Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Stranger In a Strange Land? Some Musings on Revisiting the Coaster Brake



As mentioned earlier, I am in temporary guardianship of a small lot of vintage bicycles, of various styles and stages of decrepitude. While the majority of the bikes are English 3-speeds, hiding among them was this classic Dutch omafiets. Although it has clearly seen better days, the bike is actually not that old: judging by its parts and styling, I would estimate the late 1980s. And despite its dire condition, I was pleased to discover that it is perfectly ridable, if rattly and creaky. So I've been using it for local errands for these past couple of weeks, delighting in the novelty of its ultra-upright position, boat-like steering, and other bits of traditional Dutch-bikeyness.

Among these features is, of course, the coaster brake.



When I first discovered transportation cycling, I quickly fell in love with the coaster brake - to the point of converting my old Raleigh DL-1 into a 'coaster roadster.' The coaster brake allowed me to use leg strength to modulate speed, which was a welcome relief at the time, as my hand strength was non-existent due to nerve damage. It was also, overall, simply a more intuitive, pleasanter way of braking, which I found easier to integrate with the then-novel act of pedaling a bicycle in the city.

In this early blog post (keep in mind it is 6 1/2 years old!), I summarised my love of the coaster brake as follows:
. I find that coaster brakes deliver softer (no sudden jolts), smoother, and more consistent stopping power in city traffic 
. I like to have one hand free in traffic, so that I can signal while braking 
. I find it easier to modulate coaster brakes at finer increments without losing momentum 
. I have problems with the nerves in my hands, and find it painful to use hand-operated brake levers frequently (like in stop-and-go traffic) 
. I find coaster brakes intuitive and stress-free to use: it makes sense to both accelerate and slow down with my feet
Reading through that post, the reasoning completely makes sense considering my circumstances at the time. But as circumstances change, so do preferences.

As years passed, I started riding longer distances. My routes grew hillier and my travel speed increased. At the same time, my hand strength improved, making hand-braking no longer problematic. Gradually, the once-essential coaster brake became suboptimal. And it has now, I realise, been years since I have ridden a bike equipped with one.



The nearly 4 year interlude made the prospect of re-visiting the coaster brake all the more exciting - considering especially that the hilly rural landscape where I now live is not exactly the ideal environment for it.

Historically, coaster brakes have been unpopular in the British and Emerald isles. And while Sturmey Archer has always offered coaster brake hubs, they were mostly made for export. By contrast, in regions such as Holland, Denmark, Belgium, and the flatter parts of Germany and Austria, coaster brakes are by far the most common braking system on transport bicycles. In fact, when living in Vienna I was amused to discover that even the modern, hybrid-style bikes equipped with v-brakes front and rear, had coaster brakes in addition (so 3 brakes in total)! When I asked a bike shop owner why this was, he explained that the locals were so accustomed to braking by way of back-pedaling, it was dangerous to offer bicycles without this option.

This regional difference in braking preferences is usually explained in terms of hills and speed. While the coaster-brake's gentle modulation may be preferable on an urban bike path, its stopping power is insufficient when approaching a rural T-junction at the bottom of a long descent.



Of course, whenever I hear this argument, my immediate response is: But are rod brakes, found on English and Irish bikes well into the late 20h century, any better?!

But never mind such pesky details! What is a Dutch bike actually like to ride in hilly rural Ireland?

Well. On the main, it felt unexpectedly strange - as in 'foreign.' Even the neighbours noticed that it was different from the seemingly identical black step-through rust buckets I have pedaled past their houses in the past.

The main signifiers of this difference are, I suspect, the suared-off bend of the handlebars, the bolt-upright sitting position, and perhaps the fold-down kickstand. And although, in the grand scheme of things, these may seem like minor details, they do give the omafiets a distinct vibe that makes it stand out noticeably from its Roadster cousins. To my eye, it also looks like the typical Dutch bike has less fork rake and a steeper head tube angle than a typical English 3-speed, albeit I'm not sure it's the sort of thing that would stand out to others.



