Thursday, August 03, 2006

when is a brake a brake?

Used to be that we only had to worry about whether or not we were cheap posers. Now, in addition to integrity issues, it appears we might be haunted by the spectre of the law. Or is it hunted? Since Winnipeg cops have a penchant for bandwagon jumping (witness their attempt to mimic NYC cops in their approach to Crticial Mass), let's hope they don't come across this news. Then again, maybe it's just pathetic self-rationalization that we suffer from.

Check out the latest obstacle for fixed-gear fans, courtesy of cars-r-coffins:
Illegal Fixies?
Rant: Dang! Out of Portland comes this crazy nooze...

Judge finds fault with fixies
Posted by Jonathan Maus on July 28th, 2006

Yesterday at the Multnomah County Courthouse the law came down against fixed gear bicycles.

On June 1, 2006 Portland bike messenger Ayla Holland was given a ticket for allegedly violating Oregon Revised Statute (ORS) 815.280(2)(a) which states,

A bicycle must be equipped with a brake that enables the operator to make the braked wheels skid on dry, level, clean pavement. strong enough to skid tire.

At issue was whether Holland’s fixed gear bicycle met this requirement. She and her lawyer Mark Ginsberg thought it did, but Officer Barnum of the Portland Police Bureau thought otherwise so they brought the matter in front of a traffic court Judge.

According to Officer Barnum, he stopped Holland at SW First and Jefferson and told her that she was in violation of the law and that she must put a front brake on her fixie to avoid a ticket. Holland disagreed. She and Ginsberg claim that Oregon statute does not clearly define what a brake is and that as long as a bicycle can perform a “skid on dry, level clean pavement” it does not need to have a separate, traditional braking device.

At the start of the trial it was clear that neither the Judge nor the Officer understood just what a fixed-gear bicycle was. To help them visualize, Ginsberg likened a fixie to a child’s Big Wheel. Once everyone was clear and the cop was finished with his opening testimony, Ginsberg began his cross-examination:

Ginsberg (to Officer Barnum):

“When you approached the rider did she stop?”

Officer Barnum:



“How’d she stop the bike?”

Officer Barnum:

“I don’t know.”


“The gear itself stopped the bike.”

Officer Barnum:

“But the gear is not a brake.”

From the outset, the judge seemed to agree with the cop and it was up to Ginsberg to change his mind. The trial began to hinge on the definition of brake. Ginsberg continued to ask questions of the cop.


“What is a brake?”

Officer Barnum:

“A lever, a caliper or a coaster brake hub.”


“Can you show the court where in the vehicle code a brake is defined as such?”

Officer Barnum:



“Did you at any time during the traffic stop ask my client if she could skid (thus meeting the performance requirement of the statute)?”

Officer Barnum:


At this point the judge seemed increasingly exasperated with Ginsberg’s direction and pointed out that “brake” was a commonly accepted term. To end this line of questioning, Ginsberg offered to demonstrate to the court that Holland could easily bring her fixed-gear bike to a skid on dry, level pavement. The judge declined his offer.

Now it was time for Officer Barnum to ask questions. He asked Holland,

“What would you do if your chain broke?”


“I would use my feet.”

Officer Barnum:

“What if your leg muscles had a spasm?”


“I’m not sure…these are emergency situations.”

Ginsberg interjected with a question for Holland:

“Did any of these situations happen on the day you were stopped?”



Now it was time for Officer Barnum to submit his closing testimony. He continued to argue that nowhere in the statute does it say gears can be utilized as brakes (it doesn’t say they can’t either). He also said that “motorists and the public deserve to have these bikes be properly equipped,” and that a “skid is not as good or safe as a stop.” “The requirement,” he said, “has not been met.”

Now it was Ginsberg’s turn. He said,

“The state is overreaching in seeking to define a brake as a lever and a caliper. The question remains; is the fixed gear the brake? The statutes are clear that the answer is yes.”

To solidify his point, he took out a huge Webster’s dictionary and opened it to the word “brake.” The definition stated that a brake is a “device to arrest the motion of a vehicle.” It did not stipulate anything about a distinct lever or caliper. In his last few comments he proclaimed that the current statute is not well-written and that it is “frightening to require only a front brake.”

With both sides at rest, it was time for the Judge’s final opinion. His contention was that the main source of braking power on a fixed gear are the muscles of the rider, not the gear itself. To this end, he questioned how messengers—whom he’s seen riding “much too fast”—could stop safely.

In the Judge’s opinion, gearing itself and/or leg muscles are not a sufficient source of braking power. He said,

“The brake must be a device separate from the musclulature of the rider. Take me for instance. I don’t have leg muscles as strong as a messenger…how would I stop safely?”

He then turned directly to Ginsberg and said,

“If your client had a stick she could rub against her tire, you’d have a case. I don’t believe the defense has convinced me to broaden the definition of a brake. I find the defendant guilty.”

So now Holland has 30 days to either attach a hand brake to her bike and pay a $73 fine, or appeal the decision. In talking with her outside the courtroom it seemed like she did not think the Judge’s opinion was fair and I wouldn’t be surprised if she and Ginsberg decide to continue the fight.

This decision by the Judge raises some concerns and questions. Will the cops now feel emboldened to go out and ticket everyone on a fixed-gear? Are fixed-gears now essentially illegal? Are fixed-gears truly a public safety hazard?

