Dave Moulton

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Monday Musings

If you have just bought a new bike you may spend a great deal of time simply looking at it, and admiring every tiny detail.

Get a chair sit down, relax and take it all in. Make sure you have got your fill, because once you kit up and go for the first ride, you need to stop looking at it.

I know anyone with a more than a couple of neurons could figure that one out, but you would be surprised how many people have ridden into parked cars while doing just that. Looking down admiring their bike while riding.

The same goes for after cleaning your bike, or even shaving your legs. It is hard to claim that a parked car pulled out in front of you.

Medical bills and dental work can be extremely expensive, as can bike repairs. So the next time you find yourself glancing down at this beautiful piece of machinery, if only for a spit second, remember this little article, and get your eyes back on the road ahead.

I hope I have just saved someone a whole lot of pain, money and embarrassment.

I have always set my bikes up with the front brake lever on the right.

It was the way I was taught when I first joined a cycling club back in England in the 1950s.

This trend can also be traced all the way back to the invention of the bicycle. The early bicycles only had one brake that operated on the front wheel.

It was a crude device that pressed down directly on the solid rubber front tire.

It had to operate on the front wheel because that was the one closest to the handlebars and the brake lever.

The brake lever was placed on the right because most people are predominantly right handed. So when rear brakes were added, that lever was placed on the left, as everyone was already used to the front brake being on the right.

Also the early brakes were rod operated, cable brakes came later. It made sense for the rear brake operating rods to go on the left side of the frame away from the drive train on the right side. So I am no different from many older English and other European riders, I have always ridden bikes, even as a kid, with the front brake lever on the right, rear brake left.

So why in America is it standard to have the front brake lever on the left? Because in the 1970s when the bike US bike boom started, American bikes were mostly cruisers with rear wheel coaster brakes, and no brake levers were required.

When racing bikes started being imported from Europe, the U S Consumer Protection Agency deemed that all bikes would have the right brake lever operate the rear brake. It is just a government regulation that applies to new bikes. People are free to set their own bike up as they please.

There are many arguments which way is best, but if like me you have been used to a certain set up most of your life, it is probably not wise to switch just for the sake of change.


The English bike builder Hetchins have always been famous for their Curly Stays (Picture left.)

The design served no useful purpose, but it was a recognition thing, a talking point.

When you saw one go by on the road, you knew it was a Hetchins. Even today people will gather round one and talk about it.

In the 1950s there was a story going round about a group of British riders who went across to France to race. It was in the late 1940s, soon after WWII.

One of the group was riding a Curly Hetchins, and he crashed during the race, rendering himself unconscious. When he came around he found a group of French farm-workers were trying to straighten his bike.

I am pretty sure this was one of those urban myths that never really happened, but it’s a funny story none-the-less.

I do know however the Curly Hetchings was a source of amusement to the French.

I remember seeing a Picture of one in Miroir des Sports (But et Club,) a French Cycling Newspaper.

I never did find the full translation of the caption to the picture, but there was a mention of Queen Anne Legs.


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Reader Comments (19)

In continental Europe (at least Switzerland) the front brake is on the left as well!
My theory was that this is necessary as the shifters are already on the right side (Sachs Torpedo).

It's especially confusing as on motorcycles it's the other way around here as well. The right is front brake, left is clutch and the rear brake is operated by the foot.

Maybe the English reversed it as they also drive on the wrong side of the road...


May 23, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterRoberto Bernasconi

Whatever trends in the US eventually affects the whole world, especially things related to consumerism. Bike companies world-wide exporting to the US would have to comply with the front brake on the left regulation, so I'm sure the simple thing to do was to send all bikes out, everywhere with the same set up. Meanwhile, old guys like me continue to do what we have always done until we die, then tradition dies with us.

May 23, 2016 | Registered CommenterDave Moulton

I have heard that in the US, the front brake is operated by the left hand to reduce the risk of going over the handlebars by gripping the front brake lever too hard. But I don't know whether that's true.

May 23, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterBrian Ogilvie

Three comments to go with the format :-)

1) There is a video of a cyclist riding right into the back of a parked car - he had plenty of time to notice


2) Having grown up in Canada, lived in the US, moved to the UK and keeping bikes in South Africa as well, I have a variety of bikes with both left and right brake levers operating the "other" brake. I'm careful to settle in on each ride and familiarise myself with what I'm riding.

However, my wife broke her jaw riding a new bike with brakes "reversed" to her norm - right over the handlebars onto her chin. Ouch! So be careful...

