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My brakes are "backwards" and that's a good thing

By Bruce Lin

Published

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 backwards

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Santa Cruz Hightower mountain bike reversed brakesOne of my personal bikes. Note where the brake lines go. The front brake is connected to the right lever. With internally routed 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 set-up with the right-hand controlling the front brake and left controlling the rear.

But which hand should control the front brake? And why do I choose this set-up?

The front brake is the most important 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 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 brakesFeathering the rear brake. Tom 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).

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“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 brakesBraking 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).

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And for the roadies, my favorite pro from down under, 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. 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 ride my bikes. And sometimes it just feels cool to be weird and different.

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51 comments


  • I bought a dh from a buddy who raced motorcycles and had his bike brakes setup moto. I raced the bike the next weekend – sketchy. I always say – the only reason I won was due to the extra time it took me to remember which brake was which. I switched them the next week 😆

    Bubba on

  • Watch how the legendary MotoGP racer Valentino Rossi sticks his leg out during braking. It’s nonsensical and dangerous, but other riders foolishly copied him.

    Poonie on

  • I will say as a mechanic, I’m simply used to building bikes with the standard setup. However, on my team, we have several moto guys who run their stuff reversed. I personally have very strong hands, and have worked with my hands all my life. But I have issues in my right arm, my muscles are always more tense, more clenched. So, for safety, I run standard because my left hand and arm are more relaxed. Just the way I feel comfortable. My right hand also enjoys pulling harder on the brakes to drift or lock out the wheel when mountain biking and can modulate the back brake better in the mud of cyclocross.

    Tygre Westerfield on

  • As a lefty, the normal setup works best for me. My left hand is definitely stronger and I use it much more.

    Roy Phillips on

  • When riding a motorcycle before you apply the rear brake with your right foot you pull the clutch with your left hand. Backwards brakes feels so much more natural to me.

    Lenny Keene on

  • i am new to road cycling (almost 4 yrs now), and i reversed my brakes from day one. coming from a motorcycle riding background, it kept me the same on everything when i ride. front brake is always the strongest brake. i have a better feel with them reversed

    robbie hawkins on

  • Interesting. The comparison with a motorcycle doesn’t mean much though – the throttle is on the right, and you also need hands for clutch and brake. Since you turn the throttle at the same time you dis/engage the clutch, they can’t be on the same side. So the brake is left for the right, and it’s the front wheel while the rear wheel has a foot brake. So no choice here, and this layout is no reason to do it on a bicycle also.

    Henry on

  • My first Pro road bike came with the front brake on the right. ALL Pro road bikes came that way. 1966. Somewhere along the line, American builders put them the other way. When someone says my brakes are backwards, I tell them my way came way before theirs did.

    Butch Stinton on

  • As a Scot living in the US (and working as a bike mechanic) I can switch either way. I spent 40 years riding right/front left/rear but now ride the opposite. Never been a problem to switch over. We have a couple of Aussies and Kiwis that attend college here and I’m the wrench of choice because I get their brakes!

    Mike Balharry on

  • I’ve always used both brakes both road and mtn biking. I’ve appreciated the extra stopping / slowing power of the front brake. Especially when navigating steep downhill sections when mtn biking. I never liked the loss of control when the back tire locked up. BTW I’m left handed so maybe the conventional setup is perfect for me.

    Joel Nakae on

  • Reversed brakes are magical for Cross and confusing when going back to a “ normal “ setup … with hydro’s it’s such a PITA I would not swap out the rest of my quiver.

    MaRk hAgEn on

  • Front-brake-right is absolutly the way to go for me. As a long time cyclist and motorcyclist and competed in mototrials and done a fair bit of track riding too, having to swap between bicycle muscle memory and motorcycle muscle memory just became too silly. Every bike I own (and there are many) is right front brake.

    CapeCodder on

  • You guys tune bikes right? Then in the case of working on a bike in the stand… terrible idea and unnecessary. You know why it’s not swapped like a motorcycle? Because it’s not a motorcycle. With the few bikes I’ve seen come from pros closet, and brought by customers into the shop, I can see why you may think this. In some cases it was as if the bike wasn’t even tuned. So at that point, I can see why the viewpoint hasn’t been considered. When mountain biking, despite the easier swap, you typically don’t want to always be touching the front brake… especially going downhill… you’d be asking for OTB. So then rear in right makes sense. On a road bike? Since the shifter and brake are paired in a lever this is just counterintuitive. And as stated before, from a mechanics perspective becomes a nightmare to tune the rear derailleur in the stand because you have to reach across to brake the rear so you may safely make an adjustment. Doing this many times just wastes time. So unless you’re obsessed with how a motorcycle feels, highly recommend not doing this to your bike. Thanks for reading (or scoffing).

