In the U.S., coaster brakes have long been the norm for kids bikes (not to mention the law). Conventional wisdom has claimed that young kids don’t have the coordination required for hand brakes, and moreover, that they are downright dangerous.
Over the last few years, this mindset has begun to change. Parents have realized that coaster brakes can hinder learning, cause dangerous skidding, and add weight to already heavy kids bikes. Manufacturers of higher-end kids bikes have also started offering modification kits to allow parents to remove coaster brakes.
Here’s a comprehensive overview of the pros and cons of both coaster brakes and hand brakes, so whatever setup you choose, you can make an informed choice.
Coaster brakes vs. Hand Brakes
Any conversation about the coaster brake versus hand brake debate has to start with an overview of the law. U.S. regulations require manufacturers to outfit all “sidewalk bikes” with wheels sized 20” or less with a “foot brake” (aka coaster brake).
Fortunately, this law applies only to manufacturers/distributors, so if you as parent choose to modify the bike, there’s no problem with that. Many bike companies have begun skirting this law by selling after-market conversion kits that allow you to replace the coaster with a freewheel.
The Coaster Brake
A coaster brake (or foot brake) allows a child to stop by pedaling backward. This is unlike a regular freewheel which allows the cyclist to backpedal freely.
The primary rationale for including a coaster brake on kids bikes is that it requires relatively little coordination to operate it. This is not the case for a hand brake which absolutely requires some skill and coaching to use properly.
The initial downside of a coaster brake comes when teaching a child to ride a bike. Kids naturally pedal backward as well as forward. With a coaster brake, however, they come to an immediate stop when backpedaling. This can be both dangerous and frustrating for a brand new rider.
Once a child has pedaling figured out, they may very well be just fine riding with a coaster brake on a sidewalk. Assuming that all kids on small bikes are just riding on the sidewalk, however, is a mistake. Many parents are looking for bikes that are suitable for riding on singletrack or at the bike park.
A coaster brake becomes increasingly challenging on hills and off-road. Coaster brakes are either off or on; there is no modulation. This causes skidding and potential crashes particularly when riding on dirt or large hills. On a mountain bike trail or at a skills park challenges such as rocks often require the rider to backpedal—something that you can’t do with a coaster.
Finally, coaster brakes are pretty heavy. They can add significant weight to a child’s bike. When you consider that a kid’s bike is already close to half of their body weight, any place where you can save weight is worth considering. A bike outfitted with handbrakes rather than a coaster can save a couple pounds.
Coaster Brake Pros:
- Requires low levels of coordination; relatively easy to learn.
- Works well in all weather conditions.
Coaster Brake Cons:
- No modulation; skidding is common.
- No backpedaling—can make learning to pedal harder, and causes problems when doing more technical riding
Hand brakes consist of brake levers on both the right and left handlebars and generally control calipers on both the front and rear wheels. On larger and higher-end kids mountain bikes, the hand levers might actually control disc rotors instead of calipers.
The biggest problem with handbrakes is that they can be difficult for kids to use. Most brake levers are simply too large and too difficult for little hands to control. Fortunately, more and more kids bikes are being outfitted with child-specific easy-to-pull, easy-to-reach levers. If you are going to put your child on a bike with only hand brakes and no coaster, make sure the levers are top-notch.
Many critics of hand brakes argue that you kids aren’t coordinated enough to use hand brakes. I don’t buy this argument. If given kid-appropriate levers (as mentioned above), kids as young as 2.5 can learn to use a handbrake.
I always encourage parents to start their child riding on a balance bike with a handbrake first. This allows them to learn to operate a hand brake at an early age, and promotes an easy transition to a pedal bike with handbrakes.
The biggest concern for handbrakes is that the child grabs a big handful of brake and goes over the handlebars. This is a very real concern, and means that if you put your child on a bike with handbrakes you need to spend the time building their skills.
Hand Brake Pros:
- Kids will have to learn to use hand brakes eventually; it’s best to learn early.
- Allows for modulation—helpful on hills and off-road.
- Ability to backpedal
Hand Brake Cons:
- Levers must be child-specific and high-quality in order to be effective and safe.
- Requires more skill and coaching than a coaster brake.
- Not as effective in wet conditions.
- A handful of front brake can send little riders over the handlebars.
A Hybrid – Using Both Coasters AND Hand Brakes
Many quality kids bikes are now being offered with both a coaster brake and handbrakes. This might be the best of both worlds. Using both means that there is no single point of failure, and kids have options to use what they are most comfortable with.
I highly recommend this option over utilizing only a coaster brake simply because all kids are eventually going to have to transition to a bicycle with handbrakes. Giving them the chance to practice and learn that skill at an early age will do nothing but help them.
There is no wrong option when choosing a bike with a coaster brake versus a hand brake. My advice would be to either (a) choose a bike with both options so that your child gets practice with a hand brake, or (b) for families that do a lot of cycling or who have a child interested in mountain biking or BMX, go for the hand-brake only option.
If you do choose to buy your child a bike with only a hand brake, make sure that the levers are both easy-to-reach and easy-to-pull. Also make sure that they are given proper coaching and instruction on how to use them. This option is best for kids who started riding on a balance bike and are already comfortable with a hand-brake.
If you need more help picking a good bike for your child, check out my Guide to Buying a Quality Kids Bike.