If It's 100 Years Old, It Must Be Good!

Dispatches, July 1998


If It's 100 Years Old, It Must Be Good!

Cycling's slightly baffling (and very bumpy) infatuation with retro-chic
By Paul Andersen

'It's the purest sense of the bicycle there is," says Wes Williams as he runs his hands over an elegant, no-frills frame in his bike shop in Crested Butte, Colorado. "It's like sex: You can't really say what it's like until you do it. And once someone does, they say, 'Whoa, I gotta have one of these scorchers!'"

The name comes from the 1890s, the last time bikes like this were popular, when packs of reckless cyclists terrorized horses and pedestrians in New York City. Recently, though, modern-day metamorphs of these vintage machines — the bicycling equivalent of the Model T — have begun making intermittent appearances on both coasts, from Critical Mass bike rallies in San Francisco to the streets of Seattle and Manhattan, where they've become something of a hip fashion statement among bike messengers. The spiritual wellspring of their modest comeback, however, is probably Crested Butte, which has served as a premier mountain-bike testing ground since the first cruisers were retrofitted back in the midseventies.

The scorchers that Williams and others are building boast state-of-the-art components such as titanium handlebars, but the mechanics hark back to the 1890s — creating an impression not unlike seeing your grandmother in Air Jordans. There's no suspension, and no freewheel — only a single fixed gear. Which means that when a scorcher moves, so must the legs of its rider, whether the bike is brutishly clawing up a gravel slope or engaged in a mad, eggbeater careen down the side of a mountain. In either case, the sight provokes the same question: Why in God's name would anyone court such abuse?

Part of the answer resides in the challenge of simply staying on the damn things. "Daydream for a minute, and you'll get thrown right over the bars," says Scot Nicol of Ibis Bicycles, which came out with a very limited line of $1,000 scorchers a few years ago. Equally alluring may be the refreshingly minimalist alternative that scorchers offer to cycling's notorious fixation with high-tech design. "Derailleurs are for failures," says Williams. "One gear and no coasting make all men equal."

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