Venice may conjure visions of bronzed bodies riding beach cruisers, but an underground community of fixed-gear bike enthusiasts has sprung to life -- and its members are tricking out their bikes in multicolored gear, ripping through the streets with no brakes or helmets, doing wheelies on the Venice Boardwalk and playing bike polo at Mar Vista Park.
Their HQ is L.A. Brakeless, a grass-roots bike shop that captures the spirit of the classic skate shop. Out front, regulars, clad in bike caps and skate shoes, spend hours smoking cigarettes, performing BMX-style tricks and fixing their bikes with tools borrowed from inside. When you're into this scene, it becomes your life, says Larry Hammerness, who builds custom steel frames from his nearby home. "You have your girlfriend and you have your bike."
Riding fixed-gears -- essentially low-maintenance bikes that pedal forward and backward like a unicycle and have no brakes, initially made for speed racing around a velodrome track -- isn't a new phenomenon, as Eastsiders are quick to attest. But it is an emerging scene in Venice. "When we opened the shop about a year and a half ago, we saw one or two track bikes ride by a week. Now we see five or six an hour," says LAB's manager, George Gregor.
Part of the appeal for fixed-gear cyclists is customizing their bikes, which become their calling cards. Bike parts used to come in black and silver. Now you'll find cranks, pedals, spokes, tires, handlebar grips, you name it, in every color of the rainbow -- and for more money too. "The trend today is to go for the 'Skittles bag,' " says Anna Martin, who owns LAB with her husband, David Cargill. In fact, LAB, which carries the buzz-worthy aerodynamic Deep V rims, looks like a candy shop bursting with bright pink, electric blue and lime green.
Meet some of the players in Venice's fixed-gear scene. You'll probably see them on Thursday's Bike to Work Day.
Efrem Yohannes, 24
What's your favorite part of your bike? Probably the lugging on the steer tube [part of the custom-built frame by Hammerness] for its really ornate, intricate designs. You're not going to see that design anywhere else.
How much did your frame cost? His frames start at $1,000.
In all, how much is your bike worth? $2,550.
What's bike polo all about? We play at Mar Vista Park on Thursday nights. It's hard to get a feel for it. You can be as aggressive or as graceful as you want, so it can accommodate a lot of different people.
Tim Hammer, 26
What's your favorite part of your bike? The Chris King headset. It's black-on-black, which is usually not the case. When my bike was stolen, the headset was one of the ways I was able to identify it to the police. I retrieved it in Hollywood, where someone was trying to sell it.
How much did you pay for the headset? $100.
How much have you spent on your bike? About $2,800.
Do you guys ever go out with Midnight Ridazz? They are more about the party and having a pillow fight on a bike.
Shannon Calderon, 26
What's your favorite part of your bike? My spoke cards. These are from all the different cities I've raced in. I got best overall at Venice Chill Ride's Thanksgiving race. We had to go to different stores and get food and race back. I came in third and got best female.
How much is your bike worth? It isn't really worth anything, probably $20. I've had this bike for three years and spent $500 total over the years.
You probably don't come across too many girls riding fixed gears. There are more girls now, but I like to think I can keep up with the boys.
Jaime Garcia, 16
What's your favorite part of your bike? The front wheel, because it reminds me of cotton candy.
How did you come up with the color combo? These three colors were my girlfriend's idea, so it's my favorite part of my bike, and she's my favorite part of my life. The tire is a CST Super HP and the rim is a Velocity Deep V, below.
How much is your bike worth? $900 to $1,000.
George Gregor, 26
What's your favorite part of your bike? The crank. It's a Sugino 75 Zen. It's really stiff and really light.
How much does this type of crank cost? $300
How much have you spent on this bike? $3,000
What's Venice's fixed-gear scene like? Skater kids, graffiti kids, trick-oriented riders. We do tricks at Venice Beach, but bikes aren't allowed on the Boardwalk.
Amanda Wolk, 28
What's your favorite part of your bike? The top tube, because it's a step-through mixte frame, so I can wear a dress to work.
How much is your bike worth? It's a beater. $100.
How'd you get into this scene? I started riding bikes because I got my license suspended. I have my license again, but I choose to ride everywhere. I pretty much live on my bike.
Why fixed gear? I started riding fixed because I have a unicycle and thought it would help me learn how to ride it, because it's the same principle.
It's hard not to notice the brake. I'm the only one who has a brake. ("State of mind!" chimes in someone hanging out in front of the store. "State of mind.")