Coasting

I don’t know what percentage of bikes in the Netherlands operate with coaster brakes, but it must certainly be a sizeable proportion, perhaps even a majority. The tell-tale sign is handlebars free from brake levers (or those with just one brake lever, for the front wheel), and in Dutch towns and cities, these kinds of bikes are ubiquitous.

Screen Shot 2015-05-09 at 23.21.45By contrast, the number of bikes in the UK with coaster brakes must be a tiny, tiny minority of the overall total. My omafiets is one of those bikes.

Screen Shot 2015-05-09 at 23.24.23

I’d never ridden a bicycle with a coaster before, so I was quite nervous about how it would work out for me, and hesitated about whether I should opt for a more familiar lever-operated brake. But having lived with it for a few years, there’s absolutely no way I would have a different kind of brake for my rear wheel. It’s brilliant.

The front (drum) brake is lever operated, so I am UK-legal, in that I have two independent braking systems, one for each wheel. But in all honesty it’s not really necessary – the vast majority of the stopping power comes from the coaster at the rear. It’s an effective brake, particularly because on this kind of bike, your body weight is almost entirely over the rear wheel. The front brake is merely a nice extra.

The coaster brake is a back pedal brake – to slow down, you merely apply downward pressure on the pedals, in precisely the same way you apply downward pressure on a brake pedal in a car. In fact, that’s the closest analogy to the action of a coaster brake – slight downward pressure, slight braking; more downward pressure, stronger braking; stamping down on the pedal, well, your wheel is going to lock up.

I think it’s that association with braking in a car that makes a coaster brake actually quite intuitive. Braking with your feet quickly becomes natural – it took only a week or so for a complete novice like me to become accustomed to it. I now often find myself absentmindedly pushing down on the pedals to brake on my other (coaster-free) bikes, simply because that’s now a natural movement for me. (Meeting no resistance whatsoever, my brain instantly transfers the message to my hands instead!)

That ‘naturalness’ is just one advantage of the coaster brake. An important other advantage is that it leaves your hands free for other things, particularly signalling. As signalling with your hands is often needed when you are simultaneously slowing down, to turn off of, or onto, a road at junction, it’s so much more convenient and easy to have your feet doing the braking, rather than having to transfer your hands from the brake levers to a ‘signal’ position, and then back again, or compromising by braking with just one brake, while signalling with the other hand.

Another major advantage is maintenance. Because a coaster brake is effectively operated by the chain, which is already part of the bike, that means there’s no need for ‘extra’ cabling or levers. The bike is neater, and tidier, with no braking system to maintain in addition to the transmission (which in any case is protected from the elements).

On the downside (for me at least), with a coaster brake your pedals can’t be rotated backwards – at least only for a little bit, before the brake fully applies. That means when you stop, it’s helpful to ensure that your pedals are in a position ready for you to go again. You can’t ‘kick’ them backwards to get them back into position.

In practice, this quickly becomes very natural; my technique is shown in the video below.

The most powerful braking position is with the pedals at 3 o’clock/9 o’clock; and that’s pretty much an easy position for you to start off again.

Ready to go again

Ready to go again

If, by chance, your pedals aren’t in a great position to set off again, the best thing to do is to roll your bike back a foot or so, returning the pedal to a position where force can be applied. Or (as I sometimes do) just push off and use your momentum to start pedalling again. It’s no big deal.

It also helps to have your saddle low enough so your feet (or at least your standing foot) can reach the ground with you sat on it, as in the picture above. That means you are not forced to apply weight to the pedals when you come to a stop, which is tricky when that’s your braking system.

With this kind of bike, a low saddle just feels comfortable and natural in any case – just look at the relaxed chap in the first picture in this post – so any notion of raising it to an allegedly ‘optimal’ height for power transfer doesn’t really fit. Bikes like these are for comfortable cruising, not hard acceleration, or performance.

The only other downside to a coaster that I’m aware of is that – in the event of an emergency – your pedals may not be instantaneously in the right position to apply the best available braking power (unlike brake levers on your handlebars). They may be at the top, or the bottom, of the pedal stroke, where not much backwards force can be applied.

Whether this is a major factor or not, I don’t know – I have always been able to stop fairly sharply on the few occasions I’ve had to. Perhaps this is because (by risk compensation) I ride more slowly, and more carefully, more aware of what idiots might do, simply because I have to react in a slightly different way. Typically if I pick up speed, or I approach a situation where I may have stop, my pedals ‘rest’ in the best position for stopping, parallel to the ground. I rarely find myself pedalling hard into a situation where there is uncertainty. Maybe I’m just older and wiser!

But overall I find that the braking system just fits with this type of bike – it’s easy, painless, instinctive, and it works effectively. If I had to get another omafiets I would choose a coaster brake without hesitation.

