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This may sound like a crazy question, however today in the wet my rear brakes decided to stop working effectively. It has been pouring rain here which makes the problem more apparent.

I managed to get to work unscathed, but was wondering what is the best technique if I were to get in a situation where I had no brakes (front or back) and was heading downhill.

Try and zig-zag; throw the bike and just take the worst of it early on; immediately turn sideways in one direction or roll into the gutter.

What is the most effective, least damaging and most safe effective way of doing this?

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Do you mean really going downhill, i.e. you'll accelerate to 45mph before losing control on a turn? It really depends on the situation, I think. Hard road and sidewalks all around? It really should be quite difficult to end up without brakes, if you're paying attention to your bike. (And your rear brake is never as effective as your front anyway.) –  Jefromi Dec 12 '11 at 6:49
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I'd look for uphill. And finally for the least painful landing... Bush or pond. –  Crowley Dec 12 '11 at 10:50
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@Crowley To be optimistic, the pond could be fun –  Matt May 24 '13 at 4:12
    
ZIGZAG!!! Seriously? how are you going to zigzag when the road is soaking wet and there is cats-and-dogs rain? I assume you won't cycle then? If you are BMXing or some other crazy thing, this suits you. Don't ride downhill without any brake on the basis that you should not ride bicycle without any brake. –  hagubear Jun 5 '13 at 11:40
    
Less "crazy" had this happen to me on a rented coaster having the chain drop while going downhill. Not fun times. –  Andrey May 23 at 13:44

14 Answers 14

up vote 37 down vote accepted

BMXers in some places put the shoe between rear tire and frame, just where the rear brake normally is attached to the bike. I've never done that, because I used to run knobby tires (ouch!), and nowadays I care a lot about brakes.

You really should avoid this situation, because many times there would not be much to do.

I would guess, a good alternative would be to turn sharply while leaning the bike, and then skidding the rear tire sideways. That is already difficult to do in a planned way, what to say when you are frightened...

A good thing to do is follow the advice "brake early, brake often", so you don't have to find out your brakes are not working only when is already too late.

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+1. Foot on rear tire by the brake bridge is the technique cyclists on the velodrome use when they become unclipped or lose their chain. Works like a charm, but can eat up your shoes. –  Stephen Touset Dec 12 '11 at 15:21
    
+1 I bmx brakeless and usually try to control my speed and save the shoes for when I really need to stop. I have burned a whole in the tire from doing it when going too fast. I doubt it would work very well in wet conditions. –  dotjoe Dec 12 '11 at 17:03
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Takes me back to riding a BMX in the 80s. The Comp III was the tire to have then. I don't remember the pain, but hey, we was young and that was a long time ago. –  Jason S Dec 15 '11 at 21:49
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What ever you do, don't try this on the front wheel. I have. Instant face-plant. –  naught101 May 11 '12 at 4:50
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I really like this idea, but fear it may not work well with mudguards (aka fenders). –  James Bradbury Jan 29 '13 at 9:50

Well first I recommend getting a pair of better brakes, the rain really shouldn't affect them much.

I have been in the situation before when both brakes failed (it was a terrible Raleigh bike, and somehow during a ride both the cable end hoppeds out of the cantilevers), and I did what all kids do instinctively - put both feet flat on the road and put as much weight on them as possible. It wrecks your shoes, but it saves your face.

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Not as effective as wedging your foot against the rear tire, in my experience. Plus I'd wager this reduces the control you have over the bike, which could be crucial in this sort of situation. –  Stephen Touset Dec 12 '11 at 20:18
    
@StephenTouset I haven't tried this on my MTB, but it definitely used to work on my BMX. –  Mranz Dec 12 '11 at 21:52
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@Stephen Touset: Using your feet against your back wheel doesn't sound very safe because if you lock the wheel, you lose that wheel's traction to the ground. Using your feet on the ground seems better because you then have four points of contact with the ground. Just my two cents. –  Shawn Dec 13 '11 at 1:31
    
@Wedging your foot is fine for BMXs, but try it on roadbike... Also how would having four points of contact on the ground reduce your control of the bike? –  cmannett85 Dec 13 '11 at 10:31
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I've done it on a road bike and a track bike, and I've never managed to lock up a wheel. Shoe canvas just isn't as powerful a braking surface as rim metal. "Four points of contact" sounds great and all, except for the fact that your feet won't be applying braking force evenly. Doubly so if one foot skips when sliding along at 25+ mph. I could be wrong, but it sounds like a great way to crash a bike at high speed rather than avoid one. –  Stephen Touset Dec 13 '11 at 13:39

Ideally, search for a possible uphill turn you can make. Otherwise, drag your feet. If you're going fast, sit as far upright as possible to increase wind resistance. Getting off the pavement into grass (or firm sand) will generally slow you, but of course if you're going too fast it can throw you. You can also run through puddles, if you see any -- a lot of energy is dissipated that way. If you're inevitably going to hit something, try to pick the softest something.

