When should my kids switch to hand brakes from coaster brakes?
Should my kids use coaster brakes at all or just go straight to hand brakes?
How do I teach my kids how to use hand brakes once they're ready?
These are all great questions. We talk a lot about the first two, coasters versus hand brakes, in a separate article. Quite frankly, the debate over this one doesn't appear to be ending anytime soon. But, when it comes down to it, the overwhelming majority of children will end up using hand brakes over the long haul for one reason or another.
So with that in mind, today we'll focus on question #3: how do I teach my little buddy how to use bike hand brakes? You may be happy to learn that there's no real right-or-wrong way to go about this. In fact, we've laid out seven different options that combine braking technique with specific kid's bike features.
Balance bike hand brakes
By now, either through our busy parent's guide to kids' bikes or around the neighborhood water cooler, you've probably heard of the whole balance bike phenomenon. To jog your memory, balance bikes are pedal-less cycles that serve as an alternative to training wheels. The idea is that toddlers just starting out can learn balance first, and then once they get their first pedal bike they're good to go without the trainers. Well, in most cases no pedals means no brakes… at least coaster-style foot brakes. Some models now come with hand brakes to shorten that learning curve as well since the little ones can practice braking while still having their feet to help as they get used to the levers.
Walk the bike first
Whether or not your tykes start out on a balance bike or a training-wheel bike, it's a good idea to have them practice braking while walking it before they saddle up. This is a great way for them to figure out the right pressure to apply before they're completely off the ground. Otherwise, they're more susceptible to falls from unnecessary Jaws-of-Life-worthy squeezes.
Brake with both hands or just the right
We've all seen YouTube video after YouTube video of people zipping down the road only to all of a sudden flip right over their handlebars. Don't let your kid end up on YouTube. One surefire way to do this is to make sure you teach him/her to use either both brakes at once or the right-hand brake only. Especially important for those southpaws out there, a left-hand solo squeeze locks the front wheel without slowing the rest of the bike, meaning an endo is imminent. If you're having a hard time with this, talk to your local bike shop about loosening the front brake slightly to reduce this risk until your child forms the right braking habit (no pun intended, we promise).
Right brake only
One way to make absolutely sure your kid avoids somersaulting out of the seat from user error is to buy a bike that comes with only a right-hand brake. For instance, Guardian's bikes use the brand's award-winning SureStop system featuring a single lever. When engaged, it activates both the front and rear brakes at the same time. With only one choice, there's no opportunity for them to make the wrong one.
If an out-of-the-box SureStop-like system isn't for you or your children, you can always just do it yourself. There are several companies out there that sell dual control brake levers. When engaged, these activate both the front and rear brakes at the same time with only one hand, just like built-in single-brake models. Then, once your kids show they're ready for the next step, just take it off, return the brakes to the original settings, and let them have at it.
Sometimes all it takes is a little visual aid. WOOM offers a color-coded braking system for some of its smaller models. The green right-hand brake corresponds to the green rear-wheel brake pad. No WOOM? No problem! Just be resourceful—colored tape, rubber bands, or some other clever little device on the right side accomplishes the same thing.
Coaster plus hand hybrid brakes
You know, it's not always a one-or-the-other scenario. Several bike brands are producing kids' bikes that have both hand brakes and coaster brakes. This can smooth the transition if Junior keeps defaulting to back-pedaling at the stop sign. In fact, until bikes reach a large enough size, the Consumer Product Safety Commission requires that they come with foot brakes. Since this only applies to manufacturers when they build them, some brands have started to ship freewheel conversion kits that let you remove the coasters when the timing's right. Nice way to get a little more mileage out of the machine before it's time to kick it to the curb.
Is this list the end-all, be-all of hand braking? Meh, probably not. It's a good place to start, though, and it shouldn't take long to find the right bike or best style to use when it comes your kids. Remember, even though braking is only one step in learning how to ride a bike, it's arguably the most important. So, take your time, tell them to take theirs, and enjoy watching them get a handle on braking!