Fixed-wheel bikes are the latest trend in cycling. But Berlin police are worried that riders who are choosing the cycles because they are fashionable may be endangering their own, and others', lives.
After a 32-year-old cyclist recently came off his bicycle and suffered serious head injuries in the center of the German capital, local traffic police issued a stern warning. "The so-called 'fixie' bicycles ... are either poorly equipped with safety features or have none whatsoever," the statement read. "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."
The strongly worded press release follows on from a minor police crackdown on so-called "fixies" -- fixed wheel bikes -- over the past few months that saw cycles in Berlin confiscated and owners fined. The news caused something of a conflagration on cycling Web sites worldwide, as riders asked whether their expensive new bikes were now illegal. "Berlin Bans Brakeless Bikes" was the headline on the New York Times blog Freakonomics.
Similar scenes have played out on the streets of other European cities where fixies are becoming more popular. Bonn police have been known to ticket fixie riders for a lack of brakes, while in Copenhagen, bike-mounted police have reportedly been on the lookout for bicycles with no brakes. Meanwhile in the US, where fixies have been popular for some time, having your brake-less bicycle ticketed or confiscated is common.
"It's just a big fuss about nothing," one Berlin-based fixie fan, who had read the Berlin police press release and who preferred to remain anonymous, told SPIEGEL ONLINE. "It sounds like the guy who came off his bike (in Berlin) didn't actually have his front wheel attached properly. And he did have front brakes." He admitted, however, that he could understand the concerns of people who were not familiar with the bikes. "If you don't know how a fixed-wheel bike works and you hear that people are riding around without brakes, it does sound dangerous."
So how exactly does a fixie work? These types of cycles were once racing bikes, confined to the velodrome track. Fast and light, they lack what is called a free-wheel mechanism -- the device that allows a bike's wheels to revolve even if the pedals are not. It also means the bikes only have one gear.
As a result, a fixie rider has to keep pedaling the whole time -- because if the pedals are not going round, then neither are the wheels and the bike comes to a halt. Aside from their racing genes, this is part of the reason fixies often don't have any brakes: Experienced riders simply stop by not pedaling.
Over the past two years, fixed wheel bikes have quietly migrated from the racetrack onto the streets. Initially they were the favored ride of those tenacious urban athletes cycle couriers, who could be seen snaking between parked cars and stalled traffic on their fixies. More recently, the fixie has started to reach beyond its cult following to a wider audience, following a trans-Atlantic path from cities like New York and San Francisco to London and now across to Europe.
Business Is Booming
It may be a small, mostly urban segment of the cycle market, but it is also a growing one. Many mainstream bicycling companies have introduced at least one fixed-gear model into their ranges over the past couple of years. In the US, for instance, Raleigh introduced a fixed-gear model in 2005 -- their first since 1980. Meanwhile in Germany, the Karlsruhe-based company Fixie Inc, which was founded in 2005, says that, although their sales have remained fairly steady -- they make more expensive fixies and beginners tend toward cheaper models -- enquiries have boomed this summer.
The clean, retro lines, minimalist aesthetic and simple engineering have turned the fixie into something of a fashion trend in cycling. Not to mention how it feels to ride one -- as one bike mechanic told Wired magazine: "Learning how to ride a fixie was like drinking decaf your whole life and then suddenly having the real thing."
Gary Graham, who runs Keirin, a Berlin bike and coffee shop that specializes in fixed-wheel cycles says that the whole thing about feeling at one with your fixie is one of the biggest clichés about the cult bikes. "But it is actually true," he says. "When you start riding a fixie, it's like you discover riding a bike all over again. It's not like riding a normal bike. It's very instinctual and it feels more natural."
Graham, who has been riding a fixie for the past eight years without any accidents, says that it is in the past two summers that he has really noticed fixies getting more popular. He likens the growing interest in fixies to the 1990s trend for mountain biking. "The best thing about it is that it's getting more people on bicycles," he says.
However that, according to some, is also part of the current police problem with fixies. People who don't know how to ride a fixie are getting on them just because they are fashionable. And that can be dangerous: Inexperienced riders can easily take a tumble when trying to stop on a brake-less fixie.
As German law currently stands, every bicycle on Germany's roads must have a brake on each wheel, as well as a bell, reflectors, lights and other safety equipment. Which means that, as Benno Koch, Berlin's ombudsman for cyclists, recently told Germany-based English language Web site The Local, the police have little choice but to act. They have to punish offenders on brake-less fixies in much the same way they would ticket riders of ordinary bikes who don't have reflectors or bells.
Asked what he thinks of the current police attitude toward fixies, Holger Patzelt, one of the founders of the bike maker Fixie Inc, defends the purists who, like him, started riding their fixed-wheel bikes before they became a fashion statement.
"But there's nothing wrong with having a brake put on a fixie," he says. "In fact, it's a good idea. Just in case."