The Fixie GuruWithout gears or brakes, the fixie dominates the streets of American cities. If only there was a shop as cool as builder Sylvestre Calin’s in Montreal.
The story of a bike that Brakeless didn’t make helps us better understand what Brakeless is all about. Montreal in Canada has, like many cities around the world, a bike-sharing system consisting of sturdy, unremarkable three-speed donkeys that work well enough but are style-free. They call them Bixi bikes.
Sylvestre Calin once photographed a Bixi in front of his shop, then pimped it on his computer back home using Photoshop until it looked snazzy—really snazzy—and put it on his homepage to wait and see what would happen. It didn’t take long for the cops to show up: Could he kindly return the Bixi? (Even if he had made it look a lot snazzier and increased its value.) It took him some time to convince the police that the bike in question was made of nothing but pixels, though he was more than capable of creating such a bike.
Against a backdrop of professionally cool cities such as New York, Tokyo or Berlin, Montreal has taken root as the insider’s tip for definitive fixies and single-speed bikes. This is all thanks to Sylvestre Calin and Brakeless.
Born near the Black Sea coast in Romania, Calin left the country when he was 18. For three years he traveled across Europe, which inevitably meant coming into contact with bikes. He ended up in France but was refused a residence permit, so he applied for residency in Australia, the U.S. and Canada. One of them was bound to take him in, he hoped. And Canada it was.
Eventually, Calin found himself on Montreal’s Avenue du Parc, a thoroughfare of three-story buildings where only the most rudimentary of maintenance had been carried out for decades, and opened up a barbershop, as his father had done before him back in Romania. Bikes gradually found their way into the shop too and now coexist peacefully alongside the barber’s chair.
To find Brakeless, just keep an eye out for the bikes on the sidewalk. While the other bikes you’ll see propped up against the racks are all inconsequential no- names, Calin’s black fixie is artfully locked to the tree in front of the shop: track frames with massive tubing, HED aerodynamic wheels, Syntace carbon aerodynamic handlebars, clip pedals and not much more. It’s quick, even when it’s standing still.
The father of three takes an unconventional approach to what he does. Whereas elsewhere creativity might wither as it comes up against engineering requirements to produce mostly conformist work, Calin will, if in doubt, leave a bike incomplete for a couple of weeks until he is sure of how to finish it. He remembers each and every one of the bikes that have come out of his workshop. Their owners even more so.
The work only begins on the wheels, crankset, gear ratio, handlebars and stem once Calin has understood his client “as a cyclist, but also a little as a person.”
Calin’s shop Brakeless, has been around since 2007. A multipurpose spot that deals in more than just fixed-gear bikes: They’ll work on your motorbike and beard, too. Also sells spare parts and clothing—look for Idlehand on Facebook—and serves as a hub for the local scene.
At that point, it is not at all rare for him to reject certain ideas out of hand. And time and again clients have discovered a brake—for their own safety—that they hadn’t agreed on in advance when they’ve come to pick up their new bike.
Contact with the police—a matter of interest for fixie-riders the world over—is also amicable, as you might expect in the French-Canadian Montreal. However much Calin is annoyed by how petty the local cops can be, he somehow can’t quite help feeling sorry for them either.
“In New York they get to chase real criminals,” he says. “Here they’re heroes if they fine a cyclist with no brakes.”
As for some buying advice, Calin warns against following anyone’s example. Don’t buy yourself a fixie just because you want to join the cool-kids tribe. Buy yourself a fixie because you want a fixie. Ideally, you’ll realize this is the only bike you need.
He leads the perfect monogamous biking life himself. When the city gets too much for him, he packs his rucksack, puts it on his back and disappears off into the wilderness on his fixie. Freedom, if not freewheeling.