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A Brief History of Braking Systems

By Adam Marsal

The attempts to reduce speed are an essential issue of cycling since its dawn. While the first pioneering solutions were as simple as braking with a sole of one’s shoe, the evolution stepped up a gear with the introduction of bicycles with pedals and drivetrain. Do you know what preceded the almost flawless disc brakes that we’re lucky to have to save our lives today?

As soon as bicycle rides gained more speed, the need for controlling it became inevitable. The inventor of the legendary “Laufmachine”, Karl Drais, designed a special pivoting shoe to be pressed against the rear tyre made of steel to slow down. The idea was presented about two hundred years ago. The following bicycle labelled the boneshaker was already equipped with a spoon brake that was operated by a lever placed on the handlebars. The brake consisted of a pad usually made of leather or metal that was pressed on top of the front tyre by a rod, which was also operated by a handlebar lever. As long as bicycles used solid tyres, the friction against them didn’t lead to premature wear out and caused no damage to the material. Despite obvious weaknesses, spoon brakes continued to be used on many adult bikes in the 30s and on children bikes even until the 50s.

Bicycle spoon brake variation at the Batavus Museum in Heerenveen, Netherlands

The other option was to press against pedals that were spinning as a part of a fixed wheel drive. Spoon brakes and backpedalling were the main elements in cutting speed for decades, mostly on penny-farthing bikes with the big front and much smaller rear wheel. While some riders relied exclusively on backpedalling and preferred to get off the bike and walk before a steeper descent, cycling daredevils put their feet on the fork rests to avoid the self-rotating pedals and kept on cycling downhill with the front brake at the ready. However, there were some recorded cases when riders got injured because their feet got caught in the wheel spokes.

In 1887, English inventors Browett and Harrison patented an early version of the calliper brake using a rubber block to press against the sides of the small rear wheel but it took a long time before their solution matured and surpassed the older designs. Introduction of the safety bicycle with same-size wheels, furnished with pneumatic tyres produced by Dunlop Tyre Company has changed it all. Current spoon brakes have become obsolete and impractical as they quickly damaged the soft rubber tyre material. That’s why other solutions prevailed, such as the Duck brake using twin rubber rollers pressed against the front tyre or coaster brakes introduced for the rear wheel, which is a system that we see on many budget or kid bikes even today.

Eddy Merckx followed by Spanish cyclist Luis Ocana and Belgian cyclist Lucien Van Impe during the 14th stage of the Tour de France. All of them are using rim brakes. © Profimedia, AFP

The real revolution came with rim brakes that were light, acceptably efficient, easy to maintain – and cheap. The performance became less satisfying, however, when it started to rain and the surface of the rims turned wet. The efficiency became even worse when the rim got uneven as the result of an impact. Rims are also prone to collecting dirt from the ground that is then delivered to the pads, making the entire system less reliable. Nonetheless, the low price made rim brakes spread across the bicycle industry while their light weight made them popular in bicycle racing.

Several refinements and derivatives were introduced later like side-pull calliper brakes, centre-pull calliper brakes or cantilever brakes that celebrated success with the arrival of MTBs because their construction enabled them to be used on bicycles with wider tyres. Unfortunately, they were chronically difficult to adjust, making even basic service into a purgatory. The next step in the evolution was represented by the linear-pull brakes, commonly referred to as the V-brakes. Once again, these brakes saved money but were hard to describe as satisfying. The most advanced rim brake solution was delivered by powerful yet expensive and remarkably heavy hydraulic rim brakes that lost their popularity to disc brakes.

© Predrag Zdravkovic / Alamy / Alamy / Profimedia

A disc brake first evolved as a motorcycle braking system pattern just to become a smaller and remarkably lighter version of them. It consisted of a metal disc called rotor and callipers that were attached to the fork or frame and equipped with pads to squeeze the rotor for braking. Disc brakes perform excellently regardless of weather or road conditions. They’re distinguished by being immune to dirt or mud from the ground as the rotor holes provide a drainage path for water and debris. The disadvantages comprise mostly of technical requirements on the construction of the frame and fork but all possible handicaps are entirely offset by the reliance, effectivity, and safety of the system. The hydraulic brakes have proved to be decisively better than the mechanical ones. After being positively received by mountain bikers, they’ve been slowly finding their way even to the road cycling realm that is still split into two groups when it comes to using them. Since there have been more and more riders accepting the undisputable performance of disc systems, we’re slightly concerned about the future of the traditional calliper brakes. What is your opinion?