Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Urban Anthropology: One Less Brake

Something to ponder on your commute: what conclusion might one draw upon encountering these skidmarks on the Brooklyn Bridge bike path, just where it curves around the tower and riders begin their descents towards Manhattan? And why do there seem to be more of these skidmarks than ever before?

Well, if you're an anthropologist, these markings speak volumes. They indicate a trend among a certain group of cyclists to foreswear brakes and to slow their bicycles by skidding. There are also similar skidmark ganglions elsewhere on the bridge, generally before grade changes, bumps, or anywhere the path narrows a bit. This indicates that, when presented with an obstacle, these riders must lock up their rear wheels in order to adjust their speed.

One might wonder why a rider would opt to do this instead of installing a simple brake, especially when their cycling environment includes a bridge with a wooden surface which, at most times, is choked with camera-weilding tourists who stray into the bike lane like confused houseguests wander into closets while looking for the bathroom.

Well, I'm still trying to figure that last part out. I'm also wondering if the woman I got stuck behind the other day, straining to keep her shiny new brakeless IRO under control as she descended slowly and awkwardly towards Manhattan, decided at some point during her miserable-looking trip to spring another $20 for a front caliper. Perhaps she came to her senses. Or perhaps she didn't. Perhaps she enjoys looking like she's reeling in a marlin from the East River.


Anonymous said...

Generally, the static coefficient of friction is higher than the dynamic coefficient of friction. My fixie has as front brake with sintered pads. By tomorrow's ride it will have a dual-pivot brake.

Prolly said...

Yeah, front brakes are a lot of fun when you rely on them to stop. Rather than knowing how to control your bike, you clamp down on your brake and flip yourself over the bars... I've avoided countless close calls by hockey stopping, skipping and just maneuvering away from a potential accident fine without a brake.

But still, that's the 20% of riders who know how to control their bikes. The other 80% scare the shit out of me every morning.

Take for example the kid who almost rear-ended me when I skipped to slow down on the descent into Manhattan via the Wburg... He was riding my ass [not drifting] and had no way of slowing down gradually and almost totaled both our bikes in the process. [I was riding on the right and he had more than enough room to pass me]

Then, as I pulled onto Delancey, the knock-kneed kid proceeded to tell me to "learn how to ride" and make way for "faster riders"...

Funny, I've never seen the kid before and his bike had barely seen 100 miles. You can always tell from the lack of paint chips and grime on his grips... and the stickers still on his frame.

alliwannadoisbicycle said...

and that's why I've got TWO brakes on my fixie.

i believe that all these wannabe NJS idiots figure that if they ride around brakeless it must mean that they have wicked biek handling skills. just as riding a 52X11 fixie means you're fast...

make sense? not at all. once again the functionality and efficacy of the modern bicycle has been trumped by style, regardless of safety or whether it actually works or not

Steve said...

Hmm... When I use my dual pivot front brake on my fixed gear bike, I seem to be able to control my speed and my bike as well as stop without flipping over my handlebars. I also seem to be able to save my bad knee and the muscles around it from further injury. Maybe that's just me.

Anonymous said...

I rock a two brake fixie - don't usually use them but the times I have had to it has kept me A) from dying, and B) from killing others. I much prefer this to the other options (killing people or being killed). If I had a dollar for every time I have seen a kid in shants on a brakeless almost collide/wipeout I would have at least 4 dollars (I live in AZ so fixie is catching on slower.

GhostRider said...

Amen to all that...

I wonder if being a slave to style is why so many hipster fixed-gear riders' stories begin with (or contain) harrowing tales of nasty crashes.

I've crashed some bikes in my day, but I have NEVER totalled a bike. Why, on Velospace, just about every other kid on there has lost a bike or three...after destroying the first one, wouldn't you look to the root cause and CORRECT the problem? Get a damn brake, or learn to ride instead of posturing for the other kool kids!

Tim Jackson said...

Two brakes for me. I feel totally fine riding without brakes when I'm on the track and millimeters away from guys, heck even trading bumps in the keirin. But... I like my skin too much to willingly offer it for no good reason. I like stopping when I need to stop... as opposed to just before getting killed. Call me silly if you want... but I like kissing my kids goodnight every night. I'm lame that way.

