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.

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July 6, 2009 | 11:42 AM

Are all these tickets for brake-less bikes justified? Let’s look at statistics. How many bike accidents were reported in Sacramento this year? How many of these accidents were on brake-less bikes?

July 6, 2009 | 12:40 PM

How many bike articles are you gonna publish?

July 17, 2009 | 3:34 PM

I think the good question is how much can we learn from our accidents

July 6, 2009 | 1:50 PM

I’m not super bike-savvy, so a brakeless bike doesn’t make much sense to me! How do they come to a stop then?

July 8, 2009 | 9:28 AM

I am replying to my own comment, as a friend at the bike kitchen provided me with the answer. You must apply pressure to the pedals to create friction that will stop the tires from spinning. Sounds like it isn’t very safe and may cause damage to the bike.

Does anybody know what, if any, kind of damage that causes?

May 20, 2010 | 9:59 PM

i ride a brakeless track bike in sacramento. you stop by resisting pedaling, and or by locking up and skidding. no it does not damage the bike, you just go through tires every few months. I find it more fun to ride without a brake, as well as it is more comfortable to ride without a brake on my handlebars because there are more availible hand positions.

i really don’t see how this is any different than having a coaster brake. ef the po po!

July 6, 2009 | 2:18 PM

“When asked what the advantage is to riding a fixed gear without brakes, he said, “Nothing, really, it’s actually a lot less safe.” ”

Ok then! Ticket these fixie riding hipsters and let’s get on with it.
Every ticket means we are one dollar closer to balancing the budget!

May 20, 2010 | 10:00 PM

you are an idiot. plain and simple

July 6, 2009 | 4:41 PM

I ride a fixie with a front brake, which is easy to install and you still maintain the “clean” look. It has kept me safe for the past four years.

July 9, 2009 | 11:27 AM

Yeah, me too. Why open yourself to the cops and give them a reason to stop you? Sounds like a buzz kill and a sure-fire way to be late. Not to mention the time wasted clearing the ticket. There are stylish ways to incorporate a front brake into a fixie. Some of the minimalism is lost. But you can go fast, knowing that you can stop suddenly if you have to, and no one will notice. At any rate, if these fix-it tickets generate revenue and weed the gene pool then by all means: to hell with brakes.

July 7, 2009 | 8:50 AM

Many moons ago I rode a fixed gear–for training. It requires you to not only pay more attention to your surroundings and use more control, but builds incredible muscles due to the resistance of stopping/slowing. The risk is considerable, but once you have the knack it is not that different than a regular bike.

Now I ride a bike without a seat–THAT builds real power!

July 8, 2009 | 4:27 PM

I never use the brake, but it’s there. People, including cyclists, forget that bikes are vehicles. That is not good for the cause. I wonder, will cars with no headlights catch on? Yeah maybe some of my driving comrades will go for a sleek, stealth look, take out their headlights, and put black anodized plates over the holes. And then they can complain about the cops and act surprised when they get stopped, and we can all have a discussion about it. That would be sick and minimalist.

July 7, 2009 | 10:56 AM

Actually, I ride a bike without a condom. Thats really unsafe.

July 8, 2009 | 10:40 PM

Is there a demographic for those who refuse to use brakes? I am also unfamiliar with bike culture, and i am trying to visualize why and what type of people would not ride with a brake. It sounds like a purist, idealist kind of thing?

July 9, 2009 | 11:37 AM

There is an element of counter-culture mentality to the whole thing. It is youth-oriented probably because as we get older most of us do fewer stupid things, just part of the maturation process. But I digress, the fixed gear bike is modeled after a track bike. Track bikes have no brakes beause they are raced in a velodrome. Velodromes are oval steeply banked tracks with a smooth surface, absent of stop signs, cars and people.
Fixed gear bikes generally look cooler than the modern road bikes at least to me and my peers it seems. However the riders that are protecting their image by riding brakeless are hurting the rest of us by painting this uncooperative, defiant picture of cyclists. We are losing respect from drivers and pedestrians who don’t see any of this history or art theory. They see a bunch of kids breaking a simple straight-forward law. To them and even most cyclists this is just stupid. This loss of respect creates a dangerous environment on the road for everybody. A true purist would know the laws through and through and make an effort to respect them and fellow road cohabitants.

July 9, 2009 | 11:26 AM

How can one prepare for every stop they are going to make? What if a stop must be made that is entirely unplanned for? I mean what if you’re haulin’ ass with your next stop fully planned and some little kid runs out from behind a car. If that kid gets reamed by a fixed-gear rider, shame on us all.

May 20, 2010 | 10:03 PM

maybe this is just me, but even when i had a brake, and should have used it, it never crossed my mind. once. the last time i used my brake was the first day i got my conversion. that was a year ago…

December 8, 2010 | 4:34 PM

Mabey if more people were prepared for every stop in life we would have less usless people.

