On freewheeling

I’ve been riding the Salsa for almost two months now, which is by far the longest I’ve done on a freewheel since I started riding fixed (I’ve worked precisely one day on the other bike in that time, and have realized that this pricey pricey new ride will also entail an unexpected spin-off expense – I’m going to have to get a new fixie too. My ancient, creaking, dented, falling-apart old Condor just doesn’t measure up. Anyone got a nice new steel track frame (51-53cm) they want to sell me?), even though I never intended it to become my work bike. For me, as for almost all other couriers, it just didn’t make sense to ride a road bike around town, when you have so much more control over the bike on fixed.

I don’t ride brakeless (except for virtually, every couple of months, in between my brake pads wearing out and my getting round to replacing them), but I do – or did – partly agree with the people who claim it’s the safest form of riding. All the control is taken away from the handlebars and moved to the pedals, meaning that your centre of energy is further back and further down, and you’re therefore more stable. You use your feet, legs and hips to propel yourself forward, stop and start, and even steer. It’s more like walking – the same set of muscles and nerve-endings does everything, rather than abdicating control to another set (i.e. the hands and arms) whenever you want to stop.

At the same time, riding fixed/brakeless doesn’t leave you anywhere to hide – you can’t be lazy, and you learn a much higher level of skill and control on the bike very quickly. You become accustomed to reading the road ahead, and to anticipating all the potential movements of each taxi, bus, cyclist and pedestrian, ten seconds into the future, and to plotting contingency and counter-contingency lines through the traffic, in case one of the above suddenly changes direction, or stops in the middle of the road. Your body starts to develop that complex internal calculus that enables you to twist and turn and bend and lean and curve seamlessly through tightly packed traffic jams without putting a foot down; one moment seeing a two-foot gap; the next moment ducking through it, and making a split second decision whether to go left – round the back of the bus and up its inside – or right – along the side of the bus, and round the front, hoping there’s another gap there. If there isn’t then there’ll be another split-second change of plan, a tiny pressure on the pedals, a momentary halt, reappraisal, recalculation and adjustment, and then a tight swoop in the opposite direction.

If you’re riding brakeless, they say, you learn to predict every possible eventuality several seconds before you normally would, because you’re not going to stop, so if one gap closes, you have to sight another one and plot a course through it, without breaking course. Brakeless cyclists are therefore by far the most skilled.

But is this actually true? I’m beginning to wonder. Because managing a road bike in heavy traffic is also extremely difficult – and demands a whole new set of skills, which I’ve only recently begun to appreciate.

When you go back to gears and freewheels after a long time on fixed, the first impression is of a terrifying lack of control. If you stop pedalling, the bike carries on just as it was – it’s like those nightmares of tumbling down a hill in a car, desperately pumping the foot pedals, and yet nothing happens. Braking with your hands rather than your feet seems scarily counter-intuitive. And you feel almost slightly drunk – the bike is slipping and sliding all over the road, with none of the snug discipline you had riding fixed, where every curve could be modified at any point: change the pressure on the pedals, shift your weight in the saddle, and even mid-swing, the bike will find a new course, and neatly circumnavigate that pothole you noticed a fraction of a second after the last minute.

You can’t do this with a freewheel. I spent my first couple of weeks on the Salsa loving it, but wondering why anyone would voluntarily ride unfixed in London. The line I wove through the traffic was necessarily wavy and unwieldy. I’d frequently fail to squeeze and tilt myself through the smaller gaps, and have to put a foot down, or come to a crashing halt against the bumper of a van (which, naturally, made me lots of friends). I’d start off swinging round the corner of a bus at a certain trajectory, then the vehicle next to it would move closer, or stop when I’d expected it to carry on moving forward, and I’d find myself unable to tighten my curve, and judder to halt, often with both feet on the ground and my bike at a silly angle between my legs, looking like the clueless amateur I thought I no longer was.

But I’ve become a lot more adept in the past month – and started to wonder whether riding with a freewheel doesn’t demand more control and mastery of the bike, the body and the route than riding fixed. Contrary to popular expectation, you actually have to plan further ahead when riding a freewheel, because there’s less possibility of changing or modifying your course half a second down the line, when you realize that wasn’t going to work after all. You learn to read between the lines of the traffic. It’s no use launching yourself round the corner of the bus, hoping for the best, and prepared to change your mind if the worst happens instead, because once you’ve committed to a curve, you can’t duck back out of it and twist back the other way. So you find ways of looking under or through the bus, or monitoring the movement of the traffic you can see around it, to try and ascertain whether there’s anything behind it. Or just keeping it in your sights several seconds before you actually reach it, to see if anything’s about to pass it on the other side.

