No brakes, fast-paced, adrenaline-laced. Riding a bike in the city can be hard enough if you are not used to the ebb and flow of the traffic coursing through its concrete veins.
One group of riding veterans, however, are seasoned professionals in negotiating the hair raising junctions and roads otherwise occupied by fast, dense traffic and heavy goods vehicles.
London cyclists are a mixed bag and get mixed reviews. There are those who dress in full Hi-Vis and put mirrors and lights on every surface possible, and those who aim to be so minimalist, they remove their brakes.
The latter are usually those who receive the most media attention for running unofficial races that zig-zag across the city; they’re known as ‘Alley Cats’ and taking serious risks that can sometimes, all be it very rarely, have disastrous consequences.
These riders can ride ‘brakeless’ thanks to the type of cycle they ride; known as fixed gear bikes, fixies or track bikes. Track bike may be the best description for what these bikes are, as they are illegal to ride anywhere except on a closed track or circuit. When drivers yell “MANIAC!?” from the safety of their metal boxes, they may not be too far from the truth.
‘Brakeless,’ however, is not necessarily the entire truth. Without getting too technical, a fixed-gear bicycle has a ‘fixed’ drive chain mechanism. You may be used to riding a bike and cruising down a hill without pedalling, this is not an option on a fixie.
The spinning motion of the rear wheel is attached to the motion of the pedals. This has its pros and cons but it essentially allows the rider to lock their legs (stop pedalling), stopping the wheel from spinning and consequently skidding to a halt without the need for conventional brakes.
As a result, these bikes are not careering into every obstacle in their path and the rider has a huge amount of control.Nonetheless, the law states that bicycles without two working brakes are illegal for street use. If you place a front brake on a fixed gear bike however it becomes ‘roadworthy’. The issue with this logic is that it does not take the rider’s behaviour or experience into account.
Attending a race or a ‘ride out’ with some of the riders who ride brakeless would make anyone see that these riders do not have a death wish, they are in fact highly experienced from riding in the city for years as couriers and commuters every day, sometimes for decades.
In 2017, 20-year-old Charlie Alliston was riding a brakeless, fixed gear bike down Old Street in East London. This road is one of the main thoroughfares connecting west, central and the City of London to Shoreditch, and elsewhere in the east of London. On this particular day, Kim Briggs, a mother of two, was crossing the road when the light was showing green, in favour of traffic. The result of Kim’s decision left her panicking in the middle of the road.
Alliston hit Briggs with his bike and she died from her injuries later that day. Alliston, although acquitted of manslaughter, faced 18 months in a juvenile detention centre. This was partly due to Alliston’s behaviour in court, blaming Briggs for stepping into the middle of the road. Judge Wendy Joseph QC had this to say to Alliston in court: “throughout [the trial you] sought to put your blame on her.”
The Department for Transport and Cycle Safety review, states this about the case: “Whilst one can never truly ascertain what was in a jury’s mind, the Alliston case could perhaps be taken as an example of a jury being reluctant to convict of manslaughter. In this case, the unlawful act giving rise to unlawful act manslaughter was said to be the fact that he was riding a bike with no brakes; which is a criminal offence.”
One integral piece of evidence was that Alliston was given his sentence not solely for the type of bike he was riding, but his actions as a road user. The judge went on to tell him: “On your own account you did not try to slow any more but, having shouted at her twice, you took the view she should get out of your way. You said in evidence ‘I was entitled to go on’.”
Just like any road user, Alliston made an error on the road and his actions and attitude saw him pay the price in the eyes of the law. Having spoken to fixed gear riders riding in the streets of London most will admit that a brake would provide more stopping power, but most will likely never go back to riding with brakes as many riders do not think that it would make it any safer.
One of these riders is 20-year-old Gabriel from Brixton, South London. He’s been a courier for Stuart and Deliveroo for over two years, and started riding fixed after his old bike, with brakes and gears (a road bike), was stolen and a friend pushed him towards buying a fixed gear bike. Soon after, Gabriel removed the brakes and began riding brakeless.“It wasn’t fun anymore, knowing there is something there to protect you,” Gabriel says. He believes that riding fixed and brakeless can be safer than riding a bike with brakes. “I feel like it makes you a lot more aware of your surroundings. You develop this sixth sense and you can read the traffic. I think that’s why I haven’t crashed.” As Gabriel said this he leaned to touch the wooden bench next to us.
Essentially Gabriel’s argument is: if you have brakes on your bike you are going to be far less aware of your surroundings and not be as vigilant on the road. “A brake is safer, but I still think it’s dangerous, being comfortable, feeling like you have something there to stop you is gonna make you unaware. You see people riding with their phones out, not aware, then someone steps out into the road and an accident happens because they have their brakes and they don’t know what’s happening.”
This idea that road users become too comfortable and are easily distracted whilst driving is an issue on the road for cyclists and drivers alike. In 2017, a Sat-Nav test was introduced to the driving test to stop new drivers from being distracted by their phone whilst driving. This is a rule that is frequently broken by some cyclists who are happy to put others at risk, mapping their way around with their mobile while riding.
This has been an issue for cyclists and drivers alike as pedestrians are distracted by their phones whilst negotiating crossing the road. The Guardian reported in 2018 that more than 430 moped-related thefts occurred a week over the year. Moped thieves prey on those who are distracted and have their valuables within easy reach. Crooks across the country saw the opportunity and decided to cash in on the new supply of expensive smartphones, almost handed to them by pedestrians who are not paying attention while walking near a read.
