Why Beach Cruiser Bikes Should Have Gears and Brakes

 

The beach cruiser bike, or simply the cruiser bike, is a close relative of the lowrider bike. They are one of the simpler bikes to use, maintain and ride. You’ve probably heard of all the cruiser bikes available nowadays, and know them for being heavy, durable bicycles.

The bikes are becoming more popular, and have been since the 1990s. One of the distinctive features of the cruiser is that they don’t usually have gears. While there are 7 speed cruiser bikes for sale, traditional beach cruisers are of the single speed variety.

Green cruiser bike

A brief history of beach cruisers

In the 1930s, the US was going through one of the world’s worst economy crashes, the Great Depression. During this time unemployment was at an all-time high. People were buying less bicycles, because they were being regarded more as a luxury vehicle for the richer crowd.

In order to deal with the crowd that was more reluctant to purchase bikes that, in their opinion, were overpriced, the bike company Schwinn developed a sturdy, affordable bike, the Schwinn B-10E Motorbike in 1933. This looked like a motorbike, but had no engine.

The frame of the early bike was cantilevered, and had a nifty set of tires known as balloon tires. These were 2.2 inch wide tires that were pretty great at gripping just about anything. These bikes were far heavier than most other bikes at the time.

However, the new bikes could take a beating. They could hold up against abuse that other bikes in the era definitely could. By 1934, Schwinn gave the B10E a major redesign. Calling it the Aero Cycle, this became the first of the cruiser bikes.

Red cruiser bike

Cruiser bike design

Early beach cruisers had a very unique design. They were styled after motorbikes in the 1920s, so they featured a far more streamlined look than the other bikes of the time. Unlike road bikes, beach cruisers are generally upright seating. They sometimes also featured a distinctive gas tank (not a real one of course).

These “gas tanks” were sometimes replaced with different features, such as the Huffy’s Radio Bike. The design of the cruiser was also reliant on a heavy, durable frame. The ease of use of the bike was focused on by implementing a single speed drive train. This made for a bike that was very easy to use, especially on flat terrain.

The weight of the bike made for a rather slow ride, but this was considered a good thing because of the level of comfort it offered. The cruiser bike also traditionally didn’t include brakes in the design. Instead of the standard hand operated brakes, the cruiser bike is equipped with a coaster brake.

Pedaling backwards would slow the cruiser down sufficiently. The harder you would pedal back, the harder the braking force would be. This was an extremely simply technology, but it did come with its own set of issues.

Cruiser on the beach

Coaster brakes are an obsolete technology

The coaster brakes that are usually found in cruiser bikes are simply too old to be of any use except to look good anymore. The brakes have been around since the 1890s, and are still popular for a lot of bike related applications.

One of the special features of the coaster brake is that it allows the bike to coast forwards without the pedals turning. This is one of the most discernible features it has. It works rather similarly in function to that of a freewheel.

The disadvantages of the coaster brake

While it is still one of the most popular brakes in use when it comes to coaster bikes of the traditional single speed variety, the coaster brake has a lot of disadvantages. Many bike users feel ambivalent towards the use of coaster brakes because:

  • Pedaling backwards to stop is rather annoying, especially in the city and during traffic. It also can be a little confusing to a generation of people who are used to squeezing brake levers to slow their roll.

    Backpedaling also feels plain weird sometimes. The idea of using the pedals in the opposite direction, on a bike that ISNT a BMX feels very counterintuitive.

  • When using coaster brakes, there is a major problem after completely stopping. Since the backwards pedaling motion no longer has a freewheel to allow it to disengage from the drivetrain when being done, there is no way of freely rotating the pedals.

    You know how when you stop your bike you need to bring your pedals back to your favorite starting position so that you can start pedaling again with ease? This isn’t possible when using a beach cruiser with coaster brakes.

  • Coaster brakes can take a long time to stop a bike. Unlike the disc brakes and V brakes traditionally found on road and mountain bikes, the coaster brake is more of a smooth braking transition than one with an abrupt jolt.

    Some people find this to be advantageous, but for the most part it is downright annoying. This is because if you are in an emergency and you need to stop immediately, you simply won’t be able to on a beach cruiser that has coasters instead of hand brakes.

    Instead, you would be furiously trying to backpedal hard enough to avoid an imminent collision. You could wind up seriously hurt because the coaster didn’t allow you to stop quickly enough to avoid it.

  • Coaster brakes are not meant for use by the cyclists getting on in years. Since the braking power of the coaster brake depends on how hard you push back, young children and seniors (or people with disabilities) may have trouble braking on a beach cruiser.
  • When you are a cyclist you will experience the flash of fear that comes with the first time your chain drops. This is quite normal for every cyclist of course. If you are going at speed and your chain drops, hit the brakes and you slow down and stop.

