Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Some thoughts on riding a fixed and using brakes, or not.

I have been riding fixie predominantly for a while now. Of course, there's an ongoing discussion about whether a fixie should or should not have a brake. I have run with and without a brake on the hack-together Motobecane. I can ride either way, with reasonable control without a brake.

I do, however, refute the argument that one can stop faster by skidding the back tire. This is patently false. Stopping with traction is considerably faster and more controllable than losing all traction. Anyone who has ever raced an automobile can affirm that locking up the tires isn't much of a way to control the car, and the same is true for a bicycle. In short, it's possible to ride the city streets without a brake, but it is not the safest way to go. A decently set up front brake will stop the bike way faster, and in a more controlled matter.

For the most part, I have considered that choice a matter of personal safety. Riding without a brake has always required more attentiveness, and more grace, than with, and that in and of itself might have made me safer.

A recent experience forced me to reconsider. I was shooting down a long hill of medium grade, part of my daily commute. For the most part, I muscle up to the top, then shoot down the other side at a rapid cadence, easily breaking 20 miles an hour. If the light was working out right at the bottom, I'd shoot through the intersection and ride this all the way into downtown.

Then, one day, a little girl ran out into the street. She might have known to look for cars, but maybe not for bikes. I shouted, and she stopped within inches of being hit in the head by my bars. At the speed I was going, she would have been seriously injured, or possibly even killed. Nothing I was able to do would have prevented this. I passed her within inches, still moving at something between 20-25 miles per hour.

Thinking about it, If I had had a brake, I still might have hit her, if she hadn't stopped in time, but at considerably slower speed, and maybe she would have gotten a broken arm, something that would have healed soon and left nothing more permanent than a lesson. At the uncontrolled pace I was moving, she could have been in a wheelchair for the rest of her life...a high cost for her mistake.

I will not ride the city streets without a brake any further, because that incident taught me that it was not just my neck being risked against SUVs, but the safety of innocent pedestrians. If I want respect from the cars, I also need to show respect for the pedestrians, and riding without a brake presents an unacceptable risk to others.

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