Cycling through traffic involves awesome feats of internal mathematics that my conscious brain could never hope to accomplish. You plot a curve to your right, round that taxi, taking into account the couple of feet it will have moved in relation to the white van next to it by the time you reach it – and then that curve gives way to a leftward curve, across the front of the taxi, and behind the luton van that a second ago was in a completely different lane. You already have the leftward curve all plotted out, before you even start the rightward one, as well as the exact way in which the one will segue into the other. On fixed you can stop-stop-start, and change your mind at the last minute, or slow down your trajectory if the luton van moves into place slightly slower than you anticipated in your calculations. On a freewheel you don’t have that luxury. So there’s more chance of failure, and having to put a foot down while waiting for the luton van to get in behind the bus pulling away in front of him, that you didn’t see at first, and more of a need to plan your attack five vehicles ahead, rather than just two.

And your reactions get quicker too. You know when cutting between two lanes of traffic just isn’t working, so you swerve right between two cars, to ride down the outside? And that it’s always a good idea to check behind you as you pull out, to make sure someone else isn’t already riding down the outside, about to crash into you? On fixed this is much easier. You swerve right, you pause infinitesimally as you emerge from between the cars, flick your head to the right to check the lane’s clear, and then put the pressure back on the pedals, lower your shoulder, curl to the left, and accelerate off down the centre line. With a freewheel it’s a different matter – you can’t pause. So you get used to a) being aware of what might be coming down the outside of the lane a lot sooner – as soon as you decide to turn, in fact; and b) flicking your head to the right much more quickly as you pull out, and focusing your eyes more quickly too, because there’s no way of pausing, and much less time to react to whatever you might see. In a way, it’s more of a risk too – like storming through a junction at top speed with no brakes, trusting to luck that you’ve managed to take in all the approaching vehicles in the split second you had to check, and hoping against hope that those you haven’t seen will be kind enough not to hit you. And I’m normally a very risk-averse rider.

I’ve been thinking about going brakeless for some time – for all the above reasons, because it’s arguably safer, and better for skill and discipline and control. And because I’m a lazy mechanic, and it would mean one less component to keep up to scratch. And because now, after two months of swimming through London traffic on a freewheel, brakeless actually seems a much easier and less scary prospect.

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9 Responses to “On freewheeling”

  1. Exenger of Doom Says:

    Brakeless is never safer.

    If you have brakes on your bike, you don’t have to use them. Especially in flat cities like London. But having no brakes means that you never have the opportunity to use them if you ever need them.

    Riding brakeless is no good for your knees either.

    If you do decide to ride brakeless you’d better hope that your knees can stand the constant opposing force, and that you never end up in a situation where you need more friction to stop you than that between your back tyre and the road. And you’d better pray that your chain never snaps and never comes off the sprocket or chainring, and be prepared to make ‘alternative arrangements’ if that does happen. 1/8″ chains are hard to snap, and with a straight chainline and the correct tension it’s highly unlikely to pop off the gears. But it happens.

  2. thatmessengerchick Says:

    Well, true, true.

    But I do wonder. Most of my serious accidents on fixed (including a broken arm and a buckled Surly Steamroller frame) have been caused (or exacerbated) by panic-braking, and I’d be interested to know how they’d have worked if I hadn’t had the option of braking. Maybe better, maybe worse.

    And I’ve almost always ridden with two brakes (three, if you count the fixed wheel), just because I like to feel extra-safe – and to be extra-sanctimonious when taken to task by the ignorant all-fixies-are-brakeless brigade. Like you say, I don’t have to use them. But I feel that knowing they’re there makes me lazy. I’d be a lot more skilled, better at trackstanding, skidding, handling, stopping, starting, etc. if I didn’t have the brakes to rely on. The next bike I’m planning will have bullhorns and a Goldfinger, which should make braking a little less automatic, at least, since I’d have to change my hand position.

    And also, in terms of safety, I think this is a bit like the helmet debate – i.e. it’s safer to be wearing a helmet (or to have two brakes) if something goes wrong, but that’s a worst-case scenario, and until something *does* go wrong, I think it’s more important to be riding in the most skilled, conscious, controlled way possible, so as to reduce the possibility of anything going wrong.

    But I’m in two minds. I don’t really KNOW yet. And we’ll see about the knees – mine seem to cope a lot better with fixed than free, for some reason.

    • Exenger of Doom Says:

      Ok, Ok. Apart from the helmet analogy (they’re for personal protection only, whereas brakes are for personal safety and the safety of everyone else using the road) I agree with some of your points. But how about this. Riding brakeless is against the law!

