Momentum of fixed gears in a slow skid

08/09/2012 12:00 AM

08/09/2012 12:01 AM

"Premium Rush," the action thriller about a Manhattan bike messenger chased around the city by a corrupt cop, has the potential to revive a fading cycling trend – and the controversy surrounding it.

In a trailer promoting the film's Aug. 24 release, star Joseph Gordon-Levitt weaves through heavy traffic, dodging car doors, jumping curbs, going the wrong way down one-way streets and skidding his bike along the sidewalk.

"I like to ride. Fixed Gear. No brakes. Can't stop. Don't want to, either," his character says.

And there's the rub.

Gordon-Levitt's character, Wilee, rides a fixed-gear bicycle, or fixie, that has no brakes.

Riding brakeless is part of the fearlessness of the fixie culture. The bikes come with brakes, but many urban riders don't think they need them. Some claim riding brakeless forces them to be more aware and in the moment.

But the California Vehicle Code says a bike must have " a brake which will enable the operator to make one braked wheel skid on dry, level, clean pavement."

Ask a fixie rider about his brakes and he'll point to his legs and say he has two, a right one and a left one.

Fixies differ from conventional bikes.

They're single-speed with a rear cog that is welded – or "fixed" – to the rear wheel. They work just like a child's tricycle. If the pedal moves, the rear wheel moves.

To stop a brakeless fixie, experienced riders lean forward to take the weight off the back wheel. Then, using leg strength, they stop the pedals, which then stops the back wheel from moving – putting it into a skid.

Fixie riders say that method is their brake, an explanation that doesn't work with Sacramento police.

"No, it's not a brake, because it's all driven by gears. There's no brake," said Sacramento Police Department bicycle Officer Michelle Lazark.

When fixies starting becoming popular in Sacramento, police officers quickly realized the danger of bicycles with no brakes, Lazark said. They started pulling cyclists over.

Oregon has a law similar to California's. In 2006, Portland, Ore., bicycle messenger, Ayla Holland contested a $73 ticket she received for having no brakes on her fixed-gear bike.

She lost.

In his ruling, Judge Pro Tem Gregg Lowe stated, "The rider's musculature is simply not a brake."

An effort the next year in the Oregon legislature to change the law failed.

A different ride

Fixies are popular with bike messengers because they are inexpensive, light, fast and require little maintenance. They also are mechanically more efficient than geared bikes. They have a certain "feel," or connection with the pavement, that fixie riders extol as the allure of the bike.

They can be challenging to ride and at times seem to have a personality. Try, for instance, to stop pedaling and coast. The bike seems to try to buck you off your seat.

For the most part, fixie fans are urban youths who find the bikes hip and stylish.

"We owe them a lot of respect. They helped bring the bike back into vogue," said John Boyer, owner of Edible Pedal, a midtown bike store and delivery service near 17th and L streets.

While Boyer's business doesn't cater to the fixie crowd, he has owned and ridden four fixed-gear bikes over the years.

"These kids, they have incredible control of their bikes, like a skateboarder has to have really great alertness and agility and constantly being in the right place at the right time. There's a lot of sets of skills that these kids acquire while riding a fixed gear," he said.

Eight blocks south of Boyer's business – five minutes by bike – the Pedal Hard Bike & Clothing Boutique focuses mainly on fixies. Corey Browning, an employee, is unabashed about riding a fixie without brakes. He has been riding brakeless for four years.

His fixie had a brake, but he said he removed it because the bike looked better without it.

"Honestly, fixed-gear is more fun," he said.

On a conventional bike "you get all caught up in your head about, you know, making sure your cadence is right. On a fixed gear, you're just riding. You just hop on it. You go. It's always the same gear. There's nothing to worry about. You're just pedaling."

As for the braking issue, Browning said, "If you have a front brake, probably you are going to be able to stop a little bit faster."

"When it comes down to it," he said, "I've never needed to stop that much faster. I have enough control over the bike where I can whip it around if I need to and it works just as well. I've never run into an issue where it's created more danger."

About a 10-minute ride south of the Pedal Hard shop, at another Sacramento bike store, Zach Waddle explains the physics of bicycle brakes. Waddle is the general manager of the Bicycle Business on Freeport Boulevard.

"Most of the braking power is on the front wheel. A good 60 to 70 percent of braking happens on the front wheel. Not the rear wheel. The front wheel never skids," Waddle said.

"What skidding means, in my opinion, even if you're driving a car, it means you're out of control," he said.

"The people who ride without brakes, their reaction time is pretty fast, but I almost guarantee you and promise you a reaction time to just squeeze your hand is faster, is much faster, and you don't have to contort your body in a way to throw most of your weight over the handlebars so you can lock your leg to where the rear wheel sets back down and you start skidding," Waddle said.

Popularity winding down

Fixies account for 20 to 30 percent of sales and repairs at the Bicycle Business – down from 80 percent three years ago. Waddle attributes the decline to fixie riders growing up.

"It turned into this bike-messenger, hipster scene, you know. Tight, skinny jeans, messenger bag, hippie-esque. No brakes, riding your bike around town ditching cops, having fun," he said.

"And I think they grew up. They wanted to go faster. They wanted gears. They wanted to go on longer rides. Go to school. Maybe they had more money and wanted to buy a nicer bike."

The release of "Premium Rush" will increase awareness of fixies, but Lazark of the Sacramento Police Department doesn't think the film will "cause pandemonium" with kids yanking the brakes off their bikes.

"There's always that group of thrill seekers who might pick up on this, but the everyday average person, I'm not too worried about them defying what's already in place," she said.

She doesn't anticipate having to crack down on cyclists like the department did three years ago.

Local bicycle messenger Miles Zollner recalls moving back to town three years ago from San Diego, where he'd been riding.

"For a while there was a lot of heat from the police out here when I first came back," he recalled. "It's kind of mellowed out, but they were getting on all those guys for not having brakes."

Zollner has been a bike messenger for 10 years. He believes a lot of people in downtown mistake the hipsters for real bicycle messengers.

"They see (urban cyclists) everywhere, and I think they are like, 'Oh, there go those messenger guys runnin' lights and whatever,' " Zollner said. "But if we did that, it would be over. If I was doing that all day, I wouldn't last."

He rides a bike similar to a fixie, a single-speed model, but it has a "freewheel" in the back so he is able to coast.

And he has a front brake.

"I choose to ride with brakes. You know, everybody's different. A lot of guys will put on a brake, just to have, because on our job, it really is down to the second. It's us vs. every car downtown. You gotta be ready and heads up."


"Premium Rush" (Columbia)

A crooked cop (Michael Shannon) pursues a New York City bike messenger (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) carrying a mysterious package.

Rated: PG-13 (91 minutes)

Opens: Aug. 24

Pedal Hard Bike and Clothing Boutique

Where: 1703 T St., Sacramento

Hours: 11 a.m.-7 p.m. Monday-Saturday

Information: (916) 281-6051

The Bicycle Business

Where: 3077 Freeport Blvd., Sacramento

Hours: 10 a.m.-6 p.m. Monday-Saturday

Information: (916) 442-5246 or

Edible Pedal

Where: 1712 L St. (In the alley between L and Capital), Sacramento

Hours: 8 a.m.-8 p.m. Monday-Thursday, 8 a.m.-9 p.m. Friday, 10 a.m.-9 p.m. Saturday

Information: (916) 822-5969 or


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