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.