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Hipster bikes don't have a brake and can't get a break

The Oregonian, July 29, 2006

By Jeff Maples

When Portland bike messenger Ayla Holland wants to stop, she depends largely on her powerful leg muscles as she exerts backward pressure on the pedals of her fixed-gear bicycle.

"I actually feel a lot more confident riding a fixed-gear because your control over the bike is so much stronger," said Holland, 24.

But a Multnomah County judge has thrown fans of "fixies" for a loop by ruling that the Portland police were correct in giving Holland a traffic ticket last month for riding downtown without a brake.

In one of the most bike-friendly cities in the country, the ruling cast a new legal cloud over the increasing number of hard-core bicyclists who are eschewing mechanical brakes for the balletic challenge of riding a fixie.

The bike blogs and Internet discussion groups are full of debate about whether the judge's ruling made any sense -- and just how safe fixies are without conventional brakes.

The bikes, once largely restricted to track racing but now popular in many cities, have just one speed and the simplest of drivetrains. You can't coast. When the wheels are turning, you're forced to pedal, just like little kids on a tricycle.

Fixies aren't for the faint of heart. Jonathan Maus, who writes the BikePortland.org blog, admires the skill of the fixie riders but has tried one himself just a couple of times.

"It was really disconcerting," he said. "I was like, 'Holy cow, I could get in trouble here.' "

Oregon law says that bicycles "must be equipped with a brake that enables the operator to make the braked wheels skid on dry, level, clean pavement."

Mark Ginsberg, a local attorney and bike activist, argued in court Thursday that Holland and other skilled fixie riders meet the letter of that law because they have the skill to bring their bikes to a skidded stop on dry pavement.

The law doesn't define what a brake is, he said, only how it works.

Circuit Court Judge Pro Tem Gregg Lowe wasn't impressed by that.

"It seemed to me it was a relatively simple issue," Lowe said Friday in an interview. "A rose is a rose is a rose. A brake is a brake is a brake. And feet or musculature aren't brakes."

Ginsberg said he may appeal the decision, which gives the police the green light to continue handing out tickets to fixed-gear riders who don't have a mechanical brake. In the absence of an appeal, Holland has to either pay a $73 fine or install a brake on her front wheel.

In fact, many fixies do have such a brake. One of Holland's fellow messengers, watching as Holland was interviewed, said she relies on the front brake on her bike because she feels less competent in using only her pedals to bring her bike to a stop.

Sam Adams, the Portland commissioner in charge of the city's Office of Transportation, said he has asked the city attorney to review the law to see whether Portland police are properly applying it.

As it happens, Adams said his chief of staff, Tom Miller, has also been ticketed for not having a brake on his fixie. Adams said Miller relented and put a brake on his front wheel -- although he demonstrated for the commissioner that he can stop as quickly as a conventional bike.

But Adams said he's still not convinced. "My advice to people is to get handbrakes," he said. "I think it's an added margin of safety."


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