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The tragic incident in 2016, where a 44-year-old woman was killed by a cyclist riding a fixed gear bike, raised questions around the legality of ‘fixies’ (as they’re commonly known).
Over the past two decades, fixies have boomed in popularity. Offering sleek simplicity and low maintenance, they’re the coolest choice of wheels for urban hipsters.
Sometimes confused with a ‘single-speed bike’, fixies are different in that their single speed is literally fixed. The rear cog is fixed to the back wheel, allowing no freewheel. When the wheel moves, so do the pedals.
But the question remains, are they safe, or even legal? In this article we’ll look at whether these bikes are deserving of the notoriety they’ve earned in some circles.
Why Are Fixies So Popular?
Fixies are popular because they’re aesthetically beautiful and their modern existence is entrenched in street subculture. Because of the simplicity of their design, they are also unlikely to go wrong or need much in the way of maintenance.
Without gear cables, derailleurs and additional sprockets, there are less parts to adjust, repair or replace. This makes them pretty cheap to run. Without these extra parts they are also generally lighter than bikes with gears.
They’re fun, too – unless you’re going up a steep hill. But the direct connection between the pedals and the wheel movement offers greater control, along with a unique feeling of attachment to the bike.
And although the ultra-trendy fixie fever of the late noughties has passed, they’re still considered by many as an impressively cool and stylish way to travel down a city street.
Whether a fixie is right for you depends on your cycling needs, and (some might say) whether or not you care about what other people think.
Do Fixies Have Brakes?
Some fixies have front brakes, but many have no brakes at all. Fixies used for track racing are ridden with no brakes (because in this context it’s dangerous to brake). On roads, however, fixies have to have a front brake by law.
The back wheel on a fixie also acts as a brake, or rather a ‘system of braking’. Essentially, putting pressure on to reverse the pedal motion will slow down and stop the bike.
What Type of Brakes Do Fixies Have?
Fixies use caliper brakes, the most common brake type for road bikes. These consist of rubber pads that clamp down on the tyre rim.
Cantilever or v-brakes can also be used, but are not the most popular choice and those using them can expect to be well and truly shunned by the fixie community.
Are Fixies Dangerous?
Any bike or vehicle can cause harm and it would be unfair to single fixies out as singularly dangerous. If ridden with a front brake it could be argued that (as with any other bike) they’re only as dangerous as the person riding them.
Without a front brake, however, it’s a different (and more dangerous) story. Braking by reversing the pedal motion takes getting used to and requires rider skill. It also takes more time. Even those practiced at locking the wheel for emergency stops have far less control than with brakes.
But assuming you ride legally and safely, whether for pleasure or commuting, there are plenty of reasons why you might want to try out a fixie. Understanding more of the pros and cons could help you decide.
When Are Fixed Gear Bikes Illegal?
Fixed gear bikes are illegal if they are ridden on the road without a front brake.
The Pedal Cycles Regulations (1983) states that pedal cycles “so constructed that one or more of the wheels is incapable of rotating independently of the pedals, be equipped with a braking system operating on the front wheel“.
And this is worth repeating as often as possible. The big issue here is not about breaking the law. No pun intended. It’s about saving lives.
Fixies may still be cool, but the consequences of not having a reliable braking system can be profound and devastating. Frankly, it just isn’t worth it.