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I live in the UK and I expect my front brake lever to be operated by my right hand. However, I recently went on a friend's bike that had the brakes 'back to front', which would be the 'right way round' for people in Europe, North America and everywhere else that drives on the right.

I am left-handed and therefore used to finding things designed to be best operated with the right-hand, e.g. the controls on a lawnmower.

What are the reasons for the brake lever convention on a bicycle? It seems that the front brake is more important for controlled braking, in the UK we have that worked by the right hand, which makes sense. For countries that drive on the right that means the back brake has the 'handed-ness' advantage, rather than the front.

I also like to be controlling my speed with the front-brake when making a right-hand turn, however it is not possible to do this when signalling. A left turn is not so important to stick your arm out for - drivers coming the other way and behind don't really care if the sign is not made for a left-hand turn, whereas a right-hand turn really should be indicated. So, from that perspective, the brakes are the 'wrong-way-round' for me.

Can someone kindly guide me through why the brakes are wired up so and any historical origins of the convention?

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Great question! Most studies show grip strength is lopsided for righties but more even for lefties - so it would be easy to speculate that putting the device needing most force on the right would make sense. An alternative theory is the gears were placed on the right to allow the majority of righties fine motor control over finicky friction levers with a straight cable pull. I have no research to show which came first - the brake or the shifter - just lots of long training rides with geeky cyclists and bike shop discussions over beers. –  bmike Jul 18 '11 at 17:22
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This doesn't answer the historical question, but for current practice: in the UK, bikes are required by law (the Pedal Cycles (Construction and Use) Regulations) to have their brake levers the right way around when sold. That doesn't prevent you changing them later, of course. –  Dan Hulme Apr 14 '13 at 9:39

8 Answers 8

up vote 16 down vote accepted

I believe the reason is that the hand signals used to indicate braking generally involve using your 'road side' hand. In countries that drive on the left, this is your right hand and vice versa.

The back brake was considered the 'safer' brake to use during this pre-braking time when you're indicating that you will brake but haven't necessarily started braking yet.

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Although as an experienced cyclist, I wish they'd had the tradition reversed. I almost exclusively brake with my front brake, and hate that I have to brake with the (less effective) rear brake when I'm making a signal (during which I'm usually applying the brakes). –  Stephen Touset Jul 18 '11 at 2:32
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My old Sutherland's manuals list this as the correct answer. –  zenbike Jul 18 '11 at 9:15
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odd, I swapped my brake handlebars so the front is on the right specifically because I wanted to use hand signals. –  OpenID-test2 Aug 7 '11 at 22:54
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@gcb: Sutherland's Manual for Bike Mechanics is a technical reference manual for bike mechanics with a fair amount of historical interest data thrown in. I'm not sure what "manufacturer" you are referring to, if it's not them. In addition, while the front brake provides a lot of power, the rear brake provides most of the modulation, which means for an unskilled rider, it is usually the safer choice. –  zenbike Dec 14 '11 at 8:17
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@StephenTouset very old comment but thought I'd chime in - although the front brake is regarded as the more effective brake, if you are signalling you'll only have 1 hand on the bars. Keeping the bike under control whilst the front wheel is braking with 1 hand is much harder than if the rear is braking as the bike will self-correct in the latter case. –  harryg Dec 9 '13 at 15:29

Don't know the full historical origins in general, but many cyclocross racers swap to have the rear brake on the left side of the handlebars. In CX racing you get off and on the bike many many times and almost exclusively on the non drive side of the bike. You may need to grab some extra brakes if you are comming into a dismount too fast, and many are already half way off the bike when they realize they are going too fast.

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This is one that gets me as well. I am used to the front brake being on the right. However, I now have a road bike that was built in France with the front break on the left.

This for me has a number of hazards, but so far hasn't caused me to come off the bike. For instance, when I need to slow down suddenly I reflexively squeeze the right brake harder (which I am used to and I'm right handed) which causes the rear wheel to lock up. This has caused a few close calls when cycling in a group because the back end tends to slide out. Needless to say, the other riders don't appreciate someone fishtailing in the middle of a group!

In terms of signalling for corners, I'd imagine that in professional racing events this is not an issue.

But I have thought of one good reason why the breaks are orientated this way. If you're a righty, you can use your right hand to eat, drink, adjust clothing etc. while on the move but you can also keep your left hand on the front and more effective brake. If you're left handed, well I'd imagine it would be better to swap the brakes around if you're thinking like this.

That's the best answer I can come up with.

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I would suggest that if you alter the question to: where in the road would you want to be if you pulled the brake and it locked up? When you lock your rear wheel, you normally keep heading in the same direction, maybe with some sideways movement to the rear that can be adjusted with the steering, but you generally stay upright. Whereas when you lock your front wheel, you either go over your handlebars or (more likely) your front wheel skids sideways (and out from under you), both of which are likely to throw you onto the road. Take both these settings to the road, and when you find yourself turning across oncoming traffic (turning right in UK), you really don't want to lock your front wheel and end up under oncoming vehicles, so you use the rear brake. When you are turning the opposite way, away from the traffic (turning left in UK), you will likely have either a verge or pavement on which to fall if you do come off, and the traffic behind you "should"(!) be manoeuvring to avoid you anyway, and at the very least be considering you as another road user so able to take avoiding action should the worst happen. As a result, in UK rear brake lever will be on the left (right hand indicating), front brake lever on the right (left hand indicating).

