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LAist Interview: Sean Martin, Fixed Gear Rider

Sean Martin, Photo Courtesy of @6PR
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Imagine riding down the Sepulveda Pass on a bike with no brakes. We can't.

Maybe you can. If so, you're a lot like our interview subject for today, Sean Martin. A fixed gear bike rider and organizer of local riding events, Martin also co-writes the blog Takeover LA. Here, he talks to us about the fixed gear scene in Los Angeles, the thrill of riding brakeless, and what sets the LA bike world apart.

First of all, let's all get on the same page. What sets a fixed gear bike apart from a regular bike?
A normal bike has the ability to coast or changes gears. With a fixed gear, it’s one gear, and the rear wheel has a locked cog on it. If a bike is in motion, the pedals will be in motion, so you’re just pedaling the whole entire time, and it will ride forwards or backwards.

A big thing [with fixed gear], which I don’t recommend for first time riders, is to go brakeless. When you race on a velodrome, you’re not allowed to have brakes. That was adopted to the streets by bike messengers in New York, and riding a brakeless bike through city streets has become this worldwide phenomenon; whatever you do the bike is gonna do.

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I’m going to ask the obvious question here: if you have no brakes, how do you stop?
You learn through repetitive motion how to see line in front of you, how to traffic look for holes in traffic, and then you learn how to control the bike by skidding or speed checking to stop. Eventually it’s as good as brakes for stopping, but you add a little style to it.

Also, you become more aware of the city around you because your life is in your hands. You kind of develop a spider sense. Plus, you’re looking 360 degrees around all time, you are looking 100 yards ahead, you probably already have a route or line. So you also learn how to get out of the way.

How long does it take to learn how to ride a fixed gear bike?
It’s one of those things where you have to learn to crawl before you learn how to walk. Don’t go out your first day with no brakes - it can be very dangerous, especially going down hills. But in terms of learning how to do it, it depends on your abilities and how much work you put into it.

How did you get into fixed gear riding?
About ten years ago I came to LA and was looking into bike culture. Around then, the West Side Invite was happening, where west coast [bike] messengers from Canada and the U.S. play street races and things like that. It was the first time I ever saw fixed gear, and it intrigued me. I took that back to Seattle and another guy picked up what I was throwing down, and we made our own fixed gear road bikes. Eventually I wanted to move to LA, the city that showed me how to exist on a bike with no car, the city that had given me so much.

What do you do in LA?
I run a blog called Takeover LA with a good friend of mine. We throw events, cover events, do everything cycling in Los Angeles. The biggest event is the Lord of Griffith race. It’s fixed gear only, a race up and over and around Griffith park. Upwards of 100 people race. There are other smaller ones throughout year.

How big is the fixed gear scene in LA?
It’s the biggest in the world. Not only is the fixed gear world is insanely large here, there are people that race strictly on beladrome, little kids riding around the schoolyard, people doing tricks on Venice beach, and the midnight riders, with 100 -200 every night. Probably 60% - 70% of bikes in the Midnight Ridazz are fixed gears bikes.

There are thousands of riders in LA, and there’s nowhere like that in the world. In other places, the scenes are good, but there’s nothing like the multiple people out at night in LA.

Where are the best places to ride in LA?
Griffith Park, hands down. There are very few other cities in the U.S. that have something like Griffith Park so close. In Griffith, you can go up hills, down hills, through the park, you can bring out your dirt bike. Another of my favorite routes is my commute from downtown to Culver City - Venice Blvd. to Jefferson. It’s thick with traffic, so you want to keep up.

I notice that for some reason there’s a lot of people riding in Santa Monica, and downtown is pretty popular spot too.

How do people who are interested in the scene get started?
The best thing to do is ride with your friends. If you go on, there’s a large event calendar on the side of the site. Pick one that’s close to your neighborhood, and go ride with people. Introduce yourself, and go support your local bike shop. Riders come through all the time, so you’ll meet people. Orange 20 is a great hub to go to, so is the Bicycle Kitchen...and of course go on my blog.

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You were recently featured in the documentary, "To Live & Ride in LA." What did you think about the final product?
I’m really happy that it was made. New York has [fixed gear] films, and San Francisco has films, so it’s time for LA to shine. There are a lot of people out here like myself: I don’t have a driver’s license, I don’t have a car, and there’s a lot of people who exist wholly on their bikes. The movie captures that.

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