Chengdu’s Fixed Gear Bikes: Interview with Jacob of Natooke Cycles
If you ride a bicycle around Chengdu, you might have noticed an exploding trend: fixed gear bicycles. Known for their minimal aesthetic and bright colors, these hip road bikes are appearing everywhere around the city.
What makes fixed gear bikes so popular in Chengdu and what does the future hold for Chengdu’s fixed gear cyclist community? I sought out Jacob Klink, American entrepreneur and bicycle enthusiast to answer my questions as he prepares to open the first foreigner-owned fixed gear bicycle shop in Chengdu.
Interview with Jacob of Natooke Cycles
CL: Who are you, and what brings you to Chengdu?
I’m Jacob Klink, originally of Albuquerque, New Mexico and my business partner is Larry Adamson. He’s from Lewiston in Upstate New York. We both recently moved to Chengdu from Beijing where we formerly worked.
Chengdu attracted us with its superior ride-ability: it’s near mountains; the weather is great; never too hot, never too cold; the atmosphere and the people are wonderful.
After visiting a few times we both couldn’t deny the fact we wanted to be here.
CL: For those who don’t know, what is a fixed gear bicycle and why would someone want to purchase or ride one around the city?
Fixed gear is a type of bicycle that has a peculiarity. The first bicycles as we know them today were fixed gears. The cog on the rear wheel has no mechanism built in it to allow a rider to coast. This means if the rear wheel moves and the bicycle is in motion, the pedals will continue to move regardless of any effort to coast. A rider can either resist the motion of the pedals to slow movement or with a little skill and some muscle, lock the rear wheel entirely, causing the bicycle’s rear wheel to skid, helping bring a rider to a stop. Since the wheel and pedals move in unison, you can also perform a few interesting tricks. One such trick, a track stand, allows a rider to balance at a standstill. With a little more practice you can also ride a fixed gear backwards, but we don’t recommend using this trick in traffic.
There’s a million reasons why riding a “fixie” (slang for fixed gear) in Chengdu makes sense. One is simplicity. There are no complex gears, cables, shifters, or coasting mechanisms that need regular greasing, lubing, adjusting or replacing. Another is that for a city with no long or steep hills, gears aren’t really necessary. They’re convenient. No spending time or money for taxis or buses or having to figure out or explain how to go somewhere. They’re light and versatile. You can easily tailor it to your style and comfort. It’s a low impact exercise you can squeeze into any part of your day.
We could go on, but our favorite part about riding a fixed gear in any city is that it’s extremely fun.Chengdu attracted us with its superior ride-ability: it’s near mountains; the weather is great; never too hot, never too cold; the atmosphere and the people are wonderful.
CL: I understand you’re knowledgeable about the Beijing cyclist scene – how does that compare to Chengdu?
There are some similarities in that there’s a growing group of younger people interested in cycling and seeing it develop. Beijing is a little bit more hip to trends, but the vast majority of cyclists are very utilitarian and see it as a Point A to B machine. This unfortunately means besides recreational enthusiasts more people would ditch the bike for a car. Chengdu’s cycling scene seems to have a longer standing tradition of supporting cycling as a recreational and social activity. This is something we’re super excited to be a part of.
CL: Is Chengdu conducive to cyclists? How does it compare to other locations in China or around the world?
Chengdu is very conducive for cycling. Unlike a lot of other cities in China that are developing rapidly, Chengdu has remained rather dense, meaning getting around is much quicker and easier on a bike, especially during rush hours. Additionally, unlike a number of other Chinese cities it still takes cycling into consideration with its development. There are bike lanes and routes almost everywhere, and where there aren’t, it’s easy to find another convenient route. A small hiccup is the amount of construction going on for the metro system and roads, but construction on that scale makes any mode of transportation hazardous.
As I said we were originally attracted to Chengdu because it’s a great place to ride. For getting around, it’s an easy city to figure out and fun to explore by bike, once you learn the flow of traffic it’s rather safe. If you want a reprieve from the pressures of Chengdu city life, it’s quick and easy to get into the countryside or mountains.
The only challenge in riding in Chengdu has been dealing with traffic enforcement. In that respect Beijing was pretty nice. The pace of traffic there was relaxed and usually people were very considerate of cyclists. Here it seems as though traffic management turns a blind eye to aggressive and inane driving while being curt with cyclists as a way to streamline the flow of traffic. What this means is that where some schmo is allowed to perform an impossible turn in an intersection and block traffic for kilometers in both directions, you’ll be more likely to land a ticket if you’re watching this unfold while waiting in an area not designated for bicycle traffic.
