This is a very common question asked by many people. Especially those who have never experienced riding a fixed-gear bike. Briefly, there is a historical reason: originally fixed-gear bikes were most commonly found in the velodrome and used for track competition.
In a controlled environment like this, speeds are much higher than the speeds riders normally achieve on the roads. Riding close to others, at speed, is dangerous enough without having to worry about the rider in front of you suddenly braking. Such an action could lead to a serious pile-up and injuries.
Also, in a track environment, there is little need to brake or slow the bike down. Therefore fixed-gear track bikes do not need brakes, and the fact that they don’t have them reduces the overall weight of the bike.
Over the years, though, some track bikes have been transitioned onto the road, and nowadays, several manufacturers are actively catering to the fixed-gear road bike trend. Today, riders can choose from traditional track bike designs (no brakes) or fixed-gear bikes with either a single front brake or front and rear brakes.
There’s also the question of where you ride. Some places require at least one brake on a road-going bike to be legal for use on the road.
How do you stop a bike with no brakes?
Let’s be clear about something. A bike that has a freewheel but has no brakes is very different from a fixed-gear, non-freewheeling bike with no brakes. The first would require you to basically skid to a halt or even crash into something to bring the bike to a stop.
I’ve seen riders on BMX and fixed-gear bikes with no brakes simply throw their bikes sideways into a skid to bring it to a halt. Granted, they were riding on dirt trails and not on an asphalted surface. Even so, it’s impressive to see, their feet never came off the pedals, and they showed amazing control. Impressive stuff!
On a bike with a freewheel and no brakes, you have no choice other than to introduce friction somehow as a means of ‘braking’ the bike. On a fixed-gear bike (without freewheel) you simply slow down by pedaling slower, which immediately reduces the speed of the bike.
That’s why there is no need for brakes – the speed of pedaling controls the speed of the bike. You can stop on a dime by simply controlling the pedals. It’s quite similar to engine braking in cars, where you shift down gears to slow the engine rather than use the brakes to bring the vehicle to a stop.
Why would anyone want a bike with no brakes?
There are various points of view on this. Some people prefer to ride fixed (brake-less) bikes because they feel that the riding experience is purer. You get a better connection with the bike, and through the bike, to the road, making the riding experience more engaging. Some simply prefer the cleaner, more streamlined appearance of a bike without all the brake paraphernalia (cables, pads, disc, etc.).
And then there’s the fact that a bike with no brakes is easier to clean, maintain, and is also cheaper to buy. There’s less to worry about, and fewer moving parts to break, fail, or cause problems.
Not all fixies are without brakes
Although purists ride fixed-gear bikes without brakes, many other riders used fixies with either a front brake or front and rear brakes. Having brakes allows you to stop even more effectively, and some would say safely too, whenever you need to.
It’s a personal choice
As previously mentioned, originally track bikes had no brakes to avoid causing a pile-up when racing on the track. But a road-going fixie with no brakes is something seen as being macho. Riders will tell you that they can stop just as quickly even without brakes, even on the road. They claim they can read the road conditions and traffic around them and anticipate the need to brake.
It’s somewhat similar to the divide between those who wear a safety helmet and those who shun them because they’re not cool. Both have their valid arguments, but at the end of the day, it’s very much a personal choice.
My fixed-gear bike is equipped with both front and rear brakes, although neither of them is used frequently. But I like knowing that I can use them if the need ever arises.
Using cadence or your pedal stroke to slow the bike down gives you more control. Using brakes involves a serious transfer of weight to the front of the bike, which can sometimes cause the rear tire to skid along the road. Most of the braking power comes from the front brake, and so naturally your weight shifts forward which can make the rear wheel lift.
Slippery road conditions are where the rear brake comes in handy, as your weight doesn’t shift as much, although many fixie riders would say that on slippery roads it’s always safer to use the concept of engine braking, mentioned previously, to slow the bike down, or bring it to a stop.
Are there any advantages to having no brakes?
Although there are arguments both for and against having brakes on a fixed-gear bike, you should choose whatever you feel most comfortable with. For the purist, who maybe has track experience, a fixie without brakes may be the most natural thing in the world. Other riders, who have transitioned from traditional geared road bikes to a fixie may feel more confident with brakes. Having brakes on a fixed-gear bike doesn’t in any way ruin the riding experience. You still get the main benefit of a fixie (a more engaging ride).
The only real practical benefit of having no brakes is the lack of braking components, which if you ride every day can mean that cleaning, maintenance, and mechanical failure issues are reduced.
And, finally, there’s the consideration of legality for road use. While some states have no specific laws, others stipulate the need for at least a front brake on any bike used on the public road.
Yes, you’ll see some fixed-gear bikes on the road, or elsewhere, without brakes. But it’s very much a personal choice by the rider. Not all fixies come without brakes, and if you feel more confident with brake levers at your fingertips, then you can easily find a selection of fixed-gear bikes that come fully equipped with front and rear brakes. It’s a matter of personal choice.
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