If you are doing this on a beach cruiser, you are pretty much up a creek without a pedal (pun intended). The coaster brake relies on the chain and drivetrain in order to stop. This means that when the chain drops and you don’t have backup brakes, you are going to be in trouble, because you will not have any brakes.

Because of the many disadvantages of coaster brakes when used on a beach cruiser, they are not recommended. However, a lot of people prefer to use these brakes because of their aesthetics. In this case it is always suggested that you get a backup brake system, such as a hand brake, for your beach cruiser.

Woman on cruiser bike

Why beach cruisers need hand brakes

Having either a completely revamped system of hand brakes instead of coasters, or simply a backup system for your beach cruiser is one of the better decisions you can make in terms of simplicity, safety and ease of use. It is always better to have hand brakes on your beach cruisers because:

  • Safety – Having hand brakes either as the main braking system or a backup brake system in addition to your beach cruiser’s coaster brakes is a very safe choice indeed. Coaster brakes leave room for skidding.

    Even though the balloon tires on beach cruisers are very good for riding on sand (hence the name), the coaster brakes can cause the tires to skid pretty fast. This can result in your ride requiring replacement tires quite often.

    Hand brakes can eliminate the chances of the tires skidding, and you should be able to be far safer when riding a beach cruiser at high speeds, whether on the street or on the actual beach. Chances are that you won’t be riding it on the beach though, if you are a cruiser bike owner far from the coast.

    In addition to this, there is the safety concern that the chain might fail. Since hand brakes don’t rely on the chain in order to stop, you will be able to brake in case of an emergency chain drop that you did not see coming.

  • Control – Coaster brakes are far harder to exercise control over than hand brakes. When descending a hill on a beach cruiser, or any bike, it is important that you have exactly the right amount of control over your braking.

    If using a coaster brake to slow your descent, you could very well end up not giving enough braking power and wind up freewheeling screaming down the hill yelling for your mother, father and a whole family tree of relatives.

    However, hand brakes off the option of perfect tuning of your braking power both before and during the braking process. With the right modulation on your braking you should be able to descend those steep gradients safely.

  • Heat Dissipation – The best part about hand brakes when compared to coaster brakes is their high rate of heat dissipation when braking, which allows for more abrupt stops as well as safer cycling because tires are less prone to overheating.

It is quite common to have to replace the grease and innards of your coaster brake if you have been going downhill using them. Without doing this, you would be taking away their few safety features, and turning your beach cruiser into a death trap.

White cruiser bike

Gears are important on beach cruisers too!

Traditionally, the beach cruiser is a single speed bike. This is because it was made with a focus on affordability. While it is completely fine for people to stick to this option out of nostalgia or some such thing, it is not always the best choice.

When you are an older person, or you are getting your young child a beach cruiser, or if you have a disability, you need to remember that the cruisers are heavy bikes. They aren’t like the lightweight chromoly or titanium/aluminum mountain and road bikes that can buzz like a hummingbird three seconds after starting.

Instead, the beach cruiser is a far slower, heavier bike that can take a while to start moving fast. Woe betide the cyclist who has to ride it in softer sand than usual or *shudder* up hills. The single speed cruiser bike is going to absolutely kill the user in this kind of setting.

The uses of gears on cruiser bikes

There are two major advantages to having gearing systems on a cruiser bike specifically. Everyone in the world of cycling knows the general advantages of gearing systems, of course. When it comes to the cruiser, the advantages of buying the 7 speed variant of the bike include:

  • Adaptability – When riding a beach cruiser, different people have different needs when it comes to the aesthetic aspect of it. Some people actually prefer high pedal speed, but going along at a turtle’s pace.

    The 7 speed gear variant of the beach cruiser allows for this to be done. Instead of having to possibly change the entire drivetrain of the single speed bike in order to change the gear ratios, the 7 speeder allows for the use of the derailleur when changing gear.

    With the gears on a beach cruiser, all those people who love the slow, languorous pedaling strokes while “cruising” along will be able to do exactly this.

  • Safety and ease of use – these two go hand in hand especially when it comes to beach cruisers. You need to think about going on all kinds of terrain. While you may only be using the cruiser in your city, you won’t always be on flat, level surfaces.

    There are going to be hills and gradients, so it is always better to have gears to help you get up these without reaching the top and collapsing like you have just climbed up Mt. Everest. There is a difference between a great workout and unnecessary exhaustion.