CL: What got you hooked on fixed gear bicycles?
When I started university I realized quickly that riding a 10-speed around was way more convenient than trying to skateboard everywhere. Pretty quickly I realized you really could ride a bike anywhere. The fact that I could maintain my bike, ride all over and not have to drive places was just too cool. When I wrecked it, I needed a quick and easy way to get a new bicycle. A friend of mine had told me about these bikes that only had one gear and no brakes. I thought it was strange and dangerous, but we built one and within no time I had my 10-speed’s replacement. After that I found myself riding more and more, spending more time with other riders. Soon I was living and breathing bicycles. I came to China not really thinking about my love for riding bikes, but my first year without a bicycle was a nuisance.
In Beijing I found a shop I could spend my time at and help out to earn a free rental. It was at this shop that I ran into Larry, my business partner. He was getting his first fixed gear after years of deliberating himself. He’d found much of the same joys and freedoms in riding a bicycle and had heard plenty of it. After doing a good deal of riding and touring in China, he finally took the bait and got one. Eventually we found ourselves both engrossed in the community and events happening in Beijing with a common interest in riding bikes. Everything, from tours through the mountains to hosting races, we were in on it. I was keen on getting a bicycle polo club going in Beijing and after that it was every weekend spent with the same old folks, playing an unusual sport with regulars and teaching new comers how to ride a bike and swing a mallet at a ball at the same time.
The reality is, we love bikes and fixed gears are at the heart of it so it’s only natural we try to spread the love.
CL: Fixed gear bikes are becoming more and more popular in Chengdu. Why do you think that is?
It’s not hard to see how rapidly China is developing. It’s not just infrastructure and standards of living, but everything. This even includes how people spend their time on recreation. China is internationally known as the bicycle kingdom so it only makes sense that one of the more popular and easily accessible activities for people here is cycling. And it’s not just here that cycling is seeing a boom.It’s become cool and logical to ride a bicycle.
Around the world, more and more people are seeing the benefits of riding a bike. Bicycle culture is having somewhat of a renaissance in that all of a sudden it’s become cool and logical to ride a bicycle. The industry around it has also taken up the call and developed a number of new products to make bicycling more functional and stylish. Naturally, when you got a world glued together by the internet it only makes sense that trends change hands quicker than a rabbit procreates.
Fixed gear sits in a special position. People everywhere are happy to shrug some of the complexities of modern life. And the fixed gear, a machine that’s hardly changed in over a hundred years, is at the heart of it. You can feel it here too. Chengdu’s got its eye on the future and it’s finger on the pulse, and we feel like it will take to fixed gears like a kid in a candy store. The culture and history to explore the world by bike has a good foundation here and fixed gear is a fun way to breathe new life into something old-fashioned.
CL: How do you envision the cyclist community in Chengdu changing over the coming five years?
Our big hope it to facilitate the unification of all stripes of cycling. Sure, fixed gear is our stint and we think it’s a great way for people to get into bicycles, but we want to see people come together in the community and share the experience of riding bikes for the pure joy of doing so.
Another big part of this is seeing the community here develop and work to protect its interests. This is everything from seeing to it that motorists are held accountable for behaving on the roads as well or keeping the city from neglecting to take bicycles into consideration with its transportation. Living in Chengdu and seeing the pace of development here it’s really hard to say, so keeping these things in mind are important. Positivity can only breed more of the same.
These might come off as bright-eyed or lofty hopes, but the more people out riding and enjoying their time astride two wheels and preserving this interest, the happier we’ll be.
CL: Are there any practices, mantras, or rituals that are unique to the fixed gear community? To the casual observer, fixed gear bikes are the colorful ones – why is that?
A common practice amongst fixed gear riders that you’ll notice is the ride that doesn’t really go anywhere. Part of the fun of fixed gear is the social aspect. Often times rides will be organized to meet at a specific place, or go to a specific place then seem to stop. Most would imagine a ride as movement along a distinct course, but for fixie riders, sometimes it’s simply the experience revolving around the bike.
An easy way to spot this is to look for a large group of fixed gear riders in a single location standing over their bikes. Some may be riding there bikes, but be at a standstill, gently rocking back and forth in a trackstand. Some may even be practicing a method of slowing to a stop in an extended skid. As I said you’d expect them to go somewhere, but part of the fun is shooting the breeze, talking about bikes or other miscellaneous things and just soaking up the moment with friends, bound by your love of the bike.