As for the coaster brake... Okay, I must admit I hated it at first! But only for the half hour it took me to remember how to deal with it. There is a method for ensuring your starting pedal is 'in the right place' for pushing off each time you stop and start, and basically, it is this: When coming to a stop, you need to remember to always bring your starting pedal into position, so that it's already waiting for you there when you start again. This needs to become an automatic process, committed to body-memory, in order for the coaster brake not to drive you nuts. But once it does become an automatic part of stopping, using a coaster brake is easy.

In the course of a single trip to my local shop, I remembered everything I loved about the coaster brake. There really is something so gentle, smooth, and intuitive about braking with the pedals, especially when maneuvering around tight spaces at slow speeds. It works best with a very upright cycling position, and on flat terrain. But when the conditions are right for it, it is a treat that almost gives cycling the feel of a mesmerising slow-dance. It is exotic, and strange after a long absence. And not at all a bad way to carry home a heavy bag of vegetables.


34 comments:

  1. The last time I rode a bike with a coaster brake was when I was a paperboy for a newspaper that no longer exists. As I recall, it was great fun to lock up the rear wheel and skid to a sideways stop — try it sometime!

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  2. I rode a Single Speed Coaster brake for many years, it wasn't until I started riding mountain bikes that I realized how awkward coaster brakes could be at times. Where the coaster is problematic is those instances (like popping over a curb) where you need to be pedaling to help lift the front end over the curb, while simultaneously braking to keep from slamming into the curb. I have no issues switching back and forth except sometimes when riding I reach my fingers out to rest them on the brake lever only to find it's not there!? - masmojo

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  3. You are riding the old familiar brake in much different circumstances. If it is Dutch you probably have a Torpedo. Although in 80s it couldn't be some version of band brake. Hub brakes run hot. Keep it lubricated. On long downhills don't expect the coaster to do it all. It is rear wheel braking only so less effective as the hill gets steeper. It works best sitting upright because that puts weight on the rear wheel and it works best with the saddle position shown, saddle well to the rear.

    Rod brakes can be very effective, although I have to agree the English version is not much. All the way back to Sunbeam before 1937 there were a handful of good English rod brakes.

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    1. It is indeed a Torpedo. Alas it is not my bike, and is going back to the owner in a couple more days, where it will be continued to be kept (unridden) in storage.

      I have ridden a bike with functional rod brakes exactly once, and it was a pleasant shock:
      Chis Sharp's Royal Enfield

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  4. Interesting. So how well does the bike actually stop if at all down a slope like the one shown in the 3rd photo? Looks pretty dangerous to me, but then again like you said rod brakes would be worse!

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    1. If you start out riding the brake to begin with, the coaster is actually pretty good at keeping the bike from accelerating, steady and slow down the hill. But if you've already picked up speed and *then* attempt to stop via the coaster brake, let's just say Good Luck! It does shave off speed, but it will take some time to stop.

      The real issue, however, is not the coaster brake itself. But the fact that the front brakes these bicycles are fitted with, if at all, tend to be even weaker. So the (rear) coaster brake, and not the front brake, is the main brake. and on long or steep descents that's just not ideal.

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  5. There is a reason Dutch bikes never took off in Ireland. Lovely as it is, leave this beast be.

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  6. Wow, I'm amazed that bike is from the late 80's! I quit working in bike shops in the early eighties when bikes were really starting to change in terms of lighter and more varieties of bikes. Nothing like that would have been brought in or sold in our shop, but this was in the U.S. where things were probably quite different!

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    1. Oh European manufacturers even today still make traditional city bicycles of that style. Have a look at the the Belgian Achielle, for instance, and the Italian Taurus. They've been in continuous production since whenever. Even mass producers such as Gazelle whose offerings are mostly modern still offer traditional omafiets models, bottle generator and all!

