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Coaster brakes are far more common on kids’ bikes because they are believed to be easier for kids to learn on. It’s also generally considered true that kids don’t have the hand strength or coordination to use hand brakes.
However, perception is changing in recent years and now hand brakes are common on kids’ brakes. With that said in this article, I will explain 9 problems with coaster brakes and why hand brakes can be a better option.
1. They are fine for slow, flat riding but downhill they are more dangerous
Going fast and braking using coaster brakes is very difficult, and in most cases is very dangerous.
Downhill riding requires the rider to brake VERY often.
With coaster brakes this is much more difficult than hand brakes. Also, it’s very hard to brake accurately.
With hand brakes you have a lot of coordination because you’re using your hands which are very dexterous – you can do very precise movements. Whereas, with coaster brakes you’re using the large joints of your knee and ankles to control the braking power.
These joints are far less coordinated and you can’t be nearly as precise.
Going downhill requires you to brake suddenly and with precision. Doing so with coaster brakes is far more difficult.
The potential to get it wrong and not slow down fast enough to make a precise maneuver is far higher which can lead to a crash.
2. They slow down the time it takes to learn to ride a bike
In almost all cases you will eventually upgrade to hand brakes.
Coaster brakes are virtually never used on all types of bikes except for cruisers. And only a very small percentage of people will ride cruiser bikes only.
Therefore, everyone who rides bikes – which is also almost everyone – will need to learn to use hand brakes.
So, you will need to learn hand brakes sooner or later. If you start learning to ride a bike using hand brakes you won’t need to learn to use them later on when you need to have a bike that uses handbrakes such as road bikes, mountain bikes, and commuters.
In the grand scheme of learning to ride a bike the total time it takes to learn to use hand brakes is only a very small percentage. But, it is still an extra thing to need to do.
Therefore, it’s far more efficient to start with hand brakes from the beginning.
It’s almost like learning a foreign language or a math equation that you’ll never use.
It can be fun to know how it works but ultimately is relatively pointless.
3. They require you to position your feet ahead of time
Your feet need to be in a precise position to brake using coaster brakes.
If your feet are positioned at the 6 o’clock and 12 o’clock positions you will have virtually no braking power.
And you will need to cycle forward a little bit first before your feet/legs are in a position to brake strongly. This means you need to anticipate when you need to brake ahead of time.
To brake at all and with a good amount of force your feet need to be positioned at the 3 o’clock and 9 o’clock positions.
Your feet also need to have a good grip on the pedals. All of which increase the difficulty, and increase the chances of getting it wrong. Which can make it necessary to put your feet on the ground or to throw your bike in front of you and ‘run it out’.
Both of which are far from desirable situations!
4. They’re fully on or off – it’s very difficult to brake gradually
Unlike hand brakes, coaster brakes are either fully engaged or off.
To engage them you need to position your feet backward and push/pull enough with your feet so they are ‘on’. But, they can’t be partly on OR you can’t brake with only a little bit of braking power.
This means if you’re going very fast you will stop very suddenly.
This is often enough to cause the rear wheel to skid, creating a loss of traction and initiating a skid. If you’re extremely good and comfortable controlling a bike that is skidding it can be incredibly fun.
But, there is always the potential for the rear wheel to leave the ground and land again at an angle.
This can cause the rear wheel to fishtail out and cause the bike to turn sideways.
Which almost always leads to a crash. With hand brakes, you can squeeze a little or a lot. Doing so changes how tightly the brake pads squeeze onto the rim or disk to slow the bike down.
Hand brakes give you much more control over braking because you can brake lightly or with a lot of force. Here’s a really good video that shows how the coaster brake mechanism works:
5. It’s hard to position the pedals to accelerate strongly
Bikes with hand brakes allow the pedals to rotate backward, whereas, this is impossible on a bike with coaster brakes. The ability to do that gives you a lot of flexibility with where you position your feet.
To accelerate with a lot of force your feet need to be positioned in at about the 2 o’clock and 8 o’clock positions.
This gives you a lot of leverage to accelerate off the mark, or boost yourself.
This generally isn’t too desirable as it wears out the chain more than if you pedal constantly. But, at times it’s very desirable.
Being able to micro-adjust the position of the pedals even a little bit is a skill that makes a huge difference to how well you pedal and makes you use much less energy to pedal.
Adjusting the position of the pedals even a little bit backward can give you enough leverage to engage your feet easily to begin pedaling forwards.
Whereas, with coaster brakes, you sometimes need to get off your bike completely when going uphill because it’s too hard to pedal forwards from where the pedals are positioned.
All and all two major negative checkmarks for coaster brakes.
