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  1. #1
    mgb
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    How well should brakes work going downhill?

    I'm pretty new to serious riding and I'm trying to increase my milage, get a little stronger, a little lighter, and a little more comfortable on a bike.

    On my ride yesterday I found myself going down a long steep hill in a residential area -- no traffic, fortunately, but stop signs at the bottom -- and I could slow my bike but not stop it.

    I guess my question is, what stopping power should I expect? This is an old Schwinn with the original sidepull brakes but good pads, and I weigh 270 lbs. I never came close to locking up either the rear or the front and I know I could have applied more force to the brake handles but it felt like a lot. In fact, maybe I'm not braking well because I'm afraid of locking up the wheels, especially at speed going downhill.

    Should a guy my weight expect to be able to stop this bike at the bottom of a steep hill? Can you tell when you're close to locking up the wheels?

    I'm thinking I need more practice in bike handling. Do I also need new brakes? A new bike?

  2. #2
    Senior Member Mithrandir's Avatar
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    I suppose we would need to know how long/steep the hill is.

    There's a hill I'm looking at right now that I'm not sure I can control my brakes on; thus why I haven't tried it yet. But in general it's a bad thing to not be able to stop before you reach a stop sign. Very bad.

  3. #3
    Starting over CraigB's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by mgb View Post
    Should a guy my weight expect to be able to stop this bike at the bottom of a steep hill?
    Regardless of your weight, if you can't stop, it's unsafe to ride. Whether that means better brakes, better bike, better technique, or just slowing your bike earlier in the descent as you head down the hill so you're not relying on the brakes only in the last 40 or 50 feet, something needs to be done.

    A. Are you using the "suicide" levers at the tops of the bars, or the actual brake levers on the front bend of the bars? The top bar levers of the kind found on old Schwinns are notorious for losing mechanical advantage through their linkages and cheap materials.
    B. Are your brakes adjusted correctly? Can you squeeze the levers all the way to the bars? If so, your cables need tightening.
    C. During these kinds of "emergency" stops, are you actively transferring your weight to the back of the bike? You should.
    D. I personally don't know of any particular hint that tells you a wheel is about to lock up. In my experience, it acts normally right up until you lose traction and begin to skid (rear) or go over the bars (front).
    Craig in Indy

  4. #4
    Neil_B
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    Working brakes are a good thing. I went down an 11 per cent grade outside Meadville, PA, in June, and I'm glad I could do a controlled descent. Especially since the shoulder was littered with road kill and I was swerving around drainage grates.

  5. #5
    Member Nelson M's Avatar
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    Locking your rear wheel is not that bad, locking your front wheel and you looking for trouble

    What Craig mention is a must, the transfer of the weight to the back wheel. I can always apply more pressure to the brakes with my weight shifted to the back of the bike.

    Remember if it is raining your braking distance increase a lot, if it's downpouring be prepared but trouble is only a few feet away

    In what state are your brake pads? Maybe they need to be replaced
    Nelson M

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    to answer your original question BRAKES DO NOT WORK WELL GOING DOWNHILL! some will argue, some will say buy better brakes or that certain levers work better and there may be some truth to that but look at the size of brake pads and look at how big you are. it's not going to work well. I love hauling ass downhills but sometimes you gotta be smart. I was in some hilly terrain yesterday and the road quality was poor so while I could have done 30+mph down some of these hills i made it a point to only let myself go around 23-25mph. Bottom line, the combo of downhill speed and our weight makes braking downhill interesting to say the least.

  7. #7
    Senior Member nkfrench's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by CraigB View Post
    Regardless of your weight, if you can't stop, it's unsafe to ride. Whether that means better brakes, better bike, better technique, or just slowing your bike earlier in the descent as you head down the hill so you're not relying on the brakes only in the last 40 or 50 feet, something needs to be done.
    +1
    Experience will tell you how much speed you can carry and still be able to stop.

