by Our Bicycle Lives

My otherwise silent bike sometimes uses its brakes to say hello. They are its voice, its vocal chords. When I come to a stop behind another cyclist, I will release the brake levers abruptly as a way to signal my presence. The woman in front will turn her head a fraction of an inch, glance at me from the corner of her eye and register that I am there. There is, of course, another way that bikes use brakes to talk: it is that pitifully squeaky sound, that high pitch squeal of a voice they have when the brakes are misaligned, or worn out, or dirty. I can almost feel the vibrations coming out of the contact point between brakes and rim and into the open air, and they send a shudder through my spine. More often than not, they’ll belong to a bike that makes its way through traffic with a variety of creaks, screeches and grunts and through life with a catalogue of minor ailments – chain not oiled, saddle and handlebars a bit loose, mudguard rubbing against the tyre etc. In fact, the brakes set the tone. They sort out the serious cyclists from the dilettantes, which is why I can’t bear squeaky brakes on my bike: they put me to shame and lower my cycling status all in one.

It is fitting that brake and break are homophones. So much can go wrong with brakes that my bedside bike manual (the brilliant Complete Bike Book by Mel Allwood) devotes two out of its six troubleshooting pages to brakes. For such a single-minded component – basically, the task of the brake blocks is to make contact with the wheel rim and to stop the bike, and that’s all there is to it! – they are disproportionately troublesome. They come saddled with various names that I may not know how to pronounce (calliper, cantilever, v-brakes, disc brakes) and a whole collection of parts I rarely know what to do with (screws, washers, Allen key nuts, pivots, springs). Adjusting the brakes is a thankless task. They are to be tweaked rather than fixed, which is a fiddly precise job where a quarter of a turn here or a notch there can make all the difference, but I am not a proficient enough mechanic to know where or why. Then a week later, I cannot believe my ears: my brakes are squeaking again! This is a never-ending saga.

I vividly remember one occasion when my brakes literally sprang to life. I was seventeen and on a ten-day cycle tour of the Loire Valley with my sister and two cousins, the youngest of whom was fourteen. At the start of a steep downhill stretch, I lost a bolt and my front brake jumped clean off the rim. I yelled my way to the bottom of the hill, terrified. I am not quite sure a front brake can physically do that, but that’s the vision that has stayed engraved in my mind. Of course things were different back then: it was the late 1980s, bikes had steel rims so brakes didn’t work so well in wet conditions (this I learned to my cost when I crashed into a kerb on a rainy day) and even my over-anxious parents didn’t think anything of sending four teenagers off on their own without so much as a puncture repair kit!

To be fair, brakes actually play a big part for such a small part. They are the sole piece of safety equipment a bike has and they have to be powerful enough to bring it to a complete standstill within a matter of seconds. I rely on them to carry out the constant stops and starts of city cycling. It is odd, then, that I feel comfortable putting my trust in such a tenuous physical connection, two hand levers that operate pads via a thin length of cable. Would I find the wireless brakes on some electric bikes unsettling, or would I not give them a second thought either? Using the power of my strongest muscles – my legs – instead of my hands to stop should meet with the approval of my naturally cautious nature, for example with back-pedal brakes or fixed wheels where the reversing action of the legs counters the forward action of the drivetrain. But yet again, I don’t care one way or the other, as if brakes were an afterthought, as if they didn’t really belong to the core of the bicycle, whose intrinsic purpose is to propel me forward in one uninterrupted movement.