    The more tired and stressed a cyclist is the more dangerous they are. You don’t want to hit a pedestrian on a heavy beach cruiser just because you were too tired to be alert enough to your surroundings and see them.

  • Well, those are 5 of the reasons you need to consider getting brakes of the hand variety and gears for your beach cruiser. No matter how classic you want the bike to appear, safety should always be your number one priority, and with the right kind of brakes and gears, you should be able to have a classy, safe cruise on your cruiser bike!

15 replies on “Why Beach Cruiser Bikes Should Have Gears and Brakes

  • lenny

    you want to turn them into any other modern bike out there, so i thnk you’re missing the point; its nostalgic simplicity. The kind of people who buy cruisers ussualy buy them because the’re (often)cheap, simple, look cool and require little maintenance, and performance is not on their mind. you use a lot of words to basically say you dont like that..
    If you you want a bike with gears and brakelevers that performs and handles like a million different modern bikes do, buy one of those..

    Reply
  • AJBeckwith

    I thought this blog was informative. It is no secret that simplicity, price, and even aesthetics, form the basis of a cruiser bike’s appeal. The writer steps past the obvious to address other points that people may overlook regarding these cruiser bikes, such as a rider’s age and/or physical condition. He also raises critical safety issues associated with riding a bike that has coaster brakes.

    Thank you for a well-written, important blog; I’ve bookmarked this page.

    Reply
  • mark

    i am so glad i decided to get a seven speed cruiser with hand brakes. i love it, and i think i ride more often and enjoy the rides more because i am not wearing my self out on hills . i think i get a better work outt too. or i can just cruise and have a lieserly ride. it is good advice in my opinion . thanks

    Reply
  • Hugo

    Very useful info. Sure helpful in my search for a cruiser bike that could also go a little beyond the sand and the boardwalk, and if possible, faster too. I haven’t had a bike for over twenty years now, however my childhood and youth had mostly been on a bike. Thank you very much!

    Reply
  • Josh

    This is an old post, but I don’t think a person buys a beach cruiser to do any raving. They get them to cruise, as the name implies. Your never going at a fast enough pace for the coaster brake not to work. If you need to drive a nail, you don’t grab a screwdriver. You get a hammer because it’s the proper tool for the job. Same with bikes. You wanna be Lance Armstrong, you get a race bike. You wanna just pedal around the neighborhood or hit a coffee shop with friends, the cruiser is a great bike for that.

    Reply
  • Laurie

    Thank you for this article. I needed to hear these tips from someone not trying to sell me a bike! I was going with a single speed beach cruiser but you changed my mind. I do want to be safe and uncomplicated. I just had knee replacement and don’t need any new injuries!

    Reply
  • Steve

    I’m no bike expert, but here is my comparison of breaks: My first bikes as a child had pedal brakes. I guess they call them coaster brakes. I remember trying a hand brake bike for the first time and forgetting I couldn’t stop with the pedals. Then, with the hand brakes, I had to brake front and rear separately and in correct order, remembering which hand did which break. You mention coaster brakes as harder for children and elderly to stop, but I found squeezing the hand brakes extremely difficult when my hands were small and weak as a kid. I never had difficulty skidding to a stop with the foot brakes. What do you think of my view? Do my points make sense? Can you get multi-gear bikes that still use coaster brakes? It seems the case as I have seen a few online, but I don’t know how they work. In fact, that’s how I stumbled upon this article, as I wish to have coaster brakes again and was searching about gears with coaster brakes.

    Reply
  • Kruez

    Classic cruiser bikes are are industrial art and style that you just don’t find in the modern sport bikes of today. Different bike styles are for different styles of riding. It’s ok to have more than one bike. Cruising the bike path on a classic custom cruiser bike down to the local pub. Don’t need anything more than a coaster brake. The same bike as a down hill klunker. Coaster break and hand brakes. You don’t take a coaster brake cruiser on a mountain bike trail, it doesn’t have the features you need like shocks brakes and gears. A light weight road bike with 21 gears when you are out riding fast with your fancy pants friends with the deep shirt pockets filled with energy bars. The fold up bike that stows nicely in the hold of your boat while sailing to Catalina island that unfolds on arrival to cruise the byways of island hopping.

    If you are looking for the one hybrid bike that serves many styles of riding than yes you need a better hub with gears and hand brakes. There is no reason to hate on cruiser bikes. Cruiser bikes have there place. Trying to shift and brake while steering one handed and holding a beverage in your other hand on a booze cruise is dangerous on the bike you describe. It’s a snap on a slow moving heavy coaster brake cruiser.