  8. #8
    Senior Member DARKSCOPE001's Avatar
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    Forgive my ignorance because at this point im speaking out of my butt.... From what i remember koolstop salmon pads are great for power. Granted the salmon pads are normally for wet conditions If memory serves me right (and it usually doesent) Other people feel free to chime in because Im not sure and i dont want to give bad advice.

    I actually need to get my brakes working better. they are consistent but take uncomfortable hand pressure to get good brake performance (its difficult to put in words.) I test rode a bike i wanted and its brakes were probobably twice as good as what is on my bike. I have also been thinking about getting some of the cool stop dual compound pads. http://www.amazon.com/Kool-Stop-Bicy...3366782&sr=8-1

    Again like i said im only speaking from opinion and what i thought i heard. Someone with more experience could help you better than i could but i am in the same boat as you. My brakes work but they almost hurt to use especially on steep descents. it seems im working alot harder than everyone else in a group ride to keep from wiping out.

    Good luck.
    Sean Scott

  9. #9
    aka Tom Reingold noglider's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by motobecane69 View Post
    to answer your original question BRAKES DO NOT WORK WELL GOING DOWNHILL! some will argue, some will say buy better brakes or that certain levers work better and there may be some truth to that but look at the size of brake pads and look at how big you are. it's not going to work well. I love hauling ass downhills but sometimes you gotta be smart. I was in some hilly terrain yesterday and the road quality was poor so while I could have done 30+mph down some of these hills i made it a point to only let myself go around 23-25mph. Bottom line, the combo of downhill speed and our weight makes braking downhill interesting to say the least.
    If I understand you right, you're saying know your bike and its limitations. I agree.

    But you also seem to be saying that mgb's brakes can't be improved. I disagree with that. We don't even know what they are. Most brakes can be improved.
    Please email me rather than sending me a private message. My address is noglider@pobox.com

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  10. #10
    Senior Member cyclist2000's Avatar
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    What are the rims made of? if it is a chromed steel, these are terrible for braking, if it is aluminum this is a better surface for braking. If it is steel then braking will be really bad and when wet, absolutely terrible.

    the only old schwinn's with side pull brakes are the old 60's varsity with weinamann side pulls. could you describe this your bike in a little more detail. or provide some photos of the bike, brakes, levers and wheels.
    Last edited by cyclist2000; 08-14-11 at 06:31 PM.
    I don't do vintage, I bought them new, rode them, kept them. Now they are just old bikes
    http://www.flickr.com/photos/bustercrb/sets/72157623483647522/

  11. #11
    Ridin' South Cackalacky dahut's Avatar
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    I don't expect my brakes to tear up chunks of asphalt when stopping me on hills. Physics is working against them.
    What I do is slow down all during the descent, instead of waiting to arrive at a panic stop at the bottom.

    On the open road, it's one thing. In the cityscape, you have to look out for number one.
    Last edited by dahut; 08-15-11 at 06:51 AM.
    "Watch out for giants; they are boorish fools with tongues wagging, drunk upon their own words.
    They will try to teach you a lesson if given the chance, and you will stumble over their stinking feet."

  12. #12
    Banned. Mr. Beanz's Avatar
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    Your brakes should work well, If not, there is something wrong, rim out of true, bad brake surface, slack in cables, caliper not centered and uneven spaces between pads.

    I did a couple of rides this week including 18% grades. Easily hit 50 mph. at one point, I stopped rather quickly to take a pic of the steep looking section. And another time while my partner was 100 yards behind. I had enough time to stop from 45 mph, reach back into my jersey, retrieve camera, open case, turn on and snap the picture as he went by at 45 mph. If my brakes didn't work well, I wouldn't ride the bike and I Shirley wouldn't ride mountain roads.

    About 250 lbs, 105 levers, stock calipers and Ultegra brake shoes. Stops fine and quickly at 45 mph.


    My brakes stop fine! I knew these pics would come in handy for something.








