Which Hand for which Brake?

Which Hand for which Brake?

One of the most confounding questions in cycling is this: Which hand should control which brake? In the U.S., the law requires that all bikes are sold with the left hand controlling the front brake, and the right hand the rear brake. It’s the same in France. In Italy and Great Britain, it’s the other way around.

For this post, we’re using photos of classic bikes with exposed brake cables, because you easily can see which brake connects to which lever. (With modern brakes, the cables are hidden under the handlebar tape.)

Many myths surround the reasons for these differences, but history is the most likely explanation: Early bikes had only a rear brake. In France, this was usually a rim brake. The early brakes were not very powerful, so you needed lots of hand power to stop the bike. Most people are right-handed, and it made sense to control the single brake with the right hand. So the single brake lever was mounted on the right, and it controlled the rear brake. In Italy and Britain, the single brake was a coaster brake, and there was no brake lever at all.

When front brakes were added to bikes at some time during the 20th century, this required adding a brake lever to the handlebars. In France, the right side was already taken, so they mounted the extra lever on the left (above).

The U.S. copied French practice – probably because Schwinn was the only company importing performance bikes with hand brakes, and Schwinn was influenced by French bicycles.

In “coaster-brake countries” (Britain, Italy, Germany, etc.), the handlebars were still empty, so the brake lever for the front brake went on the right side (above). When racers started using rim brakes on both wheels, the extra brake lever (for the rear wheel) went on the left side.

Look carefully at the Baines ‘Flying Gate’ above, and you can see how British sidepull brakes have the cable enter on the left side (seen from the rider’s perspective). This ensures a larger radius for the brake cable coming from the right lever.

Those are the historic reasons why some use “right – front” and others “left – front,” but this doesn’t answer the question: Which is better?

Many reasons have been put forward for the “right hand – front brake” approach. Most motorcycles use that configuration, since the right hand operates the throttle, the left hand the clutch (via a hand lever), which in turn means that the right side of the handlebars is the only place to put a brake lever.

Some cyclocross racers prefer the “right – front” setup, so they can brake on the rear with their left hand as they dismount. I am not so sure this makes sense – to get your bike fishtailing when you have only one hand on the bars seems like a really bad idea. You really should be done with braking by the time you release the bars and prepare to shoulder the bike. (European cyclocross professionals generally seem to follow their country’s practice, with French and Belgian racers using the “left – front” setup.)

Yet others point to the fact that most riders are right-handed, and the front brake is the most useful one, so using your stronger hand to operate it makes sense. Except that a good brake shouldn’t require huge amounts of hand power…

What about the advantages of the “left – front” way of setting up your brakes? One advantage in the U.S., where we ride on the right side of the road, is that you can come to a stop and hold on to a railing or post with your right hand, while your left hand still operates the front brake. Being right-handed, I also often use my right hand to shift, eat or take photos, so it’s nice to have my free hand ready to brake with the more important brake.

It seems that there are pros and cons for each setup, but none are so great that they persuasively make one setup better than the other. It really comes down to personal preference.

On bikes with centerpull or cantilever brakes, it’s easy to switch the brake cables from one side to another.

Most sidepull brakes are set up for “left hand – front brake,” even those made by Italian companies like Campagnolo and Gipiemme… yet most Italian racers route the cables the opposite way (above). The bend of the front brake cable is a little tight (especially with aero brake levers), but it’s not a big deal.

With disc brakes, the rotor is on the left side, so it’s the same as sidepull brakes: If you use the right lever to operate the front brake, then the cable run has a larger radius, which is helpful with mechanical discs. (Cables have more friction when routed in tight bends. Hydraulic fluid works via pressure, so it’s unaffected by tight bends.)

Whatever you do, I recommend being consistent. During a panic stop, your instincts will take over, and if you are used to pulling on, say, the left lever, you’ll find that if the brakes are reversed, you’ll skid the rear wheel without slowing down much. Several of my friends use the “right – front” approach, and when I ride their bikes, I constantly have to remind myself of the reversed brake levers – and hope that I won’t have to stop in a hurry.

Further Reading:

Photo credits: Hilary Stone (Baines Flying Gate), Nicolas Joly (dark blue Rene Herse), Gipiemme (Giovanni Battaglin), Ryan Francesconi (OPEN gravel bike).

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Comments (69)

  • kittehjesus

    Interesting write-up, which answers a long standing question that had puzzled me. I don’t believe t makes a big difference which hand operates which brake, especially in an age of brakes with good stopping power. More important is to know which lever operates which brake, and to keep consistency between one’s own bikes to avoid, as you say, making emergency braking situations more dangerous.

