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Posted by on Sep 15, 2010 in General, Safety | 24 comments

Over the Handlebars

I keep reading about people that brake sharply and tell stories about “flying over the handlebars.” I just don’t understand this. Braking sharply I understand — over the handlebars, I don’t.

For older people that remember steel rims, the idea of being able to stop that fast would be ludicrous. Steel rims, especially when wet, are just awful when braking. There is no way they could grab hard enough to do much of anything.

So, this must be an alloy rim thing. Yet, I’ve been enjoying the stopping power of  alloy rims for years and never even came close to stopping as fast as others claim to have done. In fact, I don’t remember hearing about anyone flying over the handlebars except for Alps racers who had a front wheel break down, with spokes flying, so maybe that is where it became acceptable?

Maybe my good fortunet is because I insist on using Northroad handlebars, which puts most of my weight aft where others prefer drops or straight bars which requires weight be transferred forward?

I dunno, but I am certainly annoyed when I read about someone flying over the handlebars as if it was a normal everyday occurrence, then claim that a helmet “saved their life.” If they hadn’t flown at all, wouldn’t that have been better?

24 Comments

  1. Actually, it’s pretty easy to go over the handlebars on any bike with two hand-operated brakes. All you have to do is grab the front brake before the back, or put more pressure on the front than rear. After that, physics takes over when the front wheel stops and momentum carries the rear of the bike forward.

    And it has nothing whatsoever to do with steel vs. alloy rims. I’ve gone over using both.

    Yes, it’s always better not to, just like it’s always better not to make any other kind of error while riding.

  2. I went over the handlebars on my first bike. And it had no front brake at all. Bombing down a path in Seattle’s Ravenna Park, somehow a stick got into my front wheel and that was all she wrote. To this day, it remains my most spectacular bike crash. I was about eight at the time.

  3. I have never come anywhere close to going over the handlebars. Neither has anyone else I know. Until recently, I thought that this was strictly an urban legend.

    It is impossible to do this with my Pashley or any other bike I have ever ridden. It seems like this is some sort of manufacturing or design defect that would allow such a dangerous thing to happen.

    • I’m with you. I think it has to do with frame geometry changes of recent years.

      If the front wheel is angled more, like the older designs, then the pivot point is further out front. The newer designs have the front wheel much closer to the main body of the frame which makes for a much more compact bike, but also one that more approaches the geometry of a unicycle.

      If this is as common as people say it is, I must come to the conclusion that this is a design defect of some type. Whether it is the geometry or the brake pad material or rim material, something is wrong.

      Can you imagine any company selling a car that causes the driver to completely lose control of the steering wheel and cause a crash when the brakes are applied “too hard” or “unevenly”?

    • Agreeing with this idea. My daily ride is a Batavus that weighs 55# empty and is usually carrying another 10# in the rear baskets. Unless you run into something that stops the bike cold, it seems unlikely to have this problem. The frame geometry puts the rider far to the rear, and the handlebars aren’t made for the sort of posture someone might do on a road bike.

    • If you are new to it, have a bike with super brakes and are suddenly surprised enough to clutch the brakes you will fly! just know how to roll out or practice side skids.

  4. I think people need to know how to effectively use their front brake. Get that down, practice it, and you’ll have a memory of how much pressure it takes to just almost lift the back wheel up. That’s your max dry braking effort.

    Before I figured out that trick, I used my back brakes almost exclusively. Never using the fronts, I would have assumed that it takes the same pull required of the backs. I would have gone over for sure.

    • I have read on the net about practicing and tried it last week with my helmet on.

      I use my front brake almost exclusively and always have, maybe 90/10%. I applied my brakes so hard that the front tire skid, but my rear wheel never lifted.

      • How wide are your tires? My next guess is that wider tires can grab more ground, and narrower ones are more likely to skid. The fork angle also has some good merit. Time to dig deep and remember my HS physics classes.

        • I use wide tires and they will skid. I’ve been reading up on geometry. There isn’t very much on the web, but the gist is that we are talking about something called “trail”, that less trail means the bike is harder to balance, but that it feels more responsive.

          Responsive steering is a big selling point along with lack of weight.

  5. Back when I was a sidewalk rider just starting to commute, I had this almost happen. Coming down a sidewalk on a downhill, I picked up speed to about 18-20 mph and a car turned into the street that I was crossing. It really IS physics. I stopped about a foot from this guys passenger door and this was on a mountain bike. That actually was the incident that made me start looking for a better way to do this.

  6. When I was about 13 I did that on a good old 10 speed of classic design with steel rims. I was going for a fantastic skid in fine sand and gravel. I ended up performing said skid with my face. It was nasty. I started carefully experimenting with braking forces after that and haven’t ever had a problem since. The fixed gear I commute on has a front brake only… that teaches you pretty quick about how much front brake you can reasonbly use. In emergency stops I have had my rear wheel come off the ground just slightly a couple of times, because on the fixed the pedals can kind of force you off your seat a bit as you try to slow them with your legs.

    I, like you, am a bit puzzled by those who fly over the bars repeatedly… maybe I just don’t ride crazy enough.

  7. If you learn to do an emergency stop properly, you’ll NEVER go over the handlebars. Simply shift your hips (and your weight) back, behind the saddle, as you brake. A good bike safety course will teach you how to do it. It’s not difficult, and it can make a huge difference.

    Or, if you’re like me, you’re riding a Raleigh three-speed with at least twenty-five pounds of books and groceries in metal baskets on the rear rack. That’ll stop you from flipping!

    • “Simply shift your hips (and your weight) back, behind the saddle, as you brake. A good bike safety course will teach you how to do it. It’s not difficult, and it can make a huge difference.”