  13. #13
    mgb
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    Thank you all for your replies. I realize how dangerous that situation was and need to do all I can to understand and correct this. To answer your questions:

    My Bike is a Schwinn Super Sport, I think 1983 -- early 80s anyway. The brakes are Dia-Compe side pull and the pads are red material and marked "compe". They may be original with the bike but they seem to have plenty of rubber left. The levers are Dia-Compe and don't have the lever extensions. The rims are aluminum "Super Champion Gentleman 81" 36 spoke.

    And the rear brake WAS out of adjustment. I could pull the lever all the way to the handlebar with one hand. That bad. I've tightened it up now. It seems that there's a lot of slack to be taken up in the long cable run. The front brake adjustment seems ok.

    This hill is doesn't look so impressive when I look on a map. 7 or 8 percent for a quarter mile or so.

    So what do I do. I guess I'll replace the pads with the best I can find, and make sure the brakes are adjusted correctly. I'll go out and practice locking up the rear brake to make sure I can do it and that I can handle the skid. And practice stopping short, though I don't want to dump the bike, or me.

    As for hills, I can avoid this one, but I can't avoid them in general. Control the speed with the brakes all the way down if I might need to stop suddenly. The main thing is, I want to be able to trust my bike and I want to be able to trust myself on it.

  14. #14
    Banned. Mr. Beanz's Avatar
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    My wife also has a mid 80's Bianchi. She's ridden it up and down an average 6% grade for 8 miles (16 round trip) and had no problems stopping at 30 mph. She's an Athena.

    105 set up with the brakes. I wouldn't let her ride it if it were a problem.

    Oh btw fellas, it's a double chainring, no compact cranks












  15. #15
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    mgb, First, try a set of new pads. Next, if they haven't been changed in many years you may also need new brake cables and housings.

    Over the years brake calipers have become better, in particular the dual pivot design. Tektro makes an affordable set, but may require a minor alteration to your front fork to install.

    Brad

  16. #16
    Ridin' South Cackalacky dahut's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by mgb View Post
    Thank you all for your replies. I realize how dangerous that situation was and need to do all I can to understand and correct this. To answer your questions:

    And the rear brake WAS out of adjustment. I could pull the lever all the way to the handlebar with one hand. That's bad. I've tightened it up now. It seems that there's a lot of slack to be taken up in the long cable run. The front brake adjustment seems ok.

    This hill is doesn't look so impressive when I look on a map. 7 or 8 percent for a quarter mile or so.

    So what do I do. I guess I'll replace the pads with the best I can find, and make sure the brakes are adjusted correctly.
    I'll go out and practice locking up the rear brake to make sure I can do it and that I can handle the skid.
    And practice stopping short, though I don't want to dump the bike, or me.

    As for hills, I can avoid this one, but I can't avoid them in general.
    Control the speed with the brakes all the way down if I might need to stop suddenly. The main thing is, I want to be able to trust my bike and I want to be able to trust myself on it.
    You are a wise cyclist, friend.
    My one issue is with all the skidding stuff you still seem to think is needed. Skidding = out of control, as in panic stop. You must see danger BEFORE you get to it, or it gets to you. Eventually you will run afoul of something that you cannot see or predict, yes. But even a skidding stop at those times probably wont help you.
    But in the main, if you are banking on skidding stops to save you, then you are not riding with foresight. Safety is based on planning for the worst and taking steps to prevent it.
    I get up to 35+ miles an hour on some of my descents, but those are out in the country with no traffic or obstructions. around traffic I pump my brakes and keep the speed manageable on descents. I don't mind replacing brake pads.
    "Watch out for giants; they are boorish fools with tongues wagging, drunk upon their own words.
    They will try to teach you a lesson if given the chance, and you will stumble over their stinking feet."

  17. #17
    Gears? CliftonGK1's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by bradtx View Post
    Over the years brake calipers have become better, in particular the dual pivot design. Tektro makes an affordable set, but may require a minor alteration to your front fork to install.