    June 5, 2015 at 5:43 am
  • cbratina

    When I started riding some 40 years ago I set up my front brake “Italian style” for the right lever to take advantage of my stronger right hand. In those days it was necessary. It should be noted, as became evident to me with time, that your predominate hand also provides better modulation. Since then I have always set up all of my families bikes the same way. With modern sidepull brakes, the power issue is not significant for single bikes or mountain bikes, but it still is with tandems and even my dirt road/touring bike with Paul centerpull brakes, I descent some very steep hills.

    June 5, 2015 at 5:45 am
  • Sebastian

    I am thinking of endless discussions and all types of arguments when I read those lines. People trying to convince me to use “their” setup because it is the “right” one annoys me like nothing else.

    June 5, 2015 at 6:03 am
  • Thorin Messer

    What about having the useful (front!) brake on the left interfering with signaling with the left hand as we do in the US?

    June 5, 2015 at 6:19 am
    • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

      You make a good point. Signaling depends on the state where you live. In WA, while it is legal to signal right turns with your left hand, it is very uncommon. Most riders use their left arm to signal left turns, and their right arm to signal right, which makes the brake routing a moot point.
      I also feel that speed is an asset when negotiating (faster) traffic. So I don’t slow down unless I have to, in which case I brake hard – and for that, I need both hands on the bars.

      June 5, 2015 at 6:26 am
  • mickb13

    I wasn’t aware of the history so thanks for that. Being from the UK I always follow the motorcycle right hand brake style. It makes most sense to me even though I’m a lefty and would think anyone who rides motorcycles would do the same. Saying that, a friend not very experienced with bicycles grabbed a handful of right-hand brake on his brand new mountain bike going down a steep off road hill attempting a skid (as you do). Having gone over the bars he emerged from a cloud of dust and questioned why his dominant right hand wasn’t the front brake! Different stokes for different folks I guess.

    June 5, 2015 at 6:33 am
  • Dan In Iowa

    Motorcycles went through the same conundrum. The British brands had the brake and clutch levers opposite other countries, as well as the rear brake pedal and shifter. . Sometime about 1969, I think, the US required standardized configurations on where those were for new bikes sold here. You can still find some older Triumphs with the old configuration.

    June 5, 2015 at 7:08 am
  • Janet

    Interesting history.

    June 5, 2015 at 8:10 am
  • Luis Bernhardt

    You’re right, this is a very important issue. Laws are usually made by non-cyclists with little consultation, so we get dumb laws/conventions such as mandating which hand controls the more effective front brake. I think that the dominant hand should control the front brake. For most people this would be the right lever. So the left-front is stupid, unless you’re left handed. The reason for this is that in a panic stop, you squeeze both levers, but when the rear tire starts to skid, you ease up on the FRONT lever (yes, counter-intuitive) until the weight shifts to the back enough that the skidding stops, when you increase front brake pressure. Repeat as necessary. This is harder to do with the non-dominant hand controlling the front. BTW, this comes from Forester, Effective Cycling, written back in the 70’s, and he gets most of his stuff from club riding in England. This generalizes to brake modulation in turns.
    For signalling, I always signal before I brake. And left arm braking is completely car-centric. There is no reason to use the left arm for a right turn. If the driver is alongside you when you’re making a right turn, so won’t be able to see your right arm pointing right, they won’t be affected anyway.
    I switched my brakes over to moto when I raced cyclocross. You want right-front on a cross bike because you often coast down a hill with a barrier at the bottom. This lets you dismount to the left, stand on the left pedal, prepare for the pickup with the right hand on the downtube, but control your speed with the left hand on the rear brake lever. I don’t think fishtailing is an issue at cx speeds, especially near a dismount. I soon noticed that most of the knowledgeable riders were using right-front, so I kept it on all my bikes. I have seen cx riders from countries with left-front practice dismounting on the right! I would think it would make for a greasy jersey, though!
    I always think more highly of riders who have their bikes configured right-front (moto). It shows they have actually thought about this issue!

