Thursday, August 13, 2015

I Heart Coaster Brakes (and so should you).

When I was about 9 or 10 I took apart the coaster brake on my Stingray and became not just a person who liked riding bikes, but a person who LOVES BIKES. I'm not sure if there was a problem with it or if the temptation to take it to bits was just too strong to resist. I do remember that it was the same day I found my first 8" adjustable wrench on the road, so the old Schwinn was going to get flipped over onto the seat and handlebars and dissected in any case. Call it fate.

Coaster brakes are not particularly complicated, but there is a gratifying degree of sophistication and elegance to how they go about their business if you're sensitive to that sort of thing. I find them particularly satisfying little devices and even now have a big box of them under my workbench. You really don't have to be very mechanically inclined to get one apart and back together, but, if you're a "nuts and bolts kind of person", this might be when you discover it. That's the way it was for me. The instant I had all the parts spread out in the dirt it all made perfect sense to me, and so I naturally considered myself to be a "Fully Qualified Coaster Brake Expert" and made myself available for troubleshooting and lectures on the subject from that moment. The fact that my bike was as likely to fall over from my coasters bearings being impossibly tight, as it was to weave about as the hub wandered aimlessly back and forth across the axle from being comically loose did nothing to shake my faith in my abilities. I think that sort of confidence building is a good thing for a kid, delusional or not.

Anyway, as soon as the workings of that beat up Schwinn stopped being a mystery to me, I started trusting it to be able to take me farther and farther past the end of our road(to the dismay of my Mother), and still get me back again. Because of bicycles, my personal territory started growing and growing, and still is to this day. I hope it never stops even if  I get so old it only keeps expanding in  my imagination. Maybe when I'm a hunnert' and five, grumpy and covered in Chicharone and bacon crumbs, I'll have to resort to riding a coaster brake as only my very oldest muscle memories will be left. That would be sort of cool, get started on one and spend the next half century working my way up to ever more complicated and expensive gear and then 50 years working back to where I started. About the time I have to resort to a scooter to get around I'll likely be about finished with the whole endeavor anyway and be ready to go take a nap and be done with it.

I'm glad coaster brakes are simple enough for even a 9 year old to understand, because if it would have taken more than another year or so I think the magic might have seemed too small and not been sufficient to capture me. As it is, the Magic of the Coaster Brake seems to be at just the right level of simplicity while also being capable enough to challenge a curious, willing young person to go "just a little farther". Of course being able to lay BIG SQUEALING SMOKING SKIDS is also pretty cool and has been enough to turn a bunch of Girls and Boys away from Soccer and Basketball and that sort of thing before it could get out of hand and turn to Golf later in life. That's what a Coaster Brake can do. They've been doing it for over a Century too. Did you know that? It's true, they were one of the very first "Trick" parts and they're still making them today. Like right now. In the time it's taken me to write this(weeks and weeks actually) the factories have filled another shipping container with everything from the crappy ones on those Wal-Mart bikes that will give you Tetanus, to Multi-speed internally geared, alloy-shelled beauties that carry the flag with head up and fists in the air.They can seem invisible but like some other "obsolete" but really useful things(axes, manual transmissions, wooden pencils and maybe pink plastic Hair Curlers), enough people still want them bad enough to spend money on them in the face of all the "better" alternatives so we probably don't have to worry about them disappearing  anytime soon. 

In spite of all this cheerful propaganda, I think part of the reason I still like messing around with them is the sinister reputation the venerable Coaster Brake still has among those of us who grew up hearing the dire warnings about the other, darker side of the Coasters friendly personality. All those Urban Hipsters who jumped on the Fixed-Gear bandwagon a decade ago may have thought they were Bad-Ass but they had NOTHING on those of us that rode our Wheelie-Bikes to adventure and glory back in the dim past...

You see, the lore of the coaster-brake is rich and varied, and we need to see that it's never lost. We need to keep telling the tales of ghastly tumbling wrecks caused by broken chains that started halfway down huge hills and finished part-way up the next, the stories of brush fires started by overheated Bendix's that burned entire counties, or the old Nightmare of the kid who, after flipping his bike upside down to work on it, gets his finger caught in the chain and due to not being able to backpedal to free himself, has to drag the bloody bike into the house and wake his sleeping Mother to get help! That one really happened, honest to God. It was my Neighbors cousin who lived like two towns over. Really.

So the next time that nice old man in the Sweater and Velcro Sneakers tools past on a bike with no brake levers, don't wave and smile, get off the sidewalk. Because with a coaster brake, anything could happen...

Thanks Coaster Brake!

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