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Recently there have been an increase in the number of fixed gear bikes in my (U.S.) city. Increasingly they tend to have one or zero brake levers, justified by their ability to stop with pedal power alone.

Even more recently, I've noticed even larger numbers of single speed (non-fixed gear) bikes --- outnumbering the fixed gear bikes. And they often have only a single brake lever (for simplicity or fashion?).

I understand the justification for having only a single brake on the fixed gear bikes because their braking redundancy lies within the drivetrain.

I do not understand why this is acceptable on single speed bikes. Is there something I am missing or is that indeed ridiculously dangerous?

Are manufacturers allowed to sell bicycles with non-redundant brakes? Is this regulated in the U.S. or anywhere else? This seems like a recipe for disaster (having experienced brake failure on my bike).

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The standard old-fashioned "coaster brake" bike you probably rode as a child had only one brake, and many bikes continue to be made that way. –  Daniel R Hicks Mar 5 at 21:57
    
There are many things more dangerous than only having one brake. Not having adequate lights, eg. Even though most states require lights at night, few US bikes have lights, and it's very common to run across unlighted bikes at night. –  Daniel R Hicks Mar 5 at 22:04
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(And, of course, there's riding without a helmet.) –  Daniel R Hicks Mar 5 at 22:04
    
It's fairly straightforward to get the local regulations. In California: Bicycles must be equipped with a brake that allows an operator to execute a one-braked-wheel skid on dry, level, clean pavement. CVC 21201(a) calbike.org/bicycling-in-california/sharing-the-road –  Robert Harvey Mar 5 at 23:42
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@RobertHarvey - Which is impossible if you only have front brakes. –  Daniel R Hicks Mar 5 at 23:45

5 Answers 5

No, you're not missing something, it is unsafe to have less than two brakes. If you only have one brake and it fails, you're going to have a bad time. Mostly, it's just cool to have one brake, or even zero lever brakes on your fixie. This style is probably just bleeding over into single speed bikes as well.

The law in most states here in the U.S. only requires you to have one brake, and even still there are some rebellious people that challenge how the law defines a brake and how many you should have. There have been court cases in my town that have tried to define whether or not a fixed gear system counts as the one brake, but the judge usually wins these arguments. Many European countries require road-going bikes to have a brake on each wheel.

Manufacturers that sell bikes with only one brake could very well be at risk of being entangled in a legal battle if someone is injured when that one brake fails.

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@Ӎσᶎ I'm not sure it's accurate to change that to countries, most of these laws are specific to each state or province. –  hillsons Mar 5 at 21:32
    
"You would be very hard pressed to find a manufacturer that makes a bike with only one brake, that would be a lawsuit waiting to happen in the states." Uh, how about Huffy? –  Daniel R Hicks Mar 5 at 21:59
    
Yeah, and I forgot about Sole too. Now I remember almost buying a Sole but I hesitated because I wasn't sure if I could add a rear brake, and I wanted to be able to let my wife use it but not without a rear brake. Maybe I should word it 'manufacturers that make bikes with only one brake are asking for a law suit.' –  hillsons Mar 5 at 22:02
    
@hillsons I think your edit is better. thanks for clarifying. –  Mσᶎ Mar 5 at 22:59
    
I'm not exactly getting why it's unsafe to have only one brake. Brakes should be properly maintained, right? How often does a properly-maintained brake fail (save for forgetting to reinstall the bridle or whatever after installing a wheel)? –  Daniel R Hicks Mar 6 at 0:06

Interestingly enough, in Ontario you technically are only required to have 1 brake, and as far as it states on the MTO site, it must be on the rear wheel. I couldn't find any reliable information about whether a fixed gear drive train qualifies as a rear wheel braking system. It does fit the criteria of When you put on the brakes, you should be able to skid on dry, level pavement, providing you have strong enough legs and the right gearing.

I think only requiring 1 brake is done so that you can have children's bikes with only a coaster brake. Of course you could have a coaster brake and a front hand brake, but most kids lack the hand strength to use them anyway, so they turn out to be pointless.