6. Once they’re worn out you need a completely new wheel
There’s a term you’re likely familiar with within the car industry called a ‘write-off’. This is where the cost of the repair is worth more than the cost of the car.
The same is true with coaster brakes that have worn out. With hand brakes, the brake pads will wear out and you can buy new ones at a fairly low cost.
Various other components on the brakes can fail such as the wires that control engaging the brakes. And rather than replacing the whole brake system, you can replace the parts that are broken. But, with coaster brakes, this isn’t possible (source).
A coaster brake comes with a wheel. And to get a new coaster brake is the same cost as getting a new wheel. So, it makes more sense to get a brand new wheel.
A coaster brake wheel is in the range of about $50 for just the wheel not including the rubber tire that fits onto it.
Whereas, replacement brake pads for hand brakes cost around $10. Therefore, generally, coaster brakes are more expensive than hand brakes in the long run.
7. They are heavier than hand brakes which makes uphill riding harder
On flat ground riding, there is very little difference between how much effort you need to exert to ride a bike with hand brakes such as rim brakes or disk brakes compared to coaster brakes.
This is because the weight of the bike is going downwards due to the force of gravity and once you overcome the initial inertia the extra weight of coaster brakes doesn’t make much of a difference.
Riding on hilly terrain that requires going uphill and downhill is much more difficult with coaster brakes because coaster brakes are heavier.
You need to use more force to go uphill.
This is somewhat balanced out because you will go faster downhill. But, the fact remains that you need to pedal with much more force going uphill.
Very minor differences in weight and wind drag make a big difference.
I recently showed in an article about cycling bibs how wearing tight-fitting clothing can increase the distance your bike travels with the same effort by a very large amount.
And, in general, it’s very worth it to wear tight-fitting clothing when cycling when it’s practical.
The same is true with extra weight on a bike.
8. They are too weak to brake enough – not enough braking power
Coaster brakes are much weaker than rim brakes or disc brakes.
The reason is they are rear wheel only. On the other hand, disc brakes and rim brakes virtually all have brakes on both the front wheel and the rear wheel. This gives them much more braking power.
During braking, your body has forward momentum which transfers into the front wheel more s than the rear wheel. Therefore, a front brake has more of an effect on slowing a bike down.
Having more stopping power is particularly important when riding in busy conditions such as when sharing a street with other cars, pedestrians, and cyclists.
As you will often need to brake very fast, if you get cut off in traffic, or a car, person, or other cyclist pulls out in front of you accidentally.
Therefore, two brakes – both front and back – is recommended for riding in these type of conditions.
Two brakes and hand brakes give you the added advantage of spreading out the braking load to two of your hands. Whereas, with coaster brakes, you can only use your hands to brake.
Disc brakes generally have the most ‘mechanical advantage’. They can brake much harder with less force, this makes riding a bike overall much easier.
And you can use the energy you saved to ride further or accelerate more when you want to.
A dual brake setup with a coaster brake and a front brake is generally ideal. This will provide a backup brake in case the coaster brake fails. And will also give you the advantage of the much stronger braking power that comes from a front-wheel brake.
With that said, in general, two hand brakes on both the front and the rear are the best because it’s easier to brake.
And if you use disc brakes instead of rim brakes you will have much more braking power with front and rear wheel hand brakes.
There are two main types of rim brakes, caliper brakes, and cantilever brakes. Many people wonder which brakes are better, so I compiled the main pros and cons of each, and which is the best overall in this article about cantilever brakes vs caliper brakes.
9. It takes longer to learn to ride a bike with coaster brakes
Riding a bike is incredibly fun.
But, first, you need to learn how to ride one.
Many people start on a bike with training wheels to get used to riding. There are a lot of variables, and it often takes a week or two before a person can ride reasonably well that they will rarely crash.
When first starting to ride a bike there is a natural tendency to move your legs frontwards and backward. But, this is not possible on a bike with coaster brakes which can feel more unnatural.
The total time it takes to learn to ride a bike is increased if you learn to ride a bike on coaster brakes.
In general, using coaster brakes requires more skill and is harder to get used to than hand brakes. Learning to ride a bike is often a bit frustrating, and scary, so anything you can do to make it easier is a big advantage.
This also comes back to the previous point about the need to eventually upgrade to hand brakes in either case. Because they are better for virtually all different types of cycling. So, it makes more sense to start on hand brakes.
To sum all the points above up, it’s clear that hand brakes are much preferred.
Coaster brakes are not inherently bad and are good, provided you don’t ride at high speeds or downhills. If you do this type of riding and have a personal preference for coaster brakes then install a front brake as well.