    June 5, 2015 at 8:51 am
    • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

      Luis, in a panic stop, you should only use the front brake, since the rear wheel doesn’t really touch the ground, and thus has no traction. See also https://janheine.wordpress.com/2013/08/23/how-to-brake-on-a-bicycle/
      In cyclocross, right-front is common in the U.S., but most European pros are from Belgium, and use the “left-front” setup that is used on road bikes there. And they don’t seem to have trouble keeping up. Realistically, you want your braking done by the time you let go of the handlebars… And even in ‘cross, your best brake usually is the front. (There are exceptions, as when you want to skid around a downhill hairpin turn…)

      June 5, 2015 at 9:26 am
      • Luis Bernhardt

        How to Brake is a good article. What is unclear in your testing is this: when you did the hard stop with both brakes, did you try to modulate BOTH brakes, or just the front? It would seem to me that the shortest braking would occur with both brakes applied (2x the contact patch), but modulating (focusing) only on the front. So this would be equivalent to front braking only, but just applying rear brake as well, and using the skidding as an indication that there was zero weight on the rear wheel, so you can ease up slightly on the front brake if you wanted to. After all, even the skidding is going to apply some friction to slow things down! What your tests seem to be saying is that no modulation of the front wheel is required. Even if the rear wheel starts to skid, you’ll stop faster if you just keep the front brake applied. I’m still not sure about this.
        Another thing one can conclude from the braking article is that you only need a hydraulic disc brake for the front wheel. The rear can use a rim caliper to save weight (and simplify breaking the bike apart if it has couplers). In fact, this past winter, despite having a caliper brake in back, I used the hydraulic front disc almost exclusively on my fixie. Minimal or no wear on both rims!

        June 5, 2015 at 10:24 am
        • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

          Luis, you overlook the weight transfer. When you brake, no matter which brake you use, the deceleration will move your weight forward. (You see that in cars as they “dive” during braking.) The harder you brake, the more weight transfer you get. So to get optimum braking, you want the most weight transfer, just before you flip over the front wheel. In practice, that is unobtainable unless you go down a very steep slope (photo in this post), and even then only at low speed when the air resistance no longer pushes you backward.
          If you open the front brake to regain traction on the rear, you are reducing your weight transfer and your braking power. You are right, the ideal bike would have a very powerful front brake and a very weak rear. When you look at performance motorcycles, you see exactly that: 2 huge discs in the front wheel, a single, tiny disc on the rear. Campagnolo used to offer a dual pivot on the front and a classic (lighter) sidepull on the rear, but I guess customers didn’t understand and wanted more brake power on the rear…

          June 5, 2015 at 2:46 pm
      • Andy

        I’m in favor of bikes being sold with the rear brake controlled by the right hand. I have no issue with people changing that if they feel compelled to do so. While skilled riders may be able to effectively use the front brake in panic situations, that is definitely not what I would want hybrids and kids bikes equipped with. An uncontrolled rear-wheel skid might cause some road rash if they fall over, which sounds much better to me than an uncontrolled flip over the bars where hitting the ground head first is far more possible.

        June 5, 2015 at 11:28 am
        • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

          You are right, the “header” is dangerous. However, it isn’t caused by the bike flipping over – it’s very hard to do that even on a racing bike where the rider’s weight is relatively far forward. What seems to happen is that the bike slows, but the rider doesn’t brace themselves, and so flies forward. The bike only flips over when their legs get tangled in the handlebars.
          In our testing, we rode down a very steep hill and braked so hard that the brake pads smoked, yet the rear wheel rose only at very low speeds, and very slowly. I doubt an unskilled rider could brake that hard. Of course, we did brace ourselves against the bars and shifted our weight backwards.

          June 5, 2015 at 2:54 pm
      • Andy

        “Of course, we did brace ourselves against the bars and shifted our weight backwards.”
        This is exactly what a new rider wouldn’t know how to do. Either way, if this is a requirement from CPSC, I doubt change will come anytime soon.

        June 5, 2015 at 3:52 pm
        • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

          It’s a catch-22. If you don’t brace yourself, you cannot brake hard… and then it doesn’t matter which brake you use, but you are more likely to crash into stuff.

          June 5, 2015 at 3:58 pm
      • Andy Stow

        So is the second video on this post (not graphic, but painful to watch) caused by the rider failing to brace? It happens very quickly.

        June 8, 2015 at 7:07 am
        • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

          It’s really hard to see the rider in that video, but he or she probably did fail to brace and move their weight backward. Otherwise, their brakes must be far more powerful than anything we’ve tested. We really tried, and we braked so hard that the pads smoked and the Aheadset stem slipped and the headset was loose, yet we could not lift the rear wheel even on a 12% downhill slope… until our speed dropped to about 5 mph, when the wind resistance no longer pushed the rider and bike backward, and the rear wheel came up slowly.

