Riding Cool?: fixed-gear bikes without brakes
Jonathan Smalley, an employee at City Bicycle Works, said he has been stopped three times within the past five months for riding his fixed-gear bike without brakes, but has managed to evade a citation each time by playing the "ignorance card."
Of the people in Sacramento who ride brakeless, knowing that it’s illegal, Smalley suggests some do it as a "f— the cops" gesture, while others do it because "they know what they are doing." Smalley said he rides without brakes because he, too, "knows what he is doing."
"It’s a purely cosmetic thing for me," he said. "I like the minimal look."
Wayne Sigmund, service manager at Mikes Bikes, said that by subtracting brakes from fixed gears — bikes where you are already constantly pedaling — ups the risk factor, and coolness factor in the younger community, of the bike.
"It can help you reach a different level of riding, it elevates the danger of the bike … you have to be more aware, otherwise you put yourself in a lot of trouble very quickly," Sigmund said.
Sgt. David Valdez of the central bike unit of the Sacramento Police Department said that although fixed-gear bikes are becoming a trend, it is against the law in California to ride without a brake.Valdez explained that riding without a brake system is considered dangerous by the police department, even if brakeless, fixed-gear riders use alternate stopping techniques such as side-skidding or pedaling backward.
"I’m sure that there are people that are talented on them, but ultimately [riding without brakes] is not safe" he said.
He added that with an increase in the number of people riding without brakes there will likely be an increase in the number of accidents, which has prompted police to "move away from education and closer to enforcement." He said that a failure to comply with the biking regulation could result in either a fix-it ticket or a violation citation, based on the officer’s discretion.
Smalley said although he recognizes the potential danger of riding without brakes, he said he avoids dangerous situations using foresight, making sure to prepare for stops well in advance.
"I just don’t put myself in a situation where I need brakes," Smalley said.
Sigmund said he has noticed a large increase in the number of people who get cited for not having bike brakes. "They come in looking for brakes and wanting to get their fix-it ticket squared away," he said.
"Honestly I think it’s just cops that just have nothing better to do, so they look for people with bikes that don’t have brakes and then they pull them over and give them a ticket," said Jason Martel, a mechanic at Bicycle Chef.
Martel said one his friends got a ticket three or four months ago, and another friend got a ticket just the other week.
When asked what the advantage is to riding a fixed gear without brakes, he said, "Nothing, really, it’s actually a lot less safe." Like Smalley, he said that brakeless bikes offer a cleaner look. "I think [it] is why people like fixed-gears so much…When you have a regular road bike there’s all these gears, all these cables, all these extra things on there to add weight to the bike," he added.
Martel said he has also been riding a brakeless fixed-gear for fours years and has never gotten a ticket. "I’ve just learned how to be able to control the bike without needing a brake. I definitely have had my accidents in the past. You have a whole different level of awareness to cars and stuff like that because you have to be more cautious knowing that you can’t stop as fast as you would with a brake.
"It’s good that people are getting on bikes, in my opinion, even if it’s starting to become the trendy thing to do…It’s still better than driving a car," Martel said.