Brakes required

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The single-speed/fixie trend is showing no signs of letting up. Even middle school kids are trading in their BMX bikes and getting on the fixie bandwagon.

A typical "fixie" is most often a single-speed bike with what's called a "flip-flop" rear hub. A wheel equipped with such a hub can be installed as freewheeling, allowing the rider to coast, or fixed-gear, forcing the rider to pedal the entire time, and using leg power alone to slow or stop the bike. Fixed-gear bicycles were originally developed for racing on a velodrome track by skilled riders in a protected and tightly controlled environment. They were never really meant to be ridden in traffic.

We see kids riding fixed gear bikes (and in some cases, even freewheel single-speed bikes) on city streets with no mechanical brakes installed. This happens for 3 main reasons:

  • The rider has purchased a true track bike (often used), which was made for velodrome racing, and has no provisions on the frame for installing brakes. There's simply no way to install brakes on such bikes, and we don't recommend their use on the street.
  • The rider has purchased an inexpensive bike online, and the vendor included brakes only to fulfill a legal requirement, without making sure that the brakes are installed properly and actually work with the bike.
  • The rider has removed brakes from the bike.

Here's the thing. brakes are required on any bicycle ridden on the street in Chicago. According to the Chicago Municipal Code regarding bicycles:

"Every bicycle shall be equipped with a brake that will enable the operator to make the braked wheel skid on dry, level, clean pavement."

It is academic to argue that a fixed gear bike is capable of being stopped by a skilled rider without having a mechanical brake affixed to the front wheel. Riders as young as 12 are riding fixed-gear. Regardless of age, not all riders of fixed-gear bikes are sufficiently skilled, and in the case of a traffic incident where injuries are sustained, a jury may not be sympathetic to a cyclist riding without a purpose-made brake. For a bicycle attorney's take on it, click here.

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If you or someone in your household is currently riding a bike without brakes, we encourage you have at least a front brake caliper and lever installed, which can be done for about $80-100 dollars including labor. If you are shopping for used bikes, or inexpensive bikes online, consider if it makes sense to be adding this expense after your initial purchase. It is almost always a better investment to purchase a complete brake-equipped bicycle from a your neighborhood bike store.