          June 8, 2015 at 8:33 am
  • Johan Larsson

    Since there are pros and cons for each setup with no definitive advantages for either, I think consistency is most important – which means that the front brake should go on the right side since that’s the de facto standard for motorcycles. There should never ever be any doubt when you’re on a two-wheeler, muscle memory and instincts should be trusted when it comes to front braking since it’s so very important. Especially on a motorcycle margins can be very small, and your life could very well be dependent on instinctive braking with the right hand. I would never want to tamper with that in any way.

    June 5, 2015 at 8:58 am
  • John Johnston

    From the Twin Cities largest bike club recommendations !
    3. Know which brake handle is for your rear brake (normally the right) and use it as your primary brake or in conjunction with the front brake. Do not apply only your front brake.

    June 5, 2015 at 10:14 am
    • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

      Unfortunately, that is incorrect… To obtain the shortest stopping distance, use only the front brake. Maybe you can point the webmaster of that site to the blog entry on how to brake, so they can change their recommendation.

      June 5, 2015 at 1:56 pm
      • Frank

        My daughter (aged 5) has a bmx with only the rear brake. From my limited experience of bmx bikes (n = 3) they all seem to be wired this way.
        Having read your ‘effective braking’ article now i’m a little nervous!

        June 6, 2015 at 2:35 am
      • matthewinseattle

        @Jan: Can you explain this statement (front brake only for minimum stopping distance)?
        It seems completely contrary to a basic understanding of physics. If stopping distance is inversely proportional to negative acceleration, and acceleration is proportional to force, and using both brakes would double force applied (assuming identical levers, brakes and wheels)… I can’t understand how you minimize stopping distance by only using one brake (either front or rear).

        June 9, 2015 at 3:10 am
        • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

          The explanation is weight transfer: When you brake hard, your weight shifts forward, unloading the rear wheel. And if the rear wheel is barely touching the ground (or not at all), it’s useless trying to use that brake. It doesn’t do anything, only detracts your concentration that should be focused on the wheel and brake that actually have traction.

          June 9, 2015 at 6:51 am
          • David Lewis

            While I have not tried it on a bicycle for obvious reasons, I know that on a motorcycle you can in fact lock up the front wheel if you grab the front brake in a panic. The problem is that you are applying the brake before the weight transfer has a chance to load the front tire. On a motorcycle, where you have a suspension to compress, you need to squeeze the brake on over half a second or so to stop optimally. I should imagine the time is shorter on a bicycle, but there is still some flex in the system and I doubt that the time is zero.

            June 9, 2015 at 9:59 pm
  • Andy

    I had a bike that I set up with integrated brake/shifters in the typical way, but also had cyclocross levers on the bars routed opposite, using tandem length cables and longer housing. I used this bike for polo on a grass field, which requires holding the mallet with the right hand (tough for me to learn as I use my left hand for most things). I could use either hand to brake the front or rear as desired. Eventually I gave that up, because the long housing made modulation during actual rides less than pleasant.
    I later switched to a single lever that pulls both cables at the same time. The first time I used it I nearly fell off the bike, because it was set to pull both cables equally. I learned that I needed more like 20% front and 80% rear to have the right stopping power on both ends.

    June 5, 2015 at 11:22 am
  • oldyellr

    This has always been a pet topic for me. I started cycling in the UK in the 1950s as a teenager. As far as I can remember, the front brake was on the right. (In fact, if you Google images of old roadsters with rod brakes, it’s very rare to find one with the front brake on the left.) When I emigrated to Canada and many years later got back into cycling, I discovered that the bike I bought had the brakes “backwards”. I’ve been switching brakes to the (for me) logical setup of right front ever since. It is my theory that in North America, where kids grew up with coaster brakes before bicycles for the mass market were imported from Europe, it was customary to slide the back wheel to stop, so putting the back brake on the right, for the dominant hand, was inevitable. It is only experienced cyclists that know the front brake is the most important one. The average “bike rider” relies solely on the rear brake. (They also pedal with their arches instead of the balls of their feet.)

    June 5, 2015 at 11:49 am
  • David Lewis

    I set my bikes up right-front for a very simple reason. I rode both bicycles and motorcycles for many years, transitioning gradually from motorcycles to bicycles in my sixties. Having set the muscle memory on a motorcycle, I was certain that in an emergency I would kill myself if they were different.