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    2. Yes, I do know this ;)

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  7. The other catch with coaster brakes is if you brake a chain: no brakes. While I agree that bikes with coaster brakes are unlikely to be subject to the sort of vigorous riding that would break chains, it does happen.

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  8. Firstly, I love the third photo: it makes me quite nostalgic. No, I'm not from Ireland – in fact I've never even been there – but I did grow up somewhere with dry stone walls and small lanes over steep green hills.

    Now, on to the coaster brake: I hate it! Even though my very first bike, the one I learned to ride on, had one. There are two problems for me with coaster brakes: firstly, I have the (odd and inefficient) habit of backpedalling a little when I start off, in order to bring my stronger leg back up for a second stroke. Secondly, I've never mastered the process of bringing the pedals back to the favoured position. In fact, even having read it, I still don't understand it!

    Mrs Bmblbzzz on the other hand likes coaster brakes. Probably because she grew up somewhere where they are the norm. And yes, she grew up in a very flat place, whereas I grew up in a place with steep, though not big, hills.

    I also had an old (1950s, I think) English roadster for a while when I was about 15. It had belonged to an elderly neighbour. Somehow I managed to get up all those hills, through sheer teenage strength and madness I think; but yes, coming down again could get tricky – there were many points at which you simply could not stop. Whether a coaster brake would have been better or worse, I do not know; I can't imagine it would have been any worse in the rain at least.

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    1. Forgot to mention: it seems I'm in good company with the curious backpedalling habit. Dervla Murphy, The Waiting Land:
      None of my previous cycles sported a mirror, foot-brake, milometer, tool-case, carrier, front-wheel dynamo, automatic stand and built-in lock with two keys – in addition to the statutory bell and pump. At present the foot-brake is a menace as I am in the habit of casually back-pedalling when going down-hill – but I'll soon get adjusted; and this is only one of the many hazards of cycling in Kathmandu.

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    2. I had never been to, nor was even especially interested in Ireland before my first visit here 4 years ago. And yet when I arrived these kinds of scenes felt achingly familiar. I feel more at home in this place than I have anywhere else.

      You don't bring the pedals back; you bring them forward. Let me try to explain it better:

      Say you need to come to a stop at an intersection. As you approach the intersection, you preemptively pedal in a way so that by the time you reach it, your starting foot will be in the right position for pushing off. You then stop with your pedals in that position. This sounds as if it requires lots of planning, but when you get used to it, you do it automatically in the last few milliseconds before you come to a stop. You basically just always make sure to stop with your starting foot in the push-off position. Does that make any sense?

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    3. "in the last few milliseconds". A cadence in the high hundreds? Quite impressive for an omafiets!

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    4. Ten years ago I did a cheap resuscitation of a yard sale Raleigh 3 speed by putting on a coaster brake wheel. I rode it to work for a while, but I never got consistently good at this technique for solving the starting position problem. It drove me crazy and I think it helped delay my return to daily cycling for a few more years! I finally got going again on a different bike, but it took even longer to start digesting the idea of sometimes changing my riding to adjust to a bike instead of changing the bike.

      Walter


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  9. Funny, I grew up in a small town in the middle of a mountain range which meant the town was built on the foothills of these mountains. We all rode single speeds with coaster brakes and for the life of me I don't know how we got up or down those hills. I remember the strangest sensation when first riding a bike with a freewheel, it was so oddly not bike like! Then the idea of stopping going downhill with hands and rim brakes…scary!

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    1. Kids are freakishly strong. I will never forget watching a friend's then-4yo daughter on her tiny single speed toddler bike thingie. He said to me "watch this!-" and she pedaled up the near-vertical hill to their house in Somerville with a mischievous giggle, as if it were a prank he taught her. For me, that hill required deep breathing and a carefully selected gear combination!

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    2. Playing outside all day, as we did as kids, helps to build a lot of strength in those tiny bodies.

