominance. Riders started to add carbon aero wheels and other road-racing performance mods, spending hundreds of dollars on discarded and abandoned (crashed) race parts for their bikes. Movies like MASH and Macaframa were instrumental in this growing fixed-gear boom. Structured like skateboarding videos, these feature-length films showcased messengers and riders in San Francisco, skillfully and with little regard for personal safety, bombing hills and darting in and around traffic. For one of the first times track bikes nudged into mainstream culture and the world took notice.
As the economic boom of the 1990s bled into the 2000s, most major cities around the world had bike messengers and alleycat races. But soon there were track bikes in smaller cities and suburban towns. Online shops made it easy for everyone to access the once-hard-to-find NJS parts from Japan. eBay was awash with hand-built Italian race frames and vintage carbon wheels. Italian legacy brand Cinelli partnered with MASH to produce new aluminum and carbon track bikes specifically suited for riding on the streets. While street racing was capturing the attention of fixed-gear riders around the globe, the next major step forward was already taking place in New York City.
In the Red Hook neighborhood of Brooklyn, David Trimble was searching for a way to bring his bike messenger and road racer friends together. One crew prepped for races by downing tall cans of cheap beer and puffing on joints, while the other shaved their legs and got a good night’s sleep. In 2008 Trimble finally got them both together for an open-course, fixed-gear criterium. Modeled after Kermesse racing in Belgium and refined in the United States to Criteriums, this breakneck race featured multiple laps around a highly technical urban course. The first Red Hook Crit was thrown around an IKEA building, at midnight, over cobblestones and bus routes. Year after year it evolved to become one of the biggest events in cycling; riders from around the world, including professionals from Grand Tour teams, would show up to try their hand (and legs) at racing the fastest bike messengers and street cyclists to ever grace a track bike. Red Hook Criterium inspired countless other fixed-gear races around the world.
From racing fixed on the Autobahn in Germany to track bike hill climb events hosted by Red Bull in San Francisco, track bikes have evolved from a niche race discipline and blue-collar tool to a global cycling phenomenon.
About the author: Chas Christiansen (@notchas) is a Bay Area-based artist and cyclist. Traveling around the globe in search of the stoke, Chas thrives on fun, adventure, and pushing limits in bike racing, exploring, and making art.
Photo: Mike Martin.
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