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A case for… reversed brakes

By Bruce Lin

Road bike reveresed moto brake set upBeing different can be lonely.

Riders at The Pro's Closet treat my bikes like lepers. Whenever my “friends” ask to try my bike during a ride, they always return it in disgust. I’ve gotten confused looks. I’ve been mocked. Once, a shuttle driver in Moab handed me my bike and just said, “I don’t like it.” What did I do to deserve this?

I run my brakes reversed. And I'm going to make a case for why you should set up your bicycle's brakes that way too.

Santa Cruz Hightower mountain bike reversed brakesOne of my bikes. Note where the brake lines go. The front brake is connected to the right lever. With bikes like this Santa Cruz Hightower it requires some creative routing. 

If you ride bikes anywhere that people drive on the right side of the road (most of the world), then you probably grew up with a "standard" brake set-up — your right-hand controls the rear brake and your left-hand controls the front brake.

My bikes are different. They're all set-up with the right-hand controlling the front brake and left controlling the rear. But which hand should control the front brake? Why do I choose this set-up?

The front brake is the most important of the two because, under braking forces, the front tire has more traction and provides the majority of your stopping power. This is because your weight shifts forward as you decelerate. Under hard braking, the rear may even lift off the ground. Excessive rear brake will just cause you to skid. 

Like most people, I’m right-handed (sorry lefties, I have no advice for you). So my right hand has way more power and much finer motor control over the brake lever. I find applying the front brake with my right-hand lets me stop harder and more consistently. It’s easier to modulate the brake to prevent sliding out, especially on steep terrain, when initiating a turn, or when traction is bad. I can brake later, brake deeper into corners while trail-braking, and feather the brake better.

The lowly rear brake is more useful for tightening up your line mid-corner, slowing down on slippery surfaces (like snow and ice), controlling wheelies, and throwing skids. For this purpose, my clumsier left-hand does fine.

Just look at motorcycles. Compared to bicycles, they weigh a lot more and travel at much greater speeds. A motorcycle is essentially a death trap, so good braking is a must. Which hand do you think controls the front brake on a moto? The right hand! This is why you hear people refer to reversed brakes as “moto-style.”

If you think I’m crazy, the godfather of bicycle maintenance, Sheldon Brown, agrees with me in “Braking and Turning Your Bicycle.” Sheldon not only explains his reasons for running reversed brakes, but he also provides lots of insight on how to properly use both of your brakes in different situations. Far too many riders are afraid of using the front brake. To maximize your riding potential, you must embrace the front brake — and I think it's best to embrace it with your right hand. 

Fortunately, I’m not alone at The Pro’s Closet. My co-worker, Tom Gosselin, is my one and only ally. He’s a legit bike racer who specializes in (and occasionally wins) cyclocross races and 24-hour endurance races. I asked him why he reverses his brakes.

Tom Gosselin Cyclocross race reversed brakesTom goes fast on a reversed brake set-up.

“I initially switched because of cyclocross,” he says. “Old school cyclocrossers ran the brakes reversed so you could feather the rear brake to scrub speed as you came into a barrier while holding the top tube with your right-hand (assuming you dismounted on the non-drive side).

“The first few seasons after I switched, I'd spend the first couple of weeks getting used to it. As my career progressed, I swapped all my bikes to mirror that set-up. I realized in crits that it would allow me to once again feather the rear brake, this time while downshifting the rear cogs, allowing me to easily exit the turn in the correct gear if we were subject to the ‘slinky effect.’”

It might not sound like much, but in high-level bike racing, marginal gains are as good as gold. Tom discovered a slight benefit to switching his brakes, and he takes full advantage.

Angel fire enduro Santa Cruz Hightower LT downhill race reversed brakesMe controlling my brakes in loose and difficult conditions.

I am not a legit racer. I'm an amateur and I’m rarely at the sharp end of any group ride at The Pro's Closet. Even so, I think my set-up gives me a slight braking advantage over my more doubtful peers. Braking later and harder has allowed me to close gaps and keep up, despite lacking other skills and fitness.