      I suspect that practice doesn’t make perfect when things are moving too fast to prepare for such a move. Most people are just going to grab for something, the same way that they stomp on the brakes and panic stop their car. Before Anti-Lock brakes, drivers were told to pump the brakes, but I don’t think one in a hundred people did that, the rest locked up the wheels and skidded to a stop, hopefully in a straight line since trying to steer while the wheels are in a skid usually results in loss of control.

  8. Your front wheel does not have to skid or stop for you to go over the bars, so rims and tires are really irrelevant. All that is required is for your center of gravity to get ahead of the front hub. This can happen while you’re moving if you slam the brakes suddenly, especially if you don’t shift your weight back. Bikes with a more forward riding position (road bikes, aggressively designed mountain bikes) are more prone to this. While teaching bike handling skills I’ve seen some people actually lean forward while braking. No doubt this was a bad habit they’d developed.

    One doesn’t even need to use the brakes to go over the bars. A friend (who will remain un-named) was on a club ride and in a competitive mood, and decided to sprint for green sign. For the prior few weeks he’d been doing fully-loaded touring and had gotten into the habit of getting out over the bars when getting out the saddle to climb. This is not a problem on a bike loaded with touring gear. But on this ride he climbed out of the saddle, got over the bars, and unfortunately his chain skipped on a cog. He literally dove over his own bars at 25 mph.

    A similar thing happened to me as I was heading out my driveway some years ago. Standing up to accelerate, the chain skipped and I dove over the bars. Fortunately I was only doing about 5 mph at the time and wasn’t injured.

    • This is why I am thinking about defective geometry in that the “trail” is too short. The Raleigh I have has a huge trail, the front wheel is w-a-y out there. Not at all like a modern bike which is more nimble, but also harder to balance. There is no way to lean out in front of that Raleigh hub.

  9. Among the comments and the original post, I’m surprised I haven’t seen reference to something one should never do when performing a hard braking maneuver. That is to turn the handlebars any bit off center. You may not go over the bars, but you won’t enjoy the outcome! It’s always brake before the turn, right?

  10. Friend of mine who rides a box store bike went for a test ride on my Specialized Sirrus (flat bars) and grabbed the front brake at walking speed and went over the bars. Real brakes caught him by surprise.

    Went over a couple of times myself as a kid, usually because I hit something, guess some of us are just dumber than you.

  11. Going over the bars is not a design defect. Most cases I know about involves something getting caught in the front wheel. If you are going any speed at all that is going to hurl you over no matter what type of bike you are on.

    As to front brakes doing this – I would say it is more a design flaw if you CAN’T brake fast enough to do this. Many of the Dutch-style bikes can’t do this because they have only a rear brake or VERY bad front brakes. So you can’t stop fast enough in an emergency and instead you crash into the car that pulls out in front of you. I guess the only safe way to ride these bikes is to make sure your speed never exceeds 8 mph so you can stop in time .

    Of course, if you DO have decent brakes, you have to learn how to modulate them for proper rapid stopping. The rear brake does almost nothing in an emergency stop, it just skids you. That’s because, no matter how heavy you are on the rear of the bike, your center of gravity is high and you will transfer your weight forward as you stop, unloading the rear tire and losing all friction on the rear but transferring the weight to the front tire. So you will have much, much more friction of the front to stop with. You have to learn to use the front brake until the rear tire almost lifts off the road. You can use the rear brake as a way of telling when this is about to occur as you will feel it starting to skid. Braking this way allows you to stop nearly twice as fast as with a rear-brake only.

  12. I’m enjoying this geeking out on frame geometry. I have mostly ridden italian road bikes – hangovers from my racing/touring days. They’re also made of steel. I love me some columbus SL tubing in a slack geometry italian frame. Greg LeMond talks about frame geometry a lot – and it’s where I learned why I preferred a slack geometry. Because I’m smaller than the average male and the average road frame is designed for the average male height (a 55 cm frame), it turns out that smaller frames (I ride a 50 cm frame) tend to have tighter geometries. Slacker geometries are also more comfortable to ride and I will never get rid of my Basso b/c that frameset fit me like a glove.

    I have never gone over the bars though I mostly ride bikes that put me slightly forward in terms of riding position. I’d like to say it’s skill, but it’s probably a combination of good bike handling skills and lots of luck, LOL.

  13. You go over the bars because your bike stops faster than you do. Motorcycle riders know that to stop quickly with a passenger requires considerable upper-body strength to hold you both on the seat. Likewise on a bicycle, if you stop fast but aren’t prepared to support all your momentum with your arms, you will keep on moving forward while your bike doesn’t. Your knees may hit the bars on the way over. This doesn’t happen when you use the rear brake alone, because the braking is so ineffective that you barely decelerate at all.

    I have gone over the bars twice in several decades. One was in a bike race, I got my wheel stuck in someone else’s triangle. The second was braking, signalling, and turning while going down a hill — and thinking about something else :( Every injury I’ve ever had on a bike was caused by riding too aggressively.

  14. I found a bike that couldn’t brake… the bike shop couldn’t fix it so i got a “super braker”.

    Then a dog jumped out from the side and I instinctivley braked. Instantly went flying. Fortunatly my skateboarding fallimg skills took over and I rolled away with just a bad “hipper”. When it comes to brakes there can be too much of a good thing! Congo

  15. i dont know wat kind of riding you guys are riding, but in mountain biking this is a common occurance, when doing steep rides it is not uncommon for me to do this once or twice in an intense downhill ride!!! thank god for elbow pads and downhill longboard training!!

    • Anthony: I think a cursory look around this site will make it clear that it is about urban transportation cycling.

      Mountain biking poses radically different braking situations from roadway braking.

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