Is it true what they say? Vancouver is only a city because all the cars have to turn around there? I’m not really sure about that but there’s at least one difference between Montreal and Vancouver when it comes to bikes. Vancouver likes its bikes the way it likes its architecture: lots of flash. Hence all the towers of concrete, steel and glass.


You often see a stack of $7000+ bikes leaning against the glass windows at Starbucks, or a glimmering arrow of fancy-bikes swish by on its way to Stanley Park, the North Shore, etc. Yes there are all sorts of bikes in Canada’s most post-modern city but they are, relative to the bikes in Montreal, much more clean. The word ‘shiny’ comes to mind.

In Montreal you see your share of shiny-fancy bikes, but you also see a tonne of rust-buckets squeaking their way through the stone-laden, monumental architecture of the downtown area. I don’t have stats, but I’d say more people work on their bikes in Montreal–and not just couriers. People use bikes to deliver groceries, to pull ladders for washing windows, to haul dogs they are supposed to be walking–and there’s even a guy who moves one bedroom apartments using a bike and trailer! Then there are the bixi bikes for commuters. I guess all I’m really saying is that per capita, there are less people wearing spandex while riding in Montreal than Vancouver… and since the bikes are working-machines they are overall more grubby. It’s just an opinion from a spandex-wearing cycling coach whose waited by the Atwater bridge for clients while watching all sorts of bikes go rattling by. In fact I’m convinced that large populations of spiders have traveled throughout Montreal, webbed in the framed angles of dust laden bikes. Then there are all those stained child seats spawning micro-ecologies whose spores get blown overboard and into the future…

Speaking of spawning, where did all these fixies come from? Fixies are bikes that don’t coast because the sprocket is screwed directly onto the hub of the rear wheel. There is no freewheeling on a fixie. This means that when the wheel moves forward–or backward–the chain also moves, so that the pedals are always in motion when the bike is moving. If you suddenly stop pedaling, the bike stops with you. Think of a clown pedaling forward and then backward while balancing on a bike… now you’re thinking of a fixie. But now that clown is staring back at you in a happy, yet oddly menacing way, as it dawns on you that if fixies are about anything they are about revolution. The full turn. Start turning into finish into start… forward and backward becoming one… brangelina… that kind of thing.

Fixed gear bikes are associated with the origins of the bicycle, and with racing on the track.

I think, however, that the popularization of “fixies” is associated with bike couriers. I remember that couriers in the 90s started paring their bikes down to fixies to reduce the number of moving parts. Lo-fi, functional and cool. You would see them with those tiny u-locks or massive chain locks leaning against the office towers of business districts everywhere. People started to notice.

In French, ‘courrier’ means to run. Bike couriers are like the original bike racers. They run messages through the city. In the age of social networking and instant messaging, however, bike couriers are decidedly old-school. That said, they often deliver messages from the future. Literature and hollywood teach us (!) that when the high-tech cybernetic world collapses, bike couriers continue to pedal through the debris of the city. In the movie “I Am Legend”, for example, that Prince of Belair guy is a bike courier who wakes up from a coma only to find the city inhabited by zombies due to a virus gone wild. More famously, in 1984 William Gibson penned the seminal cyberpunk novel, Neuromancer, as the first in his “Bridge Trilogy.” A central character in this trilogy from the bespeckled author that popularized the term “cyberspace” is Chevette Washington…a bike courier.

So couriers deliver messages from the old school to the future world. They’re the ones who make it through the ruins. So what is their message?

In an effort to bring things full circle, I want you to know that William Gibson lives in–you guessed it–Vancouver. The airy streets of Vancouver are (g)littered with fixies. Each time you see some bony hipster with skinny jeans and $450 messenger bag he’s riding a fixie with colourful high-flange rims, with cards in the spokes or plastic toys on the bars.

The hipster wants everyone to know that even though they are part of the mature, working world, they are still young at heart in an old-school kind of way. They are on the edge of young and old; immature and mature. They are in this way, “edgy.” Oh, and also in the way they dress. The bike courier’s working vehicle has been appropriated by the tattooed fashionista! The revolution has been replaced by the “individual” whose bike is a sign of their inner irony with a side-order of “I used to be funky when I was young”.

And now there are super-fancy fixies that scream “we are not child-like; we are historically aware, educated, and love a fine bike the way we love a fine glass of champagne in our airplane on the way to Monte Carlo! Harry Esquire the Third!! Where is my chihuahua??!!!”

And now there is also what the Bike Snob NYC mockingly describes as “Fixed-Gear Theme Vacations: Getting There is Half the Fun, Filming It is the Other Half”.

Personally, I go back and forth on the subject of the fixie. I own one and I’m sometimes embarrassed by the way it looks, but I like riding it. It’s a bit shiny but in my defence I lived in Vancouver for years and love the place. I’d be less embarrassed by my bike in Vancouver. In Montreal the fixies as a whole are not as glitzy, though there are some rather refined nods to the old way of things. Yeah or Yawn? I find people talk about fixies the way they talk about Lance Armstrong. Lots of back and forth, pros and cons. It’s your call.

Anyway, since William Blackburn is going to Austin, Texas to train, I’ll dedicate this closing video to him.

About Scott Toguri McFarlane

Scott Toguri McFarlane is a former Elite racer, and the founder of Toguri Training Services. For more than a decade, his approach to training has helped aspiring professional racers, provincial team members, and recreational cyclists of all ages and ability achieve their goals, including gold medals at National and Provincial Championships.

Express your thoughts