It's never been my impression that zig-zagging slows you very much.

If the problem is due to wetness, simply staying on the brakes will generally squeegee off the water, and eventually enough heat will develop to produce more friction. In rain it's always best to anticipate braking needs and begin early, to dry the brakes.

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+1 for drying the brakes. I really do believe zip-zagging can help though: even if your speed isn't reduced, you get more time to think because you're covering more ground than if you were following a straight line down the hill. –  Shawn Dec 13 '11 at 1:35
    
If its down hill, the longer you think, the faster you are going. If there is every a time for acting rather than thinking, this is it..... –  mattnz Apr 25 '13 at 23:35
    
Yeah, wouldn't zig-zagging almost push you faster, kind of like how ice skaters accelerate? –  Matt May 24 '13 at 4:14

Be aware of your equipment and the conditions and predict things going wrong - the state of your brake blocks and rims should be on your weekly checklist (tyres - pressure and general condition, brakes - cable tension and block wear, chain - free of major dirt and reasonably lubricated). Especially in the autumn and winter, you need to have confidence in your equipment.

Often the best solution is to not get into that problem area to begin with. But once you're there:

  • Use your feet - either on the road or directly on the tyre.
  • Stand up and be big, especially if you've a coat on, make like a sail
  • Turn into a quieter road/path and aim for something soft ...
  • When you're skiing instructors will tell you to continue the turn and point uphill, that will take the sting out of your speed. Something similar would be almost the last resort.

But I'm a fixie rider, so my last piece of advice is join me in braking with my legs, just slow the pedals with your feet and save rubber all year round!

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Until your chain breaks. ;) –  Daniel R Hicks Dec 12 '11 at 17:09
    
Yeah, or (like a few months ago) you attempt to exert too much backward pressure and the rear cog loosens ... lock ring, what lock ring? –  Unsliced Dec 12 '11 at 18:25

(a) Drag your feet. Dragging your feet works nicely in snow, when your brakes are frozen up and stop working. However, you have to dig in really hard to get much friction. On dry pavement, this is not so good because you feet get thrown back. On gravel and dirt roads it works well, but is a little hard on shoes. enter image description here

(b) Turn into grass, ditch, etc. When you're bicycling along out of control, with no or insufficient brakes, it's usually easy to pull off into the ditch (unless you're in the city), and the grass will slow you down. As you are coasting along in a ditch, you might be lucky enough to encounter a driveway which will slow you down really fast, although possibly not as fast as it slows down the bicycle. It's not too bad to bump into a chain link or privacy fence, but barbed wire should be avoided. You can also turn uphill sometimes, if there is room, and trade speed for elevation.

(c) Jump off (if necessary). I have actually only jumped off in out-of-control situations rather than brake failures, but it does a nice job of stopping the bicycle driver if not the bike itself. This is difficult to do if you have your feet clipped into the pedals, and is not recommended at high speeds unless it seems really, really necessary, as in the case of a rapidly approaching cactus.

I have tried all of these.

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Maybe you should spend more time on brake maintenance. ;) –  Daniel R Hicks Dec 12 '11 at 22:14
    
Good point! :-) –  xpda Dec 13 '11 at 0:58
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if you have tried them, can you comment on the efficacy of each method in your experience –  Jeff Atwood Dec 13 '11 at 2:35
    
Good idea...... –  xpda Dec 13 '11 at 3:19
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"Barbed wire should be avoided"… talk about understatement! i have a friend with scars after twenty years after coming off a motorbike into a barbed wire fence. –  Paul Wagland Dec 17 '11 at 21:19

Once I was an idiot and after changing tires and being late to class, I forgot to put in the noodle for my V-brakes for both tires. After slamming the brakes and discovering I had no give, I was about to fly through an intersection that doubles as a highway off-ramp.

Stopping method? Right shoe rubbed against the front rim (but careful not to put my shoe into the spokes). Suffice to say balancing sucks this way.

My other method for stopping is inherited from riding on ice. It involves shifting weight to the preferred dismount foot (I usually dismount to my left with my right foot on pedal, then touching the left foot to the ground and pushing the bike out to let it slide away. I've not tried it at very high speeds though.

