Fighting gravity, and the ordinary, at the Red Bull Bay Climb

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Back in September 2018, freelance journalist James Stout headed up to San Francisco to take part in the second edition of the Red Bull Bay Climb, a hill-climb race that pitted riders against the brutal Potrero Hill. At just 0.32 miles (515 metres), it’s not the longest climb around, but with an average gradient of 15% and pitches above 21% it’s a hell of a challenge.

Stout wasn’t just there to participate — he was there to experience the event as a whole; to understand what events like this mean to participants and the role they play in bringing cyclists together. What Stout found was an event that transcended the normal boundaries between road, fixed-gear and other flavours of cycling; an event that welcomed cyclists of all kinds, bringing the tribes together in a most entertaining and satisfying way.

“Call my Mom. No, call Felipe. Call Felipe then call my Mom”. There’s a kid lying on the hot tarmac in Portero Hill, one of San Francisco’s more bougie residential areas just east of the Mission district. People are gathered around him while on the balconies of the nearby million-dollar homes, small crowds have gathered to look on. A cellphone comes out of a messenger bag, it’s an iPhone but back from before they used the small connectors.

The kid’s crying now, profusely, but he takes a breath and the call connects. It’s Felipe in Los Angeles. The kid, who goes by Pizza, shouts into the phone “Yo gano! Yo gano Felipe! Yo gano”. The he descends into a fit of coughing before pronouncing “I’m so happy bro, I’m just so fucking happy” to the assembled crowd. It might not be the Tour de France, or even the Tour of California, but winning the fixed gear Red Bull Bay Climb is a big deal for the 17-year-old from LA.

“Pizza is just a street name, I like it when people call me Enrique” he told me on a call a few days later. Enrique Martinez is good at cycling, really good in fact. I asked him how long he had been riding and he told me it was a long time, almost two years. Two years is a long time when you’re in high school, but it takes most cyclists a lot longer to feel at home in a race, let alone win one against a bunch stuffed with Cat-1 and Ex-pro racers. Especially when the race is straight uphill.

But the nice thing about this race, is that it tries to make riders feel at home, something that seems a relative rarity in cycling.

Enrique Martinez celebrates after winning the Men’s Fixed Gear win at the 2018 Red Bull Bay Climb.

All day riders had been chasing each other up and down De Haro street, one of those roads so steep they put down concrete so the road doesn’t flow downhill on warm days. It’s on that hot concrete that Enrique is holding court as he receives congratulations, first from a dude with a mullet, gauges, jorts and no fucks left to give about what you think of his tattoos, then from a cat 1 roadie in a skinsuit, on a carbon bike.

Someone pours water on his head and his buddy helps him up. He falls over. But from his seat on the ground Enrique has spotted a couple of microphones, and he’s making sure to list off his friends who gave him his bike, shoes, travel money and a nonstop cascade of high fives. After all, when you’ve won, the party comes to you, especially when you can’t stand up.

Phil Gaimon hadn’t won. Gaimon entered the road event, used his lightweight Cannondale, an aero skinsuit and a powermeter. Next to him at the start were junior road racers trying to look cool in socks that almost came up to their knees, some guys in worn out lycra, and one kid in a patterned shirt. The shirt had bicycles printed on it. It was looking a little worn — it was his bike riding shirt.

The course was steep, topping out at 21%. Riders on geared bikes were forced out of the saddle, riders on fixed gear bikes were forced into the crowd and then back onto the road, looking at the concrete in front of them and the dollar bills that were being waved in their faces. Some of them ran, some of them fell over, and at least one of them leaned back far enough to pull a wheelie for his cheering buddies.

Gaimon rode up the climb at an impressive speed, and people cheered, but no louder than they did for the kid with his keys clipped to his belt with a carabiner that probably weighed as much as Gaimon’s frame.

Payson Mcelveen and Phil Gaimon duke it out.

There’s something here that you don’t see at a road event and it’s not just the flaunting of the US’s ridiculous public drinking laws. There’s a real sense of community at fixie races.

Evie Hound, who won the women’s fixed gear event, explained to me that, while the racing is “just as intense and serious”, there’s an atmosphere that “feels more like a party for both the spectators and the racers. Most people can just sit around together and hang out at a track or a fixed race”. Gaimon agreed, “It was half-race, half party. Since there was a lot of time between heats, the competitors were forced to sit around and socialize while they cheered on the other heats.”

There’s a break in the racing for around 20 minutes after the qualifying rounds, presumably to facilitate the hanging out. Soon the only flat spot in the course is filled with competitors and spectators riding freestyle. The riders who are eliminated crack open beers; Enrique used the time before his final to put down two Red Bulls.