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I had no idea there was a difference. What side is the front shift lever on in the UK?

The only reason I can think of to have the brake levers one way vs the other would be for hand signaling, but even there it's hard to say whether it would be better to have the front or rear brake only, when signaling -- I've heard arguments both ways for cases when one-handed braking is necessary.

There probably is some slight argument for having the shift levers one way or the other, based on the way the cables route. Generally this would place the front shift lever on the left-hand side (for a right-side chain), based on the way things work when pulleys are used.

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Shift levers are the same side everywhere. Swapping shift cables from side to side is trivial on most setups (some cross under the downtube, some don't, a top pull derailleur cable can come either side of the saddle, etc.), so if the manufacturers were going to make left and right handed shifters, I think it would be for left and right handed users. But they don't. Sheldon shares the view that brake conventions are based on braking while signalling, but only as "theory seems probable" - sheldonbrown.com/brakturn.html#whichside –  armb May 9 '13 at 7:15
    
(There's probably someone somewhere who uses friction downtube shifters the opposite way around, or even has dismantled indexed shifters and rebuilt them the opposite way around.) –  armb May 9 '13 at 7:23
    
@armb -- Particularly with the old downtube shifters there was strong motivation to have the front on the left and the rear on the right. Otherwise the rear cable would have had to pass under the BB and added additional friction points. (Plus the rear shifter was first, the front came later.) There is, as you suggest, less motivation with newer systems employing housed cables, but tradition (from the old downtube shifters) would put the rear on the right. –  Daniel R Hicks May 9 '13 at 10:54
    
Passing under the BB is common. Do you mean pass from one side of the bike to the other as well as front to back of BB? In which case, no, you do it under the downtube: flickr.com/photos/cortezcycles/6926214427 That's being done to then bring it back round the headtube to a bar mounted shifter on the otherside: sheldonbrown.com/cables.html#crisscross But if you had downtube shifters where your cable stops are (as my road bike originally did), choosing to cross or not would let you swap shifter sides. –  armb May 9 '13 at 15:40
    
I've never heard of anyone doing that, but a left hander wanting rear on left is possible. –  armb May 9 '13 at 15:42

Sometimes it is necessary to indicate and brake whilst turning across traffic in a roundabout for instance. So if you're in the UK / Australia / NZ / Japan / India etc, this would be indicating right, with your right hand, to take the third exit of a roundabout. If your front brake was on the left, you'd be using your front brake with only your outside hand on the bars and brake, whilst leaning over to take the corner.
In my experience and from what I've heard (motorcycle license course in Australia), the rear brake is easier and safer to use for most people in this situation (cornering, slow manoeuvring, indicating, turning across traffic). There is not such a problem indicating left, because you are not turning across traffic, so there is less need to brake, indicate and corner, all at the same time.

Of course for the Americas, Europe and countries that drive on the right, replace "right" with "left" above :-)

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I'm left handed & yesterday received 2 new sets of Avid Elixir 1 disc brakes. The hose on the front brake is too short to extend to the rhs. This on a 120mm suspension fork with 600mm flatbar and 100mm 6 deg rise stem. So a pretty standard set up. The decals and clamp bolt would be upside down on the rhs. So Avid clearly intend out of the box left hand front brake.

I too don't like this set up. I tried it once and it didn't last long before I swapped to rhs front. That cost me another £30 on hoses. So I suspect this is one reason for a lhs front brake set up. It makes disc brakes £30 cheaper for manufacturers making their products 'more affordable/competitive' although u pick up an additional aftermarket cost.

Also there may be putative safety benefits in the lhs front brake set up. It used to be said that when braking u shld use 60% power on the front and 40% on the back to prevent tipping on the front and skidding on the rear. Most people including lefties would use the rhs lever first. So you would probably be applying power to the back brake first which at speed may result in a small skid rather than a tip which is arguably more controllable and therefore safer.

It also may be considered more aesthetic and possibly safer to have less cable crossing or tangle. But for everyday pootling I'm the same as everyone else I rarely use the back brake coz it don't have the same instant, power on, stopping speed. So here goes yet another £30 on hoses

P.S. Also if the front brake is on the left and u use gripshift gear changers u can brake with the front lh lever and change gears with rh gearshift. It comes back to me now, that's why I tried this set up before. Trust me, there's no real world advantage in it.

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I don't quite follow how this is cheaper for manufacturers. Whichever way around the brakes are, you need one hose long enough to reach the rear wheel. –  Dan Hulme Apr 14 '13 at 9:36
    
It doesn't make it more than a few cents cheaper for the manufacturer, if that. I'm just guessing the avid kit was designed for the US market's setup. –  Batman Dec 7 '13 at 4:34

Good comments allround. The hand you indicate with should also control the front break. If living in countries that drive on the right and your are right handed, you are living in a perfect world. Strongest hand on the correct brake for hard breaking is the Right and may save your life. Testimonies from those who have descended down 25- 30Km 11% French Alps will testify to the pain experienced when applying the brakes continually through hairpin corners. I do not live in a perfect world, ride on the left BUT for the above mentioned reason, my rear break is on my strongest right hand.

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