What’s the difference between coaster brakes and hand brakes on a kids bike, is there one type that’s better, are kids hands really big enough to use a handbrake?
As a parent you might be wondering which brakes will be the better fit for your child, there are a number of pros and cons for both types, also you are probably familiar yourself with the classic ‘back pedal brake’ from your childhood, I know I certainly was.
The Back Pedal Brake, or Coaster Brake
The Coaster Brake, also known as the good old Back Pedal Brake is found on kids bikes right through to beach cruisers. For kids bikes, they are usually seen on 12” through till 20” sizes, both mountain bike and BMX style bikes. Also on larger youth bike with internally geared hubs (all the gears are inside the hub itself)
The Coaster Brake Hub
Bikes using coaster brakes have a dedicated braked hub, this is built into the bike’s wheel meaning it’s a permanent fit, of course, hubs and wheels can be changed out but it can end up being quite pricey.
The Coaster Brake hubs themselves are often cheaply made (usually out of steel), using a solid axle which is also heavy and relying on a bolt-on arm connecting to the bike frame to activate the brake when the pedals are pushed backward. The whole package adds a significant amount of weight to your child bike not to mention removing the wheel is more troublesome due to the extra brake arm and needing to re-tension the chain. This is usually done frequently since the rear tire takes the brunt of stopping power, through those fun skids.
The hubs themselves are very simple consisting of a clutch mechanism which engages when the pedals are pushed down, releasing to allow the bike to spin, then moving on a screw which forces brake shoes against the inner wall of the hub shell when backpedaled.
Coaster Brake Equipped Kids Bikes
These brakes are simple, with minimal external moving parts such as derailleurs and gears the chance of something getting broken are slim.
You won’t see any gears with coaster brakes which is why they’re fitted to small bikes like 12” and 16′ sizes and BMX style bikes. It’s common to see a front hand brake fitted from 14” or 16” upwards but they main issue is, the small bikes are just tough to get pedaling.
When starting off it can be tricky to get the bike rolling and since you can’t spin the cranks to find more leverage. This is not so bad on larger bikes but the added friction from the hub, extra weight, and shorter crank-arms can make things tough in the beginning. Coupled with the usual poor pedaling position on 12” bikes I would always consider a balance bike instead of learning on this size since it’s much easier to get rolling and your child can cover longer distances quicker.
There will come a point when you visit the local skate park or want to have a go with your child on some mountain bike tracks. Riding over stuff means you need one thing – pedal clearance.
Coaster brakes can limit a bikes versatility off-road due to their inability to freewheel. Kids will need to adjust their pedaling stance to clear obstacles and set themselves up for small drops or bumps and braking down a hill becomes difficult since they’re trying to find that bite point for the back pedal brake making skidding and crashing more likely.
Some bikes might still have a front handbrake but it’s likely the habit will be there to rely solely on the coaster.
- Usually strong and predictable braking force
- The enclosed system means minimal moving parts to break
- Can be hard to start the bike rolling
- Extra friction in the drivetrain
- Heavy compared to rim style brakes
Hand Brakes (Brake Levers)
Just like regular adult bikes, cable pull brakes are also fitted to kids bikes. They free the bike up for gears but really need to be set up properly to get the best out of them.
The levers work with V-Brakes, Caliper Brakes and some kids bikes even have disc brakes. The V-Brake and Caliper Brakes use brake pads to rub on the rim slowing the bike down, whereas disc brakes use a small disc located on the wheel for the brake pads.
Brake Levers for Small Hands
Kids can start using handbrakes around the age of 3 or younger if they are confident, keep in mind though, not all brake lever are created equal. There are many that way too big for the bike they’re fitted to, the setup can be a hassle and they don’t work well with smaller hands.
There are a few things to look out for if your shopping for your child’s next bike:
- Many levers have a reach adjustment screw allowing the lever to sit close to the handlebar, winding this in allows small hands to grip both the bar and the lever.
- Look for shorter brake levers, compare the adult and kids lever lengths to see the differences. Shorter levers work better for shorter fingers.
- What material are they made of? plastic levers can be flexy and vague feeling, an aluminum lever works better, won’t be damaged as easy and is of higher quality.
- Check the gear shifters, some geared bike will use a twist shifter that forces the lever inboard on the handlebar which makes reaching the brakes even more difficult.
Riding with Brake Levers
Riding with handbrakes will require more time to learn how to use them properly, most of the bikes stopping power comes from the front brake which can be a danger sometimes eg. going over the handlebars if the front brake applied heavily.
Again, the key is in the setup of the brake levers, making sure they’re close and easy to reach for their fingers and are in good working order. Having a decent set of brake cables helps a lot by cutting down the friction making it easier to pull on the lever and getting more power from the brakes, it’s a relatively inexpensive upgrade if you’re doing more offroading.
Having the braking removed from the wheel means children can spin their pedals to the right place to start the bike rolling, especially important for off-road situations where pedal clearance is a must, being less likely getting hung up on rocks or roots due to the pedals being forced into position by the coaster brake.
Maintenance is easier as well since everything is exposed, brake pads are inexpensive and the system as a whole is lighter than a coaster brake setup.
- Allows the pedals to spin freely
- Learning to control front and rear brakes from an early age
- More controlled power
- Need to look for child-specific levers
- Must be kept in good working order for the best operation
- Rim brakes can be compromised by wet weather (disc brakes not so much)
Which Brake is Right for My Kids?
Is one system better than the other? Both Coaster Brakes and Hand Brakes have their good and bad points but it comes down to what you expect your child would be doing on their bike, their confidence, and coordination.
If your child’s just starting out, the smaller bikes will commonly use a coaster brake, sometimes combined with a front hand brake. This could be the best of both worlds, getting used to a handbrake while the coasters there as a backup, plus its a second line of braking should something happen with the coaster.
The other way to by-pass the coaster in the early stages is using a balance bike with a handbrake fitted.
If your doing a lot of biking in general and intend on going off-road and you’re keen to take your little ones with you, having hand brakes would be the better choice given they are far superior off-road.
My personal opinion is there’s no right or wrong brake, some people don’t like coaster brakes at all and think they hinder a child’s riding development. Also, the other point to consider cheap bikes will have cheap brakes which don’t work very well, this is especially the case for hand brakes. Flexy brake arms and poorly shaped levers usually with low-quality cables can make using them tough.
Over the years I have seen many kids bike come in with broken hand brakes with worn out brake pads etc. but the coaster brakes are still going strong. Maintenance is something that’s commonly overlooked with kids bikes and some of them get to the point of being downright dangerous.
You have already formed your own opinion by now depending on where you’re wanting to take your children riding, let me know your thoughts in the comments below.