Let’s be honest. Learning to ride a bike takes tantrums, sweat and tears – and that’s just from the parents! There’s no question however that it’s worth the time and effort, as once your little one has it nailed, it’s a skill they’ll have for the rest of their life.
Perhaps one of the biggest steps in this skill development, is the move from balance to pedal bike. We’ve already discussed how to get pedalling (and why you should discard those training wheels), but what if we told you there was yet another enemy of kids biking, a component that’s lurking on every first pedal bike, just waiting to spoil your fun.
Yep. We’re talking about the humble coaster brake.
But fear not, as with one simple upgrade – this villain of shred can be dealt with. But first, read on to find out why coaster brakes are holding your child back.
Coaster brakes – the worst thing to happen to kids mountain biking.
Also known as pedal brakes or foot brakes, coaster brakes have been around since the 1980’s, and although they still have a place in cycling, we’d claim that place isn’t on your kids bike. Let’s take a closer look into why that is.
What exactly is a coaster brake?
Coaster brakes are integrated into the rear hub of a bike, and are applied when the rider pedals backwards. The bike can freewheel (coast along) if the pedals are not being turned, but – and it's a big but, the pedals cannot be turned backwards without the brakes being applied.
This is in contrast to a freewheel hub which allows for pedals to be turned backwards without braking – this is what you'll be used to on your own mountain bike.
Why coaster brakes are holding your kid back.
Many of the issues with coaster brakes stem from a rider not being able to pedal backwards, but there are some other factors to consider too.
Here are some of the many reasons to ditch the coaster brake:
Because the pedals cannot be turned backwards without the brakes being applied, your little one can't level their pedals easily whilst riding, which is an essential skill at any age – especially for navigating obstacles on a mountain bike trail.
Levelling your pedals reduces the likelihood of your pedal striking the ground whilst riding off-road, and this is an especially prominent issue on smaller sized bikes, where cranks and pedals are much closer to the dirt.
It also means your little one can’t move their pedals to the ‘start position’ when riding away from standstill, something we all do naturally when riding.
Coaster brakes make it nearly impossible to modulate braking, they are either on or off. This means that when the brakes are applied, the rear wheel will lock. Great for skids and blasting through tyres, not so great for general riding, especially over varied terrain.
In order to brake, a pedal is pushed backwards with force. This puts the rider's weight unevenly onto one side of the bike causing unbalance. Centering your weight, especially when braking, is critical to staying upright on your bike.
Coaster brakes are rarely found on larger bikes (once legislation on their use ends), and are non-existent on adult mountain bikes. They are counterintuitive to riding development (in the same way training wheels are) and using them is a skill that will eventually have to be unlearned.
If the chain comes off whilst riding or gets jammed, the bike has no brakes. No further explanation needed there!
Coaster brakes are not economical to service, once they are worn out a whole new wheel/system is required.
- Using coaster brakes makes it tricky to stop on an incline, your child needs to engage the brake with one foot whilst putting the other foot on the ground so they can balance.
Overall coaster brakes make for a poor riding experience, they're counterintuitive to biking development and are a skill that will need to be unlearnt.
If coaster brakes are so bad, why are they still being used?
In Europe, they often don’t feature on kids bikes. However in the US, the Consumer Product Safety Commission requires bikes with seat heights under 25" be fitted with coaster brakes by the manufacturer. As such, you’ll typically find kids bikes with wheel sizes between 12” - 16” come fitted with coaster brakes as standard!
So what’s the solution, and how do you ditch the coaster brake?
Make the move to hand lever brakes
Hand lever brakes (‘hand brakes’ for short) are what you’ll be familiar with on your adult bike, a front and/or rear brake is applied by pulling the appropriate brake lever situated on your handlebars.
4 reasons hand brakes are awesome
Hand brakes allow for modulated braking (aka controlled braking), meaning your little one can tackle differing terrain without locking the rear wheel, skidding and risking a crash.
Hand brakes are precise – if the rider needs to stop sharply they can, if they need to stop slowly they can. Spoilt for choice!
Your little one will move onto hand brakes when they ride a larger bike, so why not teach them this skill whilst they’re young and learning to ride?
- Hand brakes allow you to swap-out the coaster brake for a freewheel hub, where the rider can in-fact pedal backwards without the brakes engaging. This means the rider can set their pedals level whilst riding or wanting to set off, and adjust their weight according to the upcoming terrain.
But can kids use hand lever brakes?
Some people argue that hand brakes require coordination beyond that of a young rider, and that's because hand brakes on kids bikes used to just be adult brakes, and were difficult to use for smaller hands with less strength.
Over the last few years, kids biking has come along in leaps and bounds, and this includes the improvements to kids specific components – such as hand brakes.
Kids hand brakes are now designed specifically for the age and strength of the child, they mean your child is learning core bike skills they’ll use forever, from day 1. Having hand brakes also gives you the opportunity to swap out your coaster hub for a freewheel one.
Upgrading from coaster brakes to brake levers
So now we understand hand brakes are the way to go, what about the fact that, due to US law, all smaller kids pedal bikes come with coaster brakes fitted as standard?
Yes that’s true – in the US, bike brands must supply the bike with a coaster brake by law, but many brands will also supply the bike with hand brakes. Making sure your kid's new bike comes with hand brakes should be a key point in your purchasing decision.
Once you’ve received your bike, you’ll need to make the modification from the coaster brake hub, to a freewheel hub – which means modifying or changing the back wheel. This is typically a job for your local bike store, however some kids bike brands such as Woom and Prevelo sell spare wheels with freewheel hubs separately, to make the conversion simple.
This video shows you how it’s done:
Now with the freewheel hub and hand brakes ready to go, you’ve got the perfect setup for your mini mountain biker!
Not only will they enjoy riding more and progress faster without that pesky coaster brake, but they’ll be on the road to learning essential bike skills we all utilise day to day out on the trails.
What’s your experience with coaster brakes and hand brakes?
Do you have any tips for other MTB parents? Share them in the comments below.