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Fixie cyclists understand need for new brake requirement, but worry some will break the rules

Fixie cyclists understand need for new brake requirement, but worry some will break the rules

Fixed-gear bicycle riders during a group event. (Photo: Instagram/mmrsg)

SINGAPORE: After reading about a teenager who fell six storeys to her death at a car park when she lost control of her brakeless fixed-gear bicycle last January, Mr Muhammad Harish Daniel had a change of preference on his choice of bike.

The 27-year-old undergraduate has two types of fixed-gear bicycles, commonly known as fixies - one with brakes and another without. The tragic news made him ride the brakeless one more frequently.

Fixies do not usually come with brakes. While the bicycle is moving, it cannot freewheel and its pedals keep spinning by design. Therefore, riders have to resist the pedals to slow down.

"I knew something was bound to happen (to brakeless bicycles)," Mr Harish, who rides his fixies two to three times a week, told CNA. "So it becomes something like: 'Do it before it becomes illegal.'"

READ: No more brakeless bicycles on public paths and roads in future as Government accepts advisory panel's review

On Monday (Jan 25), his prediction came true.

The Ministry of Transport (MOT) announced that brakeless bicycles will no longer be allowed on public paths and roads in future. It came after a review by the Active Mobility Advisory Panel, which cited the fatal accident involving the teenage girl in its report to the ministry.

"This was welcomed by the active mobility community, retailers and pedestrians," MOT said on Monday. "We will work closely with the panel to implement it. More details will be announced in due course."

READ: Girl died after being flung off fixed-gear bike at multi-storey car park in unfortunate misadventure: Coroner

Mr Harish said he understands the ministry's decision, noting that it is in the interest of safety after the fatal accident had put a spotlight on fixies. 

"It was only a matter of time," he added. "One life is already too many. To prevent further cases, they have to step up (regulations)."

While seasoned fixie cyclists CNA spoke to said they accept the move, they feel disappointed as they said some younger and inexperienced members of the community are the ones riding recklessly.

Brakes also disrupt the clean and minimalist design of fixies, they said, adding that an extra moving part will also go against what is traditionally a low maintenance bicycle.

Bike shops selling fixies told CNA they will abide by the rule, but were concerned about riders who choose to remove the brakes anyway. One former employee said he foresees some non-compliance, which could lead to harsher enforcement.

CLEAN DESIGNS AND BLACK SHEEP 

Beyond stunts, Mr Harish said "having no handbrakes is part of the image, experience and excitement" of riding fixies, which usually look very easy on the eye.

"The addition of a brake somehow ruins the coolness of the bike," he said. "Because you want to make your bike clean, with no hand levers or cables running down."

Once the new rule kicks in, Mr Harish said he has no choice but to hang his brakeless fixie on the wall as decor, or use it in a controlled environment, like in a circuit or velodrome.

"The adrenaline of not having a brake pushes you even further and heightens your awareness and senses," he added, calling the riding of fixies both a culture and sport.

"If you put brakes and you over rely on it, you might actually still have accidents, with or without brakes."

READ: All bicycles on public paths and roads should have brakes installed, says advisory panel

Fellow fixie cyclist Mr Jamal, who only wanted to be known by his first name, said adding a brake could dilute the experience of riding a fixie.

"If you are experienced in riding a fixed-gear, you can really feel how connected the bike is to you," said the 39-year-old, who has been riding fixies for more than a decade.

But Mr Jamal said a few black sheep have given the community a bad name.

"I'm a bit disappointed because some kids will ride fixies recklessly," he said. "They just do it for the trend and not as a passion."

Mr Jamal, who works as a courier delivering documents on his brakeless fixie five days a week in the central business district, said he will switch to a single-speed bike with brakes once the rule kicks in.

He had bought the latter in February last year after also reading about the fatal accident and predicting that brakes will become mandatory.

"I'm already prepared for it, so it shouldn't be a problem for me," he added.

TESTING THE SYSTEM

Bike shops selling fixies also seem prepared for the move.

Fixie Singapore owner Ethan Tan told CNA the new requirement might even help his business, as fixie riders have one extra part to buy and maintain.

In fact, he said customers who buy fixies in recent years are choosing to install brakes, noting that older riders are getting involved in the scene.

"Five years ago, of course there a lot of people who don't put brakes," he said.

However, he expressed concern that once the new rule kicks in, some younger customers will remove the brakes after purchase.

"I worry that they will make the bicycle an illegal thing," he added, noting that effective enforcement, as with the personal mobility device ban on footpaths, is needed.

READ: Singapore sees cycling boom amid COVID-19, with increased ridership and bicycle sales

Mr Tee Khai Woen, who used to work as a mechanic at fixie dealer Fishtail Cyclery, said some younger, first-time customers have chosen not to put brakes even when advised to. 

"They say their friends will laugh at them," said the 24-year-old full-time national serviceman, who has used fixies for six years.

"There's this whole peer pressure thing that if you ride a fixie and have a brake on, then you're not as good as the rest and your friends will pick on you for it. So there's stigma that causes newer riders to go without brakes in the first place."

This is concerning as the fixie community in Singapore, which Mr Tee said has fewer than 1,000 members, has recently seen mostly younger members below 16 years old.

On Instagram, Mr Tee posted an informal poll on Monday asking the community if they will comply with the new rule or continue to ride without brakes.

While 70 people said they would comply, 130 others said they would rebel. "It's a little bit concerning," Mr Tee said, adding that authorities will ramp up enforcement if necessary.

Mr Tee said he has been encouraging members to comply by saying they can still maintain the riding experience by choosing not to use the brakes that have been installed.

A FIXIE WITH BRAKES IS STILL A FIXIE

Nevertheless, Mr Tee is confident that experienced riders will follow the rules even though they can stop a fixie perfectly without brakes.

"We would, of course, like to have the freedom to choose how we want to ride our bikes," he said.

"But realistically, I don't think that's the priority of the authorities. Unless the Singapore Cycling Federation or ActiveSG step in and say something, I don't think that that will be a reality."

READ: Plan to expand bicycle paths welcomed, but more needed to encourage Singapore's cycling vision

Mr Harish is also confident that seasoned riders will comply, pointing out that brakes have been mandated on bicycles in other Western countries.

"For some people, their culture is destroyed," he said. "But I think for most people, it is just an addition for safety. It's not a total eradication of a culture, where fixed-gears are totally banned."

For those who want to rebel, Mr Jamal said they will have to bear full responsibility as he believes bike shops will ensure they sell fixies with brakes and reflect these parts in an invoice.

"If the Government says to put brakes, we will put brakes," he added. "We won't complain about it. We are old already."

Source: CNA/hz(gs)

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