The crowd turns up the hill for a second as the smell changes from the nostalgic combination of sweat and weed to the unmistakable stench of burning rubber as a kid with no hair, wearing what was once a T-shirt and is now a collar held to a hem by some threads, rips past me skidding his back wheel with his shoe. There are cheers as he narrowly avoids what would’ve been the sort of fall that buys dentists those Pinarellos that you’ll see at your more conventional road cycling events.

Nobody gets too mad — after all, as race organizer James Grady says, “this event embodies the spirit of doing something incredibly stupid”.

One could make a case that riding a bike without brakes up a hill that you need to use your shoe on your tyre to descend safely is incredibly stupid, but the same could be said for riding in circles for an hour to try and win a box of Clif bars. Fixed gear racing has always been something of a subculture in the cycling scene but it’s not really about the cycling scene at all.

Subcultures are movements of resistance, they’re articulated against dominant cultures and they express their disaffection with different forms of dress, language, music, drugs and even bicycles. But subcultures aren’t about different forms of dress — dressing differently is just a way of lifting a finger at conformity without tiring out your hand.

The kids with the cutoff handlebars don’t care what roadies think of them — they might not even know roadies exist, they just want to mark themselves apart from the other inner-city culture that wears a suit, drives a Lexus and pays some kid on a bike to deliver packages across town. What’s cool about that is that everyone on a bike is welcome.

The Red Bull Bay Climb attracts all sorts, and all are welcome.

It seems like every kind of person on a bike is gathered around Enrique as he gingerly makes his way down the hill to the podium. If you took Anthropology 101 in college, you’ll be familiar with the concepts of deep play and participant observation. If you didn’t, allow me to recap briefly.

In order to understand what the value of something is to someone, we need to participate in that thing as that person does. It’s this technique that allowed American anthropologist Clifford Geertz to realize that when we play games, we risk more than winning or losing — we play with our status and position in society.

Geertz looked at a Balinese Cockfight, which has exactly the same implications for masculinity and male hierarchy as its English name implies, but the same could be said for roadies. When we race we do so to boost our own worth, in the eyes of ourselves and others. Racing in this way is a zero-sum game. You turn up, you race, you win, or you lose, you pack up and drive home and you go on the internet to whine or gloat. Sometimes the internet comes before the drive. The race is a contest, not an event.

Fixed gear racing doesn’t feel this way. There’s an identity that is strongly articulated here, but it isn’t one that needs to push someone down to rise up. Maybe that’s why the crowd here is notably more diverse than at a road race. Even Gaimon, far more accustomed to the cutthroat scene of WorldTour road racing, noted that there was “more racial diversity, more women, but plenty of the usual road bike dorks like me … not the scene I lived in when I was a racer.”

A wider range of people feel comfortable when the cutthroat competitiveness takes a back seat to hanging out, doing cool skids, and eventually figuring out who can get up the hill fastest.

I couldn’t get up the hill fastest. After summarily failing to beat Enrique in the earlier rounds, I was relegated to the sidelines. But, I didn’t feel like a failure. Someone gave me a warm beer, and I talked to a guy with dreadlocks about a piece of mine he’d seen and about a tiny chainring of his that I had seen. A friend who works in San Francisco stopped by, in a Louis Viton suit. We sat, talked about bikes and he went back to work. As a rule, you don’t say bad things about the way people look here, so we just sat on the curb and talked about bikes, designer suit, skinsuit and scruffy T-shirt. Just three guys who liked bikes.

Enrique likes bikes. He doesn’t have a road bike, but he told me he would be building one with the frame he won. He started riding bikes when he was in middle school, just to get to places that his mum couldn’t drive him to. When he went to high school he met some new friends, they rode bikes as well; they all rode fixies because they were cheap. The kids got together and started trying to go to local underground fixed crits. They didn’t last long.

Enrique wanted to do better, so he’d go out before school. His bike wasn’t great and one day he ended up searching on his phone for a bike shop when his crank was playing up. That’s how he met Felipe. Felipe saw a kid who liked riding bikes and couldn’t afford a new crank. So he gave the kid a crank and sent him on his way. He didn’t expect the kid to keep coming back, unloading the bikes from the shop onto the curb before school to help out. Enrique just liked checking out the bikes, and wanted to help, so he kept coming back.

Men’s Fixed Gear podium (L-R): Brian Wagner, Enrique Martinez, and Zach Morvant.

At some point, Enrique tried road racing. Again Felipe supported him — “he spent almost 100 dollars I think”. Enrique had a rusty old bike, and he couldn’t afford to pay those kind of entry fees, so he went back to fixie racing where, as Evie put it “I can pay for two races and double up in the men’s and women’s fields for the price of a single road crit”. It’s not that these guys don’t want to road race. Enrique’s smile when he told me that Felipe was going to build up the road frame that he won was as wide as the handlebars on the bikes we’d used to mash our way up De Haro’s 21% grade. It’s seems as if road racing doesn’t want them.