The Metropolitan Police offers sound advice for avoiding being victim to moped theft: “If you need to call or use your phone on the street, look out for anyone on a bike or a moped near you. Look up, look out. Make it quick so you don’t become distracted. Don’t text while you’re walking – you won’t notice what’s going on around you.” However, the police do not offer the same advice to pedestrians as they attempt to cross the road.
The problem that has become a goldmine for thieves is also the scourge of London’s road users, as pedestrians, staring at their phones or being unaware of their surroundings, step out into the road or a cycle lane. Sometimes, in cases like these, having brakes or not is not going to stop the inevitable from happening.
“However good you are at riding your brakeless fixie, if a pedestrian decides to run in the road and you hit them because you could not brake in time and avoid them, not having a mechanical (conventional) brake will not help your case,” says Stephanie from the London Courier Emergency Fund (LCEF).
Perhaps one of the most baffling aspects of couriers choosing to ride fixed is that it is very important for couriers to remain fit and healthy. If a courier is injured or falls ill and become unable to work they do not receive sick pay as couriers are considered to be ‘independent contractors’. In this case, organisations like the London Courier Emergency Fund financially support couriers who have been injured on the job.Stephanie has been riding fixed in the city as a courier for years, but always with at least one brake. Even so, Stephanie and the LCEF do not discriminate against those who choose to ride brakeless: “I never ask riders who come to me for assistance what type of bike they are riding and would not withhold financial help if that person was riding a brakeless fixed gear bicycle.”
Stephanie also claims that most companies run check-ups for their riders every three months: “to ensure that everyone has at least one working [conventional] brake. They have been doing so since the Charlie Alliston case.” So the community has taken the incident seriously regardless of the personal beliefs of their riders.
Stephanie also states that when it comes to riding brakeless she believes: “Cycle couriers usually have the skills and good knowledge of traffic to do so. Every cyclist must be very aware of all traffic around them at all time, even more so if you’re only means of braking is your legs.”
The fixed gear phenomenon, much like skateboarding, has created an underground culture where riders meet up to practice their skills, ride and race together. Fixed Beers, a riding meet-up group that has been running every two weeks since it’s inception in 2015, represents one tight-knit community of riders in London. The group started as a shop ride from Cycle PS in South London. When the shop closed a group of friends got together and continued doing the ride out.
The Fixed Beers group was born and has since expanded to a racing team, with sponsorship deals and an international following. The group ride is a place for cyclists from different disciplines of cycling, from road to BMX, to meet up with like-minded individuals and ride bikes together. The ‘beers’ element of the ride emphasises the social aspect of the group. As the name suggests the following is largely fixed but everyone is welcome to join.
The three founders, Fraser, Stephen, and Dale, all ride fixed. “When I was younger I used to do a lot of skateboarding and I ended up snapping my ankle. That gave me the fear. I couldn’t work for three months, that changed the direction I was going in,” says Fraser, who works as a civil engineer by day.
“It’s a bit edgier and risky and without wanting to sound like a fucking wanker, it feels a lot freer.” Fraser adds: “Any idiot could ride a bike around London but to ride a fixed gear bike around London with any speed at all is pretty fucking ballsy.”
Although the ride itself is not exactly fast-paced it is not the type of ride a novice should partake in as some of the cutting through traffic, weaving in and out of pedestrians and sudden bursts of speed can be a little hairy at times.
One of the reasons this is the case is the size of the group that can range anywhere between 12 to 50 riders strong. “I think the group protects you in a lot of ways. When you are riding alone you have to take a lot more care and be. A lot more careful.”Fraser has fears that if the ride becomes too big it could change the group’s image: “One of the things that concern us is that with a large volume of people it starts to feel like a protest. We start to become a traffic wedge.” On the rides, however, to support the group and make it as accessible to every type of rider, you are responsible for your own actions and their consequences.
The organisers are always careful to make sure the rides remain safe and Fraser tries his best not to lead the group into too many risky situations: “If I’ve got a group I will stop at a light. I’m not going to do any dangerous stuff. You have to make your calls when you’re at the front. I’ve made bad calls and I’ve gone for it and traffic has arrived and that’s been a nightmare.”
Plenty of couriers frequent the ride outs and they are generally regarded as the most talented and ‘ballsy’ riders in the group. “It’s the hierarchy. The messengers have always been the coolest kids on the scene, they’re doing it day-in, day-out and people want to emulate that. Not always the style but the mess of it all. They also throw the best events. Those guys know how to party and have a good time.”
Fixed gear has been a grey area for the law for a long time but, much like skateboarding, the more it is pushed underground the further these issues around what happens on our roads move away from healthy debate and tensions continue to rise between road users.
However, demonising a sport like this is going to push more young people to make some poor decisions like Charlie Alliston, while cycle couriering will continue to be a part of city life, and with this will come new generations of fixed gear riders who are willing to push the limits of what is possible on two wheels.
*A note for anyone who has been inspired by this story to take up the sport:
I am a cyclist with years of experience racing, competing and riding. Riding fixed is a lot of fun and I hope that you come to enjoy the sport. That said, I have never removed my brakes unless I have been competing in a closed road race event. This is the only time it is legal to do so. When researching this topic I rode with all of the individuals who feature in this article. They are more than skilled enough to be riding brakeless. It takes years of practice and should not be taken up by any beginner or novice riders. Unfortunately, the unthinkable does happen to cyclists, even those who follow all the rules. Please be safe and stay on the right side of the law.
Featured image by Mischa Manser.
Edited by Franziska Eberlein & Kesia Evans.