By Paul Richards
On Sunday, October 2 NTV’s Bankisha news program aired a segment about the dangers of fixed gear bicycles on city streets. The reason for the program was the fatal accident last month in Shibuya caused by a fixed gear bicycle that had been stripped of its hand brakes. The Yomiuri Online reports that there are two other related deaths in Kanagawa Prefecture as well. In Japan, it is required by law for bicycles to have both front and rear brakes. It is punishable by a 50,000 yen fine. Police have recently stepped up their vigilance in ticketing offenders. Last month, in Nagoya, a company employee was given a “Red Ticket” (aka kippu) and most notably, comedian Fukuda Mitsunori, 36, of the comedy team Tutorial, received a ticket for riding a piste bike without brakes on October 28.
These incidents are raising a furor among people and spurred the police to crackdown on illegal fixies. The offense is riding a bicycle with inadequate equipment.
For those who don’t know, most brake-less bicycles are inspired by bicycles used for track racing. These bicycles are often called piste bicycles. Piste is a French word meaning track or trail which the bike racing sport has borrowed from downhill skiing. Another name for piste bikes is fixed gear bikes or fixies. Piste bikes have a lean, minimalist look to them as there are no brakes and no gears. The lack of extra cabling and hardware gives them a sleek, stripped down esthetic that has become fashionable among certain groups of bike riders. You might reasonably ask, how are such bicycles stopped if they don’t have brakes. They are stopped by attempting to pedal backwards. This isn’t like the coaster brakes you probably had on your first bike when you were a kid. Without the freewheel hub in the back there is no coasting with fixed gear bicycles. The pedals don’t stop turning until the bike loses momentum or the rider forces it to slow down by pushing backward on the pedals until the bike comes to a complete stop or the wheel locks or the rider crashes into
Though I don’t own a fixed gear bicycle, I have ridden bicycles with inadequate braking ability due to worn pads. The first time I was cut off by a truck driver and had no recourse but to barrel head first into the passenger side door. I credit my helmet for keeping my gray matter inside my skull. Now if my brakes had been better maintained I might have avoided meeting the truck door up close and personal or at least minimized the impact. The second time was a case of me not learning my lesson. After my narrow escape from being road ragu you would think I would have rushed right out and gotten my brakes into tip-top shape. But I didn’t. I approached a corner as a car passed me. Realizing that the driver intended to turn right I attempted to slow down but my brakes just didn’t have enough purchase on the rim to slow me down in time to careen off of the side of the car. It wasn’t the driver’s fault. While she may have cut it a little too close after passing me she did make a legal turn. It was my own fault that I side swiped her door because I didn’t keep my brakes maintained. The Bankisha program pitted a professional keirin racer on a brake-less piste bike against an ordinary mamachari. At around 30 kph the mamachari was able to come to a compete stop within 6 meters but it the piste bike over 21 meters to stop completely. The video is pretty damning evidence. That additional 15 meters could easily take you through a cross walk filled with people into the middle of a busy intersection.
My take on the fixed gear issue is that bicycles equipment should be safe and ridden in the environment they were designed for. Track bikes should stay on the track or on such empty roads that they pose no significant danger to the rider or other road users. (I don’t know of any roads like that in the Tokyo Metropolitan area.) Bikes that take to the streets and sidewalks must have two sets of well maintained brakes. The streets in most Japanese streets are just too crowded with vulnerable road users to take chances.
Yomiuri Online (Japanese Text only)
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