"Brakeless Bikers Defy Gravity, Geography"
by John M. Glionna, Staff Writer
LOS ANGELES TIMES -- July 1, 2002
SAN FRANCISCO -- In this city of steep climbs and killer hills, Nestor Guzman runs with a posse of gonzo bicycle messengers pursuing a fad considered the ultimate in courier cool: riding with no brakes.
Five days a week, the athletic 22-year-old braves arduous inclines and hair-raising descents on a fixed-gear "track" bike--an ultralight cycle designed for competition on banked ovals called velodromes.
What it is not designed to do is stop, which for Guzman makes it exciting. "I don't want brakes," he said. "I'd rather pit my skills against the world." Defying laws against bicycles without brakes, Guzman and other couriers personify the machismo of maximum danger, pulling a stunt tantamount to tightrope walking without a net.
For these young thrill-seekers, track bikes raise the stakes among a cocky messenger crowd already riding a razor-thin line of safety on their daily dash through near-impossible traffic.
In this devil-may-care subculture dominated by iconoclasts with tongue studs and pink hair--men and women who wouldn't be caught dead in an office job and who often ride without helmets--track bikes define the outermost realm of road peril.
Couriers describe the addictive rush of steering a brakeless bicycle when the only way to stop is through a host of complex moves, from zig-zags to controlled skids in which riders buck the rear wheel sideways down the slope like a snow skier slowing his descent.
The track bike rage has swept cities nationwide, including Los Angeles and San Diego--most often on flatter, gentler terrain.
Speaking with the indestructibility of youth, Guzman said riding a track bike on this city's vertigo-inducing hills provides an adrenaline fix: "I love skidding down a hill past dumbfounded tourists who say, 'Oh my God! He doesn't have any brakes!' If you're young, that's the kind of thing you live for."
Without shift cables to snap, derailleurs to rust, brake pads to fail, track bikes embody what Guzman calls "elegance and simplicity."
Some fellow messengers say he forgot one word: "stupidity."
Because even in freewheeling San Francisco--where the bike-riding culture carries political weight--police, messenger firms and older couriers say track bike Turks cross a serious line of irresponsible behavior. Citing chronic knee damage and accidents, many wonder whether it's time to rein in such risk-takers.
Veterans riders dismiss the bikes as "suicide rockets" and "leg-beaters" for the unhealthy pounding they impose on a rider's knees. Many track bike aficionados display the scars of their stubbornness, bearing incisions from knee surgery to repair everything from ligament pops to cartilage tears.
Though there are no statistics on track bike injuries, San Francisco officers ticket couriers for violating a state Vehicle Code section requiring all bicycles to have brakes enough "to make one braked wheel skid on dry level clean pavement."
Some courier firms also outlaw track bikes. The backlash has even hit New York, which gave birth to the brakeless trend years ago.
"I've seen track bikes mow down more innocent people than I care to count, and I just don't want to be a part of that anymore," said Mike McGinn, owner of Specialized Legal Services in San Francisco. "If one of my guys runs somebody down on a bike without brakes, how's that gonna look in court?"
Guzman ignores such critics, preferring the kick of riding a bike on which the pedals constantly rotate and there is no coasting, not even downhill. And he handles San Francisco's cliff-like grades like Steve McQueen in that famous car chase in the 1968 movie "Bullitt."
Guzman blows through stop signs and red lights. He rides against traffic on one-way streets and cruises along double-yellow lines with only an elbow's room between passing vehicles on either side.
Moving up a steep North Beach hill, he stands and pedals briskly to gain momentum with the quickness and grace of a gazelle. With no brakes on the descent, Guzman locks his legs so the pedals no longer turn, throwing the back wheel into a series of sideways skids.
With a grimace, he said his knees throb at the end of his eight-hour shift.
In three years, Guzman's been grazed a dozen times as he dodged menacing cabbies, lumbering buses and driver's-side doors from parked cars that suddenly swing open into his path.
"These track bikes are a young man's game," he said. "It's like how young guys go for fast sports cars, while the older dudes settle for the family station wagon. I'm not ready for that yet."
For Paul Bouganim, six years on a track bike resulted in surgery to remove the bursa, or fluid sac, from between the bones in his right knee. His leg bandaged, he walks with a pronounced limp.
"These bikes ruin your knees," he said.
Asked why he continues on his track bike, the 27-year-old responds: "I'm stupid." Then he fingers a 3-inch scar and winces. "It hurts really bad today. With a geared bike, I could ease through the pain. But I'm stubborn."
For Bouganim, the art of riding a track bike provides a bit of ego
compensation in a business world that each day delivers countless slights and disrespects.
From grouchy secretaries to dismissive security guards, it's a white-collar society that fails to appreciate his efforts to overcome obstacles ranging from traffic jams to street construction--often using the sidewalk as a last resort--to ferry a package across town faster than any automobile.
Clearing perhaps $100 a day, messengers race around with oversized delivery pouches and walkie-talkies on their backs. Being able to handle a track bike that no arrogant $400-an-hour lawyer in town--and even few fellow couriers--would dare ride offers a sense of pride.
Says Bouganim, who sports a praying mantis leg tattoo: "Not everybody can do this."
About a third of the city's 300 couriers use track bikes. Many stick to the flatlands around the federal courthouse, while others tackle hills so difficult they're often forced to walk their bikes.
Prefaced by signs reading "Sharp Crest Ahead" and "Abrupt Grade Change," the steepest hills can easily make runaways of cars whose parking brakes aren't properly set.
One section of Filbert Street in Russian Hill features a 31.3% grade, among the nation's steepest slopes for a city street--an incline only slightly less pronounced than the ski jump course used at the 2002 Winter Olympics in Utah. This urban landscape is so precipitous that cycling stalwarts who have endured the French Alps have complained that the hills are too difficult.
This being San Francisco, couriers talk in mystical terms of the Zen of zero bike maintenance and of "being one with the bike" for their level of control in the saddle. Knowing they cannot stop quickly, they pay more attention to traffic--making them safer cyclists, or so they wish to think.
And they liken the frames to the first bicycle sketches by Leonardo da Vinci in the 1500s. "Aesthetically, it's incredibly sexy," said courier Griffin McPartland. "It just stirred something in my gut."
The track bike trend hit San Francisco in 1996, during an international bike messenger contest. The competitors included Richie Ditta, a redheaded New Yorker who drew stares with his brakeless bike. Now 29, Ditta recalls the stir among local couriers, many of whom had never seen such a cycle.
"It took the rebel image to a new level," he said. "It's like skateboarding: One person thinks it's cool; then somebody else gets into it."
But "Dr. Crank," advice columnist for a local bike messengers' newsletter, says track bikers should get a life.
"If looking cool is your primary concern, then by all means ride a track bike. If you want to get the job done in the right manner, then ride a geared bike," he writes. "To do otherwise is to perpetuate the myth that bike couriers are more interested in hanging out and looking cool than working hard."
During a recent afternoon rush hour, a track bike rider pounded through traffic without brakes or helmet, and no hands on the handlebars.
Observed a fellow no-brakes courier: "Now there's a guy with a death wish."
© John M. Glionna and LA TIMES, 2002
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