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Brakeless London

Drugs, lies and cheating have plagued professional cycling for years but if you read any tabloid newspaper things have got even worse. Now there are bikes without brakes.  “Brakeless bikes” came to the nation’s attention with the case of Charlie Alliston who in February 2016 collided with Kim Briggs leaving her with catastrophic head injuries which caused her death a week later.  Alliston was riding a now-infamous brakeless bike which was blamed for the accident and he was sentenced to wanton and furious driving and 18 months in prison. The stories surrounding Alliston stirred confusion and intrigue in the direction of these mysterious bikes.  Why did people ride these bikes and what enjoyment could they get from such a pursuit?

What many of these stories did not include was that brakeless bikes or fixed gear bikes have been used on the road by a small close knit community for decades.  Most ride fixed gear bikes with brakes completely legally. After the Alliston fallout many within this forgotten community proclaimed its downfall due to renewed police interest in the illegal brakeless aspect of the subculture.  But what has happened to brakeless bikes? Have they disappeared, or have their riders simply gone underground?




BRAKELESS BIKES?


I am a journalist as well as a cyclist working part-time at a bike shop/cafe in London, working at a bike shop surrounded me with all manner of fixed gear bikes and I have been riding a fixed gear bike for nearly two years.  Just as I was finding my feet with the style of cycling the Charlie Alliston case rocked the entire subculture.

The history of the fixie

Fixed-gear bikes have been used for longer than the conventional free wheel bicycle and the first Tour de France races were completed on fixed gear bikes.  

Everything changed following the invention of the freewheel by William Van Anden in 1869. The ability to “coast” along without having to turn the pedals created a bike much more suited to riding on the road.

From this point fixed-gear bikes became the bike of choice for cycling on the track where a fixed gear helps to maintain a fixed speed in an environment where you do not have to worry about going up or down hills.

This status quo was maintained up until the 1980s when the “fixie” folklore states that West Indian immigrants moved to New York bringing their use of fixed gear bikes with them.  Over the 1980s fixed gear bikes became the bike of choice for couriers and at the same time couriers position in popular culture rose as their daredevil riding style became the subject of articles and films.  

The bike courier workforce and subculture was studied by Professor Jeffrey Kidder in his 2011 book Urban Flow: Bike Messengers and the City.  Kidder recounts how messengers were part of the reason that fixed-gear bikes appeared on our roads.“At various points in time the bike messenger subculture has had its moments of being cool,” Kidder says.  “It was in the mid eighties when the modern messenger was becoming a thing, people obviously used bicycles to deliver things as long as there has been bicycles but you had this reemergence of people delivering things by bike in New York and San Francisco in the mid eighties.”

This reemergence of messengers in New York was especially influential,  even leading to a major Hollywood movie featuring a young Kevin Bacon and Laurence Fishburne which featured a number of brakeless fixed gear bikes.  Kidder pinpoints many “moments like that (Quicksilver) or moments of cycling chic, where high fashion was following from elements of bike messengers or professional bike racing.

Kidder says bike messengers are an example of an urban anti hero with a modern cowboy-like mystique.  If you work at an office in New York, or particularly an advertising agency or film studio these are the kind of people that become tastemakers and if you are stuck in an office working and you have these gritty, gruff looking young men come into your office for a brief second and then whizzing away really quickly. It’s easy to imagine how that can be romanticised on a certain level.”

It doesn’t seem like these young men are confined by some of the strictures that might exist for your average office worker. Certainly compared to other service industry jobs you really do have an unbelievable kind of freedom as a messenger compared to being a fry cook.”  Kidder worked as a messenger as part of the research for his book and says he still rides a brakeless fixed gear bike to this day. From his experience he add’s “most people don’t want to be cowboys and most people don’t want to be riding a bike and sucking in exhaust fumes or when it’s ten degrees out and raining.”  This fact goes a long way to explain why so many young men and women chose to ride fixed gear bikes especially in a brakeless style. The fixed gear bike is a primary tool of the bike messenger and the means in which non messengers can mirror the riding style and lifestyle of these fabled urban cyclists.

