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July 19, 2011

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Fixies the latest bikers' fixation

THE latest trend in Shanghai's freewheeling urban biking community is fixed-wheelers or fixies, but whatever the type, they're cool spokes for cool people. Laura Imkamp goes for a spin.

David Deng saw his first fixed-gear bike six years ago. When a customer from London rolled one into his bicycle shop in Shenzhen, southern China's Guangdong Province, Deng couldn't understand why it was so light and why it didn't have a brake.

"The customer said you just use your legs (to stop)," Deng says. "So I thought, ok, maybe you just use your legs to touch the ground ... it sounds a little bit stupid."

But it left an impression on him.

The Shenzhen native says he went home afterward and scoured the Internet for information about fixed-gear bikes.

It turns out the customer didn't mean putting your feet on the ground to stop; he meant skidding.

Fixed-gear bikes - also known as fixies - have no free wheel and can't coast, which means the pedals are always in motion. If you stop pedaling, the bike will skid to a halt.

These bicycles are some of the simplest around, which is part of their appeal.

They have no gears, few components, and handbrakes are (usually) optional.

They're light, they're fast and - perhaps one of the biggest draws - they can be really good-looking.

"They got my attention right away," says Carolina Melgarejo. The 30-year-old Colombian started riding fixed in Shanghai about a year and a half ago. "The colors are amazing. It's like buying an accessory, a purse. Except, for me, it's buying a fixie."

The bicycles first gained popularity with bike messengers, particularly in New York City. In roughly the last five years, fixies have become a full-on trend, especially beloved by urban commuters, tricksters and hipsters alike.

So now, six years after his initial fixie introduction, Deng owns Airwalk, one of the fastest-growing fixed gear bike companies in Asia.

The Shenzhen-based brand opened its first store in Shanghai in 2009.

Since moving to a new location on Julu Road in March, Deng says business has exploded.

While the boost does have to do with the more central location, Deng says a big push comes from Shanghai's foreigners "who already know about fixies. The trend is coming. In Shanghai, people follow the West a lot."

And they're following Westerners like the guys at Factory 5, who are some of the most passionate, fixie-informed foreigners in this city.

In short, Factory 5 is a bike shop-meets-boutique-meets-community hangout for Shanghai's biking enthusiasts. And it's the first of its kind here.

The five founders come from around the world and have gained a reputation for their fixed-gear rebuilds of classic Chinese bikes, as well as their huge involvement in providing a base for Shanghai's urban biking community.

"The community's growing like crazy," says Tyler Bowa, one of the core five who's had the single most influence in rallying Shanghai's bikers.

By his own estimates, Bowa says Shanghai probably has China's second-largest urban biking community after Guangdong.

In fact, it's growing so fast that barely two months after Factory 5's launch party the guys outgrew their Donghu Road spot and had to move out.

Now they're looking for something bigger.

The 23-year-old Canadian says they want to launch a new location by the beginning of August - about the same time they plan to launch China's first English fixie magazine.

The free mag, 48x15, will include everything from bike fashion and shop reviews to longer feature articles.

"Until this year I don't think there was enough of a demand (for something like that)."

But now the demand is definitely there.

Bowa runs China's only English-language fixed-gear blog called People's Bike (, where he not only writes about biking, but also organizes events like group rides and Shanghai's annual Alleycat street race.

"Shanghai is by far (one of the best cities in the world) for cycling," Bowa says. "It's totally flat, every road has a bike lane, people understand moving with traffic and it's just beautiful."

When he got here almost three years ago, he says, no one knew what fixies were and not a single store sold them.

Now, fixie shops are popping up all around the city. Even major brands like Giant and Specialized have jumped on the fixie and single-speed craze.

"Riding around the city now, I can probably see at least a dozen (fixies) within a couple hours on any weekend," he says. "That wouldn't have happened last year."

"I think a lot of people like to be part of (this community) because you meet a lot of similar, like-minded people," says fellow Factory 5er Jeff Liu.

Which, in this case, generally means chilled, creative types - much like 24-year-old American Liu and Bowa, who run a design and branding firm together.

Even Deng points out many fixie riders "are artists and designers, unique people who want colorful things and want everything to be as unique as they are."

But perhaps one of the most unique things about Shanghai's riders is that they're an extremely open bunch, whether you're on a fixie or not. Deng and Liu both say they just want to get more people on two wheels.

"It doesn't matter where you're from or if you knew each other before," Melgarejo adds. "It's just cool bikes for cool people."


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