Sacramento fixed-gear bikes: braking the law

Sacramento police recently began targeting illegal fixed-gear bikes. But are the brake-free rides really dangerous, or are cops simply going after a counterculture scene?

Bicyclists stop their fixed-gear bikes by going against the crank’s rotation (pictured) instead of using a hand brake.

Bicyclists stop their fixed-gear bikes by going against the crank’s rotation (pictured) instead of using a hand brake.

Photo By David Jayne

John Cardiel dashed down Ninth Street on his fixed-gear bike, tearing southward in the right-hand lane, when he heard yelling, which grew louder and closer. He looked over his shoulder and saw two Sacramento police officers on bikes trailing him, hollering, “Stop!”

Cardiel explains that he “skidded to an immediate stop.” Then, he describes that the cops applied their hand brakes and slid past him. “One guy almost fell over. I had more control than they did,” Cardiel remembers.

A professional skateboarder and expert cyclist, Cardiel appears in Colin Arlen and Colby Elrick’s film Macaframa, a documentary showcasing precision tricks and maneuvers by skilled fixed-gear bikers that screened to a sold-out Crest Theatre crowd earlier this year.

But mere blocks from the Crest, Sacramento bike police had pulled the accomplished rider over because he didn’t have a hand brake, which is in violation of California Vehicle Code 21201(a). Fixies, whose popularity has blown up in recent years, have no free wheel and cannot coast, so riders come to a stop by going against the crank’s rotation and skidding instead of using a hand brake.

This year, however, the city began targeting bikes without hand brakes. And so Cardiel received a $25 fix-it ticket and would have to install a new brake.

Other cyclists, though, have had it worse off: City police have confiscated and impounded fixed-gear bikes, costing cyclists hundreds of dollars in fines, repairs and court appearances—and in many cases, their only means of transportation.

“It kind of harshed my summer. I really didn’t want to go downtown anymore. It put a fear of police on my back,” Cardiel says of the incident.

Sacramento’s lead bike cop, Sgt. David Valdez, however, says the city is just enforcing California law, which states: “No person shall operate a bicycle on a roadway unless it is equipped with a brake.” Valdez argues that fixed-gear bicyclists riding without hand brakes are breaking this law.

“It seems to be a trend, not only here but across the nation,” says Valdez. “These bicycles are a danger and present a clear hazard not only for the cyclist but also pedestrians and people in vehicles.”

The city says it has actively been enforcing this law for the past six months.

Cardiel calls the rule “terrible.”

SN&R art director David Jayne stopped and photographed Jacob Swift (left) and Brian Morrison (right) on 20th Street in Midtown. Both riders told Jayne that they’d been pulled over by Sacramento bike police in recent months.

Photo By David Jayne

“I think it’s totally messed up. We’re a society trying to get people out of cars and promote cycling, but on the other hand you’re taking kids’ bikes,” Cardiel says.

Other local cycling experts agree. Sage Bauers, a bike mechanic at south Sacramento’s Bicycle Business, calls the no-brake rule “pretty ridiculous.”

“There are a lot of people who can effectively control their bikes without brakes,” he argues.

The city says that it doesn’t track data on fixed-gear bike violations, but Valdez estimates that he writes at least five citations a week. Both Valdez and Bicycle Business’ Bauers say that fix-it tickets, where the city demands that riders install a hand brake on their fixie, are “common.”

Cardiel thinks all this is causing a “stink between the youth and police.” Of course, as a venerable local skater, he has witnessed this before: police regularly confiscating skateboards and targeting skaters in the ’80s and ’90s.

“It’s such a cliché [and] easy thing to say—‘they’re targeting us!’—but I do feel this. They see these kids riding around [on fixed gears] and they jump on them,” Cardiel says.

What’s more, authorities also have begun seizing and impounding fixed-gear bikes more frequently.

This past July, a longstanding fixed-gear rider—he would prefer to remain anonymous, so we’ll call him “Evan”—was heading west on L Street, near 21st Street, when a Sacramento bike cop pulled him over.

“I asked him why and he said, ‘No brakes,’” Evan says. Earlier that day, Evan’s car caught on fire; he mentioned this to the officer.

“‘Well, your day’s about to get a lot worse, because you’re not leaving with your bicycle,’” the cop said, according to Evan, who pleaded for a fix-it ticket but was denied. Instead, the cop impounded Evan’s bike and sent it to the evidence department off of Richards Boulevard. Evan received a $168 fine, too.

It gets worse.

A cyclist either has to pay the no-brake fine or wait up to 60 days to contest the citation in Sacramento County’s Carol Miller Justice Center. Evan went without transportation for a few weeks, but eventually coughed up the fee and installed a brake on his fixie.

If this fixie bike had a brake, it probably would go here, on the handlebar. Many fixed-gear riders, however, mount their brakes in unconventional locations so as to disguise them.

Photo By David Jayne

Of the new brake, he says he’s “never touched it.”

“[I’m] pretty confident that the police don’t understand these bikes,” says Evan, who argues that fixies “fall within the law” because they are “capable of coming to a one-wheeled skid stop.”

The city police and district attorney’s office both contend, on the other hand, that legs don’t count as a braking mechanism. But Evan points out that there’s no brake in existence that operates without human muscle, whether hands or legs. “I wouldn’t get on a bike without brakes and go down the street. That’s not what [a fixie] is,” he explains.

The district attorney’s office says they’ve seized 18 bikes for “evidence” and 19 for “safekeeping” in 2009.

To get around the police hand-brake-enforcement campaign, Bicycle Business’ Bauers says that fixie riders are installing hand brakes on their bikes in unconventional—and even dangerous—ways.

Typically, hand brakes are fixed on handlebars so that bikers have quick access to them. But because most fixed-gear riders don’t even use hand brakes—and because a fixie’s design aesthetic strives for a minimalist look—Bauers says he’s seen brakes mounted on seat tubes, fork blades (the part of a bike that holds the front wheel) and in places where “it’s totally legal by technicality [but] not useful at all.”

He notes that riding your bike but having to reach down below your seat or between your legs to stop can be awkward, or dangerous, even at slow speeds. But Bauers also says he doesn’t think anyone is using these unconventional brakes anyway.

Both Cardiel and Bauers suggest that police target out-of-control and unsafe bicyclists instead of focusing on a particular model.

“I wouldn’t say it’s an issue of the bike, I would say it’s more an issue with the rider,” Bauers argues. He says some kids will jump onto a brake-free fixed-gear bike and tear around downtown in something “they can’t really control,” and that’s a cause for alarm.

Cardiel agrees. “Some of these kids are going kind of nuts,” he says, but concedes that evaluating whether a rider has control of his bike is “a hard thing to gauge.”

Ultimately, most fixed-gear riders feel this fixie goose chase needs to come to a halt.

Cardiel would like to see more support from the city, like increasing the number of urban bike lanes and more enforcement against red-light violators and sidewalk riders.

“I think it’s really hypocritical, because [the city] wants people to be more conscientious, more eco-friendly and support bike riding,” he says. “But in turn, they’re taking kids’ bikes and trying to make money off of it.”