Why we are responsible for Charlie Alliston

First of all I want to quote some words of Paul Churchill aka ‘Winston’ that I published on Moving Target 14 years ago

You’re riding casually along Oxford Street when one of those idiot parents decides to use their child in a pushchair as a “traffic tester”. There’s an impact, you feel terrible, it’s not your fault and the policeman spots you’ve got no brakes…. Think about the consequences….

I think it was maybe around 2002 that the brakeless thing started to become really fashionable amongst London’s bicycle couriers. Couriers had ridden fixed-wheels in London since bicycle courier year dot (1983 or thereabouts).

Fixed-wheel bicycles remained popular in the UK long after the invention of the free-wheel and variable gears between the wars. I remember John Humphries asking me if people still rode fixed-wheels as he used to in the 50s. But by the 80s, fixies were rare, and if you rode fixed, most people thought you were wierd, and you would get accosted by old men who would reminisce about their own fixed-wheels of yore.

By the 90s, lots of couriers were riding fixed. It is fair to say that we helped to popularise fixed-wheels. But we all, without exception, rode with a front-brake on the road.

The first time I ever saw a no-brake fixie was at the first Cycle Messenger Championships, held in Berlin, 1993. I was one of 5 or 6 guys riding fixed out of the several hundred attendees, and two of the others fixie riders, Eric & Steve both from Washington D.C., were riding no-brakes. I thought it was dangerous and stupid, but I was too polite to say so. They told me that a lot of messengers working in cities in the eastern part of the U.S., rode fixies, and some portion of those rode no brakes

Later on in the 90s some guys from Philly came over & worked in London with their fixies, and the riders at the company that they worked at, Creative Couriers, insisted that they put brakes on their bikes. I mention this to illustrate the point that at that time, not only were all fixie riders riding braked, but they considered that it was the right thing to do. It is also important to point out that at no point have fixie riders, front brakes or not, been in a majority amongst London’s couriers. There were times when almost no-one rode fixed, and other times when quite a few rode fixed, but never time when most rode fixed.

It was only after 2000 that this attitude towards front brakes on fixies changed. I cannot identify the exact cause, but there is no doubt that peer pressure and a desire to be like the coolest kids on the street were a major factor. A lot of European couriers had started to ride no-brake fixies, and when London hosted the 2003 European Cycle Messenger Championships, I am sure that a number of London couriers were influenced by hanging out with their European comrades.

And there is no doubt that couriers, in the same way as they had popularised fixies, also made it fashionable to ride fixed no brakes.

By the time that I published the article that I quoted above, a lot, but by no means a majority of London couriers were riding no brakes. I have no comment to make about what other courier companies were doing, but at the company for which I was by then a controller, we made it clear to our riders that we would not let them work unless their bike was road legal, i.e. had a front brake, and we checked their bikes. Some of the guys & girls were pretty resistant to our instructions.

Tofu, who I knew quite well, and was a good friend, was a loud no-brake advocate. He was an excellent courier and a really, really good urban bike rider (it’s not necessary to be a good urban bike rider to be a good courier, and not all good urban bike riders are good couriers – the skill-set is completely different), so arguments about not being safe and so forth weren’t effective, not least because I did not believe the arguments myself. He had been riding no brakes for years, and was unlikely to get himself into trouble on the road without a brake. So our only recourse was to say that he had to do it because we said so, and send him home when he did not have a front brake.

The day after we had sent him home, he called to say he was on the way in. I asked him if he had a front brake, and he said yes. A little later in the day, one of my co-workers told me that he had seen Tofu, and his bike did not have a front brake. Furious, I called him and started berating him for having lied to me. He said, “but you didn’t ask me if the brake was on my bike, you asked me if I had a front brake – I have – it’s in my bag” – I retell this story to illustrate how strongly people felt about it.

I felt equally strongly that it was stupid and wrong, but I was so sick of the constant rows about it, that I had someone, a very experienced and well-known courier, who had participated in proper bike races, including many seasons on the velodrome riding track bikes, and had in fact organised well-attended races for couriers on the velodrome, to write the piece which I published on Moving Target. Paul pretty much said everything I would have said, and I disagree with nothing at all that he wrote.