    June 5, 2015 at 2:04 pm
  • Kyle Brooks

    Funny thing — I ride bicycles, but I’ve also ridden motorcycles for quite some time. I always set up my bicycles with left hand/front brake. But motorcycles typically are the opposite. One would assume that would lead to confusion, but for some reason, it has never once posed a problem for me. Until someone pointed it out to me, it hadn’t even occurred to me that they were set up oppositely. Go figure.

    June 5, 2015 at 2:36 pm
  • champs794

    In the variety of bikes I have ridden lately, I have found that having the left hand available for turn signals is far more important than which one operates the brake. Using the traditional configuration (as I do) often means sacrificing a proper signal for making the corner. It doesn’t have to be like this.

    June 5, 2015 at 2:57 pm
    • Andy

      I’ve been told that signaling is optional when it cannot be done safely, though in the states I was riding I never found a law that agreed with that statement. Regardless, if I’m making a turn at a high enough speed that signalling isn’t safe, I’d only be doing that if there wasn’t traffic, and signalling would be moot.

      June 5, 2015 at 3:56 pm
      • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

        Yes, signaling is required only when it’s safe to let go of the handlebars. I usually signal before the turn, so that traffic around me knows what I will be doing, but by the time I am actually turning, it’s pretty obvious anyhow, and there is no need to signal.

        June 5, 2015 at 4:00 pm
  • oldyellr

    Here is another good reason for not setting up the front brake on the left it it’s not your dominant hand. It’s far too easy to apply the brake too hard, just like left foot braking in a car if you haven’t practised it and become expert at it. My first “endo” as a lid was on a borrowed bike that had the front brake on the left.

    June 5, 2015 at 3:36 pm
  • B. Carfree

    I played a lot of bike polo in the ’80s and ’90s. Being right-handed, it was very useful to have my front, and only, brake on the left side.
    Perhaps because I grew up playing basketball and swimming, where one learns to use each side fairly equally, but I’m amazed that so many people claim a significant strength and coordination difference between hands. The amount of effort required to apply and properly modulate brakes is pretty trivial and seems to me that it shouldn’t cause any control issues when using one’s non-dominant fingers unless one has some neurological deficiency or has kept that arm in a sling most of the time.

    June 5, 2015 at 5:30 pm
  • ORiordan

    I always thought that the UK brake set-up was something to do with driving on the left but I didn’t realise Italy also uses the same set-up so that knocks that idea on the head!
    What is the convention in Japan?

    June 6, 2015 at 2:40 am
  • Hadrian

    I ride bikes with both configurations and have no issue remembering which hand operates the front brake on which bike.

    June 6, 2015 at 3:35 am
  • David Pearce

    I loved your Brake Issue, which I back-ordered at least a year ago. I feel, and maybe it’s the wrong opinion, but I feel that when bicycle designers got around to thinking about brake solutions, they came up with such “inventive” solutions, and the bicycle entered the “modern” era, and passed out of the old era of spoon brakes pressed on tires, or perhaps no brakes at all or only one brake on one wheel.

    June 6, 2015 at 11:39 am
  • Steve Palincsar

    Only in very rare edge cases (such as tandems equipped with one lever to control both front and rear brakes., short-arm cantilevers operated by non-aero levers, or people with exceptionally weak hands) does relative hand strength even begin to become important. What is important is familiarity. The more critical and stressful the situation, the more likely you are to do the familiar, automatic thing, and in the case of emergency braking the automatic thing had better be the right thing. Every bike I’ve ever ridden, from the 1950s to today, has had the front brake controlled by the left hand. For me, it makes sense to keep it that way, and no sense whatever to change.

    June 6, 2015 at 7:35 pm
  • TimJ

    Great post and a very sensible and logical conclusion (it doesn’t matter). The only thing I would add is that whatever set up you choose for, make it the same on all the bikes you ride. Having ridden front-right for several years, I promptly flipped myself over the first time I rode a bike with front-left!

    June 7, 2015 at 12:26 am
  • Christophe

    As we say in France, the British do everything the wrong way (we do drive and ride on the right side of the road, so who’s riding on the wrong side ?). So the right way of setting up the brakes is necessarily ours: front=left. (to my British friends -I do have a few, although you killed Joan of Arc-: just kidding)
    To be honest, I know a few French people who set up their brakes the British way: all of them also ride motorbikes, so that makes sense.
    As B. Carfree mentioned, the issue of different hand strength and coordination is quite surprising to me, but maybe that is because as a guitarist, I have acquired more strength and coordination in my left hand ?

