Musing about brakes

New V-brake installed on front of bike

I’ve been commuting by bike a couple of times a week recently, and it’s been bothering me that Dionysus’s front brake is connected to the left lever when it should be the right.

GPS record of cycle route
Morning commute

In the US and various parts of Europe, this is the norm, whereas in England the front brake is usually the right lever. I’ve seen various explanations for this but one stands out for me: most hand signals — particularly slowing or stopping — are done with the right hand when you’re riding on the left. And when you’re braking with one hand, you want the brake in question to be the rear (so you don’t apply too much pressure on the front and pitch yourself over the handlebars).

I even have a mnemonic for this in Japanese: 右前 (right-front). Kuroko is set up this way.

So how did we get here?

When the Halfakid and I rebuilt Ol’ Paint and rebirthed her as Dionysus, I was all set to make her migi-mae. I was sure that’s how things had been previously. And yet when we started routing the cables, it just didn’t work out. Oh, we could have run the cable from the right lever to the front brake, but it would have been far from elegant. The length of cable involved and the size of the loop required raised questions of whether I’d end up snagging something while riding. So we just shrugged our shoulders and set her up with the opposite breaking: 左前 hidari-mae (left-front) if you will.

Bicycle front wheel, brake and fork
Cabled and crimped

It was fine and it worked, although I subsequently replaced the brakes with a set with shorter lever arms to get more braking power. But with my increase in commuting via Dionysus these days, it’s been bothering me more and more.

Looking for solutions in all the wrong places

I started looking for solutions, and the first thing that occurred to me was to replace the V-brakes with cantilevers, where the cable attaches at the center and so the cable run will be the same from either lever. These were exotic items when I was getting serious about biking in the 1970s, de rigueur on mountain bikes and serious touring bikes in the 1990s, and fading from sight by the 2010s. In fact, I’d looked for them when I rebuilt Ol’ Paint: there’s a cantilever brake from the same maker as the shifter / derailleur combo I used, but it was generally unavailable at the time.

SRAM Shorty Ultimate brake
SRAM Shorty Ultimate brake

So what next?

After today’s commute I started getting curious: I felt so sure the Ol’ Paint had been migi-mae, despite having V-brakes. What happened? And was there a way to get back to that — short of converting to canties? I finally got curious enough to dig through the archive to see what the set-up had been before the rebuild.

Ol' Paint before the work began
Ol’ Paint before the work began

Monocle emoji

Detail of front of bike showing cable routing for front brake
That’s migi-mae!

Ol’ Paint was clearly migi-mae, which is what my memory had been nagging me. So why did the cabling become so awkward during the rebuild that we abandoned that idea?. A closer look at the before-and-after photos revealed the truth: the noodle! The original noodle (which I recall having had the shop replace once when the cable was binding) has a far greater curve than the replacement. So if I can find a new noodle [insert joke here] with a similar curvature to the original, I should be able to revert to my favored migi-mae without converting Dionysus to cantilever brakes (which I still think are a more elegant solution, but are apparently a lot more finicky to adjust).

Just one more thing (Columbo-cigar-and-trenchcoat)

While I was comparing the before-and-after photos, I couldn’t help but notice that the original V-brake lever arms were a similar length to the Shimano Deore brakes that I’d first installed during the rebuild, but which didn’t give me enough braking power. I’m very pleased with the shorter Tektros which solved the issue for me, but now it’s a mystery (which shall endure, as far as I’m concerned) why the Deores didn’t cut the muster (or mustard, for the illiterate).

Meanwhile, as for me and my Workshop in the Sky, we’ll be looking for a more bendy noodle and checking if we have enough cable housing to accommodate a re-routing.

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