Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Riding a Coaster Brake-Only Bike

Coaster-Only Braking
I like coaster brakes on city bikes and I am very comfortable using them. My preferred transportation bike set-up is to have a coaster brake in the rear and a hand-operated hub or rim brake in the front. Typically I use just the coaster brake most of the time, employing the hand-operated front brake to keep the bike still when coming to a complete stop or to supplement the coaster when braking at high speeds. The role my front brake plays in these scenarios is small, but crucial - which I realise more than ever when riding the coaster brake-only Sogreni I picked up last week. 

Coaster-Only Braking
Slowing down on the coaster brake-only bike is exactly the same as on my own bikes - I'd be using the coaster brake alone for this anyhow. But coming to a complete stop and keeping the bike still when stopped is trickier without a front brake. The main thing I've had to learn is not to ease up on the coaster brake when stopping as I normally do, but to continue pushing back on the pedal with the right foot firmly even as I put the left toe down at a stop. If I ease up the pressure on the right pedal, the bike will keep rolling forward. Coming to a complete stop on a downhill is trickier still, because the bike really, really wants to roll forward and my right foot has to push back with all the force I can muster. Squeezing a front lever is much easier in this context.

Coaster-Only Braking
Stop-and-go traffic presents its own challenge, because a coaster brake can only be engaged effectively from certain crank positions. There is also the transition from having the right crank in the optimal braking position (previous 2 pictures) to having it in the starting position. To transition to the starting position from the braking position, I quickly hook my right foot under the pedal and move it forward as I push off to get started. But once the pedal is in the starting position, what if I then have to immediately stop again? Inching forward in traffic is tricky, because it is difficult to keep the pedals in a position where I can both stop and get the bike started again with equal immediacy.

Finally, there is the question of speed. When going over 13mph or so, I find that I cannot brake as well as I'd like with just the coaster brake alone. The coaster brake is enough to slow down, but for an emergency stop at that speed I need a front brake to supplement.

Coaster-Only Braking
Riding a coaster brake-only bike is certainly possible, but in a city like Boston I feel that it is safer to also have a front hand-operated brake. The motivation behind bikes without front brakes today seems to be the "clean handlebars" look, which has always baffled me. I fail to see what is so gorgeous about not having a brake lever on my handlebars, when that brake performs an obvious and necessary function. 

46 comments:

  1. As someone who has ridden a fixed gear bike without brakes, how would you compare this to that experience? Which is safer?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. They are completely different and cannot really be compared IMO.

      A coaster brake is simply a rear brake that is foot-operated instead of hand-operated. It works just as well as any other rear brake would and does not require super-human leg strength.

      A fixed gear drivetrain is not the same thing as a brake. A rider with very strong leg muscles can use it in leu of a brake, but I daresay the average person cannot, at least not effectively. I certainly cannot. When I rode a track bike without brakes, it was in a controlled environment (Vienna cycle paths separated from car traffic) and at a slow enough speed where I could stop if necessary. I would never do it in Boston traffic.

      That said, at very slow speeds "braking" on a fixed gear is easier, because it can be done in any crank position. I am talking about really slow speeds though.

      Ultimately, you have to try both for yourself in order to understand the difference; they are nothing alike.

      Delete
    2. Anon the problem with stopping a brake-less fixie with strong legs is that with strong legs you can also obtain a high speed. At a speed of say 10 m/s a person weighing 70kg + a 10 kg bike will have a kinetic energy of 4000 J. You need to have pretty powerful legs to slow down from that quickly. Sprinting with some tailwind or going down a hill the same person can easily reach double that kinetic energy... This is not a problem on a track but a mayor problem anywhere around traffic, pedestrians other cyclists, sharp turns etc. If your foot slips from the pedal during the brake attempt you are not going to do any braking at all.
      Nothing wrong with fixies but unless used in a safe, highly predictable environment, there needs to be a brake on it (easily arranged by putting on a fork that can take a brake even on a pure track bike).

      Delete
  2. When a few friends and I all bought our Amsterdam's, my friend Dan discovered a coaster brake defect on his. He later discovered that 2 or 3 other people had the same problem (somewhere in North America, I can't remember where). Rest assured, having your coaster brake suddenly NOT work while riding in the middle of traffic was horrifying. Dan didn't get hurt, but it wasn't good.