    June 7, 2015 at 2:02 am
    • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

      I always feel that I want to work on my weaknesses, so if my left hand was significantly weaker than my right, using it to brake my bike would make it stronger…

      June 7, 2015 at 5:57 am
  • Johan Larsson

    I don’t understand why there are so few that bring up motorcycles here, or why it wasn’t discussed in the main article. The only thing that makes sense if consistency is the main priority, is to set up the bike with the front brake for the right hand since that is how all motorized two-wheelers have it. See, and if so, comment on my first post earlier – https://janheine.wordpress.com/2015/06/05/which-hand-for-which-brake/#comment-18680 – so I don’t have to repeat myself too much.

    June 7, 2015 at 6:09 am
  • Mike O.

    Braking becomes muscle memory. As a kid my bikes had coaster brakes and I just automatically pushed back on the pedals without thinking. When I started riding as an adult with my first 12 speed and hand brakes I caught myself pushing back on the pedals to stop. For a long time.
    Now, 30 years later left front and right rear is just muscle memory, it’s automatic. To change at this point, at least for me, would be dangerous.

    June 7, 2015 at 12:03 pm
  • Preston Grant

    When I was growing up in the forties and fifties, the majority of bikes had coaster brakes, and the few bikes that had rim brakes were English 3-speed Raleighs with the right lever operating the front brake. Several people I knew had serious accidents when they switched from coaster brake bikes to rim brakes because they squeezed the right brake lever too hard, locking the front wheel. My recollection is that the U.S. law requiring front brake operated by left lever, was introduced in the belief that most people, having less left hand strength, would not apply the front brake so hard as to lock the wheel. For a while I had both British and Italian bikes with opposite brake lever configurations, but prudence indicated that I make them all the same.

    June 7, 2015 at 12:07 pm
    • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

      Unless you have terrible tires, or you are on gravel or very wet or otherwise slippery roads, locking the front wheel on a bike is impossible… We tried when we tested brakes… and even a 25 mm tire has enough traction to exceed that required by the brake power of the best modern dual-pivot brakes.
      There are all kinds of accidents that happen from improper braking technique – the most common probably is not bracing yourself when you apply the brakes hard and thus flying forward (like you do in a car if you don’t wear a seatbelt).

      June 7, 2015 at 12:25 pm
      • djconnel

        I think also if you’re cornering you want to use both brakes, since traction is highly compromised when leaned over (there is an orthogonal acceleration component already eating into the static friction limit). Of course, it’s best practice to decelerate substantially before leaning over, but still it’s still sometimes necessary, more so if racing. But I think your general message is underappreciated (deceleration shifts weight to the front).

        June 7, 2015 at 3:05 pm
        • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

          When you are cornering near the limit, you cannot brake. If you need to slow down, the best technique is to right up the bike and then brake hard on the front brake only, then lean hard again. I had to do that on a few decreasing-radius corners over the years – it’s fine.
          Breaking on the rear in mid-corner is inviting an almost certain accident, unless you are trying to provoke a skid on purpose – either because you are a 10-year-old (as I once was) or because you want to skid around a downhill corner on loose gravel.

          June 7, 2015 at 6:37 pm
  • Steve Mc

    I can’t imagine successfully swapping hands. I ride with RH front but occasionally have ridden hire bikes in Europe with LH front. It is fine in normal use but I have found it impossible to quell my automatic reaction to use the right hand for emergency stops. Most of the time this isn’t a disaster but when a car pulled out in front of me on a descent in Italy and I started to skid, it very nearly was. It has made me think twice about hiring a bike with the brakes the ‘wrong way round’ again.

    June 7, 2015 at 12:22 pm
  • Preston Grant

    Jan, you are quite right about it being difficult to impossible to lock the front wheel on a good surface, but many people stated they had locked it because they were not, as you mentioned, properly braced and fell forward onto the the handlebars. In any case it was a very confusing transition for some people to adjust to the different braking technique required with hand levers and rim brakes compared to coaster brakes. I have an elderly friend, who learned to ride with a coaster brake, and even now will not ride any bike with rim brakes. Of course there are many situations where the traction of the front wheel is compromised and the wheel will lock up very easily. That happened to me a few years back when I did not notice that my front wheel was in a rivulet of sprinkler runoff, slippery with algae, and a mere touch of the brake locked the wheel. It also happened recently to my wife when we were descending a steep gravel road in the California Central Coast area. A car approached from the opposite direction, my wife panicked, grabbed the brake levers as hard as she could, front wheel locked, and she went down. Fortunately no injuries. Good braking technique appears to require knowledge, experience, and superior judgement in anything other than the most favorable conditions. This concerns me greatly as I am
    at the age where I will break bones rather than bounce off the pavement if I fall. I consider myself very fortunate to have made it to age 75, and can still ride at all, not to mention rides in the mountains, but I would like another 25 years!! At any rate, this is an important subject for discussion for all riders of any age.

