You’d be surprised how often this question comes up in bicycling circles. What is it about leaving the freewheel at home that gets us so worried about the law? Are fixed gear bikes unsafe to ride? Or is it that riders thereof are portrayed as wreckless and irresponsible?
No matter what bike you choose to ride, it is important to know what laws apply to cycling in your region. Before we take an in-depth look at some of the legal gray areas, let’s briefly address the titular question: are fixed gear bikes illegal?
Fixed gear bikes are legally allowed anywhere freewheel bikes are. This is true in all major countries. Regardless of gearing, a road-legal bike must be mechanically sound and roadworthy, properly equipped with effective brakes and good tires.
Of course there are places where no bicyclist, fixed-wheel or otherwise, should go. It’s best not to ride on highways and probably sensible to avoid other busy roads too—depending on your region it may be illegal.
But as a rule of thumb: if you can ride your geared bike there, you can almost certainly ride your single speed and fixed gear there too.
Interestingly, the reverse is not true since freewheels are forbidden on the track! The reasons for this are explained at the end of this article.
Laws on riding without brakes
Fixed gear bikes can be slowed by resisting the rotation of the pedals. Some experienced riders become so confident doing this that they consider their brakes to be redundant and choose to remove them.
Things get more interesting when you start taking the brakes off your bike. As well as practical considerations, you’ll want to be sure that ditching the brakes won’t break the law.
Brakeless riding really is a controversial and complex topic demanding an article of its own, but in this section I’ll aim to cover the legality of this gray area for a few major countries.
This is not an exhaustive list, but I’ve outlined below the regulations in various regions that may be relevant to your area.
If you’re unsure about the laws in your area, it’s best to assume that a brake is legally required.
Note that this only applies to riding on public roads—things are different on the track.
Bicycling laws vary between US states, but most say that the bike must be equipped with a brake that allows the rider to make a one-braked skid on a dry, level, clean road surface. In some states a caliper brake is required, while in others it’s not clear whether a fixed wheel combined with sufficient leg power for skidding is allowed.
“no person shall operate a bicycle on a roadway unless it is equipped with a brake that will enable the operator to make one braked wheel skid on dry, level, clean pavement.”
Pennsylvania state law says your bike
“must be equipped with brakes that will stop the bike 15 feet from an initial speed of 15 mph on dry, level pavement.”
The province of Ontario requires the presence of
“at least one brake system acting on the rear wheel that will enable the rider to make the braked wheel skid on dry, level and clean pavement.”
Whether a well-trained leg-powered fixed-wheel skid counts is not made explicit sadly.
Quebec’s Highway Safety Code C-24.2 § 247 has this to say:
“Every bicycle and non-motorized scooter must be equipped with at least one brake system acting on the rear wheel. The system must be sufficiently powerful to quickly block the rotation of the wheel on a paved, dry and level roadway.”
I am no lawyer, but the word “equipped” to me sounds like you need equipment—i.e. an actual rim brake. So no, to my understanding fixed gear skids do not qualify, unless you consider your fixie to be “equipped” with a strong pair of legs.
What’s worse, it has to be on the rear wheel. This makes no sense. If you’re going to ride with only one brake, the safest option is to make it a front brake. The front brake has an incredible degree of stopping power that you physically cannot achieve with any rear brake.
Bikes that lack a working brake are illegal in British Columbia.
The official [Cycling and the Law] Handbook has this to say about brake requirements for bicycles on public roads:
“Every bicycle must have at least one effective brake. As a minimum, the bicycle is required to have an operational back pedal foot brake or a hand brake fitted to either the front or back wheel. The levers for hand brakes should be within easy reach.”
At first I misunderstood the concisely worded “back pedal foot brake” as referring to what you get when you resist the rotation of the pedals on a fixed-wheel bike; however, this is not quite accurate.
A back pedal front brake, or coaster brake, is actually a low maintenance kind of drum brake integrated into a rear wheel hub’s internal freewheel and actuated by the rider backpedalling. Yes, backpedalling like you would to slow down a fixie, except these are built into freewheel hubs.
The harder you backpedal, the harder the coaster brake is applied. So the initial action of braking is similar to a fixed gear, but all the hard work is done by the brake inside the hub.
Anyway, it seems like riding brakeless on South Australia’s public roads cannot be done within the bounds of the law.
According to the Pedal Cycles (Construction and Use) Regulations 1983, bicycles on the road must be equipped with a front brake. The regulations explicitly state that for fixed gear bikes, a rear brake is optional.
If you decide to ride without a rear brake, you should use foot retention so that you can effectively slow down should your front brake fail. I’m not aware of any mention of foot retention in law, but it does say that brakes must be “effective.”
According to German Road Traffic Regulations § 3 Speed,
”[a road user’s] speed must be such that they can stop within their forward range of vision.”
Unless there are more specific regulations applying to bicycles which I could not find in my research, then as long as you’re able to stop quickly enough the law doesn’t care how you do it. So either ride slow or learn to skid.
In wet conditions, however, skidding becomes much less effective. What this means for brakeless riders is that going fast in the rain is most likely unlawful.
In a velodrome, freewheels are not allowed whatsoever! Why? Safety reasons. Since brakes are not allowed on the track either, you’d have no way to slow down should a hazard present itself.
OK, but why are brakes not allowed? More safety reasons. In track events and training we often ride in close proximity for an aerodynamic advantage. If a rider in front of you hit the brakes, you’d have a face full of their rear wheel before you could react.
So rim brakes are not allowed on the track, but it would be unwise to ride without any mechanism for slowing down. Resisting the rotation of the pedals is a smooth and gradual way to slow down, giving riders behind you a chance to react, whether that means swerving away or slowing down themselves.