A subculture in trouble 

Charlie Alliston. Illustration by Ana Rios Wang.

The death of Kim Briggs rocked the fixed gear subculture in London.  Members of the public were suddenly made aware of the potential dangers of brakeless bikes on the street and this was demonstrated with many fixed gear riders reporting abuse from members of the public.  I have been riding a fixed gear bike for two years now and had always ridden with a front brake.

Fixed gear bikes are amazingly simple machines capable of a lot, last year I toured to Amsterdam with two friends only riding fixed gear bikes.  Although I have amassed experience on fixed gear bikes to fully understand the brakeless riding style I opted to remove my brake for few months to see what, if any, results there would be.

Taking a brake off a bike is not a complex job, bikes are designed to be user-friendly and the added simplicity of the track bike, thanks to its lack of parts, is one of its main appeals.  Matt Briggs, the husband of Kim Briggs, started an extensive campaign to get fixed gear bikes advertised and sold with front brakes attached and many nationwide bike dealers like Wiggle, Chain Reaction, and Evans were in full compliance.  No campaign would be able to stop cyclists from removing brakes after purchase. Brake removal is a simple job that only needs an Allen key to remove both the brake and lever.

Riding brakeless did not necessarily increase the questions I received from the public but after making the decision to ride brakeless I did encounter members of the public who seem to be searching for brakeless bikes.  One specific encounter involved a man riding a motorbike pulling up next to me while driving to berate the lack of my brake. I ignored the anger of the motorcyclist but recognised that anger was understandably fueled by the extensive coverage of the Alliston case in the news.  

Vilification in the media, potential abuse from members of the public and police stops are reasons enough to think twice about riding a brakeless bike but their are a number of less obvious problems as well.  Brakeless riding invalidates any potential insurance claims you may take in the event of a crash. Over 100 cyclists died on Britain’s roads in 2016, crashing a bike and being forced to claim for a damaged bike or body is a very real concern for cyclists.  There is a strong sense of irony when you consider that many brakeless riders take a lot of pride in their expensive bikes yet ride them with no safety in the result of them being damaged.

Brakeless riding’s legal home is in the velodrome, as brakes have no purpose in an environment with no obstacles or cars.  Obviously London’s roads are hardly free of obstacles, pedestrians stepping into roads, speeding cars, potholes and more are always a problem for all cyclists.  The reliance on skidding for stopping is not efficient and reliance on resisting the rotation of the pedals is tiring on the legs, therefore I naturally found my speed on the bike to slow down in busy traffic or on complex roads to allow for easier stopping.  

Why then, with all these factors considered, do we find cyclists riding brakeless track bikes on the road.  Professor Jeffrey Kidder points out to me that from his research from bike messengers “there were all these practical reasons why you would just want to control the bike through the pedals.”  He points out the commonly stated cause for many brakeless riders of being more “connected” to the motion of the bike. “I don’t find that so convincing of an argument but that’s certainly what people would tell you.  I see it more as a sign of mastery that you understand how a fixed gear bike works, you understand how the flow of traffic works, you understand how to read terrain. There is a sense of satisfaction that comes with that, and thats coming from someone thats ridden a fixed gear bike, I feel that sense of satisfaction too, It is satisfying to be able to control everything with the pedals.  It involves more reading of your environment and I enjoy the way that feels. That said, I also I ride slower in certain situations and I definitely very cognisant of the need to slow down. Despite what some people say you do not stop as fast just using the pedals, and skidding as all those videos show doesn’t really stop you so much as you just end up skidding along!”

