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.
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.
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.