I have severe osteoarthritis in both my hands and have had to give up cycling as I am unable to squeeze the brakes for safety. Are there any available options for braking, as I would like to get back on my bicycle for exercise?

I have a Cannondale road bike and have travelled around a lot of Europe on this bike. The handlebars have been raised to a high level allowing no pressure on my thumbs that are the most painful.

  • 4
    How much strength do you have in your hands? Modern hydraulic brakes can be very effective, requiring little force. On the rear wheel you can have a coaster (back-pedal) brake, but in most jurisdictions you need two working brakes (and rightfully so).
    – Michael
    Commented Nov 2, 2020 at 21:11
  • 1
    What kind of riding do you want to do?
    – Swifty
    Commented Nov 2, 2020 at 21:12
  • Are your thumbs as affected as your fingers? There are some brake levers that allow you to press with your thumbs though they tend to require odd handlebars.
    – Criggie
    Commented Nov 2, 2020 at 22:47
  • 2
    One suggested Google term is adaptive cycling. This is obviously a broad term, but it should help you find groups who have more direct knowledge of adaptive issues like the ones you described. Otherwise, it does seem to me like hydraulic disc brakes could be the solution.
    – Weiwen Ng
    Commented Nov 2, 2020 at 22:55
  • 1
    Do you have disc brakes? Are you cycling on flat or on downhill? On bike paths or in traffic? Perhaps with disc brakes, on the flat, on bike paths without many forced stops - you might be okay? Commented Nov 3, 2020 at 15:13

7 Answers 7


A coaster brake for the rear comes to mind as a main brake. Refer Sheldon Brown ), however for safety you need more than one brake. A high quality MTB disc brake is designed for low force i.e. single finger for normal use, and high end come with a vast array of lever adjustments so you can get the levers close to the bars to reduce the reach needed.

With Hydraulic disc brakes only need to provide hydraulic pressure from a hose to make them work, it may be possible to fabricate something that allows you to generate the required hydraulic pressure from something that suits you hand ability, you may find a specialist who already has such a device.

  • 1
    +1, not least for single finger braking. Without trying it, people don't appreciate that it allows much better grip of the handlebars from the other three fingers. That's beneficial even without reduced grip strength
    – Swifty
    Commented Nov 2, 2020 at 21:35
  • 2
    You may even have three brakes on a bike, two hydraulic (disk front, hyd. rim rear and coaster) I'm saying hydraulic rim at the rear because a coaster hub that also takes a disk might not exist. The whole built will of course be a matter for a specialist frame and bike builder but nothing impossible.
    – Carel
    Commented Nov 3, 2020 at 12:49

Ideas for avoiding using hands to brake:

Coaster brake

A coaster brake is a rear brake which you operate by pedalling backwards. Suits urban bikes in flat places very well. Think 'Dutch' bikes. Fit a front brake too in support but use the rear most of the time.

Track cycling

Velodrome cycling features fixed gear bikes, with no brakes. The speed is controlled purely by the pedals. You can't stop pedalling so it's great exercise and lots of fun! Burnaby Velodrome is apparently near Vancouver.

Tandem cycling

Front seat rider operates the brakes and gears, rear seat rider contributes through the pedals. Pick somebody you like to spend time with but good for roaming a bit further afield.

  • 2
    Tandem is apparently quite fun for the stoker, who can spend a lot more gawking about, and generally being a passenger. Especially since it's hard for the captain to be sure you're actually pulling your weight. :)
    – DavidW
    Commented Nov 3, 2020 at 1:31
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    I like control over my cycling and hated tandems! Commented Nov 3, 2020 at 17:27

In addition to a coaster brake on the back, there are solutions to allow both hands to operate the same brake. Problem Solvers make one that goes inline, and JTek have one that goes on the brake. These could perhaps provide a front brake if you have sufficient strength on both hands combined. These are for cable brakes; I'd use them with disc- or V-brake, with good quality pads.

I'd suggest using them with 2 fingers of each hand to brake, and handlebar grips chosen to be reasonably secure without any need for actual gripping except over bumpy bits of road. Some of the grips made by Ergon work well; I've got GP3s on my hybrid, upgraded from GP2s and I can ride with my hands just resting on them much of the time.

  • I will write all this information down, but I need to try each idea out. Where is the best place to go that will help me test each braking mechanism? Commented Nov 3, 2020 at 17:28
  • I'm not aware of anywhere that holds stock of these rare devices (and I'm thousands of km away from you so it wouldn't help much). A good bike shop would take on the challenge and order in the most likely parts, as well as letting you test some more standard setups. A less-good one wouldn't have a clue
    – Chris H
    Commented Nov 3, 2020 at 17:54

Consider getting yourself an Electric-bike. Not so much for the pedal assist, but for the electrically powered braking systems they can provide. (usually hub based hydraulic off mechanical levers, but there are powered options available)

But yes, speak to a decent bike shops. They are the experts, and should be able to help you much better than we here can.

  • 1
    This is an excellent point - but there will be regional laws to check out. Electric energy recovery systems are not necessarily classified as brakes, so the bike might still need two independent braking systems. Whether OP chooses to use those brakes or not is a different question :) Welcome to this corner or SE and thank you for a good first answer.
    – Criggie
    Commented Nov 4, 2020 at 1:07
  • I suspect most bike shops won't be experts, because this is a niche solution. The OP might consider searching for adaptive cycling groups in their area (e.g. Twin Cities Adaptive Cycling serves Minneapolis and St. Paul in the US), and they may be aware of bike shops who are familiar with adaptive cycling requirements and/or individual mechanics they trust.
    – Weiwen Ng
    Commented May 30, 2023 at 17:28

Have you tried hydraulic disk brakes? They use a lot less force for braking, because most of the force of a cable-brake goes into stretching the cable. Also the power of the disk brake counts a lot: the more powerful it is, the less pressure is required to activate it.