    If you are trying to sell a better more profitable bike than write an article describing different forms of riding styles and justify why bicyle riders should own the right bike for the right style. Everyone should have at least three bikes and one of them should be a custom cruiser built just the way you like it.

    Reply
    • Al

      “Everyone should have at least three bikes and one of them should be a custom cruiser built just the way you like it.”

      HAHA You described me to a T. I did add all the gearing, shocks and hand brakes though. It’s not hard to do. My cruiser is more Mongoose than it is Cranbrook. The writer of this article really needs to point out that yes in stock form they don’t have many uses, however if you want to take the time and a little extra money or you have an old mountain bike laying around doing nothing, you can always just add the new features you want and have a bike that’s your own style.

      I won’t take away from the article writer as he dose make some very good points, but he offered no solution for a problem that is simple to remedy.

      Bike customizing and restoration in mild custom is one of my favorite hobbies but anyone that can take a bike apart and put one together can easily build the geared up, hand brake cruiser this man describes, may have to compromise here and there such as the rear brake I had to use an older style Side pull and flip it kinda inside the frame to get it to go on but cantilever pads do work and they work way better than the standard pads that was on it before and stops like a dream with them.

      The writer has some great points but,,, just needs to put the effort in himself and build the bike of his dreams through good ol’ fashion building.

      https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=1357358464347788&set=a.1357358191014482.1073741834.100002209424597&type=3&theater

      Reply
  • Annie

    My first bike as a child had coaster breaks and it was no problem to stop with them, nor did it feel unnatural. You don’t have to backpedal more than an instant for them to kick in so it’s not as if you’re flailing around pedaling backwards trying to stop in time.
    I’m not sure how it would feel as an adult on an adult bike with the additional mass. Either way these bikes are for leisurely cruising so I doubt any of this matters anyway.

    Reply
  • Al

    Got you beat. I have a Cranbrook that 15 years ago when I got it the first thing I did was gut it and a all terrain bike and Frankensteining them together.

    These days it now has mostly Mongoose a mongoose suspension and drive train except I am running a 10 speed front sprocket road gear to get a little extra speed out of the 8 gears in the back, I painted it black with a red stripe and have all the chrome you’ll ever need on it (Including Trek fenders that for some reason cost more than the bike did brand new). I still ride it to this day, take it out of city limits all the time to enjoy some peace and quiet or just ride around town finding areas to see how much speed I can get.

    The only thing stock to it is the frame and handle bars. Still might be a heavy led sled but it is the most fun bike I own between it, a Schwinn Collegiate and a JC Higgins Spaceliner.

    I agree they do need gears and a brake but I’m glad they don’t make the traditional frames with them because this bike saying “built, not bought” actually stands for some thing.

    https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=1357358464347788&set=a.1357358191014482.1073741834.100002209424597&type=3&theater

    Reply
  • Dana

    I’ve been searching for a while, in vain, for a one speed cruiser bike for my son with Down Syndrome. I believe switching gears will be too much for him to coordinate while peddling, but everything I’m finding in a 24-26 inch wheel has multiple gears. Any advice?

    Reply
  • Mika

    You molded into words all the things I was thinking. I have several bikes, a couple of MTBs, a trekking bike and a retro Beach Cruiser. All the other bikes of course have multiple gears, more than I would need, and modern brakes. The cruiser is the most simplistic of the lot, and I love it the most. I have had the single speed cruiser for a year now and even if I absolutely love it to bits – I adore its simplicity and retro looks (and so does everyone else it seems, cruisers do get the looks, and people are most curious about them) – I do feel the need for additional brake, as well as more gears, even if just two more. Where I live the terrain is not all asphalt, and there are some considerable, long hills, on all the roads I ride on. Going up, I crave for a lighter gear, and speeding down the hill, I feel that having at least a backup brake would be a good idea. And, on the forested parts of my path (I am a Finn, we have quite a lot of forests…) more than one gear would be most welcome.

    I have just found a custom bike shop in Europe which I think shall build my next, better cruiser. As I was in contact with the artisan, asking about installing front brakes, drum or disc, he noted that their customers do not usually like cables, so many of their designs are relying on just the coaster brake. It was also news to me that duomatic, two-speed internal hub shifters are a viable, cost-effective choice for a cruiser. Internal gear hub eliminates the need for a gear changing cable, but then again, I am not at all convinced I would enjoy the back pedalling to change the gear. I now think I am having them install both a proper disc brake, as well as at least a three-gear shifter. I really do not see the looks of a modern cruiser suffer from having such modern features. Those features are both for safety and comfort.

    Reply

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