    He absolutely put in a hand brake too.

    My Amsterdam is devoid of any coaster brake defect and I still ride it without the hand brake. But every now and then I remember that it might be a good idea.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I've heard of coaster brakes failing and the idea horrifies me; thankfully it has never happened to me. My husband had a coaster brake fail as a child, which is one reason he will not ride them.

      Delete
    2. I should caution that I've seen a lot more rim brake failures than coaster brake failures. Plenty of folks bringing in bent up wheels and bikes with bent up bodies b/c of a lever snapping or a cable snapping or brake shoes falling out or, or, or...There's a lot of parts, and especially be careful of older bikes....Coaster brakes are pretty simple inside that hub. Just saying...Best to keep all braking systems properly maintained :)

      Delete
    3. Good point. Not to mention that rim brakes do not work as well in the rain and snow.

      Delete
  3. You should try and get one of those Sogreni front drum brakes. Keep it old skool.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I like hub brakes, but I'd be reluctant to install one if I don't know for sure the fork is rated for it. Also, the fork doesn't have a braze-on for a reaction arm and I don't think a clamp looks very elegant.

      Delete
    2. I've been eyeing sogreni bikes for years and am so delighted that you are reviewing one!! It's me dream bike, but I'm in the southern hemisphere and ever having one now that I mainly cart a child around on an old schwinn just seems so remote. Introductions aside, I'd say the fork is strong enough, as the sogreni models all come with the option of a from drum brake installed to compliment the coaster. Not sure if this has always been the case or it is recent due to popular request, but your bike is probably designed for it id say. I hope you enjoy ownership of this. Stunning piece of design:)

      Delete
    3. The Sogreni models do come with a drum brake option, but it is possible that they use different forks depending on whether the customer chooses that option. I will check on that. Glad you like the bike!

      Delete
  4. I love the clean handlebar look and, around town, prefer to ride coaster break only. However if I was in a busier city and had to deal with stop and go traffic, or trips longer than 4 miles, I would probably wish I had a hand break.
    There have also been times I could really have used a little more stopping power, so I do understand the safety concerns. I have to limit my speed when I ride coaster.
    But I really like how simple it all looks having nothing on the handlebars.
    It makes biking look so easy and uncomplicated to the people who see you.

    ReplyDelete
  5. Being as safe and nimble as possible is certainly helpful in city traffic conditions and I suspect everyone works to find a system which works best for them. Some find it difficult to have hub and handbrakes -- kinda confusing -- and may be less safe with that combo...In terms of stopping power and control, however, a front brake sure does help!

    ReplyDelete
  6. Emergency braking on a coaster only bike means skidding the rear tire and pulling the bike into a sideways slide. If you lean the bike into the slide at an angle that brings the bike close to the ground, then you can also slide and brake with the left foot on the ground. Also when the bike is sliding low it's easier to step off the bike and walk away from the emergency.

    I've done all that. Not sure I could do it again and pretty sure it's better to avoid that scenario altogether. Front brake takes care of it.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I can't skid on a fixed gear, but I have skidded coaster brake bikes lots of times. It is doable, sometimes even fun. But as you say, front brakes do it better. I don't consider skidding to be a feasible means of stopping for the average person.

      Delete
    2. Indeed, skidding, besides being a waste of a perfectly good tyre, is less efficient than a rolling stop due to kinetic friction < static friction.

      Delete
    3. ...and beyond that, the skidding technique on a fixed usually begins with unweighting the rear tire, making its stopping power even lower.

      Delete
    4. Well, that's how we all stopped our coaster brake bikes when I was a kid. When I bought a cruiser a few years ago as an airfield utility bike that's also one of the very first things I did on it. Of course we didn't do this for functional reasons mind you, we just thought it was really cool. It was as close as we could get to doing on our bikes what dirt track motorcycle racers did when taking corners.

      Delete
  7. It may be a cultural thing, but there's a fairly good reason the UK government insists on two independent braking systems on bikes. If your chain unships or breaks (which is more likely at the very moment you are trying to break very hard) you're screwed.

    Other matters of physics come into play too. Braking at the rear is a lot less efficient than on the front due to weight shifting to the front under braking.

    Remember also force = mass x acceleration, whatever problem you have at 10mph will be 4 times bigger at 20mph.

