A local court in the German city of Bonn has ruled this week that the fixed-gear on so-called "fixie" bicycles should be recognized as a braking system. It's a case that is likely to draw considerable attention in a country that in recent weeks has been cracking down on the popular bicycles which, once used exclusively as racing bikes in velodromes, have now become popular with bike messengers and everyday cyclists.
Fixies have a single gear and they lack the free-wheel mechanism standard in today's cycles that allow a bike's wheels to revolve even if the pedals aren't turning. In their original incarnation as racing bikes, fixies did not have any brakes. Riders would stop by simply not pedalling -- this meant their rear wheel stopped. However German law requires that all bicycles used on the street have front and rear brakes. Which has led many to describe the bicycles as dangerous and, unmodified, illegal.
In the Bonn case, the court overturned a €55 fine a police officer had slapped on the owner of a fixie. Like many fixie riders worried about the law and road safety, the owner had installed a front brake on the cycle. But authorities argued that because the bike lacked a second brake, it still represented a threat to public safety.
In appealing the fine, the cyclist's lawyer argued that the law defined a brake as part of a vehicle that serves to reduce that vehicle's speed. By that definition, a fixed-gear should be considered equivalent to brakes, the lawyer successfully argued.
Despite the ruling, owners of fixies without a rear brake mounted may still have to argue with the German police. The trade newspaper Pressedienst-Fahrrad says that the case is not expected to serve as a country-wide precedent. Additionally German law requires plenty of other safety equipment on a bicycle, such as reflectors, bells and lights. A lot of fixies tend toward the lightweight and minimal and don't often come with those items. In Bonn, the fixie owner's fine was reduced to €15 because, although the judge may have recognized that he had back brakes, he didn't have a bell or side reflectors.
Police in the German capital of Berlin, where a 32-year-old fixie rider recently suffered serious head injuries , have warned that the cycles are extremely dangerous. "The so-called 'fixie' bicycles are either poorly equipped with safety features or have none whatsoever," police said in a statement. "The use of such bicycles is considered very dangerous, threatening the life, limb and general well-being of the riders themselves -- no matter how experienced they are -- as well as any other road users."
In cities across Germany, police have been confiscating fixies and fining their owners. Despite that though, as in the United States, the expensive bikes have found a growing cult following in Europe.