The History of Bicycle Brakes

Bicycle Quarterly always has been intended as a timeless resource, rather than a magazine to be read once and then recycled. Over the last 8.5 years, we have published no fewer than 1711 pages! Many issues are dedicated to a topic and provide an incredible resource for very little money. From time to time, we’ll feature a back issue in the blog.
Vol. 7, No. 2 was about brakes. As a fan of The Dancing Chain, the illustrated history of bicycle derailleurs, I wanted to do something similar on brakes, and this issue of Bicycle Quarterly was the result.
With more than 80 drawings (most from the pen of Daniel Rebour) and dozens of studio photographs, this issue charts the development of bicycle brakes. It explains why sidepull, centerpull and cantilever brakes were developed and how they work. It looks at early hydraulic brakes and disc brakes, different brake lever designs and even examines whether it is better to operate the front brake with the left or the right hand. (There are good reasons for either way.)

You’ll find old favorites like Campagnolo’s classic sidepull brakes (above) and Mafac’s cantilevers and centerpulls alongside truly oddball designs. As cantilevers became popular in the 1940s, many designers tried to improve on the standard design. Here are just four interesting solutions.

Does anybody know how brake No. 7 in the drawing above works? It’s a CLB cantilever from 1948, with a linkage to push the brake pads straight toward the rim, rather than rotating them. (Standard cantilever brake shoes must be adjusted as they wear, otherwise, they don’t touch the rim squarely any longer.) On the CLB brake, it appears that the straddle wires push downward, rather than pull upward. If anybody has a photo of this brake, I’d love to see it.
No. 5 is a CPM cantilever brake that mounts to the posts of a Jeay roller-cam brake (see below). When I first saw one, I thought it was a clever retrofit for older frames, but in fact, it was intended as a quick release. Now 6 is a brazed-on version of the British Resilion cantilevers (which originally dates from the 1920s), while No. 8 uses a corkscrew mechanism similar to the old Cyclo derailleur. I doubt the latter worked very well!
Some brakes are almost forgotten today, but at the time set new standards for performance, like the 1920s Jeay (below), which later saw a re-incarnation as the Roller-Cam for mountain bikes.

Of course, no issue of Bicycle Quarterly would be complete without bike tests. We rode an innovative Frances Smallhaul cargo bike and a classic Lyonsport Randonneur, and tested modern long-reach dual-pivot brakes. We also examined handlebar shapes. To round off this issue, we took you on a trip along the Baltic coast of Germany just after the fall of the Iron Curtain, through a landscape suspended in a no-man’s land between old and new (below). Here are more details of this classic issue, and here you can order your copy.

I am sure somebody will ask about the cover illustration of the “Brake Special” (top): It is an old ad for Torpedo coaster-brake hubs. The lady in the flowing dress outruns all the exhausted racers on their fixies, as she has brakes that allow her to coast safely at high speed.

9 Responses to The History of Bicycle Brakes

  1. Andy May 3, 2011 at 8:59 am #

    #7 makes no sense to me. It looks like it still rotates in to apply braking force, but there’s no way in my mind that pushing strands would work, because the strands would just bend if you wanted to any pressure.
    #8 on the other hand looks interesting. Pulling the cable rotates a small shaft that pushes the brake pad to the rim. There must be some rotating point not clearly visible in there that keeps the pad from rotating though.

    • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly May 3, 2011 at 9:52 am #

      If we had one of the CLB brakes (No. 7), we would be able to figure it out. Daniel Rebour’s drawings are great, but I doubt he completely understood the mechanism when he made the drawing from a photograph he took at the Paris Bike Show.
      For No. 8, you can see the large square guide for the pad that prevents it from rotating.

  2. Daniel S. May 3, 2011 at 9:13 am #

    The way the linkages are set up on the CLB brake suggests that the straddle wires pull up just like on a regular cantilever and also act as springs to release the brake.

    • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly May 3, 2011 at 9:55 am #

      Yes, that appears likely, because pushing down would simply flex the wires. I suspect the drawings are missing a crucial pivot or link somewhere.

      • Andy May 3, 2011 at 10:22 am #

        I think I figured it out. There are two somewhat vertical parts coming down from the bolt. The one closer to the frame has a linkage. When the cable is pulled upwards, the brake parts will shift forward applying pressure to the rim. The extra pivoting piece just keeps the cable off the bolt holding it to the frame. If that’s the case then it shouldn’t matter that its a solid metal piece rather than a cable strand, though it looks like the upper portion might also be solid as well, and this setup simply avoided using cable strands. It wouldn’t push exactly straight in, but with that linkage, it would be pretty close to that.

        • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly May 3, 2011 at 10:34 am #

          That makes some sense, but it would require a longer arm for the cable attachment, so the cables/rods pull inward more than upward. It would be fun to make a copy of this brake, and see how we can make it work. In the end, all these brakes were made obsolete by centerpull brakes, which resolved most of the problems encountered with cantilever brakes without complex linkages.

  3. Tim May 4, 2011 at 5:10 am #

    This issue of BQ is one of my favorites. I think I’ve read the Brakes special 8 or 10 times! And then being forced to wait until the next issue to get an understanding of the fiendish Schultz…

  4. Michael N May 4, 2011 at 10:14 am #

    I have to wonder if the number of “spoon brakes” worldwide is greater than all the others combined, given the numbers bicycles with such brakes in use in the developing world – where I guess I assume most of the bikes are, for now.
    I was surprised a while ago to learn that some early “coaster brakes” used a freehub that would allow coasting that would also engage by means of a long rod a spoon brake that pressed against the rear tire – Columbia offered this option in 1900 as a five dollar option. I believe you could also have a spoon brake for your front tire – two brakes, that’s quite a bit of braking for 1900, when having even one was optional on most Columbia models (that were effectively fixed).
    So while your cover illustration is showing a coaster brake in operation, I can’t tell if is is the coaster brake we are all thinking it is.