Also, note that reclining two-wheelers and trikes are worth having a go on, they give you many options of changing the brake lever so that you can push the brake with your palm/elbow/leg.

It's possible to re-purpose a grip shift throttle/gears if they use a cable, and also check [old-fashioned gear shifters][1].

I'd say add a disk brake and arrange a push-lever on some kind of touring handlebars, else try a trike and add third brake on a push-lever and a pad somewhere near your elbow. perhaps even try a third brake near your knee when it's raised and have a sideways knee pad on the frame.

Take up african-trance dancing!!! There are lots of dancing videos (search "choreography + alice/julie/fatima", and with Covid-19 I find them very useful. Africans go into a trance when they dance, and that is true of every sport: When your body gets into a rythm, it's possible to keep going for 30 minute or an hour, especially if you put in some upbeat dancing music.

Honestly, for Covid-19, I have learnt to dance into a trance to keep fit, sprint with your arms while hopping around in circles, slash the air like a tiger round and round and up and down and left to right while also hopping left and right and around, pretend that you are 4 years old and jumping up and down for your birthday, go frenetic, and you can sprint 100 meters in 1 minute, or keep it chilled and get your heart to 120 for 30 minutes, it's mostly a factor of finding a rythm and going into a trance, I also have weights in my sports room lol. choreography videos give you 1000'ds of complex body moves to copy, and sweating hyperactive young people to emulate, and you can always play your own music in the background.

Also check your swimming center for exercise groups and walk up mountains :)

  • 1
    Your link to old fashioned shifters doesn’t work. For hydraulic disc, it’s possibly worth noting that these can’t be retrofitted to a bike designed for rim brakes. Within the frame’s limits, it may be possible to increase braking power by getting larger disc rotors, e.g. MTB rotors go all the way up to 203mm, I believe, that size being normally used on downhill bikes.
    – Weiwen Ng
    Commented Nov 3, 2020 at 14:17
  • 1
    I appreciate all the ideas, but cycling has cured my back problem and I need to get back to it as I have a scoliosis in my spine that is healed by cycling. Commented Nov 3, 2020 at 17:30
  • sounds good. I healed my back problem by sleeping on an uncompressed back anytime it feels tight. I have a really stiff ceiling bar and i kind jog and wriggle on it a minute. I have spondio so my back even makes a thud sound when it decompresses. But I have to decompress the spine 10 seconds before sleeping all night on decompressed vertebra, or it makes no difference. Commented Nov 3, 2020 at 17:57
  • @activeliving Getting off topic, but consider trialling a recumbent if you ever get the chance. It doesn't address your braking question (and I'm not aware of any coaster-equipped recumbents) but laying back on a comfy cushioned couch does wonders for my lower back issues. You can get 2 wheel or 3 wheel ones which help with balance, at the cost of wider track and rolling resistance.
    – Criggie
    Commented Nov 4, 2020 at 1:10
  • 1
    @Weiwen Ng 203 is the standard largest, but some brands (SRAM comes to mind) have a 220. Of course, you can get a 622mm rotor....
    – MaplePanda
    Commented Nov 4, 2020 at 7:29

I recently became aware of a high-tech, high-cost solution. There is at least one company that makes wireless brake systems. (No commercial or other relationship to disclose, I found them while doing an unrelated Google search.) From my reading, the system has:

  1. Either a wireless controller, powered by a coin cell battery OR a brake lever that has a transmit function and requires "10% of normal handforce" to operate
  2. A braking unit with a rechargeable battery, wireless receiver, and hardware to actuate a hydraulic master cylinder
  3. In this company's case, a standard Tektro hydraulic disc brake OR a Magura hydraulic disc brake OR a Magura hydraulic rim brake - thus, you could fit this to a rim brake bike

This system appears to have debuted in 2021 or so. It is pretty expensive at over €2,000 for a bicycle's worth of parts. It does appear to be set up to let one transmitter actuate one or more brakes. The problem is that with low demand, we would not expect a lot of companies to enter the space, and the company or companies can't achieve economies of scale in production. So, the prices may remain high. Also, the long-term reliability of the system is unknown.

I believe that Shimano and Magura are experimenting with wireless brakes, probably for general purpose bikes (i.e. not performance bikes). In any case, this solution may bear watching. However, we don't know that adaptive cycling is on the radar of these companies.

  • A bike shop specialized in adjusted bikes might be the best to find one for you, and they can also help you with other systems already on the market.
    – Willeke
    Commented May 30, 2023 at 19:12

There is a lot of options of different handlebar arrangements and brake types. Some have very small operating force. Also the brake levers can be rotated to an angle that is most comfortable.

I would suggest to find a good local bike shop, and get in contact with them. Chances are that they can arrange for you to try out many different models and will help adjust them to your needs.

Even for people without medical conditions, professionally fitting a bike to the rider makes a big difference. I would assume that will be even more true when you have needs that differ from the majority.

  • There may be associations of people with disabilities in your wider neighbourhood who already have fitting solutions in store. No need to re-invent the wheel once over. Those people may even have connections to a LBS that can proceed to the necessary conversions.
    – Carel
    Commented Nov 3, 2020 at 12:54
  • You are correct and as a retired Occupational Therapist who wants to keep using my Cannondale bike, I may seek help through the engineering dept at UBC when I have time. Commented Nov 3, 2020 at 17:32

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