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Sunday, September 10, 2006

Free the brake and your mind will follow

No break on no brakes: Cyclists object to ticketing over fixed-gear bikes -- bpurvis@journalsentinel.com (Milwaukee)

Cory Gassmann is selling fixed-gear bikes at his east side shop about as fast as he can stock them.

Matthew Hewitt, manager at Cory The Bike Fixer shop, 2410 N. Murray Ave., shows how he is able to use pressure to stop his "fixie," a fixed-gear bicycle that has neither hand nor coaster brakes.

In recent years, the bikes have gone from the favored setup for a handful of hard-core bike messengers looking for a low-maintenance ride to a bona fide fad among hipsters and cycling minimalists.

There is one group, however, the bare-bones bikes aren't so popular with: police, who say many of the bikes violate laws requiring a bicycle to have a brake.

Fixed-gear bikes, or fixies, are single-speed bikes without a freewheel. As the bike moves forward, the rider is forced to pedal. The cost varies widely, from bikes built from scrap parts to track racing bikes costing several thousands of dollars.

Fixies can be outfitted with a hand brake, but many are not. For those bikes, the riders slows down by pressing against the forward motion of their pedals.

Nicole LaBrie, a 23-year-old bike messenger, found out the hard way this summer that police don't consider that braking when she got a $64.80 ticket.

She was stopped for going the wrong way on a one-way street, for which she also was fined.

The officer "said, 'You don't have brakes.' I said, 'I do, but you can't see them. I can stop,' " said LaBrie, who plans to challenge the brake ticket in court.

The issue came to light in a recent case in bicycle-crazed Portland, Ore., in which a county judge ruled that 24-year-old bike messenger Ayla Holland violated a state law similar to Wisconsin's; she is appealing the ruling. The case has online message boards abuzz.

In Milwaukee, LaBrie is one of two people ticketed over the ordinance this year. Three were ticketed last year.

Milwaukee's ordinance was adopted from a state statute that reads in part: "No person may operate a bicycle . . . upon a highway, bicycle lane, or bicycle way unless it is equipped with a brake in good working condition, adequate to control the movement of and to stop the bicycle."

A ticket for riding without a traditional brake is reasonable based on how the law reads, but it remains to be seen whether a judge would agree, said Richard Withers of the city's Legislative Reference Bureau.

"It just depends on whether a judge thinks a fixed gear that will stop you is not a brake," Withers said. "In effect, it's a better brake than some of them . . . It's just a question of whether you define the brake broadly to one of those contraptions that pinches the tire."

Wayne Wallner, who owns Breakaway Bicycle Courier, where LaBrie works, said he carries a copy of the ordinance to help his argument.

"We have a brake. It's a chain brake. In fact, it's the simplest of all brakes, and the strongest," Wallner said. "I can show you that I can control the movement of my bicycle, so why give me a ticket?"

Wallner said that if police understand the mechanism, they could be convinced it is a legitimate and reliable braking system.

"We have even more control of our bikes. Our hands are always on our handlebars. Our feet are always strapped into our pedals. There are no gears to shift, no cables to snap," Wallner said. "It's like any other brake except it's done with your legs instead of your hands."

Police say they do understand how it works, and it's against the law.

"It's not a brake," said Mark Buetow, a community liaison officer for Milwaukee's District 1. "If the bike is rolling forward, the pedals are going forward. There is no way to independently stop the bike independent of the rotation of the rear wheel."

Buetow said affixing a hand brake would keep fixie riders from being ticketed.

Some bike activists wonder whether fixies are a legitimate traffic issue.

"There aren't a lot of bicycle crashes in Milwaukee to begin with, and I can't remember the last time I heard about a crash that happened because someone was riding a fixie and couldn't stop," said Jack Hirt, project coordinator for the Bicycle Federation of Wisconsin.

As the debate plays out, fixies continue to fly out of Gassmann's shop, Cory The Bike Fixer, 2410 N. Murray Ave., where he recommends an auxiliary front brake but falls on the side of the fixie riders' defense.

"We just can't keep them in stock to save our lives. There are all kinds of kids riding them," he said.
According to this logic, we need to outlaw skateboards, red wagons, tricycles, pogo sticks, and bowling balls.

In related factoids, I knew that Canadians allowed bicyclists on interstates but did not know that several American states did as well:
Allowed on all interstates: Idaho, North Dakota, South Dakota, and Wyoming

Allowed on certain sections of interstate system: New Jersey (Permits granted for particular use and location), North Carolina (DOT may approve opening certain section), Pennsylvania (DOT may approve opening certain section)

Allowed on interstates where no alternative route exists (usually means access is prohibited in urban areas): Alaska, Arizona, California, Colorado, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Oregon, Texas, Utah, and Washington

Access not expressly prohibited: District of Columbia and Missouri

In all other states, bicyclists are not allowed to ride on interstates. However, even in these states, there are exceptions to this rule where bicyclists are permitted to use a particular bridge that is part of the interstate system (e.g. I-66 in Virginia, I-70 in Kansas).
I have snuck across a few freeway bridges where otherwise it meant a huge detour. Sometimes you got to do what you gotta do.


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