It would be hard not to notice that Japan’s streets are jammed with fixed-gear bikes. As reported here in December, these are simple, stripped-down bikes originally built for racing around velodromes; the single gear is locked to the back wheel, so the pedals keep turning when the bike is moving. But while these machines may be minimalist at their core, having just one gear, the youths who started this craze are finding ways to take it to the extreme.
Not content with getting from A to B in utilitarian fashion, these cyclists are turning the streets into a vast, ongoing spinoff of MTV’s popular car restoration show “Pimp My Ride.” Spend half an hour in Tokyo’s Shibuya, Osaka’s Minami Horie or Sanjo Street in Kyoto and it is hard not to do a double-take on cool kids riding fixed-gear bikes as carefully assembled as their outfits — from glaring all-white to riotous fluoro or black. And the weird and wildly colorful takes on this virtually maintenance-free cycle that are popping up like so many hallucinations are fueling a cottage industry for customizers.
Yo Kishiguchi, an Osaka-based designer who offers new types of frames built to suit every type of rider and every wardrobe, explains that behind the bespoke bike trend is an entirely new breed of bicyclist.
“I raced road bikes during my school days and attended a school known for its strong road and track teams,” says Kishiguchi. “But I find that most fixed-gear riders come from a skateboarding or BMX background.”
If you’re interested in learning some of the tricks fixed-gear bicycles are capable of, the 29-year-old former racer says the Pacifix Exclusive is built to make jumps and wheelies a breeze; for more traditional riders who want to cut minutes off their commuting time, try the superfast Keirin Sentouki frame. There’s even a frame for very tall people — a rarity in Japan. And Kishiguchi paints his frames in-house, which means he can offer personalized color schemes, metal fleck and holographic stickers.
As any bicycle fashionista will tell you, however, it’s all about accessorizing your frame. If you want it to turn heads, just as belts and bags should match, so too should certain key parts of your bicycle. Another Osaka-based firm, Dia-Compe, offers tires in the previously unavailable colors of white and fluoro pink; family- owned brand Nitto, famous for making handlebars for racing cyclists at its Fukushima Prefecture factory, now anodizes its handlebars in black, blue, gray, gold, purple and red; and, not to be outdone, Nara-based Sugino finishes its cranks (the things your pedals attach to) in blue, gold, gunmetal gray, pink, red and traditional silver. A popular import is Velocity rims, made near Brisbane in Australia. Fixed-gear riders swear by wheels made with these rims, and they come in every imaginable color.
This kaleidoscope of new parts has prompted new stores to open their doors, with Tokyo seeing four new shops devoted to fixed-gear bikes start up in recent years. First on the scene was Carnival in Shibuya. Since then, three other bicycle boutiques have opened in the city: the oddly named Sexon Super Peace in Shibuya, run by Womb nightclub DJ Shingo Takahashi; a store in Katsushika named Jan, run by ex-pro skateboarder Daisuke Hayakawa, and Blue Lug in Hatsudai, owned and run by cycling-mad Toshihiro Ashikaga. What’s more, everyone’s favorite knickknacks shop, Tokyu Hands, has opened small fixed-gear sections at its Shibuya and Ginza outlets.
Of the new stores, Blue Lug is setting the tempo, sourcing exciting new products each week and putting them up on its Web site ( www.bluelug.jp ). Many parts it offers are made in limited production runs, so design-conscious cyclists have begun to make regular visits to Blue Lug to pick up a one-off item (right now, its tiger print Kashimax saddle is the must-have part).
And it’s not only Tokyo that is getting new stores. In Osaka, Yoh Kishiguchi has teamed up with Australian Rene Spudvilas and is soon to open a small shop in Minami Horie called Ocean Cycle Factory.
“The shop is not actually officially open yet, but that doesn’t keep the local riders from dropping in, day in, day out, to take a look at what’s going on,” Spudvilas says.
The 26-year-old Australian is a relative newcomer to fixed-gear bikes. “I started riding fixed-gear just after arriving in Japan 16 months ago and saw how beautiful a local guy’s track bikes were. I soon became a big fan of rare, out-of- production parts and handmade frames.”
Ocean Cycle Factory specializes in custom orders, with frames and wheels built to riders’ differing needs. Spudvilas explains, for example, that for riders who want to do tricks, the shop offers hand-built wheels with thicker spokes and stronger hubs — all in the color of your choice.
The bespoke trend goes beyond just fixed-gear bikes, too. Single-gear mountain bikes (which usually allow for freewheeling) look similar, but they have heavier frames, and wider rims and tires, and there are even some cyclo-cross bikes (similar to racing bikes but with knobby tires and designed for off-road racing).
All of this customizing comes at a price. While you can buy a bespoke bike for as little as ¥50,000, most of those you see on the streets cost between ¥100,000 and ¥200,000. But there is no shortage of specialty shops selling racing parts because track cycling is a major betting sport in Japan. One such store, Punch Cycles, in Asakusa, has become a Mecca for young riders keen to learn about fixed-gear culture. It is open only in the evenings, and fixed-gear riders have started gathering there as the sun sets to pepper store owner Naoki Kitajima with questions about these machines that are as individual as the people who ride them.
This summer, those conversations and others like them are sure to inspire all sorts of new spins on the humble bicycle.
Get on your bike . . .
Ocean Cycle Factory: 1-21-9 Minami Horie, Nishi-ku, Osaka; (06) 6538-7708 Jan: 6-2-1 Horikiri, Katsushika-ku, Tokyo; (03) 3604-1019 Punch Cycles: Kaminarimon 1-5-10 Taito-ku, Tokyo; (03) 3841-5080