Today’s Violation

I’ve said it before – strict compliance with traffic rules is not my #1 priority when riding in the city. And while I’ll be the first to admit that sometimes my transgressions are driven by efficiency (sorry pedestrians; I’m not going to sacrifice my uphill momentum so you can lazily saunter across Pine), more often than not it’s because a driver is doing something stupid.

I’ve developed a radar for incipient driver stupidity. Catch even a whiff of it and I’m out of there, red light be damned.

Like this morning. Lady pulls up next to me in the curb (right turn only) lane on SB 15th at John. I’ve taken the center lane and am waiting for the light and she’s inching forward. I just know she’s going to cut me off so she can go straight.

So rather than let her try to gun it, cut me off and dodge pedestrians, I just pedal through the red light. And while I don’t go looking for rules to break, I probably end up doing something similar at least once every day.

So no, I’m no model of cycling rule obedience – but I’d rather be safe than right.

What rules do you break to stay safe when riding?

Fixed Gear Braking

Comments in response to my earlier post about the dangers of fixed-gear fashion got me thinking that there may be an even bigger blind spot than I had thought when it comes to the physical reality of trying to stop a fixed-gear bike by pedaling backward.

Unless you’ve tried it, it’s hard to explain how different it is than pedaling backward on the one-speeds and BMX bikes we all grew up with. But I’ll try.

The bikes of our childhood used coaster brakes. They were single speeds, with freewheels (permitting coasting). Pedaling backward actuated the coaster brake mechanism in the rear hub, stopping the wheel. This mechanism uses leverage, just like rim or disc brakes. Leverage allows a small amount of effort to have a major impact on stopping the wheel’s rotation. Physics 101.

A fixed gear does not have a braking mechanism in the rear hub. You stop the wheel’s rotation by stopping pedaling. Easy, right?

Wrong. Because you can’t take advantage of leverage, your legs are in a 1:1 struggle with the momentum of your bike. Above a certain speed – and it’s far lower than you might think before climbing on a fixie for the first time; probably 10-12 MPH – you will be powerless to stop your bike in anything resembling an acceptable distance by backpedaling. The momentum of your bike will pull your legs along through the pedalling motion, despite your efforts to stop. And at downhill speeds, with momentum and gravity working against you, you will not be able to stop at all, or even slow down that much, without mastering techniques to unload your rear tire so you can stop it and skid.

There’s a lot of fashion sense that goes into choosing to ride a bike without brakes, but it’s important to realize how much this compromises your safety. It’s not the adult equivalent of riding the Schwinn you tooled around on at age 9.

Bike Deaths and Fixie Fashion

This has been a sobering ending to what passes for summer in Seattle, with three recent cycling deaths on and around Capitol Hill. I was down in South Lake Union today for lunch and saw the sobering “ghost bike” at the corner where Mike Wang was killed in a hit and run accident; Cafe Vivace manager Brian Fairbrother suffered fatal injuries in a crash only blocks away; and this last weekend brought news of a Jimmy Johns delivery rider, Robert Townsend, dying after a crash in the U-District.

I’m sure to a certain extent this is just tragic coincidence. Cycling in Seattle doesn’t feel any less safe to me. But it’s distressing all the same. And in the case of Townsend, the investigation may well reveal that his choice of fixed gear fashion (he was apparently riding a fixed gear bike with no brakes) contributed to the result.

Folks, if you’re going to ride fixed-gear in Seattle, either get some brakes or stick to the bike polo courts. Stripping off the safety gear for fashions’ sake is as pathetic as being the latest hipster sporting a full beard and porkpie hat – and a hell of a lot more dangerous.