A decade ago, one of the hottest fashion accessories in China wasn’t an accessory at all, but a bike. Fixed-gear bicycles, or fixies — known in Chinese as sifei — emerged from obscurity to obtain a cult-like following on the country’s streets and in its fashion magazines. When Huang Tao, a 29-year-old civil servant and part-time bike shop owner in Beijing, saw his first fixie in a magazine around 2008 or 2009, he was immediately struck by its low-key look. “(It) looked different,” he recalls, “sleek and simple.” It didn’t occur to him that the bike had no brakes.
Barely 10 years later, sifei have all but vanished from Chinese streets. Their decline isn’t merely the natural outcome of shifting tastes, but a byproduct of China’s changing urban fabric. Congested, automobile-centric streets, and a shift toward e-commerce and away from community stores and vibrant neighborhoods, all combined to drive fixie fans to abandon their bikes.
An early bicycle design, fixies became the favorite of many American couriers in the second half of the 20th century, due to their light weight and speed, and from there, eventually expanded onto American college campuses beginning in the early 2000s. On a fixed-gear bicycle, the gear on the rear hub is affixed directly to the wheel, meaning the wheel and pedals are permanently coupled. This is a less mechanically complex design than other bikes, but it also means that the classic fixie doesn’t have a dedicated braking mechanism.
At almost the same time when fixies were in vogue in American campuses, riders in Tokyo’s trendy Harajuku area, including the designer Hiroshi Fujiwara, introduced Japanese elements to the bikes, turning them into canvases onto which people could show off their personalities.
Beginning in the late 2000s, devotees like Huang also appeared in China. Mostly 20-something fans of Japanese culture or trends, they were exposed to the bikes in magazines and through online forums. If you wanted to buy a fixie on the Chinese mainland in those days, you had to either order one from overseas via the internet, or else buy a secondhand one from one of these forums. The bikes would then be modified and customized, with the fashion at the time leaning toward bright, monochromatic designs. Huang bought the parts for his first fixie on an international website and then assembled it at a friend’s bike shop.
The rise of the fixie in China stimulated demand for clothes and accessories suitable for cycling, such as cuffed jeans and messenger bags. Soon, fashion brands got in on the act by launching fixie-inspired lines. In 2009, Size Lifestyle, a Chinese-language magazine that tracks global fashion trends, featured Taiwan-born singer Chang Chen-yue riding a fixed-gear bike on the cover of its first issue. Over the next five years, nearly every issue featured a column on fixies. For enthusiasts, the bikes were more than a way to get around — young people saw them as a way to express their lifestyles and attitudes.
The cover of Size’s first issue, featuring singer Chang Chen-yue riding a fixed-gear bike, 2009. From Kongfz.com
Fixie fever peaked in China around 2013. The colorful bikes were a common sight on the streets of metropolises like Beijing and Shanghai, and even began appearing in smaller interior cities. All over the country, fixie clubs began appearing and organizing fixie competitions. Huang opened his own fixie shop in 2013, though it functioned mostly as a hangout for fellow fans of fixed-gear bikes.
A few short years later, the culture had essentially disappeared. That may not seem surprising: After all, trends come and go. But this drop-off has been sharper in China than in neighboring countries like Japan and South Korea, even as more young Chinese enjoy the kind of consumption power, urbanized lifestyles, and appreciation for international fashion that might foster a fixie fixation.
The reason these bikes became popular and the reason they disappeared are the same: the streets. More specifically, their decline is the result of changes to both policy and China’s urban fabric over the past decade.
Participants during the third Fixed Gear Revolution in Beijing, 2011. People Visual
Compared with road bikes, which offer a more stable riding experience, fashion-centric fixies do have some inherent downsides. Safety is a key one. With no hand brakes, fixed-gear bicycles require a certain level of skill to ride, and accidents are a risk for unskilled riders. Following the boom in fixie ridership, negative news reports on their dangers became a frequent topic of discussion on Chinese social media. Several major cities including Shenzhen and Xiamen even introduced bans on their use or sale.
Another factor in the fixie’s decline was air quality. During the last decade, Chinese people have become increasingly aware of the severity and harm of air pollution, an awareness that has influenced the enthusiasm of fixie enthusiasts in big, smoggy cities like Beijing. Concerns over pollution led many young Chinese to cut down on outdoor urban activities, which reduced opportunities for using fixies. Instead, many young people, tired of their stressful, claustrophobic lives in the cities, started spending their weekends hopping in a car to the suburbs or rural areas, or else taking advantage of cheap airfare to enjoy island or mountain getaways.
The relative decline of physical commerce and the hollowing out of neighborhoods also weakened fixie culture. In 2017, for instance, Beijing launched a campaign to remove substandard buildings and shut down businesses that violated regulations, including many trendy small shops, bars, and cafes in the city’s old downtown area. The campaign improved the cleanliness and appearance of neighborhoods, but also resulted in a decrease in the flow of foot-traffic and the vitality of the streets. Huang’s own bike shop was caught up in this overhaul of urban spaces, and after weighing the costs and benefits, he decided to close his doors. Pretty soon, there were only a few bike shops left in the city, and even fewer specializing in fixies.
From left to right, promotional images for the first, second, third, and fourth Fixed Gear Revolution events in Beijing. From @北京死飞BEIJINGFG on Weibo
Finally, there was the issue of cost. Like most fashion accessories, fixies cost a lot of money. While that on its own is not necessarily fatal in an increasingly consumerist society, the specter of theft made fixies a risky ride. Zhang Xiangdong, who founded an urban biking brand with an emphasis on theft prevention, once described to me the experience of owning a nice bike as a near constant source of stress: He couldn’t even relax in a coffee shop, as he felt the need to keep his eyes on his ride at all times.
This doesn’t mean that cycling itself is on the decline in China. If anything, thanks to the country’s shared-bike startups, there may be more bicycles on the country’s streets than ever before. The difference is that these bikes are more utilitarian: inexpensive, or even free, ways to solve the “last mile” problem and get people from the subway station to their home or office.
Huang Tao eventually reopened a small basement store which he keeps semi-open to the public. Old customers visit when they’re looking to fix or modify their bike, and the store is a hangout spot for friends and fellow enthusiasts. As for whether fixies have died forever, Huang thinks that’s the wrong way to look at the question.
He sees the future as depending on celebrity influencers, in much the same way he was attracted by Japanese pop culture. Skateboards and motorcycles became popular overnight thanks to the idol Wang Yibo. Maybe fixies also have a chance to make a comeback. “You have to admit the effect of online buzz,” Huang told me. “It’s just that the celebrities they (young people) follow don’t ride fixies, so they’re interested in other stuff.”
Translator: David Ball; editors: Cai Yineng and Kilian O’Donnell; portrait artist: Wang Zhenhao.
(Header image: A young man does a trick on a fixie in Jinhua, Zhejiang province, 2012. Tao Yuqi/IC)