    It's not worth keeping your bike looking pretty if it costs you your face.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I like that legal requirement. i know a lot of towns have tried to legislate brakes in a way that seems punitive to hardcore fixie riders who insist they can stop with just their legs/ skidding. It makes sense to me to require two ways of stopping the bike in case one fails. Having had a brake fail, it makes all the difference to have a backup.

      Delete
    2. The first bike I had as a kid was a coaster-brake-only model with no auxiliary front hand brake. And my coaster brake failed on several occasions when I was riding down hills. Usually because the chain came off, but occasionally because my feet would come off the pedals, which would then windmill so fast that I couldn't put my feet back on them.

      None of this ever caused injury...and as I was 8, I just assumed this just happened on bikes.

      But, yeah, I wouldn't ride one now without a second front brake.

      Delete
  8. Is this bike a matte silver. Does it have a bluish quality? I like the color.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. No bluish quality. It is not the same colour called "Mia" on their website, if that is what you're wondering. This one is a light, matte silver like the colour of a chain link fence.

      Delete
  9. I see you are riding a diamond frame in a long coat! See, it can be done :)

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Sure it can be done. But it is more comfortable, for me at least, on a step-through.

      Delete
  10. The dual braking requirement for bikes would be reasonable, but alas, not only is that not the case in the US, but most places stick with the "skid" rule instead of something meaningful. I'm with Cycler on this one.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Agreed. The "skid" rule is particularly useless when they enforce it against brakeless, fixie riders who ARE able to skid their tire. Technically they are in compliance with the law, and yet are routinely cited.

      I'm not arguing they should be allowed to ride "brakeless", but I think mis-enforcement of laws like this only encourage riders to views "responsible riding" as a scam to harrass them and so they should ignore all road rules.

      Delete
  11. Also, the more meat you have on the rear the faster you can stop.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. More weight means more stopping power, but it also means you have more mass to decelerate. I think it's actually a wash.

      Delete
    2. Ah, I get what you mean. Though to get picky...friction is actually not related to size of contact patch. Friction is weight x coefficient of friction. This assumes a fairly clean, smooth surface and in the real world there probably is a slight advantage to a larger tire. But it is a common fallacy that larger tires (larger contact patch) automatically gives you more traction for cornering or stopping. (Not the only reason larger tires are better though!)

      Delete
  12. The U.K. has a dual-independent braking regulation for bicycles? Dear Lord save us, now I'm going to have to put a Don't Tread On Me sticker on my bike so the feds don't get any ideas.

    Of course, coaster-brake only is what I had on my wonderful single-speed bike growing up. God only knows how much that thing weighed. I was a master at that slide-braking maneuver described above. And I, too, like the clean look of a coaster brake bike.

    However, I grew up biking in the country, for the most part, or at "worst" suburbia, and I don't know if I'd chance it in the city.

    ReplyDelete
  13. Are we back on coasterbrakes again? I'm so glad I checked in!

    Why are these devices so devisive? They're usually on bikes for kids or utility bikes for adults and that seems to be pretty appropriate. The adults on utility bikes usually maintain a moderate and sane speed and kids just do what kids are going to do regardless of the particular hardware on the machine, right?

    I think the addition of a front brake of some sort pretty much addresses all of the practical shortcomings of using one on most bikes and am glad you are giving that a try.

    I've been aroung bikes my whole life and have a soft spot for coasterbrakes. They're cheerful little things that do a complicated job in a simple, practical way. I took every one apart that I could get my hands on when I was a kid and took great pride in "knowing all about em'." The fact that my bikes were just as likely to lockup the rear wheel from massively overtitened bearings as to weave around as the hub drifted lazily across the axle from being woefully loose didn't shake my confidence in my expertise even a little. I'm still like that now. All thanks to the noble coasterbrake.

    The lore of the coasterbrake is rich and colorful and I hope it's never lost. Like the gruesome tales of horrible crashes caused by broken chains or the grassfires started by overheated bendix's that burned entire counties. How 'bout the classic tale of the kid who flipped his bike upside down to work on it, got his finger stuck in the chain and due to not being able to backpedal had to drag the bloody bicycle into the house behind him to secure help. That one's absolutely true, swear to God. It happened to my neighbors cousin who lived 2 towns over.

