Inside the Capitol: Fixies Find a Friend

A ttention all you fans of "fixies" out there — yeah, you know who you are. You ride stripped-down road bicycles or track bikes with fixed gears.

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Published March 2, 2007 by the Oregonian
By Harry Esteve 

Oregon — A ttention all you fans of "fixies" out there — yeah, you know who you are. You ride stripped-down road bicycles or track bikes with fixed gears. You disdain brakes. Occasionally, you get nailed for it and find yourself explaining to a skeptical judge how you can stop really quickly, even going downhill, in the rain, just by pushing back on the pedals.

You feel like outcasts — and that's the way you like it.

No more. You've now got a friend in the Oregon Legislature. And he might surprise you. He's no liberal bike-riding Portland Democrat who thinks cars are evil.

He's a conservative bike-riding Southern Oregon Republican who knows pelotons from velodromes.

Sen. Jason Atkinson, who ran for governor last year in the Republican primary, has introduced a bill that would explicitly exempt fixed-gear bikes from a law that requires all bikes to have brakes capable of bringing a bike to a skid on dry pavement.

"I've got a lot of friends in the cycling community," said Atkinson, who used to race internationally. "When I was racing, I used to train with messengers for speed work."

Bike messengers, who zip around downtown Portland rain or shine, prefer the single-speed, no-brake bikes for their simplicity, feathery weight and, let's face it, outlaw cachet.

Atkinson cops to riding one as well. "When I campaigned, I always had a fixed-gear with me."

In Portland, that might have been enough to get him a ticket and a fine. Last year, in a case that outraged a hefty segment of the two-wheeled set, a Multnomah County Circuit judge found four cyclists guilty of riding bikes without brakes. The fines were about 70 bucks, but that still hurts.

A bicycle attorney argued they weren't breaking the law, that their leg muscles were brakes. The judge had none of it. Some fixies staged a demonstration of how fast they could stop, including jamming a stick between the rear wheel and the frame.

Like I said, outcasts.

Atkinson's bill, Senate Bill 729, would settle the issue for good. It would change Oregon law to require all bikes to have brakes EXCEPT fixed gear ones.

Woo-hoo, said Jonathan Maus, an activist who runs BikePortland.org, an all-things-bicycle blog.

OK, that's not a direct quote. He did say it's a good idea not to criminalize a perfectly legitimate form of transportation. But he also cautioned against inexperienced cyclists hopping a fixie without some serious training. They're difficult to ride. And, yes, to stop.

"Everybody would agree, there's a safety issue," Maus said. But, he said, the popularity of the cycling style is growing fast and addressing it in state law is a good idea.

"It's a fashion thing," he said. In the bike world, there's always some new twist to spark riders' interest. "The fixed gear is definitely in the running to be the next big thing."

Atkinson also is behind a bill that would set aside state parks money and matching grants to build two velodromes — banked tracks for racing fixed-gear bikes — one each in Portland and Southern Oregon.

Whether his bike bills get traction is anyone's guess at this point. The Legislature has plenty of bigger issues on its plate. In the meantime, Portland's fixie community must put its hopes in probably the only man in the Legislature who knows how to shave his legs.

Read Harry Esteve's Inside the Capitol blog and other coverage of the state Legislature at oregonlive.com/legislature.

Harry Esteve: 502-221-8226; harryesteve@news.oregonian.com