      How would you feel if you hit someone, and, even though it was 100% their fault, you got the blame and a heavy fine because you didn’t have a front brake? As a professional courier your bike should be professionally set up, i.e. as safe as possible.

      I’d advise against riding brakeless for liability reasons if not for safety. There’s always Herne Hill for brake-free riding…

  3. thatmessengerchick Says:

    Oh yes, there’s that too. One of the London courier companies actually has a policy that none of their riders is allowed to ride brakeless – which is why so many of them ride with a pointless disconnected front brake, or just avoid parking their bike anywhere near the office.

    This is largely an academic argument anyway – you’ve reminded me of all the reasons I had for not going brakeless in the first place. But I might go ahead with the bullhorns/goldfinger plan – it seems like a good compromise.

    Ooh, and I’m about to move to a place about half a mile from Herne Hill!

  4. thatmessengerchick Says:

    P.s. Isn’t the cyclist always liable anyway, in a collision with a pedestrian, even if the cyclist has six brakes and the pedestrian crossed against the lights? (I think so, anyway. Must look it up…)

  5. Redbike Says:

    Thats a very intresting post. It’s very clear that i’ve been riding fixed all wrong. I find it MUCH harder to stop and change direction riding fixed than freewheel.

    Firstly I cannot slow the bike down via the pedals. Any attempt either results in me locking out my legs then being thrown around like a rag doll by the bike, or if I shift my weight forward the back wheel locks and slides sideways.

    When I corner quickly on a geared bike I put the outside foot down and all my weight on that foot. When I corner on a fixie my weight seems to act on the bike via the saddle, so my center of gravity is much higher up and the bike feels very unstable.

    Lastly, when I need to stop quickly on a geared bike I drop off the back of the saddle and dip my heels so my weights as low down as possible and pressing into the pedals not the handlebars or saddle. When I need to stop quickly on the fixie I can’t get my backside off the saddle and I find myself pushing against the handlebars instead of the pedals. This means the backwheel comes up and i’m highly likely to go over the bars. It take me a lot longer to bring the fixie to a hault than my geared bike.

    I’ve known for a long time that my fixed gear riding technique was pants. This post has just shown me how rubbish I really am!

  6. Exenger of Doom Says:

    I wouldn’t have thought so.. I’ve crashed into two pedestrians who crossed without looking, (number 1, and number 2) and both times I admitted to the police that I could have avoided it if I had been thinking ahead and just slowed down instead of trying to manouvre around them. Both times I had been rushing as I was late for pickups. I especially should have avoided the second one – that one was an ine. Both times they said it was more the pedestrian’s fault and I never got any comeback. In London though, people are probably more litigous and perhaps there’s more prejudice against cyclists.

  7. thatmessengerchick Says:

    I’ve crashed into two pedestrians too (interestingly both on the same day), both times their fault, both times women not looking where they were going. Clearly we should just ban women. But thankfully I came off worse than they did in both cases, and there was no need for an ambulance.

    (Was very much joking about the banning women bit – but I did spend half an hour on standby in the city this afternoon, noticing how many women are tottering around on ridiculously high stilettos, and thinking ‘I hope I’m not around when she rushes across the road without looking, then trips over her own feet, or gets a heel caught in a drain cover, or something’. And also thinking how bloody unfair it was that the men don’t have to wear them too.)

    And I’ve heard comforting tales of pedestrians being told off by policemen for crossing in front of cyclists. It’s just years of hearsay on cycling forums that makes me think the cyclist is always at fault – I’ve never actually looked it up. We don’t have a law against jaywalking in this country though, and apparently that puts more onus on the vehicle. Hmmmmm.

    I don’t think people are necessarily more litigious in London, but there was that case in the US, where a courier hit a jaywalker, and put him in a coma for ages, and when he woke up he successfully campaigned for all couriers to be license-plated, or something. Nightmare. I’ll look it up…

  8. 24tee Says:

    If you ride fixed with no brakes you learn to 1) look ahead 2) turn very fast 3) not expend your energy.

    It’s not safer, it is far more dangerous.

    It is not easier, it is much harder.

    Because it has no safety option (it all went wrong so I pulled the brakes) it is far more skilled if you want to do it right, which is what you do want to do because you’d like to stay alive.

    And yes, London is a flat city where it really is quite easy, no cobble stones, no sharp down-hills with a T-junction at the bottom, no snow or ice.

    No, I don’t recommend it unless you are already there and stuck with your ways 😉

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