A bike trend typical of urban centers is booming among kids in Watsonville, a blue-collar, agriculture-based, nearly rural town.
Fix-gear bikes have become the ride of choice for Watsonville teenagers, young adults and even one 45-year-old cop who needed to exercise more.
Popularity of the bikes spiked years ago in cities like San Francisco, Portland and Seattle where bike messengers used them to zip from client to client. Hipsters jumped on the trend, creating a subculture of cyclists who love the often-brakeless, brightly painted, fix-gear bikes.
But the fixie fad has only hit Watsonville within the past year when the sole bike shop in town started stocking a more affordable fixie and offered a lay-away plan. Now it's hard to keep the bikes in the store.
"I was not aware of it any place little like Watsonville," owner Hugh Forrest said of the trend, as a pack of middle school-aged boys hung out in his store and ogled each others bikes. "I don't know what these guys were doing two years ago, but it wasn't riding bikes."
Watsonville police Sgt. Henry Robles, who rides his fixie to work, estimated there are 20 to 40 people riding the style of bike in Watsonville. At age 45, he's probably the oldest one.
Robles has capitialized on the trend. He and his girlfriend launched West Coast Fixies this year, an apparel line for fix-gear enthusiats. Watsonville Cyclery carries their shirts, hats and stickers.
Forrest said most of his customers are boys, but a few girls have come in for fix-gear bikes, which run $340-$370 in his shop. He wasn't sure how many he's sold, but said "it sure seems like a lot."
Luis Ramos, 14, and 13-year-old Alex Anaya, spent part of Thursday afternoon hanging out in the bike shop with friends checking out parts for their bikes.
Alex said that, until they got fixies a few months ago, "we didn't even like bikes."
The Watsonville teens said it wasn't hard to learn how to ride fixies and Luis said he prefers a fixie over a BMX or mountain bike.
"You go faster to go places," Luis said.
The benefits are easy to see. Kids who ride bikes are more fit, a plus in .
Also, the highly personalized bikes also seem to rise above gang culture, Forrest said. Red and blue—normally claimed by the Norteños and Sureño gangs responsible for much of the crime and violence in the city—are allowable colors on a fixie in Watsonville.
Robles regularly rides his San Diego Charger-themed fixed-gear bike to work at the Watsonville Police Department. The blue, white and gold fixie was Robles' saving grace after a medical issue last winter left him needing exercise but uninspired to pick up running again.
The cop had been commuting around town on a mountain bike when he saw kids riding sharp-looking, fast fixies. He had to have one.
Robles, who picked up his bike at Watsonville Cyclery, wears a helmet. He also got the bike equipped with hand brakes. It's been important to set an example because the interest in fixies is not without its problems—namely safety.
"It was really obvious really quick that these kids recognized that I was a police officer," Robles said, explaining that kids aren't receptive to adding brakes to their bikes and are reluctant to wear helmets. "Going back to my responsible role, I have brakes."
These issues aren't Watsonville-specific, but are something police have just begun to address because the fixie trend is so new to the town.
"The popularity of the riding has caused some concerns in our community," Robles said.
Earlier this month, a Watsonville teenager was badly injured when he lost control of his fixed-gear bike and crashed into a car near Main Street and Green Valley Road. He was not wearing a helmet and his bike didn't have brakes.
Robles said he didn't know the teen, but recognized his bike.
Cyclists younger than 18 must wear a helmet and California Vehicle Code states all bikes must have brakes. That rule has been met with controversy in other areas. Fixie riders have argued that their legs are the brakes. They can counter-balance the rotation of the cranks by leaning forward and creating a rear skid.
Watsonville police traffic officer Ely Uretsky said also have been issues with kids riding bikes on sidewalks—again, against the law—and the packs of riders causing traffic disruptions.
This shaky YouTube video shows a pack of teens riding fixies through town without helmets. When they see a police officer, they rider faster and try to not be the last person in the group, hoping that will allow them to avoid a ticket.
Uretsky sent out a memo to Watsonville police officers urging them to educate kids about the rules.
Robles has plans to do as much, hopefully through a bike safety rodeo this fall. In the mean time, he's encouraging youth to keep riding. He'll take a group of boys to Hellyer County Park Velodrome in San Jose on Friday night to watch the professional bike races.
The experience can be like going to your first professional football or baseball game, Robles said. Forrest, at the bike shop, agreed.
"When you walk in there and it's under the lights on the banked track ... it's really exciting," Forrest said.