The videos that Jeff kidder is referencing are the huge amount of fixed gear videos that exist on social media.  Instagram, youtube and facebook have all played a large part in spreading fixed gear around the world. To get a better understanding of the presence of fixed gear bikes we need not look any further than Zach Gallardo.  Zach runs a fixed gear YouTube channel based in San Francisco. Zach chooses to ride his fixed gear bike with brakes front and back partly due to the fact that he rides up and down some of San Francisco’s enormous hills and also due to his motto that “Life is short, but don’t make it shorter. Stay Reasonably Dangerous.”

Zach Gallardo believes that “without social media I don’t think it would ever even become as popular as it ever did or be as popular as it is now.  Social media allows fixed gear riders to become a subculture and continue to be a subculture. With MASH SF they were the pioneers of the trend back in 2007 and 2008 and with social media they were able to share their bikes and rides and ultimately share the cool things that they are doing.”  MASH is a bike shop in Zach’s native San Francisco, but has developed to be much more than that. MASH started producing fixed gear (mostly brakeless) cycling films in 2007 and became one of the defining influencers in the fixed gear scene through the showcasing of talented and skilled american riders.

Brakeless riding “is fun though” according to Jeffrey Kidder “and I guess that’s the route that this case takes (Charlie Alliston), where does your fun end and somebody else’s safety begin.  It’s true that riding brakeless you can’t stop as fast but I think it is important to keep in mind that whether we are talking about traditional brakes or disk brakes that there is a limit of how fast any bicycle can stop.  There is no bicycle that can stop on a dime, even if you have the best brakes in the world if you lock up tyres you aren’t going to stop, and if you did stop that suddenly, you are going to fly off the bike, because of the small issue of inertia.  I don’t actually see it (brakeless) as a fundamental problem really, I see reckless cycling as a problem but I also see bad luck.”

The death of the alleycats?

Fixed gear may be in trouble around in the UK but I’d heard that Asia had a growing number of fixed gear cyclists that had a focus on expensive and also brakeless bikes.  Zach Gallardo has recently completed a tour of Taiwan all documented on his YouTube channel. “From my perspective Asia seems like it is a growing market, but talking to the shop owners they actually say that fixed gears are on a huge decline.”

Zach goes on: “In Asia fads are everything, and everyone follows them.  Back in 2011 and 2012 everyone was on a fixed gear for like six months. They would have group rides in Taipei every week and consistently 100 people would turn up, but at this point it’s only ten people showing up now.”  It is clear that a similar turnout in America or England would be impressive “For me that’s a huge group ride every week! From an American perspective it looks like the scene is growing but for the Asian perspective it used to be way bigger.”

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Zach Gallardo gives a quick explainer on the three main types of fixed gear bikes.

On Americas other coastline Fixed gear riders in New York agree with the sentiments of Zach Gallardo.  I visited the “Track or Die” winter alleycat race to learn more about the american fixed gear and brakeless culture.  An alleycat race is an unsanctioned amateur bike race which mostly take place in cities. Alley cat races originated from messenger culture, participants are given a “manifest” at the start of the race that details the different points they must travel to around the city where they get their manifest signed by a race organiser.

I asked the riders at the 2018 winter Alleycat about how turnout at events have been in recent times.  One rider told me “I started doing these things in 2012 and these things used to be one of the most looked after alleycats of the year, their used to be 100 plus people at these things and now there slike 20 heads at most. It sucks to see really, I honestly think it has to do with the city.” I explained to some of the racers about the potential impact of the Charlie Alliston case in London and they compared it to a similar accident that took place in Central Park in 2014.  In this instance a cyclist had collided with a female pedestrian in similar circumstances to the Charlie Alliston case, however this cyclist was normal road bike. The problem that citizens of New York had with the crash was the speed of the cyclist and the use of the park as a training area for road cyclists.

The police response to the accident was swift.  The New York Times reported increases in NYPD efforts “to crack down on bikers violating traffic laws in the park” including “measuring bikers’ speeds with radar guns and issuing tickets to scores of people for violations.”  I spoke to Devin Cummings about the impact of recent police interest in bikes, he has been riding track bikes for the past three years and was at the alleycat to help man the checkpoints. “At the end of the month cops have to reach a quota, and that’s when they really catch everyone slipping.  Some cops like to walk around with a speedometer and try to clock a bike, I think the speed limit for bikes is like 20. I don’t really care about that though, I’ve only been pulled over for it twice.”

