Fixed-gear bikes go West

Venice may conjure visions of bronzed bodies riding beach cruisers, but an underground community of fixed-gear bike enthusiasts has sprung to life — and its members are tricking out their bikes in multicolored gear, ripping through the streets with no brakes or helmets, doing wheelies on the Venice Boardwalk and playing bike polo at Mar Vista Park.

Their HQ is L.A. Brakeless, a grass-roots bike shop that captures the spirit of the classic skate shop. Out front, regulars, clad in bike caps and skate shoes, spend hours smoking cigarettes, performing BMX-style tricks and fixing their bikes with tools borrowed from inside. When you’re into this scene, it becomes your life, says Larry Hammerness, who builds custom steel frames from his nearby home. “You have your girlfriend and you have your bike.”

Riding fixed-gears — essentially low-maintenance bikes that pedal forward and backward like a unicycle and have no brakes, initially made for speed racing around a velodrome track — isn’t a new phenomenon, as Eastsiders are quick to attest. But it is an emerging scene in Venice. “When we opened the shop about a year and a half ago, we saw one or two track bikes ride by a week. Now we see five or six an hour,” says LAB’s manager, George Gregor.

Part of the appeal for fixed-gear cyclists is customizing their bikes, which become their calling cards. Bike parts used to come in black and silver. Now you’ll find cranks, pedals, spokes, tires, handlebar grips, you name it, in every color of the rainbow — and for more money too. “The trend today is to go for the ‘Skittles bag,’ ” says Anna Martin, who owns LAB with her husband, David Cargill. In fact, LAB, which carries the buzz-worthy aerodynamic Deep V rims, looks like a candy shop bursting with bright pink, electric blue and lime green.

Read on to meet some of the players in Venice’s fixed-gear scene. Or click through to see more photos by Colin Young Wolff.

Published in Brand X and The Los Angeles Times on May 13, 2009. Learn more about my work at Brand X.