Once again, great post Snob.

mhandsco said...

I hear that. I built a fixed gear bike without provision for brakes because a good friend has been riding one for a decade as a commuter and I think track bikes are pretty. I figured that brakeless fixed gear riding was a skill that could be quickly picked up.

Well - not for this old dog. I can't ride with other people as I'm too nervous to ride anything less than about 20 feet behind. I can't ride fast because the roads are crappy, people are jog-wheeling their blackberrys instead of paying attention while driving and - last but not least - folks turn left at intersections when they figure "it's just a bike."

But what gets me most of all is that I don't feel confortable on the brakeless fixed because I spend 90% of my rides envisioning having to explain myself to paramedics.

I've built up a drum-brake front wheel. I'll give that a shot on the fixed and see how it goes, but at the moment I'm pretty much seeing this thing as wall art.

LuckyLab said...

Excellent post. I did a single-speed conversion on an old road frame of mine (largely because I swiped most of it's parts for a new frame). My wife, bless her heart, bought me a White Industries ENO Eccentric hub and new rim for the process. Rides great but have yet to filp over to the track side. I like coasting down the hill from my house to work. No sweat when I arrive and the freewheel she bought me (did I mention she rocks?) is altogether to nice not to use anyway.

Besides using the brakes twice to save my somewhat rotund behind from a car trying to speed past me, not making it and turning right in front of me anyway, the whole death-defying skip-stop, skidding or whatever just seems like a waste of good rubber to me.

Anonymous said...

Lucky brings up a good point: what about the tires? Funny how some folks say they ride fixed because it's cheaper to build up and maintain, but how much cheaper can it be when you're burning through tires because you skip stop every day? Last time I checked you can get a perfectly good brake at Nashbar for about $25, which will last a lot longer than a $25 tire.

fxdwhl said...

Brakes make a lot of sense. That said my track bike is brakeless and my crosscheck has a front canti. I ran a brake on the track for about 1 1/2 years till I pulled it, last 4 years have been brakless with no issues. Closest call with panic stopping was unclipping from my peddles due to overly worn cleats.

I really don't skid that much either since it's easier to adjust my speed usining my legs before I get into an 'oh shit' situation. That and pay atttention to what the fuck you're doing! Theres more skidding in one youtube video than I've done in the past couple of months.

My crosscheck is my 'roadbike' so it sees all the hills around here and brakeless isn't an option. Centuries are hard enough with a brake controling on the downhills.

I guess my point is if you're a true 'cyclist' you know if you need a brake or not. If your brakeless track or god forbid cl conversion is your first 'good' bike you've had since you were a kid run a brake.

And New Jersey Style is a great tag.

Anonymous said...

Reeling in a marlin...Hilarious!

BikeSnobNYC said...


No doubt the guy on your tail was an idiot--sitting on a stranger's wheel is never appropriate.

That said, I think the thing that I and a lot of other riders with racing backgrounds don't get about skid-stopping is the sudden and erratic nature of it. One of the fundamentals of racing and pack-riding (on the road and on the track) is making smooth and predictable changes in speed. You never swerve suddenly or slow abrubtly unless there's absolutely no other choice. Good riders can ride comfortably and safely with just a couple inches between wheels.

Which is why that guy's an idiot. It's your right to skid and skip as much as you want around town, as long as you're by yourself not in a pack or a race (alleycats excluded) where you _will_ take down a bunch of riders. If that guy is such a pro he should know not to sit on a strange wheel.

And if there are riders out there who can't operate a front brake without doing an endo, they should probably try riding on the saddle instead of the bars.


The drum brake sounds interesting, but if it's no good don't throw the baby out with the bathwater. You can probably get some kind of road fork to work acceptably...

Thanks for the comments everybody.

Jim said...

