A track bike, no brakes, riding on the street -- you're one with everything.
--Paul Allemby, Graphic Artist
It doesn't coast. That's the thing about it.
--Kent Peterson, from Sheldon Brown's "Fixed Gear Testimonial" web page
No brakes? You'll kill yourself!
--Concerned bystander, 5th Avenue, Manhattan
What does cycling has to do with nonduality? Is this something about unicycles?
No it's not, even though unicycles have only one wheel. And it's true that nonduality has to do with everything. So just what is nondual about bicycling? The track bike!
The "track bike" or "fixed-gear bike" is famous among bicycle aficionados for giving its rider a serene, concentrated feeling of unbroken connectedness with everything. When people imagine that nonduality is like a certain feeling, this is the kind of feeling they imagine :-) . It's like being in "The Zone" all the time.
What They Are
What's so special about a track bike? Bicycle messengers in large cities like them for being simple and ultra low-maintenance. Kevin Bacon rode one all over San Francisco in the movie "Quicksilver." They are used in Olympic velodrome events and the exciting Japanese "keirin" racing, which involves mild jostling and the country's wildest betting. In the early 1900's, track biking was the most popular sport in the U.S.
What really makes these bikes special however, is that they have a direct-drive system. The single rear sprocket is fixed to the back axle and doesn't spin freely. This means that the pedals never coast. Whenever the wheels are moving, the pedals are moving, whether forwards or backwards. It is a fixed-gear system with no slippage and no coasting. The the chain is connected to the large chainring on the front and the small cog on the back. The small cog is fixed to the bicycle's back wheel. Track bikes are also special because they are minimalistic. Originally designed for velodrome racing on glassy smooth banked oval tracks, these bikes are very very light -- they've got no cables or levers or shifters. No extra apparatus at all. Track bikes look like sleek racing bikes, with very thin tires and curvy "drop"-style handlebars. And there are no brakes and no derailleurs! The acceleration, speed, deceleration and stopping are all managed by controlling the spin of th
e pedals. Experienced racers can pedal at the rate of 3 or 4 revolutions per second. (Click here for a track bike photo from Harris Cyclery.)
I first saw a track bike in a 1990 bicycle guide. There was a photo and a very poetic description of how this kind of cycling can improve one's pedalling technique. I loved the slim, taught lines of the bike. I was intrigued by the reviewer's cautious tones, warning that "suicidal New York bike messengers" like to ride these bikes with no brakes in the street. I was hooked! I lived in upstate New York in the city of Rochester, and none of the local bike shops knew about track bikes. So I drove 10 hours to New York and asked a lot of questions.
Some bike shops didn't even like to talk about them, as they were illegal to ride in the city without brakes. It was one of those things where they'll give you information if it sounds like you know what you're talking about. And certainly I didn't! But I kept on looking and asking, going through the Manhattan yellow pages for bike shops. Finally I found a nice shop in Greenwich Village that took kindly to my earnest questions. So I bought the bike on the spot, including the front brake they suggested. They even had a salesman who was able to give me a few pointers on how to stop without the brake! I took it back to Rochester, to practice in the safe streets of suburbia. And whenever I visited Manhattan, I'd quiz anyone I'd see riding a fixed gear bike. Mostly the questions were, "How do you stop it?" It turned out there are lots of ways to stop, including several emergency measures you can take if the chain breaks. (The chain is your accelerator and your brake.)
Mystical Experiences and Sensei
It turns out that Jamaicans are the ones who brought the popularity of
fixed-gear cycling to New York. They ride these bikes in Jamaica growing
up. Coming to NYC, they ended up teaching lots of New York cyclists. Over
the years going to every bike shop in the city, I've found a great bike
shop owned and operated by Jamaicans -- Larry and Jeff's Bicycles Plus.
With an owner who has an affection for track bikes, and mechanics who
include former Jamaican national track champions and Olympic competitors,
they really know this kind of bicycle, and effortlessly keep my
bikes in tip-top shape.
I remember how I came to take the front caliper brake off after a year of practice. It was almost a mystical experience. For about 3-4 months, I had been using the brake less and less, almost not at all. Then one day I had a deep insight, an out-of-body experience like a flowering realization -- I was watching myself riding and feeling how it was to negotiate on the bike without the brake. It culminated in a very natural and positive feeling of, "I can do this!" So I took it off, and never rode a track bike with a brake since. And the totally connected oceanic riding experience is there, every time. Since 1991, I've purchased and designed several custom tracks of different styles. I was fortunate to hook up with a group of old-time track riders at Central Park, one of whom became like a sensei to myself and some of the other newcomers. He taught us track techniques that even the messengers and bike mechanics didn't know, and took us on trips via little-known routes out
side Manhattan. Today I ride my track bikes everywhere, including up and down steep hills, in NYC rush hour traffic, over the 59th Street Bridge to Queens, over the George Washington Bridge to New Jersey, and even on the streets of London, where the traffic goes the "other" way!
My First Teacher
Actually, it was track bikes that turned me towards non-dualism! One day in 1992 I was riding my track in Central Park. I was a church-going born-again Christian at the time. As I rode the bike, I approached another guy who happened also to be riding a track. I slowed down a bit and we nodded, commenting sagely on each other's bikes (it's a guy thing). We rode a few laps around the park together. It turned out that he was also interested in philosophy, but not the academic kind I'd gone to grad school for. Rather, he liked the perennial philosophy. He was interested in Rudolf Steiner, Anthroposophy and Theosophy. He spoke of the astral body, Jupiter spirits, and God being within us. I'd never heard of any of this! It all sounded vaguely New Age-ish to me, but I wasn't sure, having been enclosed in a Christian cultural bubble throughout the 1980's. I was fascinated however, so I sought out the Steiner book he recommended. That book and that bike rider opened
up huge vistas for me through both Western and Eastern spiritual paths. The rider and I became wonderful friends, he being a great teacher to me. His name is Paul Allemby, and his quote is at the top of this article.
What Others Say
The quotes are true! In fact, here are some more comments and testimonials, from other aficionados of fixed-gear track cycling:
Riding a track bike is a totally Zen-like experience.
You are in total contact with the bike, the road, and everything around you.
A track bike is cycling stripped down to its barest essentials.
--Brian Dorfmann, Programmer at a large Manhattan law firm
A "fixed" is the best kind of bike. You're always pedalling so your
concentration is, like, really there.
--Doug, track cyclist, habitue of Central Park
I have so much fun riding the track bike that it is frustrating that I
can't convince riders to spend more time on a fixed gear.
The fixed gear builds a wonderful sense of oneness with the
bike that can't be duplicated with a freewheel bike. I am
absolutely convinced that the fixed gear is better than
a freewheel, not only in developing and maintaining the
pedal stroke, but also in developing strength and power.
Fixed-gear is a totally new dimension in riding.
I really feel like I'm part of the bike.
It's probably all in my head, but it does seem that I'm more
aware of the pedals moving in circles, and to what extent my
legs are with them.
This is riding. This is a bicycle that teaches me something every time
I ride it, that makes me more by virtue of it's being less. It's the bike
I ride until the street lights come on and sometimes even longer. It's the
bike I put away sadly and take out joyfully. It's the bike that never forgets
why we ride.