I write all of this to illustrate not only did I do everything that I could to discourage people from riding no-brakes fixed on the road, I even foresaw not this exact incident, but something very like it. Of course, I did not foresee the extent of the media coverage (it made national news, and not just for a day, either), but I was worried about the potential for such a case to cause big trouble for the cycling community. So I can say, I told you so, I told you this (or something very like it) would happen.

And for all those of you in the courier community saying Charlie Alliston is nothing to do with us, well, no, you are wrong, our community helped create the social conditions in which Charlie Alliston thought it was ok to ride around London without a front brake. By the way, I do not believe that Charlie Alliston did not know that his bike was not road legal. He bought the thing off the LFGSS forum, so he must have come across posts about the legality or otherwise of not having a front brake on the road.

An old friend (also an exenger) called John Mack and many, many others have sought to defuse the media furore by pointing to other fatal crashes and the lack of reaction to them. This is plain wrong. Tu quoque (sometimes called ‘whataboutery’ or more simply ‘but these other people did something worse at some other time’) is no defence at any time in any place. Seeking to excuse one crime by pointing at others is wrong-headed.

This whole thing is incredibly painful and upsetting, not least because someone has died in an unnecessary crash, which we would not know be talking about if Charlie Alliston’s bike had had a front brake fitted. Why did he not have a front brake? Probably because he thought it was cool not to. Why did he think it was cool? Yeah, right.

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6 comments
  1. John Stevenson said:

    I don’t believe anyone is seeking to excuse Alliston by pointing out that drivers kill pedestrians. The point is that the media reaction to the death of Kim Blake and the Alliston trial has been far, far greater than that in reaction to any comparable death involving a driver, and has led to the vilification of all cyclists in the way that the Harry Clarke case did not lead to the vilification of bin lorry drivers.

    In the wider context this is all part of the backlash against cycling in London, where the provision of a tiny amount of protected road space for cycling has been blamed for congestion, pollution, a plague of boils and the arrival of the Four Horsemen of the apocalypse.

    Is the courier community responsible for Charlie Alliston? If so, then it’s a very, very small part of the responsibility.

    Nobody is entirely responsible for Charlie Alliston riding a brakeless fixie but Charlie Alliston. He does come across as, to be blunt, incredibly stupid. I have no trouble believing he had failed to digest that a brakeless fixie isn’t street legal.

    Wherever the idea of a brakeless road fixie originally came from, it’s not surprising it spread through the courier community. Couriers have always been the biggest users of fixies. Some were bound to try brakeless and I can see how the romance of riding a ‘pure’ bike would appeal to a few, and that rebel romance, as inarticulated by ‘Jedi’, influenced Charlie Alliston.

    But influence is not the same as responsibility. Coronation Street has many scenes set in the Rovers Return. Might it influence people to drink alcohol? Maybe, a tiny, tiny bit. Is Coronation Street responsible if someone who has seen the show becomes an alcoholic? Of course not.

    In fact, it seems to me that you and others from the courier community did your utmost to stop people from riding brakeless, because you could see the risks. This from Winston’s article is incredibly prescient: “You’re riding casually along Oxford Street when one of those idiot parents decides to use their child in a pushchair as a “traffic tester”. There’s an impact, you feel terrible, it’s not your fault and the policeman spots you’ve got no brakes…”

    I really think you and the courier community can have a clear conscience. You are not responsible for Charlie Alliston.

    Liked by 3 people

    • “Inarticulated” – perfectly put.

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      • John Stevenson said:

        It did feel like you could have found someone to make the brakeless fixie case who could string a coherent sentence together. Or even a coherent sequence of letters.

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      • Jed was the poster-boy for no-brakes-fixies, so it only seemed fair.

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  2. bikesyuk said:

    So what do we do? We’re going to identify fix gear bikes on our site and add a note on each page that they are only to be ridden on with a front brake.
    Anyone else for going into you LBS and asking them to fit front brakes to all their fixes that they know are going to be ridden on the road?
    Personally I’d go further and add a rear brake to a fixie, at the end of a very long day with tired legs I’m not sure I can lock up the back as quickly as a brake lever can.

    Like

    • Fair enough. But I think you would be better off saving the rubber and not locking it up.

      Like

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