Oh how I love the feel of a good coaster brake on an upright city bicycle! Cruising along a Viennese bike path or a quiet Boston side street and controlling my speed with a subtle backward twitch of the legs… It's a lovely feeling of integration with the bike, where forward means go and backward means stop. But not everyone shares this affinity. For North American cyclists, the poor coaster brake is often an object of disdain - something to be abandoned with the cheap children's bikes they associate it with. So when asked whether I think coaster brakes are a good idea, I can respond only by outlining the pros and cons as I see them. In short, here is my take on the coaster brake:
What is a coaster brake?
A coaster brake is a rear brake on a bicycle that is activated by pedaling backwards. If you want to slow down, simply start to push the pedals backward with your feet instead of forward. The harder you push back, the more braking power is applied. This type of brake is common in European upright city bicycles, and it is usually (but not always) supplemented with a front hand-operated brake. The coaster brake is internal and lives in the hub of the rear wheel, rarely requiring maintenance or adjustments.
. 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 totally 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
. I like it that coaster brakes require virtually zero maintenance or adjustments
Why some dislike coaster brakes:
. They find the act of backpedaling confusing or counterintuitive
. They find it inconvenient that with a coaster brake, you cannot bring the pedal back into starting position in the same way as on a non-coaster brake bike
. They feel that a coaster brake does not provide sufficiently strong braking power for the type of riding they do
. They lack the leg strength to activate the coaster brake (or have problems with their legs or knees that prevent them from doing so)
. On bikes that are coaster brake only (no front brake), dropping the chain means you will suddenly be left brakeless.
If you have never tried a coaster brake, there is no way to know whether it's right for you until you test ride a bicycle fitted with one. When I tell anti-coasterbrakites that I love coaster brakes, their response is usually "Oh, but I bet that's because you got used to riding a bike like that when you were a kid." Not true: The first time I tried a coaster brake bicycle was in April 2009. It was love at first backpedal!
How do you feel about coaster brakes, and why? I am sure all feedback will be useful to those wondering about this braking system.