Now as for colorful bikes, that’s up for debate. Some would say that as a postmodern society driven by narcissism that eye-catching, rainbow-colored iterations of one of its oldest functional industrial designs is an indication that culture has hit its critical mass. We however think that fixies, relatively simple and easy to build, just beg to be made bright. When everyone around you is riding one, it makes it easy to pick out. If it’s stolen, a friend will notice it right away. Usually it can also say something about someone’s character, or style, or interests. Like clothing. Just think of it like an enormous, highly useful accessory.
CL: How do you prevent your bike from being stolen in China?
The easiest way to prevent bike theft is to lock it, at all times. Sounds intuitive, but a quick trip into a convenience store and some false confidence can ruin your day.
Use a sturdy lock. Invest in a durable steel lock, U-locks (also known as D-locks) most easily render a potential thief disinclined. Otherwise a thick steel link chain functions well. Cable locks are reasonable for short-term use or in situations where you have a constant eye on your beloved bicycle. Go for locks that require a key before using a combination style.
Simply having a lock isn’t good enough. Thieves can be clever. Make sure you use your lock to affix your bike to something stable. Be certain that sign pole you’re using can’t be lifted out of the ground. See that the bike rack you’re about to use is actually bolted down or is made of material that’s as tough, if not tougher than your lock. Lock any part that could be easily removed. Spent a lot on a saddle? It takes a pocket-sized wrench and one minute to make it disappear. Fancy race wheels feel so smooth to ride on, right? The bolt and lever keeping them attached to your front fork takes 5 seconds and a pair of opposable thumbs to remove.
Furthermore, mind your schedule. This may seem strange, but the best cleverest thieves can do their work in broad daylight. If you plan to leave your bike locked up regularly for long periods of time in the same area, it’s quite easy for someone to figure out your schedule and know exactly when they need to come with the right tools to take your bike. What this means? At night, bring your bike into your apartment. At work, if you can’t bring your bike in, occasionally switch up where you lock your it.
Finally, sometimes there’s no way to prevent the misfortune of having someone make off with your bicycle. Just because it’s stolen, doesn’t mean it’s gone. I’ve handled a friends bike moments after it’s been stolen, only to let the thief slip away with it due to inadequate evidence of ownership. So, remember, with a bicycle, if you’re concerned about theft, keep your receipts and serial information. Further measures you can take include stashing a picture of yourself or an ID number in the bicycle frame or handlebars. Losing a bike once is cruel. Losing that same bike twice is way harsher.
Remember, investing in a lock isn’t like spending money on a paperweight. It’s insurance. It prevents you from having to deal with the heartache and financial burden of buying another bicycle. If you spend enough time riding your bicycle around you take for granted how close you become with it. Having it torn from your life because of carelessness just plain sucks.
CL: Tell me about your shop. When will it open, where will it be, and what can people expect to find there?
Our shop is called Natooke. The original Natooke is located in Beijing and owned by the lovely and talented Ines Brunn. Her shop is actually the place Larry and I first used as a center for riding fixed gears and being a part of the cycling community. It was in that environment we felt inspired to take the example she’s provided, a bicycle shop that functions as a hub for all types of bicycle enthusiasts, and bring it to the cycling minded Chengdu. We’re working with her closely and should be up and selling bikes within a few weeks.
We should mention, a big part of Natooke is working with our customers to create a unique bike. From the ground up we offer a selection of parts to help you build a bike that fits your style and expectations while offering our wisdom and experience to answer any questions you got.
You’ll happily find us whiling away the time preparing our shop located on Xiao Tian Dong Jie 3 Hao Fu 26 Hao (小天东街3号附26号). Although our initial opening may seem a little quiet, we are already planning a grander opening ceremony of sorts that of course will be all about the bike so expect that in November.
If you can’t wait til then and are looking for something new to do, we also play hardcourt bike polo Sunday afternoons at 5 at the north end of Sichuan Gymnasium (四川省体育馆). We bring the mallets and ball, so don’t be afraid to stop by and check it out.
A big thing for us in creating our shop is making a space that’s plenty comfortable for friends and strangers alike to come and relax. We hope that anyone, whether they’re big on fixed gear or not, will stop in for a chat and enjoy the Chengdu vibe we hope to perpetuate in this iteration of Natooke.
CL: Anything else you’d like to say to someone interested in fixed gear cycling in Chengdu?
Fixed gear or not we hope you can pay us a visit. Regardless of how you feel about hip, single speed bicycles, we think you’ll find our shop a hub of cycling activity and help you in your journey, exploring Chengdu and China by bike.
And if you’re new to Chengdu and are less than confident riding around, be sure to check out Chengdu Living’s Psykling in Chengdu: A 5-Point Guide. You’ll quickly become a traffic guru and avoid any painful lessons.
Ride safe, ride smart. Thanks!