Coaster brakes: a no-go for children's bikes
Both training wheels and coaster brakes (a.k.a. back-pedal brakes) probably conjure up memories from your own childhood. For decades they were considered the standard (and are even mandated in the US on youth bicycles), but now these training aids are being relegated to the history books.
And rightly so, in our eyes! When kids first embark on their two-wheeled adventures, there are distinct advantages to learning how to ride using hand-operating brakes. In this article, we will explain the drawbacks to coaster brakes when it comes to your child’s development and encourage you to give your kids a helping hand along their way–with hand brakes!
Less braking power
First of all: a coaster brake only has limited braking power. Rather than having your hands confidently on two brake levers, the coaster brake only brakes the rear wheel. So if you need to brake suddenly in an emergency, you’ll still have to tug firmly on a hand-operated brake too. On child-sized bikes, the shorter crank length (what the pedals connect to) makes a significant difference – because of the shorter leverage action and reduced power transfer. For children that haven’t yet built up strong leg muscles, coming safely to a stop might be tough.
Secondly: coaster brakes perform most effectively when the cranks are in the ideal position, which is parallel to the ground. This requires your child to anticipate what lies ahead while riding, which – as you can imagine – is a big ask for beginners, who may be more concerned with looking around them.
Thirdly: back-pedaling with excessive force can block the rear wheel and cause a skid. As you can imagine, it’s not the nicest way for your child to come to a stop. The most efficient braking happens just before the rear wheel skids – but it takes experience to know where this cutoff point is.
Note: if the chain comes off, your child is essentially left without a brake. What’s more, coaster brakes have a tendency to overheat on long descents. This renders them completely useless for mountain biking. For safety reasons, you’ll need an additional hand-operated brake, which is actually a requirement by law in many countries.
Getting the right pedal position
Let’s set the scene: your child wants to brake but realizes that the pedals are in a vertical position. Now they have got to quickly turn them into place in order to transfer power into the braking. It could take two to three seconds; this does not sound like much until you consider how every second counts when you’re in traffic or a thorny situation.
Then there’s that awkward pushing-off moment when the pedals will not cooperate if they are not at the right angle. Unlike a freewheel, the cranks can’t simply spin into position – your child may have to get off, push the cranks forward, or lift up the back wheel to position the pedals.
It’s a similar situation when turning; your child might want to pedal backward to raise the inside pedal (avoiding a pedal-strike situation) but would require forethought to have the inside pedal up high enough.
It’s totally normal for kids to slightly back-pedal in order to maintain balance on rough terrain, but naturally, with a coaster brake, this could cause unintentional braking.
Coaster brakes weigh more than hand-operated brakes. And as you know: every pound counts on your kid’s bike. Rim brakes are very lightweight, which makes them a great choice for day-to-day riding and mellow off-road terrain. While disc brakes weigh more, they are the ultimate choice for riders that are heading off-road – they unleash a lot of power braking while requiring little force.
Dialing it in
Feet don’t have as much aptitude as hands and fingers when it comes to fine motor skills. Using their fingers, your child can gauge how much force is needed with a lot more sensitivity, which means better braking modulation. Particularly when making turns or riding in the rain, it’s even more important to apply equal braking power on the front and rear wheels to prevent skidding. Add in a coaster brake, and this becomes a lot harder.
Learning it later
Braking safely is a fundamental skill for cycling and something that comes with practice. Kids that learn to ride on a coaster brake have a habit of relying on the back-pedal brake and often overlook the hand-operated brake. When they later step up to a bike with two hand lever brakes, they’ll find the transition more difficult.
Our suggestion: Start early! Use games and playful exercises to introduce your child to hand-operating brakes on their balance bike. This gives them the luxury of time to develop the fine motor skills needed and it takes away the need to familiarize themselves later.
Having child-specific brake levers is crucial; these need to be optimally set up for small hands, otherwise, braking will feel like a Herculean task. Make sure that the brake lever is within reach – ideally adjustable – and that the brakes function well without requiring too much power. This is exactly why our woom ORIGINAL bikes are equipped with child-specific V-brakes. What's more, our bikes for young children (the woom 1, woom 1 PLUS, woom 2, woom 3, and woom 3 AUTOMAGIC) all feature a distinctive green lever and matching rear green brake pad, so that your child won’t have any problems distinguishing which lever functions which brake.