Enrique and some buddies have tried to do group rides, but people don’t like kids on fixed gear bikes. For one thing, we clearly assign a lot of self-worth to our ability to own really very expensive bikes. It probably hurts to see a kid riding away on a bike that may cost literally 10% of what a nice road bike does. But there’s also some social gatekeeping at play or, as Enrique puts it “I guess it’s just because they think they are OG and they are all that, kind of like they think they are pros already and they think I am hazard on the track bike. Most of the guys I see are kind of old too”.

A 17-year-old kid from one part of LA is unlikely to rub shoulders with a 50-year-old upper middle class man from an entirely different world in the same city in any other leisure activity either. But that’s what is great about bikes. Cycling has always been something that people do to get places. This used to be true socially as well as geographically.

Bikes have been a way for working class people to ride to a better life since the first bicycle races offered cash prizes and entirely too much suffering for the already well off middle class of the early 20th century. At some point though, at least in the Western world, cycling became a way to go a long way and also precisely nowhere. Bikes got more expensive and races less ridiculous until a lot of people who looked the same began to spend their weekends making one-kilometre circles, and the people who didn’t fit in didn’t come back.

When Evie first started racing, she nearly didn’t come back. As a trans woman she was often mis-gendered and that didn’t make her feel great about the sport. In the fixed gear community she found support from She Spoke racing and enjoyed the social side of racing as much as her success on the bike. The atmosphere at fixed gear races “just isn’t something I see as much from roadies”.

The event isn’t about diversity, but it isn’t about winning either; it’s about having fun and riding bikes and that makes diversity happen. The fixed gear scene grew out of alleycats and bike messenger meetups. Sure, someone wins, but the social element is as important as the competitive event.

Alleycats kept the messenger community connected, they made sure people looked out for each other in what can be a dangerous and isolating job. Races are interspersed with skid contests, kids pulling wheelies, warm beers from a guy you’ve never met and copious amounts of discussion on gear ratios. Sure, there’s money from Red Bull to close the streets now, and even an inflatable finish gantry, but people remain somewhat invested in the “scene” in curating and cultivating an atmosphere that is as welcoming as it is weird for the average road rider.

Subcultures define themselves through clothing, music, drugs and aesthetics and the fixie scene has a clear style in all of these things. But subcultures aren’t about style, they’re about resistance to dominant culture and they are defanged as means of resistance when a dominant culture turns them into styles — merely ways of looking. Road cycling might think of itself as a subculture as well, but there isn’t the same “fuck you” inclusivity that I experienced once I recovered from my hypoxic daze in San Francisco.

Road cycling will turn on a dime if you offer it a dollar; fixie racing has harder edges, sharper points and despite that, a much more inclusive appeal. There has been growth sure, but not that much change. The really radical thing that I see at fixie races, even if I sometimes have to squint through the smoke, is that when I hop on my bike to warm up nobody is scowling at me from beneath an E-Z UP shelter. People are, in fact, incredibly nice. And that’s something road racing could do with appropriating if it wants to remain relevant.

The podium finishers across all grades.

At the start line, the guy next to me turned to look at me and said, nervously “Hey man, you used to be a roadie right? Any advice?” and I told him something about not going out too hard. Then he set off like a bat out of hell and left my washed-up carcass in the dust. But like I said, Enrique is talented. I rode up that steep section as well, yanking on the comically wide bars of my fixed-gear bar bike as I gulped the pungent marijuana-laced clouds deep into my lungs, trying to work out what on earth had possessed me to use such a big chainring.

But it wasn’t just the contact high that stopped me feeling as sad as I normally do when I don’t do well in cycling — I really felt like I had a great day out at the bay climb. So much so that I’ve been riding my fixed gear more, and with different people. I can’t recommend it enough. I have made new friends and reconnected with old ones, I have discovered that people read this site and live a mile away from me and I have never met them. I have also got much better at skids.

Enrique has a road bike now, and who knows where it will take him. He’ll probably find his way to the top of the podium a few more times, but I really hope he never stops remembering what it feels like to be the kid who wasn’t welcome on the bunch ride. Because those are exactly the people we need in road cycling.

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About the author

James Stout is a freelance journalist and a lecturer in Modern History at UC San Diego. He is currently working on a book about anti-fascism in the 1936 Popular Olympics. Most of the time, he can be found riding around San Diego or working with his non-profit colleagues in Southern Arizona.

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