    Brad
    I'd take a look at stepping up to an inexpensive pair of dual pivot brakes and KS Salmon pads. Additionally, make sure that your braking surface is clean; I hit mine up (lightly) with a green scrubby pad once a week to remove road grit and such during wet seasons and to keep from glazing buildup during dry months.
    "I feel like my world was classier before I found cyclocross."
    - Mandi M.

  18. #18
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    I am glad the OP asked this question as the same question has been weighing heavily on me. On both my bikes, 2011 Schwinn Voyageur 7 and the '83 Schwinn World Tourist, the brakes seem substandard. I know the '83 has steel rims and when I first got the bike it still had the original pads that had hardened. I have since attempted to tighten the cables and replace the pads and seen much improvement but still I have not been able to skid the rear tire. I even had the LBS look at the bike and brakes. The LBS gave it a clean bill of health. I didn't know about the leaning back technique. I shall practice that tonight.

    The Voyageur does much better than the Tourist but still there are times that I feel like more brakes would be beneficial. I have also tried tightening the cables and adjusting these. In fact, I bought the Park Tool book from Amazon just so I could figure out how to adjust the brakes but I'm still not confident the brakes are tight enough.

    I need to find a method of determining grade better. I try to use the Google Tracks app on my Android phone but I don't trust what I am seeing and can't tell where in relation to the ride map the grade is the steepest.
    RUSA #8269

  19. #19
    Senior Member Seattle Forrest's Avatar
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    Think about people (half your weight) flying down the sides of mountains in the Tour de France. They need to be able to stop if there's a crash ahead. Your brakes should let you stop on shorter, less steep hills. They'll bake your rims if you go from the top of a snowy mountain down to the sea in a quick run, but short of that, they should let you control your bike safely.

    Push a little bit against the pedals, and shift your weight back, behind the saddle if you can. This lets you use the front brake more; the weight keeps the back wheel down. Brace your arms, and use them to push against the bars and keep yourself back over the rear wheel. Also, pay attention to your speed before you need to stop. You can control it by tapping one brake, then letting up and tapping the other, without heating your rims too much.

    Quote Originally Posted by Nelson M View Post
    Locking your rear wheel is not that bad, locking your front wheel and you looking for trouble
    Locking the rear wheel can be pretty scary, though, when you're not expecting it to happen!
    Don't believe everything you think.

  20. #20
    Starting over CraigB's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by DaHaMac View Post
    I have...seen much improvement but still I have not been able to skid the rear tire. I even had the LBS look at the bike and brakes. The LBS gave it a clean bill of health. I didn't know about the leaning back technique. I shall practice that tonight.
    It sounds, even before my editing, that you expect the "leaning back technique" to allow you to brake to the point of skidding. That's not what it's for, and in fact it will prevent that sort of thing, to some extent. Plus it isn't "leaning" per se.

    In any emergency stop on a bike, you need to get off the saddle and shove your body as far back as the reach of your arms and legs will allow you. Imagine trying to move back far enough to clear the saddle and sit on the rear wheel. That's the posture you want to adopt. The purpose is to counteract the physics of stopping, which by its nature transfers the majority of your weight to the front wheel. If you allow that to happen without tempering it a bit, two things happen - 1) the lack of weight over the rear wheel will cause it to skid prematurely, losing control of the rear of the bike; and 2) the weight transfer to the front makes it much more likely for the front wheel to lock up, and when that happens you will be going straight over the handlebars.

    This very weight transfer to the front is what makes front brakes much more effective than rear brakes at stopping you in a hurry. But that efficiency in braking performace comes at a price - it's harder to temper the brake and control it so it doesn't lock up. Remember, when the front wheel stops rotating, it only does so relative to the rest of the bike (and you). Physics mandate that it continue to rotate relative to the ground. That means that the entire bike, and its rider, rotate about the axis of the front hub until you find yourself up close and personal with the pavement.
    Last edited by CraigB; 08-15-11 at 11:41 AM.
    Craig in Indy

  21. #21
    Senior Member volosong's Avatar
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    ^^^ Nice contribution, Craig. Good info.

