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I recently bought a vintage Gitane road bike. I understand that in the 70s and 80s they sold a lot of these road bikes with drop handle bars. Sometimes they came with the extra lever for an easier grip from the top but mine doesn't.

Most modern road bikes seem to have more of a grip from the hood which allows you to squeeze the brakes when sitting upright.

So I am wondering if you are supposed to quickly change to the bottom grip to reach the handle bars? Is that something you get used to doing quickly after some time? Riding in the city seems very uncomfortable having your hands on the brake at all times while looking out for cars. Is that intended to be used more in touring than in busy city traffic?

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It is true that the old style brake levers were not as powerful from the hoods as modern ones. The reason is geometry.

The picture below shows how old and new levers move when pulled. With old levers, braking from the hoods requires one to pull back and push down at the same time. As said in comments to other answers, this is doable but not very effective or intuitive. With new levers one simply pulls the lever towards one's hand. The small blue arrows show how brake cable moves.

schematic of old and new brake levers

If you want to improve braking on the bike and don't require complete authenticity, there are aftermarket levers with modern pivot placement.

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Regular brake levers, without hoods or any additional levers or extensions, are intended to be used from the drops (i.e. riding with your hands down in the lower handlebar position). So, if your riding environment dictates that you might need very quick braking reaction, you would need to ride with your hands down in the drops. Most people - on many typical bike fits - would grow uncomfortable doing this, which is why it might make sense to add...

  • Hooded brake levers, which allow you to brake with your hands on top of the brake lever assemblies, near the handlebar's "ramps".
  • Extension levers or "in-line levers", which allow you to brake with your hands on the handlebar's "tops".
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    Or ride with the thumbs hooked on the hoods, ringfinger and pinky enclosing the hoods and index and middlefinger on the lever. – Carel May 17 '17 at 16:03
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What you are talking about are extension or suicide levers, which were common in the 70s. These were poorly designed -- they basically keep the cable tension for the brakes partially on, so you don't get the full ability to actuate the brakes.

Modern bicycles have interrupter levers, which push the housing rather than pull on the cable to activate the brakes. They don't have the drawbacks of suicide levers, and you can effectively apply the brake from the interrupter lever or from the regular brake lever.

The brake you use depends on your hand position. For example, if you're on the top of the brake hoods or drops, you'd probably use the regular drop bar brake levers. If you're near the middle of the bar, you'd probably use the interrupter lever. The hand position is a matter of personal preference (nobody's stopping you from riding only in the drops all the time), but depending on how you're riding, some of the levers will be natural one to use.

If you're having issues with reaching the brakes, you can swap on a modern set of brake levers, and even add interrupter levers if you want to. Some levers come in smaller sizes for smaller hands (e.g. Tektro RL341 are a smaller hand version of the RL340).

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    Note that one thing you can't do is add interrupter levers to older style brakes where the cable comes out the top, it has to be the newer kind where the cable runs under the bar tape (which are also generally easier to brake from the hoods on). – Jamie A May 17 '17 at 16:37
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    I think at that point, might as well get a new set of levers, unless you absolutely gotta have that vintage aesthetic. – Batman May 17 '17 at 18:07
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    They are named suicide levers for a reason. Braking efficiency is dramatically reduced. – Carel May 18 '17 at 11:48
  • Agreed, modern brake levers are much nicer, and can be gotten for pretty cheap (for the kind that's just a brake lever, not a full shifter). – Jamie A May 18 '17 at 14:45
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    "Hoods" position is hands on top of brake levers where it's difficult to reach suicide levers or interrupter levers. – ojs May 18 '17 at 17:23
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Back in that era cables came out the top and partially blocked access the brakes. enter image description here

Once the cable was rerouted you have access to the brake from above so the need for extensions went way down. Common position is on the hoods and brake with 2 fingers. is-having-your-hands-on-the-hoods-of-drop-handlebars-safe-for-braking
enter image description here

