Coaster Brakes vs. Hand Brakes

By Eric Awwy, 18 Jan 2020

When discussing the features to check when purchasing a pedal bicycle for your kid, we mentioned brakes as one of the key factors. It is now that time to put to rest the long-standing superiority debate on whether to use coaster brakes or handbrakes. Depending on who is holding the discussion, you are likely to get confused with this debate.

No doubt, brakes are a quality factor for a bike, and learning to brake is the best experience a child can have. The CPSC regulations on bikes direct that all sidewalk bicycles to have coaster brakes. Companies such as WOOM have taken heed of the same and are shipping woom 2 with both coaster brakes and front and rear hand brakes with a small reach.

In recent times, however, there has been a shift in thought as most parents have realized that coaster brakes:

  1. Hinder learning to ride
  2. Are heavier to already heavy bikes and kids
  3. Risk the kids skidding
  4. Inhibit pedaling and speed when cycling

While there are a handful of other resources on brakes and other technical aspects, our goal in this resource is to enlighten you on what is best and leave you to decide.

Coaster Brakes

Coaster brakes also go by the names foot brakes or back-pedaling brakes. Sheldon “Feet” Brown, a seasoned veteran cyclist, defines a coaster brake as a special rear hub for a bicycle that:

  1. Allows the wheels of a bicycle to roll without pedaling.
  2. Braking the motion of the bike when the pedals are turned backward.

They trace their history to the 1890s and are popular to date. The rationale behind a coaster bike is that it requires only little efforts and coordination to operate, unlike the handbrake.  

It is best used when teaching a child how to ride a bike for the first time. However, this comes with a downside as most of the kids come to a sudden stop the moment they pedal backward. When taking on hilly and bumpy terrains, coaster brakes show their true downside colors. During our tests, the kids did skid, and there were several minor crashes, especially in muddy and hilly terrains.

Even when we took them to the mountain bike trails and the stunt pump tracks they were not able to move as they could not pedal forward.

Advantages and Disadvantages of Coaster Brakes

Pros of Coaster Brakes

  • Coaster brakes are easy to learn. The kid needs to pedal forward to go and backward to stop. Thus, it requires little coordination.
  • They also have fewer parts as there is never any cabling required, which works well with the folding bikes.
  • These brakes are also cheap compared to other types of brakes.
  • They are easy to maintain and allow all-weather operation.
  • They are also ideal for young and disabled kids who have a passion for cycling.

Cons of Coaster Brakes

  • Any backpedaling triggers a sudden stop, which can be frustrating to kids. It can also end up with small accidents, and delay in pedaling skills development.
  • They are bulky compared to hand brakes, which is disadvantageous for weak and small riders.
  • The brakes do not come with backup, so if the chain breaks off, get ready to soothe your child.
  • They are only limited to sidewalk bicycles and not for specialty bikes like mountain bikes, road bikes, or BMX.
  • Not compatible with derailleur gearing systems.
  • They always overheat and fade when used in hilly and off-road terrains. 
  • Prone to skidding that wears off tires.
  • Complicates the possibility of lubricating the internal gear hub.
  • Skidding is a common phenomenon as there is no modulation.

Hand Brakes/ Freewheel Hub

Hand brakes consist of front and rear brake levers placed on the handlebars. The levers control calipers attached to the front and rear wheels. High-end bikes come with hand brakes as the major braking system. However, some manufacturers include coaster bikes in the package to fulfill the legal requirements.

If you are a cycling dad or mom, you have by now noticed that most 20”-26” bicycles come with a hand brake. We recommend handbrakes for superior pedaling and braking skill development. It is also the safest option for any terrain and increases the enjoyment of rides.

The hand brake/ freewheel hub allows the child to modulate the braking forces, unlike the coaster, which is an on-and-off affair.

When using a hand brake/ freewheel hub, the kid can pedal backward and find the best place to churn some momentum for speed. Also, it comes in pairs is insurance in case one fails to engage.

The v-brakes that come with most bikes have levers that are child-friendly and within reach.

Hands down, handbrakes are the best when it comes to braking systems, at least when compared to coaster brakes.

Advantages and Disadvantages of Hand Brakes

Pros of Hand Brakes or Freewheel Hub

  • More flexible and easy to operate.
  • Hand brakes offer control over braking power or modulation. They stop a bike in motion with high precision.
  • It also has more stopping power.
  • You can always service and replace the handbrakes. Mostly, they are made of special rubber and are V-shaped. When the pads are worn, you can get new ones to replace, unlike the coaster that dies and is forgotten.
  • Learning to operate hand brakes is easy. The odds are high that children who discover hand brakes ditch the coaster brakes immediately.
  • It is what kids will use when they grow in their entire lives, so starting early is great.
  • They perform better on hilly areas and off-road cycling. Nowadays, no parent is buying bikes for sidewalks. The bikes are bought for bike parks, trails, bike tours, and bike parking. It allows backpedaling to gain enough force to tackle a segment.

Cons Hand Brakes or Freewheel Hub

  • The smaller bikes do not come with quality hand brakes. For this matter, you need to spend time finding the right fit brakes that come at the cost of both time and money. They also require constant alignment and tuning; visits to the mechanic are also more.
  • Unlike coaster brakes, the hand brakes are hugely affected by the weather. They mostly fail when it is rainy and muddy. Recently, the disc-style brakes are a preference over the hand brakes.
  • They are prone to injury when the kids abruptly engage the front brake. Even at mild speeds, the child can accidentally pull an “endo,” where they fly past the handlebar. Well, that can get us a little nasty scenario and costs in terms of medical treatment.
  • Engaging hand brakes requires both coordination and strength. However, most youngsters have little energy to engage the brakes. Most manufacturers are making the kid-friendly levers, which partly solves this challenge with freewheel hub.

Which one should my kid use between a Coaster brake and a handbrake?

If there are one hard questions from parents it is: should I buy a bike with a coaster brake or freewheel hub/ hand brake?

Do we still have a debate here? Arguing that coaster brakes are efficient is total BS. If you need the best for your kids, go either the disc-brake or the hand brake way. Let us rest this monstrous and confusing issue once and for all. We are experts and take note of and be keen with our expert advice.

Maybe having a hybrid system on one bike can be an option. Although we have not tested some of those, we have seen them on our bike parking journeys, and they seemed pretty just fine. Combining both means one supplements the weakness of the other.

We recommend taking chances on this one, the hand brake or the disc-style brake systems.

Bottom Line

Choosing to stick to a coaster is not wrong at all. However, parents we interviewed have complained about how rigid and bulky bikes with coaster brakes look.

In deconstructing the coaster versus hand brake or freewheel hub debate, we conclude that the latter is just the best there is in the market. The next best option if the hybrid (coaster/ hand brake combo), which combines both coaster and freewheel hub, and the disc brakes.

Again, the choice of the braking system depends on the bike you are purchasing. BMXing, mountain biking, and road biking will limit your choice to hand brakes.

Whatever the case make sure you coach your child on how to handle brakes and educate them that endos are only for daredevils.

You can always check our guides on the best bikes for your child.

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