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Brakeless Bikers Defy Gravity, Geography

Messengers: Nonstop action delivers a rush for San Francisco's downhill racers.


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."

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