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Time to put the brakes on brakeless bikes

The Philadelphia Daily News: Time to put the brakes on brakeless bikes

By Ronnie Polaneczky
Philadelphia Daily News
Daily News Columnist

SO LAST WEEK came word that City Councilman Jim Kenney’s proposed bicycle-crackdown laws include a $1,000 fine on anyone riding a brakeless bicycle on our public streets.

Talk about a big bowl of "Huh?"

For God’s sake, I thought, what pointless legislation. Who’d ever ride a bike without brakes? While we’re at it, why not ticket any idiot who pedals a two-wheeler that’s missing its wheels?

Turns out I am embarrassingly out of yet another loop I didn’t even know existed.

Brakeless bikes are more common than you’d think. Most are "fixed-gear" bikes, whose pedals move in direct tandem with their wheels (think of unicycle technology). If they roll forward, the pedals more forward. If they roll backward, the pedals move backward.

No extra gears boosts the bike’s speed; its momentum comes from sheer muscle power (except on a downhill run, obviously). Stopping the bike requires a cyclist to use the same muscle control to push the pedals backward, in effect creating a skid.

To see a brakeless fixed-gear bike in action, tune in to the next televised velodrome bicycle race, where elite, carved-calf competitors fly around a banked track designed just for cycling.

They move with such athletic grace and velocity, it’s hard to imagine any other vehicle so impressively at one with its operator.

Hence the crossover cachet of the brakeless fixed-gear bike (also called "track bike") among three classes of urban cyclists:

_ Seasoned bike couriers, who also dig that their low-tech bikes are low-maintenance (no brakes and no extra gears mean fewer parts to replace and repair).

_ Newbie couriers, aching to be as cool as the experienced ones.

_ And hipster poseurs, hoping to be mistaken for any kind of bike messenger.

Philly, of course, is not a velodrome. It’s a mash-up of busy boulevards, one-way streets and hellacious highways shared by drivers, bikers and walkers with wildly varying degrees of skill, brains and common sense.

Brakeless bikes are illegal here, as they are everywhere in Pennsylvania, where cyclists must be able to stop a bike moving at 15 mph within 15 feet.

Let’s just say that not every fixed-gear cyclist can do that.

"I’ve seen guys fly down the hill on Spruce Street near 42nd," says Jeff O’Neill, a seven-year bicycle messenger with TimeCycle Couriers. "They get to the intersection, and they can’t stop. You can see on their faces that they don’t know what they’re doing. They go right through the red light. It’s scary to watch."

O’Neill hates how poorly skilled, show-offy "fake-engers," as these wannabes are referred to among his brethren, give capable riders like him a bad name.

"When people see reckless bikers, they assume they’re messengers," says O’Neill, 26. "But experienced messengers know that if you go too fast and takes risks, you’ll dive into a windshield - because you’re trying to impress people who aren’t even looking at you."

Even though brakeless bikes are illegal in Pennsylvania, O’Neill says he’s never received a citation for riding one. Given his level of skill and responsibility, it would be a shame if he were hit with a ticket - or that proposed $1,000 fine.

But I’m sorry. The thought of that wildly out-of-control "fake-enger" putting the public at risk, for the sake of looking cool, is reason enough to enforce the state law requiring brakes on all bikes.

Besides, as Breen Goodwin, education director of the Bicycle Coalition of the Delaware Valley, points out, it’s possible to retrofit brakeless bikes with brakes. Not that the coalition is pushing that at the moment.

"Obviously, it’s a concern that we need to address," she says. "But for right now, we’re focusing on three priorities" when it comes to law enforcement among cyclists, says Goodwin, who’s working with the Police Department to "calm the chaos" on city streets.

Those priorities include making sure that cyclists are 1) riding with traffic, 2) staying off the sidewalks and 3) stopping at red lights - and not moving again until the light has actually turned green.

"Chaos happens when people bend the law to suit their own individual needs," she says. "We’d like to see the law enforced evenly, not just among bicyclists."

Nonetheless, enforcing the bike-brake law seems like an obvious place to start.