    June 7, 2015 at 2:01 pm
    • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

      Preston, I agree that “panic braking” is best avoided. In most cases, trying to avoid the obstacle rather than trying to stop in front of it is a better solution. So I tend to look for the “path ahead” as I assess the situation. More often than not, it’s safer to swerve than to try and brake within a very limited space. Beyond that, it helps to continuously assess the surface you are traveling on, so that if you have to brake hard, you already know how much traction you are likely to have. (This applies to driving a car as well as riding a bike.)

      June 7, 2015 at 3:03 pm
  • John Duval

    How about shifting as you approach a stop? Usually, while approaching a traffic light that just changed, I am squeezing the left brake while grabbing a couple brifter downshifts on the right to prepare for departure.
    For me, mechanical bicycle brakes are never powerful enough, though I still use them. Not unlike a big truck with the brakes from a compact car, the lever will squeeze all the way to the bar short of potential stopping power. So in a hard stop I will mash the front brake all the way and modulate the rear with my dominant right hand to get additional stopping power without excessive skidding. For normal stops, if I use only the front brake my left hand would be toast within a few blocks in city traffic, so again I use both brakes. Long descents are the same.
    I guarantee you, if any average size person squeezed their brakes that hard, they would be launched. Can’t say I have ever seen smoke from my brakes, but have burned myself on the rim.

    June 7, 2015 at 11:09 pm
  • herr karl

    I work as a bike mechanic in Austria where most of the bikes are left front. But once in a while a bike comes into the shop where the brakes are all “wrong”. Most of them belong to motorcycle riders that don’t want to rewire their muscle memory. Having to testride every bicycle before it goes back to the customer I had some unpleasant surprises, but mostly from unintentionally applying the rear break. Nothing worse than a skid when you have your weight all over the back wheel and expecting some serious deceleration.

    June 8, 2015 at 8:05 am
  • Tony Buccino

    Both ways work just fine, but right lever to front brake makes for a lot cleaner cable routing because the cables don’t cross.

    June 8, 2015 at 11:59 pm
    • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

      With most sidepull brakes, the radius of the bend is tighter if you run “right front”, which isn’t so elegant. With centerpull brakes, it all depends on h where on the top tube the cable braze-ons are located.

      June 9, 2015 at 6:50 am
      • Tony Buccino

        I could see that being an issue on smaller bikes. Here’s a good example of right to front cable routing done right: https://instagram.com/p/0oIgwmGAQ4/

        June 9, 2015 at 8:59 am
        • oldyellr

          Yes, sometimes having the brakes set up to your preference and routing the cables can be awkward or even impossible with aero brakes. With traditional brakes, my Dia Compe cables cross over while my Campag cables go straight down, but both look just fine.

          June 9, 2015 at 10:02 am
      • nic

        Have you ever seen 1980-1-2 shimano 600 “western” road brakes (non-aero group)? The cable route is reversed. Shimano made a similar 105 group in 82-83, which I used…

        June 9, 2015 at 11:42 am
  • bruce dance

    The reason I was told for the varying location of the front brake control is a simple one; it is merely in order to allow the rider to give hand signals into traffic whilst allowing some controllable braking (one handed) on the rear brake. If you are going to brake one-handed, it is useful that it is not the front brake you are using because if it were an unskilled rider would more easily make unintended steering inputs when braking hard, one handed.
    The notion expressed that British bikes were all fitted with coaster brakes in the UK is pretty much a bust. They have never, ever, been popular in the UK. Sturmey Archer may have manufactured millions of the blessed things but they were almost all for export. Late 19th century British bikes typically had a fixed gear and a front plunger brake with a right-hand lever. Right front has stuck since then, just as it has for motorbikes.
    Some Italian racers may set their bikes up UK style (perhaps because this allows left handed block shifts in crits etc whilst using the right hand to brake hard?) but I am not sure that this is the way Italian bikes are generally set up; they certainly don’t often come into the UK set up that way, and several models of Italian-designed brakes (eg campag monoplanar) clearly favour left front control.