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    I disagree: nearly every road bike racer in the 1970's rode with their hands on the hoods, even with the cables coming out the top. I did when I was young as well. They don't actually block too much of anything. In fact, the image of the Shimano 105 brifters is also dated: more modern ones have the cable routed under the hood and bar tape, so that you don't see it until it comes out from the bar tape near the stem. – Matt Goodman May 17 '17 at 19:07
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    @MattGoodman I did not say people did not ride on the hoods in the 70s. This person is not a racer and I think you take block a little far. Any reasonable person can see from that picture you can still get to the brakes but not as convenient and limits mechanical leverage. It is a blocker and it is fact that they went away when top cables went away. Other modern routing is not a factor to the point I am demonstrating. You are going out of your way to mis-characterize and find fault here. – paparazzo May 17 '17 at 19:26
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    The point where brake cable comes out from top is way forward from where your hand goes, or between thumb and index finger if you point forward. – ojs May 18 '17 at 17:25
  • @ojs I am not asserting it totally blocks access. – paparazzo May 18 '17 at 18:26
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It has been theoretized that older non-aero brake levers have poor braking from the hoods due to their different pivot geometry. While this effect is probably true, there is another effect: poor mechanical advantage combined with the general weakness for braking from the hoods that is present on all brake levers.

Old road bikes have single pivot sidepulls that are notorious for poor centering. The single pivot sidepull has a spring whose spiral section is not at the pivot point unlike the spiral section of a V brake or cantilever brake spring. Instead, the spiral section can be seen to be in mid-air. Thus, unlike cantilevers and V brakes, single pivot sidepulls have unreliable centering because the end of the return spring slides across the pin it touches, and unreliable coefficient of friction in this interface due to accumulating dirt causes unpredictable centering.

To fight this poor centering, old brakes have 1:1 mechanical advantage and old levers about 4:1 mechanical advantage to result in 4:1 MA. In contrast, new brakes for normal pull ratio levers (dual pivot sidepulls or properly configured cantilevers) have 1.5:1 MA and new aero levers 5:1 MA to result in 7.5:1 MA. Drop bar V brake levers used with V brakes also have about 7.5:1 MA.

Even despite their low 4:1 system MA and the accompanying huge pad clearances, single pivot sidepulls might still occasionally need a drop of oil at the interface between the pin and the sliding return spring. This oil makes the coefficient of friction at this interface predictable and thus returns the brakes to good centering.

Because V brakes and cantilever brakes have reliable centering, they can be run with the low pad clearance needed by 7.5:1 MA. The dual pivot sidepulls solves the centering issue in another manner: it has forced centering and still the same old spiral section location problem in the return spring. As a result, dual pivot sidepulls cannot track a wobbly wheel like one that is severely out of true due to spoke breakage.

V brakes and cantilever brakes can track a wobbly wheel, and thus, it is heavily recommended to use V brakes or cantilever brakes instead of dual pivot sidepulls. Of these, cantilevers even have a cable pull ratio the same as dual pivot sidepulls, so using cantilevers does not need using non-standard pull ratio levers!

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    That's a long way to write "I don't know the difference between caliper/cantilever and V-brake levers". Look up the difference and see if the answer makes any sense afterwards. – ojs Oct 3 '20 at 12:48
  • @ojs Whereas your comment is a short way to write "I didn't read the referenced other answers". The answer I wrote about a month ago contains precise mechanical advantages of various different brakes and levers, some V brakes and some not. – juhist Oct 3 '20 at 18:24
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    Okay, after reading through the wall of bullshit I think most of this is not even trying to answer the question. It's great that your 36-spoke wheels go out of true so regularly that you need to choose brakes to allow for that, but what does it have to do with the question? – ojs Oct 3 '20 at 19:54
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    You cannot just install V brakes or cantilever brakes to a vintage bike with road brakes. They attach to the fork in a completely different way. If one has a cantilever brake fork, one should choose mini-v brakes and not regular v brakes. – Vladimir F Oct 4 '20 at 7:11

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