Practical Advice for Transportation Cycling

Sometimes, all that matters is getting from Point A to Point B as cheaply, safely and efficiently as possible. You don't need a fast bike, you don't need a pretty bike, and most of all you don't need an expensive bike, you just need one that works.

Friday, January 25, 2013

Opinionated Blogger Friday: Put a Brake On It

So yesterday I talked about Fixed-Gear bicycles, and mentioned how great they are for urban and foul-weather riding.

If you do decide to give fixed-gear riding a try, and turn to the internet for advice, you'll find all sorts of contradictory advice, strongly-held opinions and outright stupidity. While there are a number of knowledgeable and trustworthy sources out there (such as myself, of course, but also the late Sheldon Brown, the Obi-Wan Kenobi of all bike shop Jedis), there's a lot of silliness masquerading as helpful advice.

Then, there's stuff like this

I saw "Premium Rush" and found it a fun, entertaining film with some fantastic and completely gratuitous stunt riding (which really makes it all the better), but that got hung up on one really stupid point: "brakes are bad." The male lead complains about how brakes are "dangerous" and urges his love interest to remove the front brake from her bike. To prove his point (spoiler) said female lead then has a crash caused by her inability to bunny hop a garbage can, a lack of skill apparently caused by having a brake on her bicycle (maybe it's made of Kryptonite or something and stops her from flying), and inspiring her to remove it.

There's a subset of Fixie riders, particularly those who lionize the NYC bike messenger image, who will insist that "real" or "authentic" cyclists will never use brakes on their Fixies. They'll go on about "purity" and "clean lines" and the zen-like state of "becoming one with the road." or whatnot.

Personally, having become "one with the road" one far too many occasions, I don't see the appeal, and am quite happy to put at least one brake on any Fixed-Gear bike I ride. And if I only use one brake, it's going to be a front brake, for two reasons.

First off, on a fixed-gear bike, you CAN slow and stop the bicycle by resisting the pedal spin, and even locking up the rear wheel if you're skilled enough and don't mind wearing out your tires at a ridiculous rate.

Secondly, most of your stopping power comes from the front brake, a fact which is often overlooked by anxious parents warning their kids not to "lock up" their front wheels, lest they go flying over the handlebars (a real possibility if you're riding a bike that's way too small for you or don't actually learn to use your brakes, because you avoided using the front out of fear that you'll go over the handlebars). The combination of resisting the pedal rotation on a fixie while simultaneously using a front brake probably provides better stopping power, and definitely more control, than just using two brakes on a freewheel-equipped bike.

See, even if you have mastered the dramatic, tire-shredding skid-stop, no matter how good you get at doing it, you'll still take longer to stop than if you just used a front brake. Sometimes, especially when mixing up with careless automobile drivers, you need to stop QUICK, and deliberately handicapping yourself by neglecting a brake this way can easily lead to accidentally handicapping yourself by losing the use of one or more limbs in a crash.

Yes, an awareness of traffic flow, and a the genius-level ability to plan three moves ahead while moving through traffic at speed are wonderful, but if your awareness and planning are that great, why not offer yourself another option by equipping your bike with a light and inexpensive device that will allow it to decelerate rapidly in a pinch? More often than not, brakeless riders can be seen picking their way slowly and tentatively down the street, ever alert for the need to execute some sort of awkward swerve or skid, while normal, sane, non-fashion-victim cyclists are out there enjoying themselves.

As the always entertaining and frequently wise curmudgeon known as BikeSnobNYC has pointed out, high-performance sportscars may feature the ability to accelerate and maneuver so well because of high-performance engines and high-performance steering, but they are expected have the ability to control that speed and not crash because they also come with high-performance brakes.

There are other reasons to put one or more brakes on your Fixie (for example, in certain circumstances you might want to ride it as a freewheeling Singlespeed, or a thrown chain could cause an emergency, etc), but the fact is, by reducing your stopping power, you necessarily limit your ability to go fast and have fun safely.

Just put a damn brake on it.

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