Fixed gears have become a huge trend across the country and with hundreds if not thousands of them in Portland, I don’t think we’ve heard the end of this issue.
Still reading? Now read the (entirely appropriate) retort by aflowercallednowhere:
broke break baroque

There is a lot of talk around bike blogs and newsgroups about whether the law should require brakes on fixies and even what constitutes "brakes". I feel there are more important things the law needs to focus on, and that the decision to have brakes or no brakes is up to the rider, but I also feel that legislating common sense can't be done because people are inherently stupid and subject to the whims of fashion and herd mentality.

Some of the things that the "brakeless faction" are missing out on or rationalizing away are 1) chains snap, and no chain on a fixie means out of control. Only the people who have never had a chain snap while stomping hard on the pedals actually believe that they will be able to make an emergency stop on their bike as fast as they could without a chain. I've had 2 chains snap in my life, and both times they were absolutely catastrophic split-second rides off the seat and up onto the bars. To think I could have stopped the bike on a dime right after it happened is just stupidity. 2) Most of the braking power on a bike is on the front wheel. You know that and I know that. Explain to me how, in an emergency situation, it can possibly be anywhere near as fast to stop by doing the fixie skid as opposed to backpressure on the pedals and clamping down on the front brake. 3) Most people I know who race track don't ride track bikes on the street. Most people I know who ride brakeless track bikes on the street are following fixie/messenger fashion trends and ride maybe a couple miles to work or to the bar where they park their bike so all their fixie friends can see them. 4) I would venture to guess that a good portion of fixie riders, just like a good portion of any people that do anything, aren't exceptionally skilled at what they do. There is a world of difference in abilities between the average fixie scenester and the experienced bike messenger or experienced racer. All people are not equal in all things, to think they are is stupidity. Most people arguing that skid-stops are superior probably could not get it together enough to even begin a skid-stop in the split-second the old lady opens her door in front of you, while they may have had a chance of stopping if their fingers were on their brake levers (as they should always be in heavy traffic and dangerous circumstances).

I ride a fixie solely because it's lighter and easier on my long flat commute on bike paths and a few blocks of city streets, and also to some extent because it never breaks down or needs adjustments. The novelty and uniqueness of riding a fixie is pretty much gone for me after these thousands of miles and from riding it almost an hour and a half (20 miles, with grocery stops) every day, the quirks internalized. If the commute were easier on a unicycle, well, then I'd ride the unicycle. I could care less about the coolness factor because I'm not trying to look cool or get laid. If it were easier to ride a geared-bike to work I would ride a geared bike. Fixies, by their very nature, are extremely limiting. They only do one thing well. Turning on a dime and by body language is a function of frame geometry, not whether it is a fixie or not. Riding a fixie doesn't mean you are a better rider or a cooler person. Coolness is all inside, and if you're a loser then the coolest fixie in the world won't fix that. if you have to rely on a fixie to define social life and to get laid, then you maybe should think about your life a little bit.

The mythical fixie zen is all fine and good. Being a slave to fashion with your bars a foot lower than your seat and no brakes on a bike that never has been near a track is all fine and good. It's a free country, be whatever you want to be. Just don't be so stupid and obviously rationalizing (out of insecurity?) that going brakeless is "safer", because it's not. Accept the fact that if you ride brakeless you are tempting fate, especially if the chain snaps, and be proud of the fact. Play it up like you're hardcore and tempting death. Use it to boost your macho ego or to solve your penis envy or to get college chicks, whatever, just don't claim it's "safer" anywhere except on a closed track or risk looking like a real idiot to the majority of people who don't think being an urban bike messenger is cool and rad. Have insurance for reconstructive surgery when the chain snaps in traffic, and accept it when you are responsible for your bike accident, and not the person in the car you are trying to blame it on.

If you still aren't convinced then ask yourself if you know more about bikes and are as respected a rider/fountain of knowledge as Sheldon Brown. Didn't think so. Then Kent Peterson? Didn't think so.

"Some fixed-gear riders ride on the road without brakes. This is a bad idea. I know, I've tried it. If you do it, and have any sense of self-preservation at all, it will cause you to go much slower than you otherwise could, everytime you go through an intersection, or pass a driveway. The need for constant extra vigilance takes a great deal of the fun out of cycling. You really should have a front brake. A front brake, all by itself, will stop a bicycle as fast as it is possible to stop. This is true because when you are applying the front brake to the maximum, there is no weight on the rear wheel, so it has no traction." --Sheldon "Captain Bike" Brown

"Some young, strong and idealistic riders ride fixies with no brakes other than the fixed wheel and slow only with the strength of their legs. Most folks with a respect for physics and a desire to live opt for at least a front brake. Old, un-cool people like me have both front and rear brakes on their machines." --Kent Peterson

Like I said, ride with brakes or without, just don't try to rationalize a decision that's not based on logic and common sense. Ride brakeless all you want, it's still (kind of) a free country. Just don't believe your own bullshit, and don't blame anyone except yourself if you're unlucky enough to have something go terribly wrong. Taking possession and ownership of your decisions, and the responsibility of the results both good and bad, is power. Falling victim to your own rationalizing is weakness.

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