I'm completely down with Prolly. Brakes only make a bike dangerous as all hell. If I'm not flipping over the bars every time I hit the front brake, it's people back-ending me when I hit the rear - just like how Robbie McEwen got back ended on Sunday. If he hadn't hit the rear brake to slow down and avoid that crash, the guy behind him would never have hit him. If that doesn't prove rear brakes are useless, I don't know what was. Not to mention the irritating noise brakes make when you use them - it utterly destroys the vibe you get from riding a bike. So the brakes are coming off and going in the garbage when I get home tonight. I can't wait to roll out in the local crit on Saturday and tell the rest of those non-bike-handling l0000zers that their brakes make their rides much more dangerous, and if they would just get rid of the brakes and learn how to handle, they'd never crash...

I'm sure they'll thank me.

Ps. Yours was an ironic troll, prolly... right?

Anonymous said...

i ride brakeless myself, i rode for along time with a brake while i got used to the new diciplin of fixed city riding. if you keep your head up , your ears open and your eyes wide its not as hard as some people say. its mostly idiots that ride dangerously that get served up in such manners. i always ride on the defensive, treating every car and pedestrian as a possible land mine. i can safely say brakeless wonder hipsters give other brakless riders a bad rep.

ride within your limits and know what those limits are... and you're good to go.

Anonymous said...

If you can't stop or slow down considerably using only the front brake, you have a LOT to learn about controlling your bike. A regular training ride of mine has a very fast (45mph+) descent into a sharp right hander that I slow down to ~25 for using only my front brake. If you feel the back end start to come off the ground, LET GO OF THE FUCKING LEVER! Swallow your pride and get some brakes...

Colin R said...

before this comment section I never knew it was possible to endo on a road bike.

Anonymous said...

On my road bike I use mostly the front brake, and I have never in my life gone over the bars. If your bike actually fits you and your position is decent, the most you should have to do to control it is shift your weight back a little bit in the saddle. I'm sorry, if you can't operate a brake (or 2) so that you can both stop suddenly and slow down gradually then you have a lot to learn.

Unknown said...

Seen TWICE on a bridge near downtown Minneapolis:

Some idiot on one of those off-the-shelf chrome Bianchi Pistas pedalling and gaining speed right at a crowd and then yelling "NO BRAKES!" and swerving through the crowd recklessly.

No wonder non-bikers hate bikers. With asses like this idiot I don't blame them.

Anonymous said...

I ride fixed with 2 brakes bacause it's the other idiot cyclists and drivers I don't trust.
The only time I've ever gone over the bars was when I was perving at a girl and hit a planter box!

Anonymous said...

I know this is an old thread, but I feel the need to add.

WHY are all of these people flipping over their handlebars when they use their front brakes? I have two brakes, but I really only use the front, unless I'm about to get hit by a bus, so I'll utilize both to err on the side of caution.

And I ride in San Francisco, and I really don't see fixed riders being that retarded. They take downhills like it's nothing. Maybe everyone is just too embarassed to start riding there until they've actually learned how to ride.

Anonymous said...

I really hope if we get universal health care in this country that brakeless riders who abuse their knees to stop their bikes will be excluded from it.

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Anonymous said...

>>> If he hadn't hit the rear brake to slow down and avoid that crash, the guy behind him would never have hit him. If that doesn't prove rear brakes are useless, I don't know what was.

Dude who wrote this shouldn't be allowed to breed.

Anonymous said...

front brake = emergency brake.

I have a front brake on my fixie. I'm glad I do because a few months ago my friends and I were riding through a neighborhood. I was leading the group and would call out if there is any bumps, potholes or whatever. Anyway, as I was biking straight, I noticed two kids (about the age of 6 or 7) running out of nowhere, hidden by the parked cars heading straight to my front tire and it was way too late to turn and to skid stop... luckily my front brake or e-brake allowed me to stop on a dime and gave me enough time to just swipe one of the kids throat with my bullhorns. If I didn't have the front brake, then I probably would have been waiting at the ER hoping the kid survived or standing there looking at a dead body.

Peter said...

I'm concerned that out of all these comments, no one points out the simple physics: with only a rear brake you will never be able to stop as fast as with a front brake. When you decelerate rapidly, all the weight, and therefore all the braking power, goes into the front wheel.

This is an old post, and I'm happy to say that I see fewer brakeless fixies out there nowadays. But I would love to hear BSNYC comment on the new trend I see of hipsters coming down the Brooklyn Bridge with their feet up on their toptubes. WTF? Can these people please just disappear?

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