    If I can ever figure out how to use my digital camera I'll post some pictures of the N.O.S. Campy Super Record coasterbrake I've got somewhere. The one with the alloy hub and the drilled out titanium reaction arm.

    Spindizzy

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I ask the same question as V. about a book in the works....I truly enjoy reading your comments.

      Delete
  14. Oh, and another thing. I might never learn to "spray high" on ice skates(dammit, I'll keep trying though), but I can WAY throw some gravel anywhere you want it on a C.B. Stingray.

    Spindizzy

    ReplyDelete
  15. Spindizzy when is your book coming out? Please tell me there is one in the works, please!

    ReplyDelete
  16. My vintage bike has a coaster brake only and it is fine, though I don't go fast on it, maybe a bit over 20kph. My main concern is brake fade due to overheating and I sometimes stop to check it when I am going on a long downhill on a hot day. It has never faded on me though ...

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I've only experienced brakes overheating once, and it was a rim brake on the front wheel of my roadbike going downhill. I could smell the brake pads!

      Delete
  17. +1 on coaster brakes. It just doesn't get any simpler than coasters. They are a great alternative to a fixed rear wheel. They do need service once in a while - especially if you ride them in a hilly place. If you're concerned about having only one brake, install a front caliper, roller or drum to go along with your coaster.

    ReplyDelete
  18. Due to momentum when slowing down from braking, most of the braking power is in the front brake. If you only have back brakes you have greatly reduced braking power. This is why you are finding it hard to stop at higher speeds with only a back brake.

    Basically when braking most of your weight moves to the front wheel. The back wheel becomes less loaded and thus it cannot provide as much friction anyways to slow things down as much as the front wheel can.

    Having only a back brake is only acceptable on bicycles that can't go very fast, such as single speed children's bicycles.

    Fixie bikes tend to be able to go very fast, depending on what size cogs they have of course, so many of them not having any brakes and relying only on resisting pedal motion as a means to stop is intensely dangerous. This is merely a tend that many fixie bike riders hate brakes, but they are endangering both themselves and others on the road as if they can't stop very well this also endangers cars too and even other bicyclists. Also if the lock-ring holding the rear cog becomes loose (which can happen) on a fixie bike there is no way at all to stop. The laws requiring both a front and rear brake on all bicycles are there for a reason.

    ReplyDelete
  19. "I fail to see what is so gorgeous about not having a brake lever on my handlebars, when that brake performs an obvious and necessary function. "

    I agree with you 100% on that one! I'd rather "mess up" the clean lines of a handlebar than "mess up" the skin on my arms and legs when I can't stop! :)

    ReplyDelete
  20. Sorry to interrupt -- will there ever be a traditional-ish saddlebag on this bike?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I've tried my saddlebag and it makes the bike look a little too traditional. I am considering getting their rear rack, though it's pretty expensive.

      Delete
  21. Ok, maybe this is a little removed from the topic of your coaster brake only bike, the kind I rode for the first ten years of my cycling experience in the US of A during the 1950s. But I am dying for a place to mention an incredible example of cycling skill I witnessed yesterday. And yes, it has to to with the matter of stopping, balancing, etc at a light.

    So I come to a stop at the light the old fashion way, with hands on hand brakes and foot on the ground. A guy on a fairly ordinary mountain bike comes up alongside of me and out of the blue cocks the front wheel and performs a prolonged 'track stand' - standing on the pedals, both feet off the ground. But wait. I recognize this guy. He is a notorious cyclist in this town, rides everywhere on a couple of different bikes, road bike with drop bar and mountain bike with straight bar. Here's the kicker; the guy is a poster boy for the disabled. He's an amputee. He only has one arm, his left. In fact, he has sawn off the right side of his handlebars. Try that, cyclists; foot up, dead stop track stand - one handed.

    ReplyDelete
  22. So do you REALLY want 250 pages of me gassing about how it was back in the day? About all I'm really qualified to write about is building disposable bikes from junk and my personal insights into the long-term effects of adolescent head injuries. Do you REALLY want some of that? Really?

    I'm just asking cuz" I've got SOO much dumb stuff I've been holding back...

    Spindizzy

    ReplyDelete
  23. I hate hand brake-only bikes! It's harder to gradually slow down to turn corners. The hand brakes jerk the bike to an abrupt halt and I lose control of the thing and fall off.

    ReplyDelete