On my fixie I have both front and rear brakes. The gearing is high enough that I don't feel that I can stop the bike in a short enough distance without brakes. I would recommend that you have at least 1 brake, for redundancies sake.

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As I pointed out elsewhere, being able to skid on dry pavement pretty much requires a rear brake. A front brake on dry pavement will throw you head-over before it skids. –  Daniel R Hicks Mar 6 at 2:23
    
Front brake on dry pavement will only throw you head-over if you are not bracing yourself correctly or lack upper body strength. instructables.com/id/Basic-Bike-tricks-and-Skills/step3/… –  Andy Dent Mar 6 at 13:51

Bike regulations are typically regional things in the US (and I suspect in other countries as well). Also, it is hard if not impossible to enforce these regulations on bikes (and are typically far less serious than car / truck enforcement), since its trivial to take the brake levers and what not off at home.

From my perspective, it is indeed ridiculously dangerous - even on a fixie, your legs may be too weak to stop using just the drive train, or you may need to do an emergency stop which would be quicker if you used another brake like a front brake or just run out of skill one day. With a single speed non-fixie (i.e. freewheeling is allowed), you don't have a way to stop other than your feet (or face) if you don't have at least one brake. On a fixie however, the resisting of pedaling does make a rear brake considerably less useful than a front brake.

As for the requirement of only a rear brake, the front brake is often viewed as a dangerous brake by most people who haven't cycled a decent amount, because they believe it will lock up the front wheel automatically and send you flying over the handlebars. Hence, the requirement being on the rear. The fact that it works for little kids bikes with coaster brakes as well is mostly a convenience.

The main thing is that it looks "cool" to have no brakes, ride your bike with no handlebars, etc. If they plow into someone else or hurt themselves because of it, its not really skin off my back (much like if they get hit by cars for riding at night with only reflectors). Theres only so much you can do to protect people from themselves, especially with something that can be so easily tweaked at home like a bicycle for this purpose.

As for people manufacturing bikes (for road use) with only one brake, I think bikesdirect sells some that way.

The only bikes which should have no brakes on them are possibly those used in a velodrome (i.e. track bicycles which are actually used ONLY on a track). [Here, it is actually dangerous to have brakes.]

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"because they believe it will lock up the front wheel automatically and send you flying over the handlebars" -- and there's a grain of truth to that. Once the front wheel has locked (on dry pavement) it's too late to do anything and a face plant (which is exceedingly dangerous) becomes highly likely. –  Daniel R Hicks Mar 5 at 22:02
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Well yeah. if you lock the rear, you skid, if you lock the front you face plant. However, it doesn't take much skill to prevent yourself from locking the front in the first place. –  Batman Mar 5 at 22:55
    
"cool" to ... ride your bike with no handlebars: really? I find even bikes that can be ridden hands-ff with handlebars become unstable without them. Interestingly, my commuter can be ridden hands-off with swept-back bars but not with straight bars (steep head angle, minimal trail). –  Mσᶎ Mar 5 at 23:02
    
@Batman - So, how do you tell that you're almost ready to lock the front? –  Daniel R Hicks Mar 5 at 23:44
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@DanielRHicks when the rear wheel just starts to lift off the ground. –  Paul H Mar 6 at 4:03

In the UK, bikes operated on public roads must have two independent braking systems, one for each wheel, in "efficient working order". Fixed gearing counts as a braking system, so a fixie is only required to have a front brake, but a single-speed with only one brake (or a bike with only a rear coaster brake) would not meet the regulations.

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In the Netherlands, a very common type of bike is single speed with just a coaster brake. I haven't looked up the law regarding bike brakes, but it is common enough that I can't imagine it being illegal.


Having looked it up, the law states (in Dutch) that

  1. Bikes should have a properly functioning brake.
  2. Bikes with nothing but rim brakes have to have two properly functioning separate brakes, that brake both wheels.

It goes on to say that this is to be inspected visually.

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