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I wouldn't want to try putting my shoe on the side of the front wheel. I've accidentally got my foot jammed in the front spokes and got launched over the bars when I was trying to kick my front wheel back in to alignment when I had a loose stem/fork connection. –  Benzo Dec 4 '12 at 18:42

Never been in this situation myself, but here's a possible solution, though I've never tested it. I have clipless pedals (SPD), and I've noticed that if I turn my heel inward, the back of my shoe drags on my reartire. I think that in an emergency, I could use this method to slow down, without putting my foot in too much danger, as it is still kind of clipped into the pedal. Using your feet on the tires is probably a good way to get yourself hurt, but I've seen quite a few people on department store bikes use their feet in much more dangerous ways. I may try this out at low speed to see how well it works, just so I know in case I'm ever in this situation. Although I'm with everyone else on this one, Keep your bike in good shape, and check your brakes every so often so you don't end up in this situation.

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There are ways to deal with this situation - none of them are very good. Which means that the best thing to do is to make sure you don't go there in the first place. If you maintain your brakes, and don't ride some horrible P.O.S. Walmart bike, then the chances of losing both brakes at the same time are very slim.

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Agreed. While the question is interesting, the best way to prepare for your brakes to fail is to make sure they don't fail. –  Nathan Long Dec 13 '11 at 11:11

I had a similar problem where my front brake lever was broken, but I could still brake by pulling on the cable manually (with my hand). It's easy to over-break though, so be careful!

Also, when I was young, I had a single-speed, no brakes tricycle and I let my feet off the pedals going down a steep hill. I could have used some of the advice here, but rather I just kept on going straight and looked back at my father the pleading eyes. So he (heroically) came to my rescue by putting a hand on my handlebars and using his own brakes to slow us both down. So if the context allows it, asking for someone else's help (another cyclist, an automobile, etc) does work!

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This answer may sound crazy to any real cyclist, which I am not, nevertheless I speak from experience here – on my way to school there was a not-unsteep-ish hill I had to go down every morning, and having been very careless about my bike I had to improvise the braking rather often.

Actually, the first thing you might want to do is to jump off – while you're slow enough, so that you can safely stop by running out, ideally not letting go of your bike but slowing it down with you. That's the perfect solution when it works, which it can at surprisingly high speeds – at least as fast as you can run, if you have a little practise in this jumping-off-while-driving. But obviously, it's rather dangerous.

Only if you're already too fast for this I'd recommend to slam both of your feet to the ground. You can exert quite a lot of pressure, I'm not sure about the technique I used to have but remember it occasionally completely lifted the front wheel from the ground. (You can to some degree still steer, surprisingly, by tilting the bike sidewards.) That gives at least as strong a braking force as blocking your rear wheel, the only problem is the wear on your shoes.

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Its not crazy (that jumping off one), I have done this and I consider myself a real cyclist :P –  Starx Aug 30 '12 at 2:23

I lock my left leg in front of the pedal and put my foot on the ground, it provides good friction control with the foot. Don't try this at home!

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You must be on good terms with your orthopedic surgeon.... –  mattnz Apr 25 '13 at 23:41

I remember reading years ago about a fellow (possibly Thomas Stevens?) who rode a penny-farthing across the US. What stuck in my mind was the description of descending the eastern side of the Rockie Mountains, applying his brake (singular) so much that the hard-rubber tire softened. When that wasn't enough, he used his gloved hands, alternating them to minimize burning on the hot rims.

I'm sure he'd have used his foot, if he'd been on a safety bicycle instead, but it's hard to get your feet near the rims on an ordinary :-)

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In addition to the good answers already;

Lean forward and kick your leg over the back wheel so that both feet are on one side of the bike and your standing on one pedal, then hit the ground running whilst continuing to hold the bars. Takes a little practice. Maybe it cant be done at very high speeds.

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Adjust the min pin on your rear dérailleur so that if you wanted you could lower your gear past the lowest cassette ring throwing your chain into the tiny gap between the wheel hub/spokes and cassette. This acts as an immediate hand brake since that space isn't actually wide enough for the chain.

The downside of this is your chain hub and spokes are trashed, but if both your brakes are gone this is the only guaranteed way to stop. You must also be careful not to go down to many gears if you rig your bike this way.

Another warning, this is very effective so hold on before doing it or you'll go over the handle bars.

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Really don't like the idea of adjusting my bike so that this could happen accidentally. I'm pretty sure I'd shift into the spokes when I didn't mean to. If I was that worried I'd fit a backup disc brake in addition to the rims. –  James Bradbury Jan 29 '13 at 10:26
    
Wow, I can't imagine actually doing this to deal with a situation that should never happen in the first place. The odds of shifting into the spokes and crashing is far higher than the odds of both brakes failing at the same time. The cure is worse than the disease. –  Carey Gregory Mar 22 '13 at 23:43

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