The MET police were unable to comment on the number of stops made on brakeless bikes in London.  Daimon Bird of the MPS explained to me “When a police officer stops a bicycle that they believe is illegal for use on London’s roads, the officer has a number of options available to them. The officer can, for example, take no action, give a verbal warning and record the warning in their Evidence and Action Books (EABs) or take formal action. Formal action would typically take the form of completing a ‘process book’ which ultimately can lead to a summons to appear at court for an offense.”

The potential for leniency from the police by just giving a verbal warning surprised me.  I spoke to a number of fixed gear riders who wanted to remain anonymous due to their fear of potential police enquiry but a number of them detailed police leniency with their illegal bikes.  A cyclist from North London said “I was pulled over after skidding to stop at a light. They kept asking me what was wrong with my bike, trying to get me to admit that I was riding without a brake. I tried to explain that I wasn’t actually riding brakeless because of how the fixed gear works but they just didn’t seem to get it.  They were telling me I could put a brake on the back and it would be legal! It already has a brake on the back that’s what the fixed gear is for, ultimately they just didn’t get it.”

A New Race?

For many, the natural reaction following renewed police interest in fixed gear bikes have been to take their brakeless riding out into the open in the form of professional fixed gear racing.  At the forefront of this racing scene is the Red Hook Crit. Crit is short for criterium which is the word used to describe a race ridden on a short circuit for a number of laps or a set amount of time.  Crit racing usually has a focus on handling and power and most races don’t last much more than an hour.

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A rider cools down after finishing a race.

The Red Hook crit exists as the polar opposite to the illegal street racing organised by characters like Shardy, riders are mostly in teams and sponsored by big cycling brands like Specialised and Aventon.  The race may have prestige now but its origins are not as well publicised. It started as an illegal alleycat in Brooklyn’s Red Hook area. It was designed to celebrate the birthday of its founder David Trimble who came second in its first ever race.  

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Red Hook Crit commentator Gabe Lloyd awaiting the start of a race.

The race quickly became one of the most prestigious in Manhattan and Trimble took the success of the race internationally creating a multi-race championship spanning the summer cycling season.  Riders meet in Brooklyn, London, Milan and Barcelona with racing taking place over a weekend. Points are accrued across the four races and at the end of the season, an overall champion is crowned.

The event still allows amateur riders even though the level of racing increases every year.  Olympic Champion Colin Strickland attended the Red Hook Crit in Brooklyn last year and struggled with the style of riding he encountered saying “These boys are super fit and super quick and I just couldn’t keep up with them today”. Entry to this year’s first race of the season opened in March with what seems like a full roster however rumors are swirling about the future of the race.

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Riders waiting for a race to start.

This is the first year that riders have not been able to book a place for all the races of the season in one go leading many to question whether some of the usual locations may not be planned for the 2018 season. Sponsorship also seems to be a problem for the Red Hook organisers in 2018.  The series was formerly sponsored by “Rockstar games” creators of titles like Grand Theft Auto and Red Dead Redemption but their branding is missing from this year’s events leading to more rumors to circulate about potential funding issues due to an inability for the races to be self-funding

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Rider cycling by a Rockstar games advertising board.
Rider cycling by a Rockstar games advertising board.

The future of the Red Hook crit may be uncertain but the future of Fixed gear in general especially brakeless riding is proving to be a tenacious one.  Police reaction to Alliston has been minimal compared to cities like New York but a recent review by the government could see cyclists face charges of “causing death by dangerous cycling.”  Reaction from cycling campaigns has been overtly negative and time will tell what laws may restrict bikes in the future.  The only thing that can be certain is that fixed gear riders will try their utmost to practice their craft whether it’s on the race track or off it.

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