04 January 2017

Campagnolo's Coelacanth

The first time I saw this, I thought I was looking at the bike of someone whose dollars spent exceeded the number of miles ridden on his bike.  I mean, who else would have a Campagnolo quick-release lever in that position?

A second glance revealed, of course, that it wasn't a quick-release lever.  But could that be...a coaster brake hub?...I wondered.  

I thought I knew Campy stuff pretty well. Even though I never rode BMX, I knew the legendary Italian company made some of the best components available for that kind of riding. I also remember their short-lived mountain bike lineup (Euclid).  I even recalled  that they made parts for aircraft and NASA spacecraft as well as race cars and motorcycles.  And, oh, yes, let's not forget those big corkscrews--the gold plated ones, especially.

Imprinted in it's head is Brev. Int, the arms 'Dorato Oro 1000' and it's shoulders are pinned in place with a gold plated variation of the Campagnolo chainring bolts. All that gold and it's finished off with a piece of beautiful brown plastic at the bottom! #campyonly #campagnolo #campagnolosrl
It's yoooge.  I mean, BIG.

Still, I had not heard of a Campagnolo coaster brake hub until I saw a photo of it a few years ago.  I have since seen a few more images of it, and a few brief mentions.  I have not, however, found any Campagnolo catalogue or other literature that listed it, or any other information pertaining to it.  When was it made?  Why did Campy begin and cease production of it?  Was its reputation on par with its Super Record racing components?  Or was it like their Delta brake:  a triumph of technology and aesthetics over function?  

Even though the Bike Boom--which made ten-speeds all the rage--exploded during my adolescence, lots of kids still rode bike with coaster brakes.  Even though balloon-tired bikes were falling out of favor with kids my age and adults, lots of kids still looked forward to getting middleweight bikes like the Schwinn Typhoon or Hollywood, which came with coaster brakes.  Even the low-rider "muscle" bikes like Schwinn's Sting Ray were available with coaster brakes as well as with five-speed derailleurs.

Can you imagine kids on some playground trying to one-up each other? "Well, I got a Schwinn!"  "Oh, yeah.  Well, mine has a Campagnolo coaster brake."  What kind of a world would we have?  Hmm...what would the world be like if kids who weren't Italian grew up knowing how to pronounce "Campagnolo"?

From what little I've seen of them, I'd guess that the Campagnolo coaster brake hubs were well-made.  Still, if I were going to build a coaster brake wheel for myself, my first choice would be a US-made Bendix.  I overhauled and fixed enough coaster brakes when I worked in bike shops to see how much better they were than the others, including New Departure or even Sachs-Fichtel or Sturmey-Archer.  Bendix haven't been made in the 'States for about forty years (later ones were made in Mexico), but if you're nice to your bike mechanic, he or she might give you one (or sell it for not very much) out of the parts bin:  Lots of Bendix hubs have been saved from wheels that were otherwise trashed. Still, I've seen them sell for over $100 on eBay!

A few years ago, I briefly rode a Velosteel coaster brake hub.  It's certainly prettier than any other I've seen, even Campy's.   Its beauty is only skin- (or shell- ) deep, though:  Whenever I backpedaled to stop the bike, it seemed that the hub had to find its "sweet spot" before the brake engaged, and when I pedaled again after stopping, I experienced a "dead" stroke of about half a pedal revolution.

If you want a currently-made coaster brake hub, I'd say to buy Shimano's--even though it doesn't have the "cool" factor of Campagnolo's.  Actually, half of the "cool" factor would come from simply finding a Campagnolo coaster brake hub in the first place!


  1. I rented a bike for a week in Denmark which had a coaster brake built into a seven speed hub.Eventually I started to enjoy using it to gently modify speed without changing grip but it never made up for the inability to reposition the cranks when starting or taking a series of tight turns in urban situations. Darn thing had me come off for the first time in over two decades! Thankfully when almost stationary and soft ground.

    I spent a summer of my mid teens in Canada with a heavy single speed with coaster brake, worst ten weeks on a bike of my life! If it had been a Campag it would not have made it any better.

    1. Coaster brakes require a new type of coordination. I always start off with the right foot, so with a coaster brake, I brake with the left foot. If you time it just right, the right pedal is setting there exactly in position to start. If it happens that for some reason this is not possible, you reach down when standing over the bike and lift it from the top tube with the left hand from under the seat and then reposition the pedals with the right foot and/or ankle. With practice this operation takes five seconds.

      This is such a series of reflexes that after a winter of riding my ice bike that has a coaster brake and a caliper brake in front, I ride my road bikes the same way for several weeks despite that fact they all have freewheels. In any case, I have always found that this is the best combination for riding on ice or snow covered ice.

      There is surely a connection here: both Denmark and Canada have a lot of snow.


    2. Leo--Thank you for the insights about riding coaster brakes. Actually, I could see why someone would want a CB if he or she were riding in an area with lots of snow and ice.

      And you do something most CB riders don't, but should: ride with a front caliper brake. One, if the CB should somehow fail, you still have at least some stopping power. Second, braking on only the rear wheel--whether with a CB or any other kind of brake--can too easily lead to an uncontrollable skid. (Folks who ride fixed-gear bikes without brakes take pride in their ability to skid without getting themselves killed.)

    3. ACTUALLY, I have never even considered the possibility of a coaster brake failure. The coaster brake on The Ice Bike is a 1935 Torpedo and is immortal. The reason for the caliper brake is that I ride over ice with the caliper brake slightly gripping the front wheel almost all the time. That way I can control the bike easier, down in the drops, as the bike never coasts without power. Really stopping uses both brakes and usually a skid with the back wheel. Going downhill on snow covered ice requires 100% concentration, but I have never been frightened or scared. Several times the back wheel skid got out of control, so I turned the handlebars hard right and the bike slipped sideways and I just stepped off. I have clip-on studs on the bottom of my shoes so this maneuver will leave me standing up.

      I go through usually three sets of brake shoes a winter. Other notes: The Ice Bike was built up from dumpster finds and old bikes. The frame is from the 50's. It weighs 18 kilos and has a wheel base of 118 cm. Tires are 45mm wide with deep tread. It has no mudguards as ice and snow can build up under them and cripple the bike. It will go anyplace, jump any curb. One time a teenage boy was squirreling around and crashed into me. His bike BOUNCED off The Ice Bike.

      I have rode bikes under arctic conditions for 45 years now. One can perhaps imagine the feeling of liberation in the spring when switching to a light road bike,


    4. Hi Leo,

      In my admittedly-limited experience with coaster brakes, I never experienced a failure. I'm sure they're not common, but they do happen, usually because even the minimal maintenance CBs need wasn't kept up. And, of course, the early mountain bikers in northern California burned out their CBs while bombing down the fire trails.

      I would have loved to see that boy bounce off your bike. That would get a couple million views, at least, on Youtube!

  2. Coline--I wonder whether my coaster-brake experiment of a few years ago might have worked if I'd stuck with it a little longer. Like you, I had difficulty getting used to it!