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16 Responses to Coasting

  1. canamsteve says:

    No argument that a coaster brake is a good option for a city bike or casual use in the Netherlands. But having grown up riding such bikes, I found the rear brake alone is not really sufficient should you encounter that thing called a “hill” and are proceeding down at speed. In fact, we used to see who could leave the longest skid marks, and a few times, we skidded right through the tyre and tube. Thrilling when you’re twelve years old. I’m not saying you can’t stop, but you certainly are working near the limits of the braking just to keep your speed down.

    I’m not sure a coaster brake is really simpler than a rim brake. It’s actually reasonably complex and needs some maintenance. It probably appears simpler to a non-mechanical person – like hub gearing. Don’t forget if your chain breaks (not unknown on such a bike) you have no rear brake and may have forgotten you still have a front one in an emergency.

    A lowered seat does help keep weight to the rear and weight on the braked wheel. But I suspect at best this gives 50% of the braking force available with two good rim (or disc) brakes. Remember the very act of braking will naturally move weight onto the front wheel and unload the rear – that’s why skidding was so easy and fun.

    It’s common for some motorcyclists to get in the habit of using the rear brake only as well. These tend to be cruiser-style bikes where you also “sit back”. Accident investigations often find long skid marks from the rear wheel only before collisions where such motorcyclists – used to using the rear brake only – have panic braked with the rear alone and been unable to stop before hitting something. At the speeds motorcycles can travel up to 80% of the braking force is from the front wheel. Obviously this doesn’t really apply to city biking, and the difference between maximum rear and combined braking on such a bicycle is probably a metre or so at most.

    I’ve got one bike with a Sachs two speed “kickback” rear wheel and a coaster brake. It works fine, but these days I just can’t get used to the inability to rotate the pedals at a light or junction to get my strong foot in position for takeoff. If I only rode that bike, it would be OK, though.

  2. georgio8 says:

    I agree that a coaster rear brake combined with a drum brake on the front wheel is ideal for city cycling – I’ve had that arrangement on my Moulton APB for a few years and I wouldn’t change it. Modern coaster and drum brakes are very powerful. In the UK the single brake lever should be fitted on the left, leaving the right hand free for signalling right turns while braking. But I do find that I can apply the front brake more quickly than the coaster in emergencies.

  3. bz2 says:

    One major advantage in Dutch cities is that you don’t have any cables to get tangled when parking at the railway station. I’ve lost many a cable and accessory while trying to park or extract my bike from racks that were filled to 200% capacity.

  4. Felix says:

    I spent my preteen years on a remote Australian island which had two bikes (one mine), a tractor, a motorcycle combination and an ancient ute (pickup). The ute may have been a model T ford and the motorbike a Harley Davison. My bike had a roller coaster brake and I soon learned to skid by locking up the rear wheel. I have many good memories from those days more than half a century ago.

  5. I think coaster brakes are the best way to go for a kid’s first bike – often at 4 or 5, their hands aren’t strong enough to brake particularly effectively so it’s much more reliable. Both my kids learnt on a little 16″ with a coaster brake and the hand brakes were mostly cosmetic.
    The fun thing was my eldest loved to accelerate then slam on his coaster brake into a skid, he made a nobbly back tyre almost bald and eventually it actually exploded! I was secretly quite proud! We bought a new tyre and the bike served his younger brother well too.
    Their 20″ bikes are dutch kids bikes (Loekie) with 3 speed gears and pedal back too. In fact one of them is in a Dutch bike shop right now having it’s chainguard replaced. I can’t imagine how many pairs of trousers covered in oil I’d have thrown away by now without that lovely chain guard.

    • Agree completely. Hand brakes are only a recent addition to Dutch children’s bikes, undoubtedly an attempt by the manufacturers to give their products a bit more street cred. It is well known they are hardly ever used, as children are much happier using the coaster brake, which is much easier for them. Of coarse all the other advantages mentioned above are particularly important for children too: It is much safer for them to ride an uncluttered bike and to be able to look over their shoulder and signal without compromising the ability to brake. There is no need for parents to constantly check the brake blocks and tighten the brakes (who does anyway?) and there are no cables to be damaged either (as long as the bikes are not fitted with a ridiculous amount of derailer gears!). As for children getting used to them: I was a bit apprehensive at first when I gave a few British children a Dutch bike to try, but I needn’t have worried: within minutes they found out how to work them, and even thought them rather ‘cool’. They liked the bikes, and didn’t even suggest I should take off the chainguard, mudguards, lock, lights, carrier and stand in order to improve on the looks….
      I think bicycle shops should take note and start replacing their range of impractical, overcomplicated miniature mountain bikes with proper, sensible bicycles that will allow children to see their bike as a means to get where they want to go, and not just as a throw-away toy.

    • Tim says:

      Does anyone know where one can get Dutch style kids bikes in the UK? (specifically a six/seven year-old).

      I had been thinking about Islabikes but we were wondering about step-through frames for kids the other day, and a coaster brake could be an advantage?

