Citi E-Bike Safety Concern Is Most Likely A Rider Problem, Not A Mechanical Issue

The New York Times is reporting that Citi Bikes has pulled its e-bikes off the streets of New York, San Fransisco and Washington D.C. due to safety concerns of a front brake issue. The company issued a statement saying “we recently received a small number of reports from riders who experienced stronger than expected braking force on the front wheel. Out of an abundance of caution, we are proactively removing the pedal-assist bikes from service for the time being.”

While a mechanical issue should not be ruled out, it is less likely to be the problem’s cause. The problem is likely due to rider error. The grabby front brake incidents cited in The New York Times story occurred during an abrupt stop or “panic” situation. This is when rider skill is very important.

The front brake on any bicycle will reduce the bike’s speed much faster than the rear brake. Reducing the bicycle’s speed shifts the rider’s weight forward and this results in the front tire “digging” for traction while the rear wheel is just about lifting off the ground. An accomplished cyclist knows the balancing act needed between the front and rear brake to get the bicycle stopped as quickly as possible without losing traction of either tire. Locking the front wheel and going over the bars (as reported by Citi E-bike riders) is probably caused by incorrect body position, not brakes that are too powerful.

The late Sheldon Brown (whose excellent website is still active) explains that “the typical over-the-bars crash is caused, not so much by braking too hard, but by braking hard without using the rider’s arms to brace against the deceleration: The bike stops, the rider keeps going until the rider’s thighs bump into the handlebars, and the bike, which is no longer supporting the weight of the rider, flips.”

Caution should also be used by motorcyclists who rent a Citi Bike. Bicycle front bikes are applied by the lever on the handlebar’s left side. All motorcycle front brakes are applied by squeezing the lever on the handlebar’s right side. I know motorcycle riders who could not adapt to the bicycle’s front brake lever’s reversed location and would swap the front brake lever to the right side of the handlebar before riding it.

Another factor that comes into play is a problem with any rented or borrowed equipment. The operator is unfamiliar with the rented bike (or car) and needs to take some time to become competent in its operation. How long does that take? It all depends on the operator. If a rider has not been on a bike in 20 years, it will take more time than someone who rides everyday.

Malcolm Gladwell has an excellent podcast about this problem titled “The Blame Game.” It is well worth a listen.

Citi Bike may indeed find a mechanical issue with the front brakes on their E-bikes, but I am skeptical. My advice to anyone renting an E-bike (or any machine) is to exercise extreme caution and give yourself a margin for error. Give yourself plenty of space and reduce your speed. Reading this page by Sheldon Brown on proper brake application is a good idea too. Still, practice makes perfect.

Biker Fox practiced going over the bars to prepare himself for an “endo.” Another idea is to learn how to ride properly and avoid going over the bars.

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