    Paul on

  • Using Hill, Minnaar and Morten as examples is biased, as they come from nations that drive on the left so road laws dictate what side their brakes should be on a bicycle. They would have grown up riding bicycles with the front brake on the right because bicycle standards in that nation say that’s the way it should be. I grew up in Australia racing since 83, however, I’ve always set up my brakes with the rear brake on the right, front on the left, because that’s how the brake calipers and euro frames were designed, hence why that set up was known as “Euro Style”. Totally false what Steven Berger says, European bikes do not all have the front brake on the right, only the UK, the rest of Europe is rear brake right because they drive on the right, UK drive on the left and your brakes on a bicycle are determined by road laws of what side the particular nation drives on and the hand signals you use when on a bicycle in order to cross a lane of traffic.

    Mark on

  • Originally coming from moto, I switched my brakes years ago. I’ve been a cyclist now way longer than I was in moto and keep them this way. If nothing else it keeps other people from riding your bike. I do think it enables stronger front brake use.

    AC on

  • I am an American who has ridden dirt bikes, still ride a harley Davidson and have trail,downhill. Enduro .hardtail and gravel bikes. All bicycles have rear on right i am right handed. All of this talk is nonsense i can go from a dirt bike to a mountain without even thinking about the brakes . It is all just natural basic muscle memory

    Christopher Rogers on

  • OMG!!!! I thought it was normal to have‘reversed brakes’ because I have always set up my bikes in that manner and I’m ambidextrous. I now reside in France and have just gone through the conversion process of my new purchase. Thanks for your extract because it’s good to know that you’re not alone. BOWCHA!!!

    Le Monerville on

  • I switched to moto style for cyclocross reasons and never looked back. I love it.

    Nicholas Petersen on

  • Moto is the only way to ride. Ride motorcycles befire bikes so all my bikes have been set up that way since the 80’s. All except my track bike lol.

    Susan Hall on

  • Good discussion! I’m with you on the moto-style brake setup. It’s better in all the ways you mention. Plus, I’m a front derailleur fanatic. All my bikes have more than one chainring, so I can run closer size sprockets in my cassette, giving me close ratio shifting which is much smoother than the 10-50 cassette (I like 11-40). You shift more, but, you always have the right power for the moment. Whether it be an ebike or regular, this is a more efficient setup. And the front derailleur goes on the left, with the rear brake.

    Bruce Boring on

  • Also worth mentioning is the use of turn signals and which side of the road you are riding on. Us Aussies (and many left-side of the road drive countries) are set up moto style brakes so that you are covering the rear brake with the left hand, while signalling with your right arm. Definitely don’t want the brakes the other way around in an emergency needing to stop and only having the left hand on a front brake!

    Chris on

  • I’ve ridden Motorcycles and Bicycles for longer than I want to admit. The reason for the right hand brake on a motorcycle is because of the Clutch. On a motorcycle the throttle in your right hand, requires modulation as does the clutch in your left hand. To compare the 2 is much like apples and oranges.

    On a Bicycle it makes sense to have everything that controls the rear wheel, shifting and braking in one Shifter/Brake and controls for the front of the bike in the Left. In 2003 I suffered a severe traumatic brain injury. There was a lot to relearn, the controls on my bicycles and Motorcycles were the easiest.

    Rick Dober on

  • I contend that the hand with the most skill needs to control the rear. I ride motocross and the rear is the right foot. Try going into a corner with the rear locked. For me I use both hands at times but I find my left can be more exact and sensitive to lock up. The thing I do not like about motocross bikes is the throttle and brake on the same side. There are conflicts at times where throttle and brake are needed closely. Maybe I will reverse the dirt bike instead. It makes more sense to keep both sides of your brain proficient just in case your ever lose the use of a hand. I don’t race mtb so I don’t much care about microseconds on a trail.

    Chris on

  • For me it’s about muscle memory. As many of the posters shared they rode motorcycles and can’t change their muscle memory when on a bike, especially in a panic stop. I’ve rented bikes in other countries where the brake levers are swapped, and I can tell you when something sudden happens, I grab the wrong brake for the situation. On the road, where the front brake is much more important (I’m left-handed), easier to feather the front brake at impending lockup. I’ll keep mine as they are

    Clark on

  • Racing in the 80’s with non-indexed friction shifting Campy Super Record levers mounted on the downtube, there was considerable muscle memory and finesse required to shift precisely and trim derailleurs while in the action. Dominant hand dexterity helped with more precise shifts giving clear advantage. Right hand for shifting, left hand for default braking (rear), similar to the current water bottle argument. In a course front brakes are not likely used in cornering as braking with the front wheel while cornering produces tracking error leading to bad results in a pack. Shifting on the other hand, may happen while entering or exiting turns so dominant hand (most often right) went to the finesse task of shifting. Front braking is more of a high speed modulation thing in the race course (e.g. a descent). There is not much shifting in a descent, dominant hand in the finesse position again with the right hand controlling the front brake. I ran moto/Italian for decades after brifters came along out of habit, even though the original justification was moot. Today I ride with my right hand controlling my rear brake because in tight group rides I prefer to signal riders with my left hand, leaving my right hand on the default rear brake. Also, on a mountain bike, I use my rear brake to true tight lines and appreciate the added control of my dominant hand modulating my rear brake. The nice thing about modern bike set ups is that we can all choose what is most comfortable for each of us without regard for what is “right”. Do what feels good, have fun, ride, rest, repeat . . .

    Greg on


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