Riding Without Brakes

old-fashioned-bicycleby Anniel11/1/15
The early bicycles had no brakes at all. The rider had to coast to a near stop and put his feet down to avoid losing balance and tipping over. How some of the rigs with a big wheel on the front and a small one at the back ever stopped without accident is beyond imagination. Many people were injured or killed when they took “headers” over the front of their bicycles. The first brakes were “paddles” against the rear wheels. It wasn’t until New Departure Brakes became available in the United States in 1898 that bicycles became more safe

Bear’s Grandpa Otto and his friend, who became known to Otto’s family as “Uncle Rousseau,” graduated together from cheese making school in Geneva, Switzerland. In the late 1890’s they left their home country and came to the United States, then spent some time traveling by bicycles around the country before settling in California. Uncle Rousseau, who had no children of his own, loved to tell Otto’s children and grandchildren about the two men’s early adventures.

Some of the stories Bear wanted to hear had to do with how they managed to travel without good brakes and the trouble that caused. One thing Rousseau said they did was cut logs big enough to slow them down, tie them to the back of the bicycle frame and toss them out to drag when they reached a downhill grade.

Bear’s favorite all time story was about a morning when Otto and Rousseau came to a rather twisty dirt road with a pretty steep grade. They carefully tied their logs to the bicycles, threw them on the ground and Otto started down first. The road was too narrow for two riders at a time, so Rousseau waited for some time for the dust to clear before he began his descent.

In the meantime Otto came around a switchback and spotted a farmer and his family driving their wagon to town. The farmer’s wife and kids were all clean and gussied up for their big day. There was nothing Otto could do but pull around them on the side of the road and continue on his way, spooking the horses and leaving that huge trail of dust behind.

The farmer had just gotten his horses settled, helped his wife and kids get cleaned up, and probably quit swearing, just about the time Rousseau showed up, pulled around the side and kept going. This time not only the horses were spooked, so the farmer not only swore, but also pulled his shotgun and began sending buckshot after the two men.

Neither Otto nor Rousseau felt their help to clean up would be welcome, so they pedaled as hard as they could, on down the hill and through the town as fast as they could go lest the farmer should get a posse after them.

Otto and Rousseau laughed about the story as they told it to the children. I wonder if the farmer, or his wife, ever forgave the men and learned to laugh, too.

The only thing I know for certain is that the farmer’s kids never had such an exciting experience and I’ll bet they laughed and talked about it through all the years of their lives.
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For those who are interested, here is an interesting site on the history of bicycles: The Development of the Bicycle

And this is an interesting history of New Departure Brakes. • (632 views)

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11 Responses to Riding Without Brakes

  1. Timothy Lane says:

    An interesting tale. As I recall from my childhood, the bicycle I rode was braked by doing the pedals backward. I also remember one very bad experience losing control going downhill while we lived in Greece (1961-4). I ended up with a bad abrasion on at least one knee (and also had nightmares about the event for a long time).

    • Rosalys says:

      Only one? I and most of my friends had semi-permanent scabs on our knees when we were kids. I’m not sure they were all due to bicycle mishaps, though.

      Great and funny story, Annie. Keep ’em coming!

  2. Anniel says:

    For some reason links have not been showing up, so here are copies if the two.

    For those who are interested, here is an interesting site on the history of bicycles.
    http://amhistory.si.edu/onthemove/themes/story_69_2.html

    And this is an interesting history of New Departure Brakes
    http://www.oldbike.eu/museum/bike-i-d/1898-cycle-brakes-a-new-departure/

  3. Anniel says:

    For some reason links have not been showing up, so here are copies if the two.
    I know I’m technologically challenged, but the full like just will not go through. Success at last.
    For those who are interested, here is an interesting site on the history of bicycles.
    http://amhistory.si.edu/onthemove/themes/story_69_2.html

    And this is an interesting history of New Departure Brakes
    http://www.oldbike.eu/museum/bike-i-d/1898-cycle-brakes-a-new-departure/

  4. Glenn Fairman says:

    The fact that many run and pedal on stationary machines — while exuding a spirit of drudgery in the process, says much about the contemporary zeitgeist.

    • Anniel says:

      I was surprised how many times velocopedes and bicycles went in and out of style. And no one really knows who really “invented” them.

      You’re right about the zeitgeist.

    • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

      I’ve got an oldfangled exercise bicycle in the back room. I just did 30 minutes on it the other day after probably a year’s layoff on it. It has its uses for getting a workout when it’s been raining for days and you can’t get outside (are are, at least, sensible enough to come in out of the rain).

      But there certainly is a bit of drudgery involved. I’m thinking about putting a small big-screen TV in front of it.

  5. Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

    The bike I bought last year has newfangled disc brakes…which are nice but not as newfangled as the uber-newfangled hydraulic breaks that you can get on higher-end bikes. My previous Schwinn had center-pull which were newfangled compared to the side-pulls. In all honesty (a stupid phrase…What?…Are you dishonest all the other times?), the disc brakes seem no more effective than the center-pulls I had.

    But all are a vast improvement over no brakes or the pedal-based coaster brakes. Coaster brakes were better than nothing…except when your feet were in the wrong position when you needed to stop quickly.

    Regarding log-breaking (decidedly not newfangled), I wonder how it is possible to carry a large enough log that would function as a brake…and the problems with that log getting snagged on something.

    • Anniel says:

      I have often wondered how many days were just miserable, wet, cold and muddy and what their route was. How many headers did they take, how much bleeding they did do, etc. Their clothes must have been almost rags at times. And where did they sleep? These were not rich men out on a lark.

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