    June 9, 2015 at 11:12 am
    • oldyellr

      I agree on coaster brakes in the UK. I started cycling there in the early 1950s and we had never heard of them. They were a Continental Europe thing. When I emigrated to Canada in 1956, most domestic bikes had coaster brakes. I believe that this is the reason North American regulators adopted the rear brake as the safest and most important one and put it on the right. Remember, the Model T only had rear brakes (on the driveshaft). It would have been crazy to try and put brakes on the front wheels, which also had to steer!

      June 9, 2015 at 12:36 pm
      • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

        If the Model Ts had front brakes, they would have flipped over when braking hard! 😉 Front brakes became common on cars only in the 1920s, when speeds went up and traffic density increased, and car builders realized that cars actually had to stop.
        The Citroën DS of the 1950s used only its front brakes in normal driving, unless the car was heavily loaded, which affected the weight distribution…

        June 9, 2015 at 12:40 pm
  • bruce dance

    One thing I absolutely concur with is that any rider should stick with what they know, brake-wise. If you are concentrating and make a conscious decision to brake, you can do it reasonably well with any set-up, but anything that requires more immediate action is likely to provoke the ingrained response. So when in foreign lands, riding unfamiliar bikes, it is much the best thing to set the brakes the way you like them if you can do.
    A few weeks ago one of my chums had a serious accident because he used his (recently vastly improved) front brake too hard without thinking about it; he went straight over the bars and it wasn’t pretty.
    I recently learned that noted motorcycle racer, Robert Dunlop, died in a comparable accident. Following an injury he had the front brake and the clutch on the left side and when his 2s motor started to nip up at 150mph, he instinctively went for the clutch, like you do, only he got the brake.
    BTW most modern cars have weaker (smaller) rear brakes anyway but in addition do not use the rear brakes in light braking because there is a proportioning valve that creates a pressure offset in the rear lines. Often this is in the order of -50-100psi vs the front lines. Until the front lines exceed the offset pressure the rear brakes do nothing.

    June 10, 2015 at 1:41 pm
    • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

      Cars are a lot longer than bikes, so the rear wheels don’t lift as much. For the same reason, the rear brake actually is very useful on tandems…

      June 10, 2015 at 10:30 pm
    • oldyellr

      Robert Dunlop’s fatal motorcycle accident is an anomaly because he’d modified his machine to apply the front brake from the left handlebar to accommodate an earlier injury. But it does clearly illustrate the role muscle memory plays.
      I started into motorcycling on Eastern European bikes with the gear shift on the left and later discovered that British, Italian and half the Spanish machines had it on the right, not to mention that some shifted up for up and others down for up (sort of like the old pull chain derailleurs differing from modern gears). I also remember reading somewhere that the human body is wired so the left hand coordinates better with the right foot, making the old British convention superior. Then again, that would make British cars inferior, shifting gears with the left hand. Of course, the safety nazis and lawyers eventually standardized this stuff on bicycles and motorcycles, but I guess it’s too late to standardize which side of the road to drive on around the world.

      June 11, 2015 at 7:37 am
      • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

        Riding on the left side of the road in Japan is no problem for me. But I guess I rarely have to decide in a split-second on which side of the road I will ride…

        June 11, 2015 at 7:52 am
  • DanielW

    I set up all my bikes with right-front, left-rear, which is the opposite of how bikes are normally set up in the U.S.. There’s a few reason I prefer this. One, on STI bikes, it allows me to downshift on the rear with the right hand lever while using the left lever to modulate my rear brakes, which I use pretty much exclusively to ‘slow’. Right hand shifts the cassette while the left scrubs off some speed. I’m fully aware that in circumstances where maximum braking is required it’s easily 90% or more done on the front…and in these circumstances I’m not at all worried about downshifting. Having the front brake under my right (dominant) hand allows for finer control, which is useful on gravel and other situations. Basically for me, ‘slowing’ = rear brake, ‘stopping’ = front. Being able to more easily shift my Shimano STI rear cassette in anticipation while slowing is nice. Same goes for my down-tube shifter bike. Being able to keep my left hand on the rear brake which is used only when slowing/stopping (not emergency stopping) at red lights and whatnot, freeing my right for shifting is nice.
    Basically, left-rear allows for shifting while coming to a stop, and the times where I’m stopping quickly enough to not care about downshift are the times where having my dominant hand on the front brake matters anyway.

    June 12, 2015 at 1:51 am

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