Off The Beaten Path

Which Hand for which Brake?

One of the most confounding questions in cycling is this: Which hand should control which brake? In the U.S., the law requires that all bikes are sold with the left hand controlling the front brake, and the right hand the rear brake. It’s the same in France. In Italy and Great Britain, it’s the other way around.

Many myths surround the reasons for these differences, but history is the most likely explanation: Early bikes had only a rear brake. In France, this usually was a rim brake. The early brakes were not very powerful, so you needed lots of hand power to stop the bike. Most people are right-handed, and it made sense to control the single brake with the right hand. In Italy and Britain, the single brake was a coaster brake, and there was no brake lever at all.

When front brakes were added to bikes sometime in the 20th century, this required adding a brake lever to the handlebars. In France, the right side was taken, so they mounted the extra lever on the left (above). In “coaster-brake countries”, the entire handlebars were still available, so the brake lever for the front brake went on the right side (below).

The U.S. copied French practice – probably because Schwinn was the only company importing performance bikes with hand brakes, and Schwinn was influenced by French practice.

Those are the historic reasons why some use “right – front” and others “left – front”, but this doesn’t answer the question: Which is better?

Many reasons have been put forward for the “right hand – front brake” approach. Most motorcycles use that configuration, since the right hand operates the throttle, the left hand the clutch, which in turn means that the right side of the handlebars is the only place to put a brake lever.

Some cyclocross racers prefer the “right – front” setup, so they can brake on the rear with their left hand as they dismount. I am not so sure this makes sense – to get your bike fishtailing when you have only one hand on the bars seems like a really bad idea. You really should be done with braking by the time you release the bars and prepare to shoulder the bike. (European cyclocross professionals generally seem to follow their country’s practice, with French and Belgian racers using the “left – front” setup.)

Yet others point to the fact that most riders are right-handed, and the front brake is the most useful one, so using your stronger hand to operate it makes sense. Except that a good brake shouldn’t require huge amounts of hand power…

What about the advantages of the “left – front” way of setting up your brakes? One advantage in the U.S., where we ride on the right side of the road, is that you can come to a stop and hold on to a railing or post with your right hand, while your left hand still operates the front brake. Being right-handed, I also often use my right hand to shift, eat or take photos, so it’s nice to have the more important brake ready without having to drop whatever I am holding.

It seems that there are pros and cons for each setup, but none are so great that they persuasively make one setup better than the other. It really comes down to personal preference.

On bikes with centerpull or cantilever brakes, it’s easy to switch the brake cables from one side to another. If you have traditional “non-aero” brake levers, you don’t even need to rewrap the handlebar tape (above).

Most sidepull brakes are set up for “left hand – front brake”, even those made by Italian companies like Campagnolo and Gipiemme (above)… yet most Italian racers route the cables the opposite way. The bend of the front brake cable is a little tighter (especially with aero brake levers), but it’s not a big deal.

Whatever you do, I recommend being consistent. During a panic stop, your instincts will take over, and if you are used to pulling on one lever, you’ll find that if the brakes are reversed, you are skidding the rear wheel without slowing down significantly. Several of my friends use the “right – front” approach, and when I ride their bikes, I constantly have to remind myself of the reversed brake levers – and hope that I won’t have to stop in a hurry.

This post is excerpted from Bicycle Quarterly‘s “Brake Special” (above) that was part of Vol. 7, No. 2. All Bicycle Quarterly back issues are available…

Photo credit: Hilary Stone (Baines Flying Gate), Gipiemme (Giovanni Battaglin)