3) I was in a small town in SW France last year and we stopped into a café. Leaning against a street sign outside was a 1970s Hetchins - just leaning, no lock. I pointed out to my companion that it must be a very safe town, given the value of machinery left unattended. The bike's owner showed up about ten minutes later - an English fellow and the original owner - who had retired to France and was simply in town to pick up his baguettes

May 23, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterSteveP

I read or heard, some time ago, that the Hetchins curly stays started as a way to make the bicycle visually known in races where advertisers were not allowed to brand their bicycles.
This would have been in England, possibly Amateur races.

Any truth?

May 23, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterTonyP

I have owned, still do a Hetchins with curly stays and have found that when climbing, going into curves the back end does tend to come loose. maybe just my style of riding, but have never been a fan and think just another, something different to sell bikes. BUT another bike from the 1950s that also had some different features is the BATES BAR, Cigar shape tubing, forks with reverse rake, This one I do like a lot,responsive and climbs and handles great. The old English GB etc brakes had the arms on the caliphers on the left, so I always mounted by front brake lever on the left and used my left hand to brake? (Maybe it was better for holding a pint in the right hand?) Maybe this all goes back, to the old horse and carriage days, when to driver had to have his right hand free to use the whip on the horses.had to sit on the right side of the carriage.

May 23, 2016 | Unregistered Commenterjohn crump

I read somewhere that the front brake is on the right in Britain because you ride on the left side of the road, and it has something to do with having the right hand free to make turn signals while keeping the left hand on the rear brake. Indeed, old photos of Italian and French races have the left lever to the front brake:

May 23, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterEd

Dave, the brake issue has been a pet peeve of mine for a long time. Like you, I started riding in the UK in the 1950s and the front brake was on the right. Imagine my confusion in the 1970s when I got back into cycling in Canada. Of course it was simple to switch the cables, but not so much nowadays with hidden cables and mountain bike v-brakes, etc. I remember the roadsters with roller-lever stirrup brakes and the front brake was always on the right. I've Googled images of these to confirm it, but maybe those roadsters all over the world originated in England or copied British designs. Brian Ogilvie suggests the U.S. put the front brake on the left to minimize the risk of going over the handlebars, but in my experience, a right handed person is more likely to be ham fisted with their left hand and do an endo. My theory is that up until the 1970s, kids grew up in the U.S. riding coaster brake bikes and the rear brake was the main brake. So with cable brakes, they put the "main" brake on the right, the front brake being a "secondary" brake on the left. Of course, experienced cyclists know that the front brake is the primary, most effective, brake. But try telling that to the lawyers.

May 23, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterJohn B

Great post as always!

Reminds me one day when I was a teenager, I was riding to school in the morning, I was riding no-hands to unwrap a piece of candy, clipped my bars on a side-view mirror, and went down. Somehow broke my right wrist. I didn't realize it was broken, it just hurt all day. Riding home, coming downhill too fast to a stop sign, car was coming through, they had full right of way, I needed to stop fast, but my right hand was tender, so I leaned on the front brake, did an endo, and broke my left collarbone!

The driver of the car was a very nice lady that, although she was not at fault, stopped, and drove me home with my bike hanging out of her trunk.

But I can attest that having the front brake on the left is no kind of protection against flipping over!

May 23, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterRubeRad

Jan Heine on the front brake and Sheldon Brown on lever assignment pretty much make the case that virtually all bicycles have it backwards.

In both Keep Right and Keep Left locales, standard lever assignment puts the (default) turn indicating hand in control of the front brake. This vastly limits a rider's ability to simultaneously signal and stop, especially in the US where many states allow only left-hand signals.

I realize that some people are front brake averse, and believe me, I have had an endo. That said I don't want to skid with only one hand on the bars, either. The front brake has a better stopping distance. It's the only one you should use (unless you're riding in a paceline or traction doesn't allow).

Last thought: switching between my standard configuration bikes to the "moto" configured fixed gear bike, (not) coasting is much more disorienting than reversed levers. In fact, the latter is nearly a pleasure.