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  10. I haven"t owned a coaster braked bike since I was a kid. I don't remember them being all that bad as long as you didn't overheat them. The rod brakes on my old Raleigh are another story. They could use a little help, an anchor perhaps. It could be tossed out at the appropriate moment of panic.

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    1. The best way to appreciate rod brakes, is to try the spoon brake!

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    2. I've never even seen a spoon brake in real life, only in pictures. They must be a real hoot when wet. I would make it a point to never leave the house without a change of underpants!

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  11. I've been riding CB wheels almost exclusively for the past 9 years (the "almost" is because I still have one fixed gear machine that very occasionally gets out). Admittedly, the terrain is not particularly hilly here, but there are several steep descents into busy streets on my regular commuting routes. I haven't had any trouble stopping with just the rear hub brake, but I've mounted front rim brakes on all my machines...just in case. I've tried different hubs, too, over the years and definitely prefer the braking performance of the Shimano CB-E110, or the even cheaper Falcon hub, to the VeloSteel or the Sturmey-Archer SC-2. Just keep 'em well-packed with Phil's waterproof grease and they're good to go.

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  12. Wow I did not think I would see a Dutch bike on this blog again any time soon! Poor old girl, the years have not been good to her have they? And yet it is amazing that these bikes keep going even with so much damage. Nothing of carbon is made so resilient.

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  13. "Coaster Brakes" Mesmerising,"Soft-Shoe", on a Delicious Cheese Omafiets.

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  14. I remember riding coaster braked bikes growing up in England in the 1960's, and bikes with rod pull brakes on steel rims. It was par for the course to use your feet on the ground to slow down - our mothers' common complaint was "I see you've kicked the toes out of another pair of shoes then ... ".

    I love the bike in the picture. Those sit up and beg bikes are just SO comfortable.

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    1. Oh man, I used to get yelled at by my parents for burning the soles off my shoes with various ill-advised stopping methods on my bike as a kid. Coaster brake, never EVER maintained, stopped working years before the bike stopped being ridden. I'd drag my feet on the ground, or if it was somewhat more urgent, jam my foot against the tires and jump off the bike.

      Wolf.

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  15. It seems like the only thing this bike is good for (maybe true of all those old bikes) is remembering back in the day when they were all we had. The simple times ;)

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  16. Nice of you to share your musings. This suggests that you, too, are part of us older crowd. We muse a lot! When I talk to my kids about memories, or wanting to share insights, I can see them take a deep breath. That's cool. I'm now starting to listen to them b/c they're doing some kickass stuff and they throw back at me, with much more velocity, relevant experiences I had not considered. Oh my!! I so enjoy listening now! It's the doppler effect ;)

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  17. When cycling in winter nothing beats the trusty Torpedo dreigang.

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  18. I had Royal H build a custom single speed urban commuter specifically set up for coaster brakes. (With the Velosteel hub you reviewed a few years back)

    Took about a week to get used to it. For Chicago commuting it was an excellent choice.

    No longer have the bike as the builder and I apparently had a miscommunication about trail. Would not mind having another coaster brake bike though.

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  19. Looks like a candidate for a bit of TLC

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  20. I opted for a coaster brake on my single speed commuter recently. I persevered for a couple of months but just couldn't get used to it. I didn't like having to remember to have the pedals in the correct position every time I stopped, ready for the push off again. I also felt that I couldn't execute a good emergency stop when in traffic. also, after a while I developed a dull ache in my left thigh, which I attributed to my left leg being my main brake activator. I didn't like the added weight either. I had the Velosteel hub which was incredibly heavy for such a small hub. On the plus side, I liked the clean lines it gave the bike without the rear brake cable and caliper. To many negatives in the end though!

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  21. One thing not mentioned is much less maintenance and tuning. The combination of an internally geared hub/coaster brake is a maintenance dream for a bike that gets used infrequently. A little lube on the chain every year and that is it. Never have to worry about brake adjustments and derailleurs to bend.

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