Like Biking Fast? This 16
Jun 11, 2023
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Priority's brakeless new fixed-gear experiment isn't for everyone, but it's a blast on the track and even the street.
One interesting approach to innovation is taking a successful concept and pushing it to its logical extreme. For example, if an In-N-Out cheeseburger is tasty, why not make it a double-double (two patties and two slices of cheese)? And if this combo is more delicious, how about a 3x3 or even (gasp) a 4x4??
The latter might seem a bit over the top, but you never know until you try. Which brings us to the latest release from Priority Bicycles, the TriBeCa-based brand that continues experimenting with its signature element, the Gates CDX Carbon Drive Belt. In an unprecedented move, Priority has introduced a brakeless belt-driven fixed-gear track bike called the Joker. Its most prominent feature is a massive, 70-tooth front sprocket that looks, dare we say, comical.
In other words, if the brand’s Ace of Spades with a fixie setup is a double-double, this flight of fantasy is a 4x4 (or at the very least a double-double animal style). Naturally, we had to take a big ol’ bite, not only at a velodrome (its intended home) but on the streets of New York City. Here’s how the $1,299 speed demon fared.
Not gonna lie: the moment I heard about this bike, I was stoked. I love the Ace of Spades, which boasts amazing versatility thanks to a 55/20 gear ratio, but ride it enough and you will hit a point where you just can’t pedal any faster. That’s part of what made the Joker, with its monstrous 70/22 ratio, so enticing.
Adding to the appeal is the fact that Priority optimized it for the velodrome — and in fact now even sponsors a small racing team — which meant (literally) pulling out all the stops. This bike is super light (16 pounds without pedals, courtesy of a double-butted 6061 alloy frame paired with carbon wheels, fork and seatpost), unencumbered by such silly trappings as a chain, derailleur or, you know, brakes.
From the very first time I rode the Joker (at a press event on Governor's Island), I could feel that blissful lack of weight. Even once I got a unit to test and loaded it up — adding Shimano PD-M520L clipless pedals, a Peak Design Out Front phone mount, bottle cages (more on those later) and the least-intimidating bell ever — the weight topped out at just 17 pounds, 2 ounces. (Yes, I actually weighed it, using Park Tool's handy digital bike scale.)
The result is a bike that is not only super easy to lug up a flight of stairs but fun to crank up to speed and nimble enough to maneuver on city streets and steer through thorny traffic. The overall effect is quite liberating, as you feel as though nothing can really hold you down — or back.
It's worth noting, I have ridden bikes nearly as light. The Specialized Crux Expert dips under 18 pounds, which is super impressive for a competition-ready gravel bike. It also has a carbon frame and costs $6,200. The Joker can go even lower in weight in part because it's not made for off-road (spindly 25mm tires vs. 38mm ones, for example) but also because it's a fixie, meaning there are no shifters, disc brakes or 1x12 drivetrains weighing it down.
That simplicity allows it to carry a less expensive alloy frame and a price tag of $1,399 — high for a fixie but relatively low for something so light. For comparison, here are the prices and weights of three top bikes in our fixed-gear bikes buying guide: the All-City Big Block ($999) weighs 17-plus pounds, Priority's Ace of Spades ($899) weighs 22 pounds, and State's 4130 ($549.99) weighs 23 pounds, 7 ounces.
Of course, the commitment to light-itude is just one step Priority took toward making this bike race ready. The other major one was the design team's approach to the drivetrain. Up front, you have the aforementioned 70-tooth front sprocket. The back sprocket I have been testing has 22 teeth, though Priority sells gnarlier 20 and 19 tooth options. For a relatively green fixie rider like myself, however, this stock ratio is plenty potent.
To properly test it, I headed out to NYC's own warhorse of a racetrack, the Siegfried Stern Kissena Park Velodrome in Queens, which dates back to the 1960s and actually hosted Olympic trials during that time. I'd never been in the velo (or any velo) before, but thankfully a local racer talked me through the basics. (Shout out to Sebastian Bobé of d3stroycyclingclub!) Following his advice, I was able to fly through a bunch of semi-respectable laps but honestly, the bike did most of the work.
The gorgeous geometry, sturdy seat and slickly taped, sports-car-compact drop bars are aggressive but comfortable, the 700x25 Goodyear Eagle F1 tires are sleek and grippy and the frame is stiff enough to be swift on the straights and steady on the turns. Honestly, the fact I didn't make a total fool of myself out there is a testament to this bike's race-worthiness.
Where I came to be most impressed with the Joker, however, was on the New York City streets. While it's really not designed for them at all, if you stay alert and focused, you can have a blast. The reality is that once it gets going, the massive energy return generated by the gear ratio turns it into something of a wild stallion — it really, really doesn't want to stop.
The effect is what happens with any fixie — a desire to ride in a fashion where you never have to, zigging and zagging, strategically skidding, dodging between cars and zipping through lights of all hues — but multiplied. In testing, I rode the Joker from the west side of Manhattan all around the lower half of the borough, up to Harlem and out to Queens and Brooklyn multiple times. With every ride, I got more confident, to the point where my feet barely ever touched the ground. That's a super fun and satisfying feeling.
Best of all, the Joker delivers on the promise I was most counting on: very rarely did feel like I couldn't pedal any faster than I was already going — and very often did I feel like I was going fast AF.
As breathless as I may sound in those first two sections, I wouldn't dare recommend this bike to most people. Yes, it's a total rush to ride, but on a practical level, it falls short in a few pretty significant ways. First off, there is nary a braze-on to be found, so if you'd like to actually mount something to the bike, such as a rack or bottle cages, you've got to get creative.
One great option: the wonderful B-Rad Everywhere Base from Wolf Tooth Components, which essentially enables you to strap braze-ons to your bike anywhere you need them. A pair of them allowed me to mount up a couple of bottles quite nicely, but at $24.95 a pop, you're suddenly shelling out to carry your water.
More notable, however, is the fact that this bike is so optimized for going around in a circle, it falls short when it comes to going up and down. It's not impossible to elevate on it — I've ridden over multiple bridges and around the hilly Central Park Loop — but anytime you climb you'll be standing up a lot and working overtime in places where people with gears will often be cruising.
The Joker can also be kind of tricky to ride downhill, as you must commit to arresting the motion of wheels that very much want to roll, which can become difficult, and even dangerous, when the pitch gets steep.
Top that off with the very basic fact that this bike has no brakes — or anywhere to put them — and it's hardly ideal for the everyday street rider or commuter. In fact, it's downright silly. But for those of us freaks who embrace the general weirdness of fixed gear and the specific weirdness of that obnoxiously sized front sprocket, the Joker is truly a gas.
If you'd like to dip your toe into the belt-driven fixed-gear world, we can't recommend the aforementioned Ace of Spades ($899) enough. A fantastically fast, fun and well-balanced bike that turned this writer into a fixie fiend. Note: You do need this $80 sprocket to convert it from a single speed to a fixed gear, but once you have that and some clipless pedals or pedal straps, you're good to go.
Another worthwhile fixed-gear option is State's 4130 ($549.99), the top pick in our fixed-gear guide. Featuring double-butted 4130 Chromoly steel and a streamlined silhouette, it's customizable, nicely priced and plenty fast.
Finally, there's the other bike we mentioned early on, the All-City Big Block ($999). It features a relatively relaxed geometry, making it more comfortable for everyday riding and long rides, plus a number of braze-ons for mounting bottles, racks and bags. Bonus: All-City's stock crankset is so good, many cyclists use it when building fixies from scratch.