May 23, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterChamps

I think a lot of the placement of the lever had to do with the calliper? GB and most English brakes in the 1940s 1950s, The calliper had the arm for the cable to enter, on the left. If you look at the photo Dave posted you can see that that calliper arm for the cable is on the right. So the cable would bend better for a lever on the left. that would make the cable for the rear brake on the right making a cross over for the cables? (The lever on the photo for the front brake is on the right! So much for that theory HUH). BUT on looking through old Cyclings from the 1950s Most of the new bikes show in adds have the front brake lever on the right, the cables crossing over and the rear brake lever on the left. In retro. I rode a single fixed. When breaking I would press back the right leg and brake with the left hand for better balance. Also, been right handed, I liked to have that hand free to signal OR punch the bloody chap about to pass me in a time trial. OR knock him off his bike.

May 23, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterJohn Crump

Dave -

Maybe because I grew up in India, I always reset my brakes to have the right lever control the front brake. It's the one that provides most of the stopping power and I'm right-handed, so it just makes sense. Also, I signal with my left hand, so my right hand stays near the brake all the time.

It just makes sense to me. :)

May 23, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterYohann

In over 50 years of riding track bikes on the road, always with a hand brake installed, I've placed the brake lever on the right side and on the left, interchangeably.

I suspect that anyone who has learned how to use hand brakes arranged in one configuration would be able to adapt to the other as easily as I do.

For those who believe otherwise, I hope that you don't have any trouble finding left-handed pianos and violins.

May 24, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterHelyett

So that's why the brakes are where they are. I always wondered and I thought it was to do with having the rear brake hand on the handlebar for braking when turning across traffic - left for the US and right in the UK allowing the spare hand to indicate. Of course it wasn't well thought out like that it was mechanical convenience mostly. Good to know.
I have after a long period of confused braking moments decided to switch my American brake over to the english configuration.
Thanks Dave

May 24, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterNigel

As far as which hand is free for signalling, my belief is that no one under 50 has any idea what hand signals actually are/mean, so I just point (with the appropriate arm & finger) in the direction I intend to turn

May 24, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterSteveP

Dave -
I kept thinking about the brake-left-right situation. I think you give too much credit to the US' imperial power.
In my research I found that there are many different norms in different countries that probably date from before the 1970.
Switzerland, Germany, Sweden, Spain and France adhere to the left-front logic. In France for instance, they call the right-front configuration "à l'anglaise".
On the other hand, Dutch bicycles and sometimes Italians (though nowadays not anymore) use the right-front configuration. When there still was the GDR (East-Germany) they used the right-front as well - probably to confuse invading armies.

My impression is that which system you use is connected to the turn-signal issue and hence to on which side of the road you drive. People are often afraid to use the front brake and prefer to use the rear brake when signalling. But there are probably also historic reasons for why which system was adopted in which region. I could imagine that the Dutch probably share their cycling roots more with the British, while the French influence is more dominant further south. However I don't believe that in the 70ties the US forced everybody (except the righteous British) to change their habits. After all bicycles imported to England are also especially reversed in the factory.

May 26, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterRoberto Bernasconi

Roberto makes some good points about the which brake which side conundrum. It reminds me of the motorcycle situation. I began motorcycling in the 1960s and at the time Eastern European motos had the rear brake on the right foot and the gearshift on the left foot. British and Italian were the opposite and Spanish were split, just as an example. When Japanese bikes, which had the gearshift on the left, became popular and took over the market, that configuration became the world standard and I don't remember any argument over it. However, I do recall the ergonomic theory that the left (clutch) hand coordinated better with the right (gearshift) foot, which had been the British and Italian way. That's all history now and nobody tries to switch the controls to their own preference.

With bicycles it's a bit different. As you can see from previous comments, we have definite preferences and don't agree. I've always put my front brake on the right, which was easy with the vintage bikes I have. I recently acquired a newer mountain bike and wanted to switch the brakes, but found the cable routing would be awkward, if not impossible with the v-brakes. My son, who also wanted to ride the bike, was dead set against the switch because left-front is what he had grown up with, but his logic for that configuration wasn't clear. I just think that the modern left-front standard is something thought up by lawyers and bureaucrats, not cyclists and engineers.

May 26, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterJohn B

Gidday Dave - I've just spent the last couple months reading your entire back history of posts.

Plenty of food for thought, but one thing keeps cropping up and thats your choice of bartape.

What's the reason for that particular pattern? You have used it on multiple different bikes. Care to share?

June 14, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterCriggie

@Criggie, that's what's called "splash tape". Apparently some people really hate it and look down their noses at it. Here are some patterns:


I have the red and black on one of my bikes that's painted the same colours and I like it. The blue and black like Dave's also looks good, especially on a blue bike. I don't much care for the others, though.

June 14, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterJohn B
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