In 1979 cultural theorist Dick Hebdige broke down the meaning of style for subcultural groups wanting to mark themselves as opposed to the mainstream. He pointed to Teddy Boys of the 1950s who mocked Britain's social decline by dressing in a flamboyant bourgeois style, and Punks who are never too far from their politically charged leather jackets; adorned with studs, animal prints, and patches of all types. Clothing as expression is one thing, but what is to be said about bicycles as expression?
In urban environments around the world, the fixed-gear subculture is becoming noticeably more present. Aside from the increase in traffic violations, fixed-gear riders are visible because of their advanced codes of subcultural definition. Signifying themselves with a hipster-utilitarian style of dress, an affinity for varied forms of street art, and the combined smell of bike grease and Pabst Blue Ribbon, it is still the (handmade) fixed-gear bicycle which stands alone as the most sacrosanct subcultural commodity. It is the Punk's leather jacket, or the Teddy Boy's drain-pipe trouser. It is the feminist's burning bra.
Yet with trend-processors like Urban Outfitters now selling fixed gear bicycles amongst their espadrilles, plaid shirts and Lomography cameras, I have to wonder where the authenticity is. Spoke cards, sawed handle bars, vintage parts, and that which seems amateur (for instance an amateur paint job or a deteriorated frame) may point to a genuine fixed-gear enthusiast, but still it is difficult to flesh out the posers. What makes it difficult is that this subculture lacks the political dimension that characterized subversive subcultures of the past. Certainly not anarchistic or anti-capitalist, fixed-gear riders seem complacent within our often shunned economic hegemony, because there is no way to reconcile the fact that it's an expensive hobby. And ambivalently feminist, the fixed gear subculture encourages more girls on bikes, but Melbourne based cyclist collective Sugar Spokes puts it well when they explain they have no agenda beyond “more women riding = more people riding = good.”
So then what is this subculture trying to communicate with their personalized and hyper-individual fixed-gear bicycles? Perhaps it's simply a postmodern subculture of Generation Y, which, like hipster-dom, is characterized by general apathy and consistent hedonism. Or, equally possible is that I have once again sought out a theoretical underpinning for a cultural practice that is merely about community, practicality, and adaptive urbanism? I think probably the latter.