The pu­rity of bi­cy­cling with­out brakes

The Washington Times Weekly - - Page Two - By Pa­trik Jon­s­son

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.

Chris­tian Science Mon­i­tor

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.

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