Thursday, September 4, 2008

Gimme A Brake

By Megan Twohey Chicago Tribune

No brakes, and they like it
Brakeless bikes are the latest in-thing for the cycling set. But amateur riders pose a hazard to others, observers say.

It was dusk in Wicker Park, and cyclists wearing fitted jeans, caps and hooded sweat shirts were gathering for a nighttime ride.

Different frames and colors flashed in the streetlight—a Cinelli Vigorelli, sleek and white; a red Motobecane with purple grips.

But in a controversial and increasingly popular trend, not one of the bicycles had brakes. As the cyclists glided onto the streets on their fixed-gear bikes, the only way for them to slow down was to force the rear wheels into a skid.

State law prohibits riding brakeless bikes on the streets, but that hasn't stopped a growing number of young people from hitting the road with bicycles they see as pure and stripped-down.

While some cyclists say experienced riders are capable of safely handling these bikes, others insist no one should ride one on a public street. Critics say the bikes create potentially dangerous conditions at a time when cycling is on the rise.

"There's no way that someone could go out on the streets and ride safely without brakes," said Aram Bayzaee of Northbrook, who races a brakeless fixed-gear bike on an outdoor velodrome track.

Critics are particularly contemptuous of wannabe bike messengers they say are wiping out, flying through red lights and crashing into people.

"They're a public safety hazard," said Andrew Floyd, 31, of Chicago, a longtime cyclist who has ridden a fixed-gear bike without brakes on the street for years.

The Chicagoland Bicycle Federation says fixed-gear riders comprise an extremely small percentage of the cycling demographic. But Eric Pitts, owner of Smart Bike Parts in Avondale, said he thinks people would be surprised by their growing numbers.

"I'd say 1 out of 20 bikes in Chicago today is fixed-gear with no brakes," Pitts said. "The trend is exploding."

Constant motion
With a fixed-gear bike, the gear connecting the rear wheel and pedals is threaded onto the hub and secured with a lock ring. Whenever the rear wheel is turning, the pedals move in the same direction, and vice versa.

Stopping one of these bikes requires both skill and strength. When riding on the street, cyclists lift the back wheel off the ground by locking their legs, then bring it back down, forcing it to hop or skid.

Riders say their fixed-gear bicycles are easy to maintain and make for a Zenlike riding experience because all the control comes from the legs and mental focus is crucial.

With the legs continuously in motion, it's easier to shed weight and beef up the calves, cyclists say. But perhaps most important are the aesthetics—the streamlined bikes look sleek and cool.

Josh Magnus, 27, a longtime cyclist, swore he would never ride a fixed-gear bike without brakes. The paralegal from Chicago thought they were simply too dangerous.

Then, 2 1/2 years ago, he climbed on one at the urging of a friend.

"At first I said, 'Are you out of your mind?' " Magnus recalled. "But after five minutes of riding, I was hooked. I'll never ride another bike again."

Some fixed-gear bikes, called track bikes, are designed for use on velodromes—banked racing tracks—and do not have a hand brake. Other types come with brakes, which can be removed and often are. Prices range from $300 to thousands of dollars.

Bike messengers started riding fixed-gear bikes without brakes in the 1990s, first in New York and then in other cities. In the last several years, the urban hipster set has followed, with some stripping down old free-wheel bikes, like 10-speeds, and converting them to fixed gear.

But many buy new models, and manufacturers are scrambling to meet demand. California-based Specialized launched two fixed-gear Langster models in 2003 and now offers six, including the Langster Chicago decorated with an image of the city skyline. Five of the models come equipped with brakes, which the company recognizes don't always stay on.

d longtime velodrome racer for whom the Langster is named. "Some people take the brakes off to make it a more pure form of cycling."

Skateboarders and fans of BMX bikes are among those who have been drawn to the brakeless trend, said Alex Gonzalez, 20, who grew up in Chicago and recently moved back from Miami.

"Before I left, a lot of people were skating, but now everyone is riding fixed-gear," said Gonzalez, who is hooked on his Cinelli Supercorsa Pista. "It's like the new subculture. It's as dangerous as skating. You can cut through cars, go through red lights, do tricks."

Fuzzy math
Chicago does not track how many cycling accidents involve brakeless bikes. Reflecting the growing number of bicycles on the streets, total bike accidents in Chicago went from 1,247 in 2004 to 1,390 in 2006, the most recent data available, the Chicagoland Bicycle Federation said.

Bike federation officials stress there are more serious threats to public safety than brakeless bikes, such as riding at night without lights. They argue the hazard is reckless riding—not the type of bike.

Crash—when not if
But cyclists complain that novices on brakeless bikes are especially dangerous. Even experienced riders of the bikes say they are destined to crash.

"It's not a matter of if you wipe out, it's when," Magnus said.

Ben Van Couvering, 26, of Chicago races a track bike on a velodrome in Northbrook and experimented on the streets with a fixed-gear bike without brakes. He said he climbed off for good after several months.

Most experienced cyclists try to reduce the already-sizable dangers by installing at least one brake on such bikes, he said.

"In the end," he said, "brakeless fixed-gear bikes belong on the velodrome and nowhere else."

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