    As others have said, get new pads. Old pad become hardened over time. Make sure the cable adjustments are correct and consider new cables, (if you decide to keep your old brakes). Don't lock up and skid if you can avoid it. As mentioned, save that for a last chance, panic maneuver. Do skid on a regular basis...you're only wearing out your tires. It's not needed, unless an emergency.

    Only thing I could add which hasn't been mentioned yet is apply rear brake first, then front brake. Apply the front brake first.....you're going over the bars, (possibly if braking very forcefully). For me, I feather the brakes on descents to keep my speed manageable. I can't shift my weight back because that introduces front wheel "death wobble" on my bike. And, I suggest practicing. Select some hills in a safe area and get some experience. Good luck. It is scary at times.
    Deut 6:5

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    "Ha ha! You fool! You fell victim to one of the classic blunders - The most famous of which is 'never get involved in a land war in Asia'".
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  22. #22
    Senior Member himespau's Avatar
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    Don't forget to sit up too. Just the fact that you're sitting up and providing a bigger profile to the wind will help modulate speed some too. Oh and check that braking surface. Mine has a bunch of oily crap on it that's been transferred to my pads because I can't seem to get it cleaned off. (Once I do get it cleaned off, I have new pads because those are cheaper/easier to replace than to clean).

  23. #23
    Starting over CraigB's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by volosong View Post
    Only thing I could add which hasn't been mentioned yet is apply rear brake first, then front brake. Apply the front brake first.....you're going over the bars, (possibly if braking very forcefully).
    This is essential, too, IMO, and I'm embarrassed I failed to mention it. The quickest way over the bars is to slam on the front brake only. And if you hit the front brake first, there's a brief moment in time where it's the only brake in use. During modest, gradual braking it isn't that big a deal, but under hard braking it definitely is. Either get them on (carefully) at the same time, or hit the rear first and then be judicious with the front.
    Craig in Indy

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    Quote Originally Posted by noglider View Post
    If I understand you right, you're saying know your bike and its limitations. I agree.

    But you also seem to be saying that mgb's brakes can't be improved. I disagree with that. We don't even know what they are. Most brakes can be improved.
    Not quite, not saying his brakes can't be improved, especially after reading what he is riding on but simply saying that at 250lbs and on a bike that has pretty darn good brakes when I'm going really fast down a hill my bike does not stop very quickly. as compared to being on flat ground. there is a big difference between going 20mph and 35-40 and as clydes, we often hit much higher speeds going downhill than our skinny counterparts and if our skinny friends are going just as fast as us, they have much less mass to stop so they can stop easier (i.e. the tour de france example someone else gave.)

    I have the koolstop pads that are half salmon half regular, they work pretty well but ultimately i'm conscious of my speed when going downhill, especially if it's a hill that I've never been down.

  25. #25
    aka Tom Reingold noglider's Avatar
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    Again, there's nothing wrong with knowing the limits of your equipment, your skill, and the current conditions. In fact, there's no substitute for any of those!

    But while mgb (the OP) has disappeared, I can advise that replacing cables and brake shoes can help. Cleaning the rims with alcohol can, too. Having a good bike mechanic check the brakes can be very valuable.

    I disagree that hitting the rear brake first makes you safer. It doesn't at all, and it delays your application of the "real" brake. I teach mechanics and safe riding, and I tell my students that pitching over by using your front brake is a real danger, but it's a small danger that goes down to nil if you are skillful and are familiar with your bike. On the road, your front brake is your friend. Your rear brake isn't good for much except as an emergency brake if you break your front brake cable.

    (The advice is different if you're on loose surfaces, and I don't think we're talking about that.)

    I also disagree with himespau about sitting up, because that doesn't create enough drag to be worthwhile. If you sit up, you won't move back far enough. When I coast at high speed, my thighs are on the seat. In extreme cases, my belly is on my seat.

    If mgb ever comes back, I hope he tells us what kind of bike and what kind of brakes he has so we can give more specific advice.
    Please email me rather than sending me a private message. My address is noglider@pobox.com

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