The Fixie Federal IT Paradigm

i owned and rode my first fixed gear bike in the winter of 1985. i was a member of my high school cycling team back then in Fall River (pronounced fall reeva) MA. Winters in southeastern new england are a little harsh; there is a good mix of snow, freezing rain storms, no’-easters coming in off the atlantic which make for extra salt corrosion (see rusty jones). winters are so harsh that a local weather man became legendary for how he scaled the weather quality of the day (the capital weather gang has nothing on the Ghiorse).

let’s set the stage a little. back then, the 1984 olympics were fresh on our minds. the US cycling team reigned supreme with all kinds of road medals (Connie Carptenter, Rebecca Twigg, Alexi Grewal, Davis Phinney) and even more track medals (Nelson Vails, Steve Hegg, Rebecca Twigg). These new icons and their kodachrome winning arms in the air posters gave inspiration to an awkward local kid’s dream of cycling supremacy. juxtapose these new icons shiny skin suits on the velodrome of los angeles with the brutal winters and broken roads of fall reeva and you get some derivative innovation.

in order to be in any kind of shape by spring race season( in april), you had to have miles in your legs, lots of miles. sure everyone was under the same weather oppression but someone in the club team came up with the bright idea of saving our high end road bikes from the trauma of the salt and grime crap of new england winter roads. the idea was simple; go grab an old bike for pennies on the dollar, strip it down to its bare essentials (wheels, breaks, saddle), by taking off the freewheel, front and rear derailleur, and put on a fixed cog on the rear wheel. we even figured out back then that the left hand locking ring of an english threaded bottom bracket had the same exact threads of the rear hub cog, which meant for $1 you had a lock for your fixed gear. essentially this all amounted to a tiny investment to have a winter road bike that you could pummel. we convinced ourselves (still hold this logic to this day) that riding fixies all winter would train our legs to spin well.

the thing is, this devotion to trying to save our high end campy super component road bikes and their “quick release paint jobs” had an interesting affect on me. since i physically stripped down the bike myself, even removing individual ball bearings in the headset and hubs, and then built it back up myself including locking down the fixed cog with the english bottom bracket lock ring, i was intrinsically involved in the realization of how something simpler still might give you 90% or more of functionality for much lower cost.

you see, we were training 30 miles a day or more on high end road bikes most of the year, then racing on them on the weekends. while during the winter, for pennies on the dollar, a lot less weight, and something we could hose off to remove the sand/salt combinations from winter streets, we could still train 30 miles a day. we could get basically 99% of what we got with our super expensive master italian road machines for like 10% (or less) of the cost of the racing bike.

in hindsight, my first fixie has set the foundation for my career as a geographer and IT professional in federal government. i learned at an early age the metaphor for ensuring which functional requirements are truly required, how to balance cost for return, and in some obscure function how stripped down looks so much cooler than 100% function (yes a fixie just plain looks cooler than a road bike). what reinforced this idea the most is that while my early bike had 10 gears, i mostly used about only 4 (42×17, 42×15, 52×17, 52×15, ok and sometimes 52×13 but rare). that means i was still spending money for all 10 gears, even though i was very very rarely using 100% of the function i was paying for.

more importantly though, when switching to the fixie, i could spin up the effort in one gear (42×17) to span speeds of nearly all (lets say 85% or more) of the speed i traveled on my road bike. sure i would never race on the fixie, but i could ride nearly all distances, i could ride at the going speed of about 17-20 mph with reasonable comfort, i could burst to 30 mph for a town line sprint, and with bit of effort i could get over most hills in southeastern new england (i freely admit this would never work in mountains of the west). in short, i could do most everything i did with my road bike, which i dumped truck loads of my own money into, for far far less money.

the paradigm stands for federal IT. in theory i can implement software and technology which gives me 85%, 90%, 95% or sometimes more of the functionality with some solutions for perhaps 20%, 10% or even 5% or less of the cost (and it looks cooler). there are all kinds of examples (see state sequester map which illustrate this in my own field. why buy sharepoint, when i can use wordpress? why buy oracle, when i can use postgress? why buy arcmap when i can use qgis (there i said it)?

why do we consistently think we need millions of switches (21 gears), truckloads of functionality (i will never be using a 53×12), and even the highest of high end features, when we implement software solutions in federal IT? why do we think this when css, php/javascript and html (and maybe an external library or two) are free and universally used? why do we think this when we can create and deliver content via solutions like gh-pages branches for free? someone might argue that the web page requires all kinds of servers and security patches (arguments might be valid, but to be clear, they aren’t always – i don’t need to define a capital investment of $10 million to push web content 100% of the time). i can also argue that i can start a web page with gh-pages branch and push content w/o a an exorbitant licensed cms (eg sharepoint) for $0.

the fixie federal IT paradigm says we can strip investment to 1 cog that gives 85% of functions for 10% of its cost.

i love my fixie it has taught me all kinds of life lessons.

Michael Byrne is a geographer and non-user of capital letters. This post originally appeared on He’s also on Twitter.

Questions? Comments? Hit us up @codeforamerica.

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