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Understanding the Historical Quirks of Bicycle Brake Setup

December 19, 2023

One of the most puzzling questions for cyclists is: which hand should control which brake? And why isn't there a universal agreement on which brake controls which wheel?

In the United States, the law mandates that bicycles sold have the left hand controlling the front brake and the right hand controlling the rear brake. This practice mirrors that of France. However, in Italy and the UK, it's the opposite.

The historical roots of these differences trace back to the early days of bicycles, where only the rear brake existed. In France, this was usually a coaster brake. Early braking systems weren't as effective, requiring considerable force to stop the bike. Given that most people are right-handed, using the right hand for a single brake made sense, hence the single brake lever was installed on the right side to control the rear brake. In Italy and the UK, there was no brake lever whatsoever in the early setups, especially with coaster brakes.

It was around the mid-20th century that bicycles introduced front brakes. This led to the legal requirement for bikes to have two brakes. This addition necessitated an extra brake lever on the handlebars. In France, the right side was already occupied, leading them to add an extra front brake lever on the left side.

The US mirrored the French practice, perhaps influenced by Schwinn being the primary importer of high-performance bikes with brake levers, thus following the French bicycle influence.

In "left front" setup countries (UK, Italy, Germany, etc.), the handlebars remained bare, placing the front brake lever on the right side. As cyclists began using rim brakes on both wheels, the additional brake lever for the rear wheel was placed on the left side.

So, why the "right front" for some and "left front" for others? Many argue in favor of the "right hand - front brake" setup. Most motorcycles follow this configuration, with the right hand operating the throttle and the left hand controlling the clutch (via the lever), making the right side of the handlebar the logical place for the brake lever. 

Some off-road cyclists prefer the "right front" setup to have control over the rear wheel when dismounting. However, this might not be practical as applying the brake with just one hand might cause the bike to skid. European professional off-road cyclists generally adhere to their country's practices, with French and Belgian riders favoring the "left front" setup.

There's a case for the advantages of both setups, but none is compelling enough to definitively claim one as superior to the other. It largely depends on personal preference.

For bikes with cantilever or center-pull brakes, it's relatively easy to switch the brake cables from one side to the other.

Most side-pull brakes are set up as "left hand - front brake," even those manufactured by Italian companies like Campagnolo and Gipiemme. However, most Italian racers route the cables in the opposite manner. The bending of the front brake cable might be a bit tight (especially with aerodynamic brake levers), but it's manageable.

For disc brakes, the rotor is on the left side. If you use the right-hand brake lever to control the front brake, the brake cable radius is larger, which might be beneficial for mechanical disc brakes (as extreme bending can cause more friction on brake cables). Hydraulic disc brakes function by applying pressure to hydraulic fluid, so they are not affected by cable bending.

Whichever way you go, it's advisable to be aware of which brake controls which wheel, especially in moments of urgency. Assuming the brake setup is different from what you're used to, not braking when you expect to, whether for maximum braking power (if you're used to primarily using the rear brake) or not being accustomed to the potent front brake, might lead to loss of control and potential accidents. If your braking preference is different from your usual, you might find yourself constantly reminding to brake differently and hoping not to need to stop abruptly.

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