The importance of knowing where the brakes are

I took a bike from my hotel in Stockholm ride to the office.

This was chiefly because I have an injured foot and the 20-minute walk wasn’t going to help it any, but also because I am envious of people who get to commute by bicycle, so I thought I’d pretend to be one of those people.

I haven’t ridden a bike since about 1997 when a friend bought a new bike and gave me his rusty old one. I rode it back to my flat, struggling along, the warped frame trapping the wheels so the stupid thing slowed to a halt even going down hills. I propped it up by the steps next to my house, and ran upstairs to get something: that was the last I saw of it.

The ride to work was uneventful. I didn’t feel comfortable going too fast, it was an old clanger of a contraption, and I was wearing a suit and was without a helmet, so I took it slow; I was not keen to arrive at work with torn clothing and visible bruising.


The way back was a little more hairy.

The problem emerged as I calmly coasted down the steep hill that led down to a busy main road. I was just thinking how pleasant it was to be on a bike, out in the fresh air, and speeding down a hill, when I suddenly realized that the brakes didn’t work.

I tried a couple of times, but the brake handle impotently opened and closed without in any way hindering our acceleration.

I did a quick bit of analysis … I really didn’t want to crash, I was quite sure about that, and the idea of leaping free of the bike and risking injury and humiliation wasn’t on the cards.

This left me two options:

  1. Risk it, hope there was either (a) no traffic, or (b) I’d be able to control the aged machine and swing it ninety degrees into the cycle lane, whilst remaining upright and, ideally, alive; or
  2. Slam my new shoes into the road and hope this (a) stopped the bike, and (b) didn’t burn through the soles – I am, after all, quite short on socks

The road wasn’t that busy, so I felt I could get away with option 1, but it carried the minor downside of serious injury or death if my unexpected entry onto the highway coincided with any other vehicle … but, despite this, my natural reaction was to risk it because (a) I have never suffered a major injury or death yet, so it didn’t feel like the sort of thing that happens to me, and (b) … well, there wasn’t really a (b) other than I didn’t really want to ruin my shoes.

The bottom of the road was getting closer. I tried the brakes again, but still nothing. I wondered how a hotel could hand out bikes that didn’t have brakes and I made a mental note to raise the issue if I survived.

With time running out, I decided that any normal person would put their feet down and try to slow the bike that way, so I should probably do the same.

I skidded to a halt only a few yards short of the now entirely empty main road – which meant that option (1) would probably have been fine anyway, and option (2) turned out to be far easier than I’d expected.

Then I discovered the brakes.

I set off back to the hotel, slightly shaken, but glad to be alive when I accidentally back-pedaled and felt the bike shudder to a controlled stop. Gosh, I thought, that’s damned handy, and I set off and back-pedaled a few times to enjoy the sensation of being on a bike and having some control over the speed.

The learning point is this: check you know where the brakes are on a bike before you head off down a steep hill.


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