Kids Coaster Brakes vs. Hand Brakes

The Bike Log

Coaster brakes, also known as pedal or foot brakes, allow kids to stop their bikes by pedaling backward. Pedal brakes are different than regular freewheel adult bikes or larger kids bikes which enable cyclists to backpedal freely. 

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Before your little one learns to pedal a bike, a critical prerequisite is knowing how to stop. If their first introduction to the world of two wheels was by way of a balance bike, it’s especially important to consider the ways you can slowly help them learn how to brake in a safe and intentional way. Ultimately, as your little one grows and graduates to a big kid bike, brakes are a bike safety essential, but which type of brakes should you choose?  

Adult bikes usually come with hand brakes, but coaster brakes are a popular alternative for smaller bikes. So which is better for kids, coaster or hand brakes? We’ll discuss the pros and cons of kids’ coaster brakes vs. hand brakes so you can get your kid the bike that’s perfect for them. 

Did you Know? Coaster Brakes are Legally Required. 

Coaster brakes are the most common type of brakes for kids’ bikes. In the US, they are also legally required. 

These laws only apply to US manufacturers, so parents can choose to modify bikes and teach their children to use different brakes. 

Despite the law, children are, of course, capable of using handbrakes. Handbrakes are common on kids’ bikes throughout Europe, and European children learn on these bikes. However, in the US, bikes for younger kids usually feature coaster brakes.

Coaster Brakes

What are Coaster Brakes?

Coaster brakes, also known as pedal or foot brakes, allow kids to stop their bikes by pedaling backward. Pedal brakes are different than regular freewheel adult bikes or larger kids bikes which enable cyclists to backpedal freely. 

Pros of Coaster Brakes

  • Coaster brakes are usually easier for young children who are learning to ride so they are common on bikes for 2 to 4-year-olds.
  • Foot brakes don’t require much coordination to operate, so they’re great for young children who are riding 12 inch bikes.
  • Coaster brakes work well in all weather conditions so that kids can head out even during the wet season. Because they are positioned within the rear hub, coasters are less susceptible to slipping in wet conditions.
  • The design of coaster brakes is simple, so they are very low maintenance, making them appealing to parents with rowdy kids.

Cons of Coaster Brakes

  • Many kids will naturally pedal backward as well as forward when first learning to ride a bike. With coaster brakes, backpedaling will cause them to come to an immediate stop – which can be frustrating and hinder the learning process. It can be difficult for children to grasp that they can pedal forwards but not backward.
  • Coaster brakes are best suited to city sidewalks; they don’t tend to work as well when riding on trails or when the terrain gets a bit steep. Because of this, it’s not recommended that kids mountain bikes use coasters. 
  • Coaster brakes have no modulation, so that skidding can be an issue on inclines or uneven surfaces.
  • Very young children can have trouble applying the necessary force or stopping power to use coaster brakes effectively.

Hand Brakes

What are Hand Brakes?

Hand brakes or lever brakes are brake levers found on both the right and left handlebars. They generally control calipers found on both the front and rear wheels. On larger bikes, such as a 24-inch bike or 26-inch bike, adult bikes, and high-end kids mountain bikes like the Meerkats and Scouts, the hand levers may control disc rotors instead of calipers. 

Age is just a number, but we find kids are typically tall enough to ride a 24 or 26-inch bike when they are around seven years or older. That means they are likely to fit bikes that come with handbrakes and will need to learn to use them around this age. 

Pros of Hand Brakes

  • A kid’s bike with hand brakes can save a couple of pounds in weight, making it easier for kids to manage.
  • Older children who initially learn to use hand brakes will only have to learn one style of braking. If kids start learning at a younger age on smaller bike sizes, they will usually have to learn to use coaster brakes first, then progress to hand brakes.
  • Hand brakes are better suited to riding on dirt roads or backcountry trails. As children get older and want to explore beyond the sidewalk, hand brakes are the safer option.
  • The ability to freely pedal backward can help kids regain their balance while they’re learning to ride.

Cons of Hand Brakes

  • A hand brake can be more difficult for children to learn to use. They require some maturity and coordination that younger children have often not developed. 
  • Children will usually require some coaching to help them hone their skills and use hand brakes properly.
  • One of the biggest problems that come with hand brakes on kids’ bikes is that the brakes are too large for children to use. Brake levers can be too large, stiff, and difficult for little hands to control correctly. All of Cleary’s bikes come with handbrakes designed for small children’s hands. These child-specific levers are easy to pull and easy to reach, eliminating one of the more significant cons of hand brakes.
  • Another concern for hand brakes is that a child may grab the brake too forcefully; potentially causing them to stop too abruptly. 
  • When you teach your kid to ride a bike with hand brakes, you’ll need to spend time showing them an appropriate level of force so they can build their skills.

Hybrid Brakes

Some children’s bikes are now available with a hybrid, featuring both styles of brakes. Hybrid brakes may be a good option for children transitioning to hand brakes or when you aren’t sure which method your little one will prefer. 

Because adult bikes use hand brakes, kids and teens will inevitably have to learn to ride a bicycle with handbrakes. Giving kids the chance to practice and learn on a hybrid bike will help develop these skills at an earlier age. 

Can you install hand brakes on a kid’s coaster bike?

As mentioned above, the current law requires bike manufacturers to use coaster brakes on smaller bikes. . However, there’s no law to stop parents from adjusting brakes if they prefer their children to learn with hand brakes. 

All Cleary’s come with hand brakes. If you have a kids’ bike with coaster brakes that you’d like to modify, a local bike shop can help you install brakes and swap out the rear cog if you want to. If you want to DIY this change, make sure you’re getting a bike with holes to mount brakes above the wheel centered on the fork and frame. Most bikes will have these. If you take the do-it-yourself route, you need to be absolutely confident that the brakes are correctly installed and in perfect working condition for your child’s safety. 

If you decide to modify your child’s bike and add hand brakes and no coaster, be sure to use top-notch levers that are suitably sized for children. Your kid needs to be able to reach and pull the levers comfortably. 

You should also be aware that teaching younger kids to use lever brakes will require time and patience. Supervise the learning process closely to avoid accidents and teach children how to brake safely and smoothly. Remember that young riders learn at their own pace. Some kids may quickly adapt to hand brakes while others may need more time.

What Brakes Should I Get on My Kid’s Bike?

It is a common belief that young children lack the necessary coordination needed to use hand brakes. However, this will differ from child to child. Every child learns and develops at a different rate, and in some cases, children as young as three can learn to use child-sized hand brakes. 

Younger children will usually fit bikes that automatically come standard with coasters unless you modify them. Cleary’s smallest kids’ bikes come standard with coaster brakes, but freewheel kits are available at no extra cost. 

When your child is ready to learn how to use hand brakes, you can trust that Cleary Bikes use high-quality brakes. For example, our Tektro junior v-brakes have little brake levers for little fingers. These come standard on  the Gecko 12-inch bike, Hedgehog 16-inch bike, and the Owl 1 or 3 Speed bike models.

Ultimately, the age and height of your kid will determine the bike size that is best suited to them. The bike size will dictate whether you teach kids to use coasters, make a modification, or learn to use handbrakes. You can use our kid’s bike sizing guide to determine the perfect fit.

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