Fixed-gear fanaticism rolls into the PHX

It's nearly midnight on a Saturday in late May, and 50 strong are lined up behind the waist-high brick wall surrounding the Marquee Theatre's parking lot in Tempe. To the few motorists rolling past the Mill Avenue venue, it could be a post-concert crowd gathering after a Vampire Weekend or Okkervil River gig: mostly 18- to 35-year-olds, tatted up and clad in jeans and funky Ts, or in shorts and plaid Western shirts.

They're cyclists, getting ready to race, and they're focused on dozens of bikes haphazardly scattered across a wide concrete median in the middle of Mill. Aching to go, they've been awaiting the word to start for minutes.

Suddenly, standing off to one side, a race organizer shouts the magic words.

"Ready, set . . . GO!"

In an instant, the mob springs up, over, and around the wall. Whistling and whooping, the riders frantically dash across Mill Avenue en masse. Scooping up their cycles, feet hit pedals and rubber hits the road as they swarm southward across the historic Mill Avenue Bridge.

Volunteers follow slowly in a car, making sure traffic doesn't sneak up behind them. Most of the riders are furiously pumping their legs on a straight shot down Mill. Racers are bound for the crowded social war zone of downtown Tempe on a weekend night, and beyond that, to the Time Out Lounge near Southern Avenue.

The event is called Kill Mill Vol. 2, a sprint race that's entirely different from bike battles broadcast on ESPN, or from sanctioned criterium or category races on Valley streets. These riders are clad in street clothes (except for one guy in spandex who looks like a stand-in for Lance Armstrong), and only about a quarter of the racers are wearing helmets.

The rewards awaiting the top finishers at the end of Kill Mill Vol. 2 are hilariously different from the ones in the Tour de France. For instance, the first to pass the old location of Domenic's Cycling at 10th Street and Mill takes home a bottle of Jim Beam. And participants have paid a $2 entry fee, with the winner nabbing the entire pot.

There's also a surprise awaiting the racers, who believe that the finish line is at Time Out Lounge. After hauling ass three miles to the bar, they'll have to pull a U-turn and double-back another two to the former bike shop in order to win.

Ben Ko, a longtime rider who suggested the gotcha, explains:

"So people are thinking that this is a flat-out, 100 percent burn from one point to another, but when you get there, it's like, 'No, you gotta go back,' as an endurance test," Ko says. "It just makes things a little more interesting."

Something else worth noting: The majority of racers ride fixed-gear bicycles — a single-speed, direct-drive specialty pedaling machine that can't coast and usually has no hand brakes. While there are other kinds of bikes in the race (such as a powder-blue tandem cycle driven by local BMX riders KC Badger and Billy Franevsky), the main rides tonight are "fixies."

The bikes have exploded in popularity in many cities across the nation over the past decade, and they've been getting more and more popular in the Valley since 2005. The wheeled weapon of choice for bike messengers and competitive cyclists for decades, fixies have caught on among a young and cool crowd.

With the popularity of fixies have come urban bike races like the Kill Mill point-to-point sprint and races called "alleycats," multi-checkpoint scavenger hunt-like competitions originally spawned by bike messengers in New York and San Francisco. Since the first alleycat was staged locally in August 2005, almost two dozen more have followed.

The races flirt with illegality: State laws require bikes to have brakes, and though it's legal to ride bicycles on city streets, of course, riders participating in the dangerous alleycats routinely violate various traffic laws.

Evidenced by some of the action at Kill Mill, there's a "balls" factor in flaunting the law — though race organizers insist that illegal behavior is never encouraged.

Shawn Brick, a 35-year-old employee at Bicycle Haüs in Scottsdale, says that while racing Kill Mill, he and a few friends riding with him not only maneuvered around the Saturday-night gridlock on Mill but burned through the stoplight at University Drive.

"I think there was only one light we hit that was an issue," Brick says. "After we got through University, there wasn't any major traffic."

The race ended without injuries or incidents, and only one citation was issued: Franevsky was ticketed by Tempe Police when the chain came off his and Badger's tandem bike, causing the coaster brake to fail. This resulted in their running the red light at Mill and Rio Salado Parkway. (He also got popped for not having a headlight.)

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Benjamin Leatherman is a staff writer at Phoenix New Times. He covers local nightlife, music, culture, geekery, and fringe pursuits.