  6. Quite an interesting article, especially as I recently started using a fixie as my commute bike so have a form of “coaster” brake (albeit without being able to coast!) in that I can brake and modulate my speed with my legs.

    Much as you mention above I have also adjusted my riding style somewhat having now got used to leg braking and I think I even prefer it for low speed filtering through traffic where I can control speed with my cadence and I’m starting to be able to bring the speed under control again from higher speeds now (currently anything under about 20mph I can do with with legs alone given enough room, altering my grip on handlebars also helps apply more force if needed). The biggest change has been not rushing to lights now as I prefer to try and maintain momentum. Hills can also be interesting, no gears to use means just pedalling harder to get up and descending results in some crazy RPM, about 110 @ 35mph being my best so far, which resulted in calf cramps at bottom!

    I also had that weird experience of going back to a regular bike a few weeks back when out with the kids in park, as my commute is pretty much the only riding I get to do, using a fixie for it means I haven’t been able to freewheel properly with legs stationary for several months so when I rode one of my old bikes the bigger kids are using now (some 20yrs old I reckon!) and I could do that it felt rather unusual as I stopped applying pedalling pressure and I didn’t get the usual feedback from pedals with them still wanting to move🙂

    • John Wright says:

      Hi, that’s interesting as I used to commute on a fixie but I stopped because I didn’t like using it at slow speed while filtering through traffic. I found that the fact my legs – which are a large portion of a rider’s weight – had to turn all the time adversely affected my balance. The fixie was great when moving at a reasonable speed but the first thing I wanted to do when I wanted good balance control was to stop turning my legs.

  7. John Wright says:

    I’ve never used a coaster brake but I do remember having a hub brake on the rear wheel of a Raleigh Smallwheel when I was a kid. It was great for skidding but for one big problem. The wheel always began to skid at the same spot which meant the back tyre would wear out very quickly. My mum was not impressed.

  8. Joel_C says:

    This post is relevant to my interests as I’ve just taken delivery of a Workcycles FR8 bike yesterday. I took it out today for its maiden voyage to work. It’s certainly liberating being able to free up the use of a hand, particularly for signalling. I’m still at the stage of getting used to its operation though – having to be much more aware of where your feet are and losing the ability to wind back when stopped at traffic lights will require a little re-adjustment (I tend to kick off with my right foot, therefore my optimal braking position is the reverse of yours it seems).

    Another thing that’s a bit odd is getting used to sitting a little behind the crank, rather than over it as per my touring bike. I initially have put my saddle at the “normal” height (i.e. roughly level with my hip-bone) but I might adjust this downwards a little for tomorrow’s ride. It is also set up with the saddle orientated backwards, which is a little strange for me.

    I ought to add though that its such fun to ride – I dont think I’ll be looking back!

  9. Tim says:

    On a German exchange trip I discovered my penfriend had a chopper style bike with a coaster brake which was great for massive skids. Unfortunately while hammering across his yard I suddenly forgot how to pedal backwards at the last minute and went straight into the side of his house at full pelt. The style of bike meant my knuckles were the first thing to hit. Agony. (but no permanent damage).

    I like the point about hands free for signalling.

  10. Richard says:

    I’ve had a couple of hire bikes in the past with coaster brakes, and they confuse the hell out of me. I guess I’m just too used to back-pedalling while free-wheeling on my usual bike, and then on a coaster end up doing confusing and unexpected braking manoeuvres.

    I’m just about to take delivery of a Workcycle Opafiets, and I’m afraid that I insisted on no coaster brakes when I ordered, as I’m just too used to using my hands.

  11. Chris says:

    Last year, I decided that I needed a local shopping / child-ferrying / leisure-outing bike, and while I was making plans for the build I decided that a 3 speed hub with a coaster brake was the best option. This was mostly because I wanted to leave a hand free for signalling (right) and dealing with minor offspring emergencies while on the move. So I had a wheelset built around a Sturmey Archer SRC3 hub. Installing and adjusting one of these things is a bit of a fiddle if you’ve never done it before (I hadn’t) but, after an afternoon of assembly / disassembly / reassembly and quiet swearing, I got there in the end.

    I didn’t like the braking action at all at first – it seemed rough and unpredictable and less powerful than a decently set up rim brake. And not being able to spin the pedals at rest is annoying if you have the additional weight and the high centre of gravity of a passenger in a rear seat – pushing off from a sub-optimal pedal position is a bit wobbly.

    But after using it for a year or so the mechanism seems to have bedded in a bit – and my technique has certainly improved – and I really enjoy using it. I think the comment above about pace is important – I definitely ride in a more leisurely and considered manner on this bike than I do on my other ones – but that’s probably a good thing in various different ways !

    A couple of weeks ago I replaced the rear rack with a Trail-gator so that I can tow my 5 year old son behind me on – and unleash him when we get to the park. The smooth braking action of the coaster hub really works well for this.

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