July 9, 2009 | 1:15 PM

It was honestly interesting to know the history behind fixed gears. As with anything, the fact that i have now have a base, albeit still small ha, of understanding about brakeless fixies considerably lessens the stigmatized stereotypes i mayyy have once indulged in. Thanks Mathieu!

July 9, 2009 | 1:16 PM

I’ve been a commute rider for about 15 years now, and a bicycle has been my primary and often sole source of transport for about a decade. I don’t get the fixie thing, but maybe that is because I have been hit 4 times during that period by car drivers, and honestly, it was my brakes that saved me from hospitalization twice. I understand the allure of “doing it different”, but the fixie hipsters need to realize that the CVC that protects the cyclist also applies to the cyclist. That means brakes.

July 10, 2009 | 8:29 AM

There will always be an element of “I have to be different” than the mainstream (easier) way of doing things. Gears and brakes are mainstream still and I persanally think you can do more and go farther with less effort with gears and this fits me and my bike everywhere lifestyle.

What bothers me with the fixed gear phenomena is the inability to care for the safety of others. Alot of new cyclists want to go in this direction despite the added dangers of the brakeless/fixed gear trend and their inability to actually control a fixed/brakeless bike.

We should I feel evolve into caring and being more not less responsible for our fellowman and the brakeless lead violates this evolution.

Plus I dont think it improves the car and bike relationshp on the street either.

Please people, put a brake on your cool bikes. You will be alot more cooler in the grand scheme of things.

July 17, 2009 | 3:31 PM

Well I hear two sides to the story. Cops saying “brakes on bikes” and fixed-gear bikers saying “no way f— cops”
It reminds me of the days that hot rods were created. Then there were Laws outlawing styles to be done to cars…
“I’m an extreme sports enthusiast and the laws of sociology play a hug role riding with traffic. Everyone falls off line once or twice and having brakes on your bike helps big time especially when shit hits the fan.”

Peace to the men in blue and those with fixy crew.

August 1, 2009 | 3:45 PM

What is the difference of a kid learning how to ride a bike with coaster breaks and a grown adult riding a fixie? Coster breaks require you to petal backwards. Fixies require you to stop petaling. sounds like the same thing to me. No changing gears; a 6 year old doesn’t have gears on their bike. Single speed bikes dont have gears. A bmx bike doesn’t have gears. A lot of bmx bikers don’t use breaks. isn’t there something else sac PD and other police departments can do beside this “stuff.”

May 20, 2010 | 10:08 PM

thank you. someone who understands.

October 18, 2009 | 12:48 PM

What about Unicycles? No handlebars! Or breaks. I say cite em up fast.

May 20, 2010 | 10:13 PM

I ride a brakeless track bike in sacramento. i have never been stopped or ticketed, for anything. i stop at red lights. i use arm signals while changing lanes. i can stop my bike when i need to, plain and simple. i don’t put myself in situations where im going 30mph 10 feet before an intersection. that would be dumb. i am not. and in those situations where something pops up 10 feet in front of you, if i’m able to aviod it, i do, and if not, i probably would have hit it anyway even with brakes.

anyway, as cfnmoney said as well, i really don’t see the difference between brakeless fixed gears and brakeless coaster brakes, they are both the same idea, fixed gears just require a bit more skill.

stop ticketing for this. this city has much bigger problems that it should be focusing on instead of discouraging a ‘cool way’ (for many people) of alternative transportation.

October 3, 2010 | 7:28 PM

These fixies are designed and intended as indoor racing bikes on an oval track. This would be the same as driving an indy car on the road, it isn’t designed for it and therefore isn’t safe. Find another way to try to look cool.

December 8, 2010 | 4:28 PM

Education is key here. People don’t understand that you can stop without brakes. Skateboards don’t have brakes…. Ride a fixed gear and maybe you will see. I like to ride with no brakes because the PD has never been able to return a stolen bike to me. Ever see someone try and steal a fixie? HA! I will never put a brake on my fixed gear. I have bikes with brakes and they serve their purpose. My fixed gear serves its purpose.

December 9, 2010 | 10:12 AM

Great points .Education is key.If you know how to ride a bike with a fixed gear well you don’t need a break , If you get a fixie just to be a style train jumper, it becomes obvious pretty quickly that it’s too much for your skill set. Cops can tell if you can’t ride the bike well and they definitely notice if you flaunt traffic laws. Serves you right if you get a ticket for no break if you draw their attention.
Funny story…When I was racing (years ago) we used fixies as trainers to build endurance and regular cadence . I used to ride my fixie to work at a little coffee house and leave it unlocked in the doorway. This jerk tried to steal it and was pitched off the bike in seconds…Hilarious!

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