How Do Rod Brakes Work? A Visual Primer

It is probably not an overstatement when saying most bicycles in the world have rod brakes. They are a staple component on millions of roadster bicycles pumped out each year by venerable (and huge) Asian manufacturers like Flying Pigeon, Phoenix, Avon, Neelam, and Hero.

The Chinese manufacturers are starting to switch to mountain bikes, but the black rod brake roadsters are still for sale next to the mountain bikes in many places.

In the US today it’s extremely rare that you run across a bicycle with rod brakes. In fact, until I recently looked more closely at some rod brakes, I did not even fully understand how they work. I’m still no expert, but I took some photos as I looked at old Indian roadsters in Mozambique and thought I’d share them. There is a big chance I’m getting the exact terminology wrong (is there a name for the various pivoting joints?).

Let’s start at the rider’s hands. The rod brake levers connect at the handlebars center with a few pivots that are spring loaded. They connect with a sleeve-like joint, which allows the rod length to adjust and create tension in the brakes.

Rod brakes are often called “stirrup brakes” because of their shape. The front brake pulls up against the underside of the front rim, necessitating a different rim design than we are used to, called a Westwood rim, with room beside the spokes for the brake pads to make contact on the rim.

Meanwhile, as you can see, the rod for the rear brake engages a pivot at the top of the downtube. These Indian bikes have the rear brake rod coming down from the handlebars in front of the head tube; however, some Chinese models like Phoenix move it to the side of the head tube and engage a different design of pivot. Here’s my photo of the pivot on an old Indian bike compared to a new Chinese Flying Pigeon I found on Flickr.

The rear brake rod continues along under the downtube and pulls another pivot in front of the bottom bracket.

That pivot pulls the rear brake forward against the rim of the back wheel, parallel to the chainstays, to which it is attached.

Rod brakes are simple, bombproof parts, and you see them still working on old rusty Asian bikes (“black mambas”) through many countries in Africa. I’ve never ridden more than a short distance on a roadster with rod brakes, and I hear their stopping power is so-so, but they are easy to adjust and maintain, and they work.

I have been on several new-ish Chinese mountain bikes in Ethiopia (see my short video) where the caliper brakes were completely shot, as were the shifters, making them effectively brakeless one-speed bikes with lots of rattling parts hanging off them (as well as nine or ten unused cogs).

I’ll take brakes that work so-so over brakes that don’t work at all, any day of the week, and especially on the day, I’m riding a 50-pound bag of charcoal to market.