Back-to-basics biking movement takes hold in cities
'Fixie' riders, seeking adventure, dart through streets with bravura and no brakes.
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Chicago recently took steps to bolster the rights of cyclists – a move not spawned by no-brake enthusiasts, but one they'll benefit from. 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.Skip to next paragraph
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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.
Nor do they 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 fixed-gear 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.
The New York version will be painted taxi-cab yellow and have short handlebars to squeeze through Fifth Avenue traffic. The Seattle one will have mudguards and a coffee-cup holder. The London bike will feature a Tube motif that echoes the subway system. The Langster Chicago model is already being called the "gangster."
Fixie bikes will likely never constitute a mass market. For one thing, they're difficult to ride. For another, many are illegal. US import law and many municipal codes require mechanical braking devices on bikes. While manufacturers' models have them, riders usually take the mechanisms off. 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, fish tails, 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," admits Woodroof.
Sergio Brands, an Atlanta waiter, quickly discovered the perils of the new sport. He stopped by No Brakes to pick up a $950 red-and-black bike with saucer-thin tires that he'd been scouting for some time. But his foot got caught in the toe-clip and he fell on his first test ride. He paused to rethink the purchase.
Stewart Harding, a pizzamaker and part-time bike mechanic, knows fixie riding isn't for the faint of foot. "I don't think we're the smartest group of bikers out there necessarily," admits Mr. Harding, who recently removed the brakes from his two-wheeler. "If you don't know what you're doing, this is a million times more dangerous than a regular bike."
Still, Atlanta resident Chris Sturdivant, echoing past debates over motorcycle helmets and other safety devices, believes riders themselves should decide what accessories bikes have. And he is aware of the dangers. An airport van recently swerved into his bike on a downtown street. He sued the company, and a judge ordered the firm to pay for the damage – a new tire. "This is the best way to get around," says Mr. Sturdivant, undeterred by his mishap. "You have an unbelievable amount of power on these bikes. You just push down on the pedal and you're gone."