The purity of bicycling without brakes
John “2Tone” Woodroof rides his bike the way an intrepid sea captain rides a storm: always moving, eyes fixed on the horizon. Zipping around Atlanta’s mean streets, Mr. Woodroof is the epitome of twowheeled bravura.
He and his comrades match a punk-rock aesthetic with a bikecourier twist — their essential fashion statement being scuffed Vans sneakers and leg-hugging jeans, practical chain-avoiding attire that gives them the profile of asphaltsailing buccaneers.
The most impressive piece of Mr. Woodroof’s outfit is his bicycle: a stripped-down race bike with no brakes and a single-speed, fixedgear rear hub that, in effect, turns man into a cog of the machine. This is biking at its most primal — no stopping, no coasting with the pedals stationary, no helmets. It’s a ride built on adrenaline and danger, like walking across a lava flow in flip-flops.
“All you need is air in the tires and a chain that works,” says Mr. Woodroof, who co-owns No Brakes, one of the few bike shops in the Southeast devoted solely to so-called “fixie” bikes. “It’s about simplicity.”
In some of the toughest traffic in the country — New York, Atlanta, Chicago, Los Angeles and Washington, D.C. — recreational bikers are stripping down their Schwinns and Cannondales and going back to the original setup that can be seen in pictures from the first Tour de France. Put another way, they’re riding bikes torn from the velodrome and plunked down in the urban jungle.
The fixed-gear movement is, in fact, influenced by track racing, especially a Japanese version called keirin. It also is rooted in a rebellion against the overaccessorized culture of spandex and 21-speed bikes of normal cycling. Its popularity can be seen in the number of clubs springing up, new shops catering to riders and manufacturers starting to build bikes long thought to be anachronisms.
Yet, as with any edgy movement, a backlash is brewing. Some motorists question the sanity — and legality — of no-brake biking, while even a few professional riders, though impressed with the devotees’ courage, worry about their astuteness.
Zane Freebairn of Salt Lake City has become a fixie fanatic. He has given up his car, and all he does now is ride his one-speed bike.
“It’s the most basic form of cycling you can ever do,” he says. “You can wear your tennis shoes and your walking clothes. There’s one gear, no brakes, no cables, not many moving parts, and nothing to break.”
Fixie riders are often sly and clubby, the very definition of cliquish. Most are young to middleaged white men. Many are as leery of authority as the punk-rock tunes they pump through their iPods.
“It’s been referred to as an old boys’ club, primarily by women,” says Jay Townley, a bike-industry analyst in Lyndon Station, Wis.
The movement is being driven by growing numbers of young people who are moving into downtown areas and searching for outlets for adventure. In the no-brake bikes, they find it. Enthusiasts wear bumps and bruises like badges of honor, and organized events often feature awards for “best crash.” They also may be changing the politics of biking. Fixie riders bring an energy and excitement to mainstream biking that could help open up roadways to more than just Saabs and sport utility vehicles.
“What I love about fixed gears is the culture — it has brought so much pride to bicycling,” says Sue Knaup, executive director of One Street, a bicycle advocacy group in Prescott, Ariz. The movement “embodies the quintessential goal of bicycle advocacy: to create streets where the most vulnerable users can flow out into them and not be run down.”
Chicago recently took steps to bolster the rights of cyclists — a move not spawned by no-brake enthusiasts, but one from which they’ll benefit. The city is increasing fines for motorists who cut off bikers.
It’s a sign Chicago is attempting to become “more like a European city, where the law protects the more vulnerable users, whether they’re fixie riders or farmers on tractors,” says Randy Neufeld of the Chicagoland Bicycle Federation, an advocacy group.
Yet critics, some of them bikers, believe fixie riders could turn public goodwill into animosity. More than cruisers or mountain bikers, fixie riders tend to challenge motorists on the roads.
They don’t engender much sympathy for riding around with no brakes.
Their public image wasn’t helped when a rider in Chicago was killed in February during an unsanctioned race called an “alley cat.” The rider’s bike had brakes, but the race included many fixedgear bikers. Riders canceled an alley-cat race scheduled for New York the following month.
As the movement grows, manufacturers are looking for ways to put more fixed-gear bikes on the road. Giant, a major bike supplier in Newbury Park, Calif., recently began offering street-ready models. Another manufacturer, Specialized, is developing bikes for release later this year with designs targeted at specific cities.
Fixie bikes likely will never constitute a mass market. For one thing, they’re difficult to ride. For another, many are illegal. U.S. import laws and many municipal codes require mechanical braking devices on bikes. Though manufacturers’ models have them, riders usually take off the mechanisms. So far, authorities have rarely enforced such codes, but more mishaps could bring a crackdown.
Riders, for their part, argue that their legs are the brakes and that maneuvers such as hop stops, fishtails and slides enable them to ride safely. A full emergency stop is executed by the rider leaning forward and pushing back on the pedal. “But you can’t stop instantly,” Mr. Woodroof says.
Bike-bag maker Matt Maddox says he has had some close calls on his custom “fixie” bike with no brakes and a single-speed, fixedgear rear hub.