Okay, so if you've read this far and you still don't believe me, Tom, or even Sheldon Brown, consider this. Greg Minnaar and Sam Hill have dominated the world of downhill mountain bike racing with reversed braking set-ups (they come from countries that drive on the left — to them it's normal). And for the roadies, my favorite pro, Lachlan Morton, does it. The legendary Davis Phinney did it

Admit it, with an all-star line up like that, you're at least a little curious to try switching the brake levers on your bike.

Give it a shot! Anyone with a sliver of mechanical know-how can reverse their brakes. SRAM MTB brakes are easy — just take off the bar clamps and flip them. Rim brakes and mechanical disc brakes don't present too much of a challenge. Other hydraulic disc brakes will probably require a bleed after swapping lines, but that should be part of your regular maintenance schedule anyway.

If you’re worried about crashing after reversing your brakes, relax. I regularly test-ride bikes, and they always have standard brake-lever configurations, so I’m forced to switch. You just have to be aware and take things slow. If you know how to brake properly, by gradually applying pressure and maintaining a strong braking position, you won’t go over the bars. I can usually make the mental switch after a ride or two.

Even though I'm flexible, I always default back to a reversed set-up on my personal bikes. It just works for me. It feels like home. Plus, it's actually kind of nice when none of my friends dare to ride my bikes. My rides stay clean and pristine ... And sometimes it just feels cool to be weird and different.

 

“A case for…” is a place for unpopular opinions, weird ideas, and unloved bikes and components. For every cyclist who rides to the beat of their own drum, there’s a case for you. Would you try reversing the brakes on your bike? Let us know in the comments!


8 comments


  • M a lefty and ride the “normal” set up. You’re strong dominant hand, increased motor control reasoning totally makes sense, Bruce. The rule should just be the front brake should be in your strong hand.

    Scrapper on

  • I too have used this set up for about 30 years. In addition to the thoughts already shared, I had what I thought was a more practical reason. I’m right handed, and reach for the bottles with my right hand. I started group rides right away and didn’t want to pull the front brake if there was a problem in the bunch. It has served me well for all this time. And no one else is riding my bike, so no complaints…but some funny looks when this topic comes up. I usually respond by saying this was how the Italians set up their bikes…back in the day.

    Paul Cousins on

  • This is sort of tempting, esp if you also ride a dirt bike (but arguably is much less applicable with a street bike, which you’re much less likely to momentarily confuse for an mtb). I once crashed my dirt bike after grabbing a handful of front brake while imagining it was the rear….took my shoulder two months to recover. If you do this, never let someone else ride your bike!

    Bill on

  • If you race cx, why wouldn’t you run the rear brake on the left? That’s proper set-up. How else do you control your speed approaching a barrier with you right hand on the top tube?

    Greg on

  • I grew up in the UK and riding motorcycles as well so ‘moto’ was normal. Over the 20 years of living in USA I have similar scorn from fellow riders who try my bike but I continue to convert every bike to moto a soon as i get them. Only once have i ignored the moto switch on a bike and I have 20 pins in my right elbow/arm to show for my effort- of course I cannot directly attribute crashing by running regular brakes but for me I guess it is too late to change.
    I concur withe writer the importance of both brakes, but we all have some ratio of front to rear brake to achieve maximum from the bike so I would caution others that try to switch to take your time as years of muscle memory take time to un-program and it is under the most stressful situation (fast downhill) that you will revert to memory and grab too much of the ‘wrong’ lever.

    Clive Heke on

  • I raced motorcycles years before I started cycling and have always ridden moto- style. The only exception is my beach cruiser, too lazy to change.

    Susan Hall on

  • I’ve been riding this way since my racing days back in the mid-late ’70’s, for all the reasons you mentioned. Good job making the case!

    When my girlfriend got into riding, I didn’t make the switch for her…because she’s left-handed.

    Brian Nystrom on

  • I have used “moto-style” for at least 30 years. My original reasoning was the same as the author’s — better power and control of the front brake. Also, at the time, I was an avid motorcyclist and wanted to reinforce the habit of automatically going for the front brake with my right hand.

    Bob Sheidler on


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