Sacramento fixed-gear bikes: braking the law
Sacramento police recently began targeting illegal fixed-gear bikes.
But are the brake-free rides really dangerous, or are cops simply
going after a counterculture scene?
By Nick Miller
This article was published on 10.22.09.
Bicyclists stop their fixed-gear bikes by going against the crank’s
rotation (pictured) instead of using a hand brake.
PHOTO BY DAVID JAYNE
John Cardiel dashed down Ninth Street on his fixed-gear bike, tearing
southward in the right-hand lane, when he heard yelling, which grew
louder and closer. He looked over his shoulder and saw two Sacramento
police officers on bikes trailing him, hollering, “Stop!”
Cardiel explains that he “skidded to an immediate stop.” Then, he
describes that the cops applied their hand brakes and slid past him.
“One guy almost fell over. I had more control than they did,” Cardiel
A professional skateboarder and expert cyclist, Cardiel appears in
Colin Arlen and Colby Elrick’s film Macaframa, a documentary
showcasing precision tricks and maneuvers by skilled fixed-gear bikers
that screened to a sold-out Crest Theatre crowd earlier this year.
But mere blocks from the Crest, Sacramento bike police had pulled the
accomplished rider over because he didn’t have a hand brake, which is
in violation of California Vehicle Code 21201(a). Fixies, whose
popularity has blown up in recent years, have no free wheel and cannot
coast, so riders come to a stop by going against the crank’s rotation
and skidding instead of using a hand brake.
This year, however, the city began targeting bikes without hand
brakes. And so Cardiel received a $25 fix-it ticket and would have to
install a new brake.
Other cyclists, though, have had it worse off: City police have
confiscated and impounded fixed-gear bikes, costing cyclists hundreds
of dollars in fines, repairs and court appearances—and in many cases,
their only means of transportation.
“It kind of harshed my summer. I really didn’t want to go downtown
anymore. It put a fear of police on my back,” Cardiel says of the
Sacramento’s lead bike cop, Sgt. David Valdez, however, says the city
is just enforcing California law, which states: “No person shall
operate a bicycle on a roadway unless it is equipped with a brake.”
Valdez argues that fixed-gear bicyclists riding without hand brakes
are breaking this law.
“It seems to be a trend, not only here but across the nation,” says
Valdez. “These bicycles are a danger and present a clear hazard not
only for the cyclist but also pedestrians and people in vehicles.”
The city says it has actively been enforcing this law for the past six
Cardiel calls the rule “terrible.”
SN&R art director David Jayne stopped and photographed Jacob Swift
(left) and Brian Morrison (right) on 20th Street in Midtown. Both
riders told Jayne that they’d been pulled over by Sacramento bike
police in recent months.
PHOTO BY DAVID JAYNE
“I think it’s totally messed up. We’re a society trying to get people
out of cars and promote cycling, but on the other hand you’re taking
kids’ bikes,” Cardiel says.
Other local cycling experts agree. Sage Bauers, a bike mechanic at
south Sacramento’s Bicycle Business, calls the no-brake rule “pretty
“There are a lot of people who can effectively control their bikes
without brakes,” he argues.
The city says that it doesn’t track data on fixed-gear bike
violations, but Valdez estimates that he writes at least five
citations a week. Both Valdez and Bicycle Business’ Bauers say that
fix-it tickets, where the city demands that riders install a hand
brake on their fixie, are “common.”
Cardiel thinks all this is causing a “stink between the youth and
police.” Of course, as a venerable local skater, he has witnessed this
before: police regularly confiscating skateboards and targeting
skaters in the ’80s and ’90s.
“It’s such a cliché [and] easy thing to say—‘they’re targeting us!’—
but I do feel this. They see these kids riding around [on fixed gears]
and they jump on them,” Cardiel says.
What’s more, authorities also have begun seizing and impounding fixed-
gear bikes more frequently.
This past July, a longstanding fixed-gear rider—he would prefer to
remain anonymous, so we’ll call him “Evan”—was heading west on L
Street, near 21st Street, when a Sacramento bike cop pulled him over.
“I asked him why and he said, ‘No brakes,’” Evan says. Earlier that
day, Evan’s car caught on fire; he mentioned this to the officer.
“‘Well, your day’s about to get a lot worse, because you’re not
leaving with your bicycle,’” the cop said, according to Evan, who
pleaded for a fix-it ticket but was denied. Instead, the cop impounded
Evan’s bike and sent it to the evidence department off of Richards
Boulevard. Evan received a $168 fine, too.
It gets worse.
A cyclist either has to pay the no-brake fine or wait up to 60 days to
contest the citation in Sacramento County’s Carol Miller Justice
Center. Evan went without transportation for a few weeks, but
eventually coughed up the fee and installed a brake on his fixie.
If this fixie bike had a brake, it probably would go here, on the
handlebar. Many fixed-gear riders, however, mount their brakes in
unconventional locations so as to disguise them.
PHOTO BY DAVID JAYNE
Of the new brake, he says he’s “never touched it.”
“[I’m] pretty confident that the police don’t understand these bikes,”
says Evan, who argues that fixies “fall within the law” because they
are “capable of coming to a one-wheeled skid stop.”
The city police and district attorney’s office both contend, on the
other hand, that legs don’t count as a braking mechanism. But Evan
points out that there’s no brake in existence that operates without
human muscle, whether hands or legs. “I wouldn’t get on a bike without
brakes and go down the street. That’s not what [a fixie] is,” he
The district attorney’s office says they’ve seized 18 bikes for
“evidence” and 19 for “safekeeping” in 2009.
To get around the police hand-brake-enforcement campaign, Bicycle
Business’ Bauers says that fixie riders are installing hand brakes on
their bikes in unconventional—and even dangerous—ways.
Typically, hand brakes are fixed on handlebars so that bikers have
quick access to them. But because most fixed-gear riders don’t even
use hand brakes—and because a fixie’s design aesthetic strives for a
minimalist look—Bauers says he’s seen brakes mounted on seat tubes,
fork blades (the part of a bike that holds the front wheel) and in
places where “it’s totally legal by technicality [but] not useful at
He notes that riding your bike but having to reach down below your
seat or between your legs to stop can be awkward, or dangerous, even
at slow speeds. But Bauers also says he doesn’t think anyone is using
these unconventional brakes anyway.
Both Cardiel and Bauers suggest that police target out-of-control and
unsafe bicyclists instead of focusing on a particular model.
“I wouldn’t say it’s an issue of the bike, I would say it’s more an
issue with the rider,” Bauers argues. He says some kids will jump onto
a brake-free fixed-gear bike and tear around downtown in something
“they can’t really control,” and that’s a cause for alarm.
Cardiel agrees. “Some of these kids are going kind of nuts,” he says,
but concedes that evaluating whether a rider has control of his bike
is “a hard thing to gauge.”
Ultimately, most fixed-gear riders feel this fixie goose chase needs
to come to a halt.
Cardiel would like to see more support from the city, like increasing
the number of urban bike lanes and more enforcement against red-light
violators and sidewalk riders.
“I think it’s really hypocritical, because [the city] wants people to
be more conscientious, more eco-friendly and support bike riding,” he
says. “But in turn, they’re taking kids’ bikes and trying to make
money off of it.”